KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. (AP) — Motorists driving past the new Crazy Horse Hops farm in southern Henry County are stumped.
One passerby wondered if some sort of "weird pole barn" was under construction.
That's understandable. The 10-acre farm is studded with nearly 900 18-foot-tall yellow-pine poles, giving the appearance that Crazy Horse is growing telephone poles.
"Indiana has never seen anything like this," said co-owner Josh Martin. "The closest thing would be a vineyard."
The poles support overhead trellis wires to which are tied twine that about 10,000 vining hop plants will climb as summer progresses.
Started by Martin and co-owner Ryan Hammer, an old high-school buddy, Crazy Horse is already the state's largest hop farm, and 100 more acres are planned. Most of Indiana's 25 to 30 hop farms are less than an acre each, including GW Hops and Honey in Delaware County.
Last year, there were only 25 acres of commercially grown hops in Indiana, compared to 32,205 acres in the state of Washington, where 71 percent of U.S. hops were produced, according to Hop Growers of America.
But Indiana acreage is expanding, thanks largely to rapid growth in the craft brewing industry, which uses the female flowers, called cones, from the hop plant to flavor and stabilize beer. There are concerns about hop shortages.
"Most of it gets sold before it even gets picked," said Hammer.
"At this point, they're begging for it," added Martin. "When you go into something and you know the demand is so high that you're not going to have a problem selling it, it's kind of a good feeling. These guys (Hoosier craft brewers) want to be able to put our logo or 'Indiana grown' on their cans. It's like anything else: vegetables grown locally, pasture-raised hogs. We will be able to charge a premium and they will be able to charge a premium just based on saying it's Indiana grown. People are going crazy for that stuff now."
In addition to the $10,000 to $12,000 per acre that they already have spent on the plants, irrigation and the trellis system, Martin and Hammer plan to invest another $1 million in processing equipment. The hops need to be picked, dried, baled, placed in cold storage, pelletized and vacuum sealed before being sold to brewers. The processing equipment could turn Crazy Horse into a hop hub by encouraging more Indiana hop farms.
"We could pay them $6 to $7 a pound to process it and sell it under our name and make a little money there," Martin said. "You need equipment to go big."
'We grow beer'
But he and Hammer are taking a risk, physically and financially.
"Safety is number one," Wes Larue, owner of the 1.5-acre Sidewinder Hop Farm in Allen County, said at a recent Small Farm Conference in Danville. "The weight of the poles, two or three guys couldn't lift one by hand. It would be like a tree coming down on you in the woods, You have to be careful."
"I don't think any of us have a clue what (yield) we are going to get," Steve Howe, owner of 2.5-acre Howe Farms in Crown Point, told fellow hop growers at the conference. "Every one of us has screwed up more things than we know. None of us has anything figured out. So good luck."
"When most of us started out, we all felt like we were trying to reinvent the wheel," said Mike Brooks of Brown County's three-year-old Waltz Family Farms (tagline: "We grow beer"). "We wanted to start small and make small mistakes, so we started out with 100 plants."
Lori Hoagland, an assistant professor of horticulture at Purdue University, calls Crazy Horse "a sight to behold. It's quite different than growing corn and soybeans. As far as I know it's the largest hop farm in Indiana."
Crazy Horse served as host recently for a Purdue Extension Hops Field Day to help Indiana farmers identify best management practices for irrigation management, hilling around the base of the plants, stalk testing for nutrients, pruning lower foliage for downy mildew management and insect control.
More research is needed to determine which of the numerous varieties of hops will grow best in Indiana. Studies are being conducted at Purdue's Boiler Hop Yard, but that research farm is entering only its third growing season.
"We're working as fast as we can," Hoagland said. "Because it's experimental, we can afford to make mistakes."
Not Yakima Valley
Indiana has a very different climate than Washington state's desert-like Yakima Valley, home to more than 70 percent of total U.S. hop acreage and mostly third- or fourth-generation hop-growing families. The Yakima River watershed provides plenty of water for irrigation. Oregon and Idaho are the second- and third-leading hop-producing states.
"The big difference we have is summer rainfall and humidity," Hoagland told The Star Press. "Because of our nice, warm, wet conditions we have to worry more than the Pacific Northwest about pathogens like downy mildew. Most of the research on hop production has been done in those (Pacific Northwest) environments, and much of the varieties have been bred for those environments. We need more research to understand which hop varieties really top out in Indiana and which will not be that great, and ideally even breeding varieties for this region. We don't have the answers yet."
Hop production in America followed the settlement of the first colonies in the New England areas, according to Hop Growers of America.
"After growing hops in New England and Virginia, the center of hop production moved to New York State by the middle 1800s," the trade association reports. "Problems with powdery mildew practically wiped out the production of hops in New York about 1909. The region revived again around 1920 with the discovery of sulfur-based fungicides only to be devastated again in the late 1920s by downy mildew."
Home Depot meeting
Hoagland says that "the great thing about Ryan (Hammer) is that he experimented for four or five years before he scaled up to 10 acres."
Hammer is not a farmer but he began growing different varieties of hops on different types of trellises in his grandparents' garden in 2012. Among other things, he learned that after a heavy rain in July, when the hops are nearing their mature size, his trellis system started to sag.
Martin, on the other hand, is a third-generation corn and soybean farmer. He and Hammer were friends at Knightstown High School. After graduation, Martin headed to Purdue and double majored in agriculture-business management and entrepreneurship ("that's exactly what I'm doing"), while Hammer went to Middle Tennessee State University to study audio engineering. He is a production assistant at WISH-TV.
Martin returned to the family farm, spent two years "planting and harvesting stuff," then took over and expanded a Pioneer seed business. Then one day he ran into Hammer's mother at a big-box store and asked what her son was up to.
"It's weird," Martin says. "I went in to buy a dishwasher at Home Depot and came out growing hops."
Hammer got into hops after talking to craft brewers and seeing the local food movement. "But I had no access to land, and a lot of farmers were not really interested in hops," he said. Except Martin, who did have access to land and was interested.
"Just looking at the numbers, you can't make a lot of money growing corn and beans," Martin said. "The margins are very slim. So, obviously in gross numbers, 100 acres of corn will gross maybe $80,000 bucks compared to 100 acres of hops grossing $1.7 million."
And you don't have to replant hops every year. It is a perennial that will last 20 to 25 years before having to be replaced.
Crazy Horse Name
So far, Purdue's farm has yielded up to 750 pounds of hops per acre, or halfway to its target of 1,500 pounds per acre. The average hop yield in Washington state last year was 1,849 pounds per acre. Hops often range in price from about $3 per pound to about $25 per pound. Hammer has sold the hops he has grown in the $10-$15 range.
Martin sees hail and tornado as the biggest threats to Hoosier hop crops. "In the 1800s and early 1900s probably the two biggest hop diseases were powdery mildew and downy mildew," he said. "Now we've got ways to control that. I just don't feel it will be a big issue. The same disease affects soybeans, too, and we've never had a problem on soybeans. The biggest holdup for most growers is processing."
Crazy Horse, a short distance north of the the Historic National Road, aka U.S. Route 40, is planting Cascade, Chinook and Sorachi varieties of hops. Cascade is the most popular hop with the U.S. craft brewing industry, providing an aroma profile with citrus, grapefruit, floral and spicy notes, along with well-balanced bittering potential, according to Hop Growers of America. Chinook is a high alpha variety that has a highly acceptable beer aroma profile with smooth bitterness and full flavor. Both Cascade and Chinook were developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture breeders. Sorachi has a unique lemon and dill aroma.
In addition to the "weird pole barn" and the weird circumstances regarding how Martin and Hammer became hop partners, there is a weird account of how Crazy Horse Hops got its name.
"I originally started with the name Three Hammers Farms on the quarter-acre," Hammer told The Star Press. "Once Josh and I decided to partner we wanted a name that was a little less directly tied to myself or him so we eventually settled on Dark Horse Hops, but we pretty quickly received some mail from the lawyer with a brewery of a similar name in Michigan.
"We thought we had worked out a deal with them so we could keep the name but when it came down to it we were better off just selecting a new name. We decided on Crazy Horse Hops. We had already had the logo made so it didn't have to be reworked completely. A one-word change and we were all set. And after we settled on the new name Josh mentioned for a few seasons they had horses in the barn we are currently using and one of them was crazy. It wouldn't let anyone ride it and when they got another one the new one got the attitude of the first one. So this is a bit of a case of the name coming first and finding out the story afterwords."
Now that's weird.