INWOOD, Iowa — As the growing demand for craft beer continues to cause shortages of a key ingredient, a few Siouxland farmers are hopping to the industry’s rescue.
Since 1946, the Bonnema family of rural Inwood, Iowa, has farmed the same plot of land just north of the Lyon County community of a little more than 800 residents.
Family patriarch Dale Bonnema said they’ve primarily grown corn and soybeans and dabbled in hogs and cattle on their land over the years, but four years ago they started growing hops.
Aware of the increasing popularity of craft beers and the ever expanding amount of breweries, Dale’s son, Mark Bonnema, wanted to get involved in the $23.5 billion industry.
Rather than try his hand at commercial brewing, the younger Bonnema thought growing hops was a more feasible entry point.
He had been reading online about hop production, and a telephone company began replacing poles on the gravel road that runs adjacent to his family’s acreage and asked if they wanted the old poles.
“I thought, you know, I can grab those poles and try growing some hops,” Bonnema said. “We’ve got the land and the space and I have an interest in the craft brew industry but didn’t really have the time or resources to start brewing.”
To grow, hop bines need a trellis system to climb as the plants reach 16-20 feet in height over a six- to eight-week late spring to summer growing season, according to Diane Cochran, a fruit specialist with the Iowa State University Extension office.
While Bonnema originally wanted to call it Richland Hops — his grandfather was named Rich and the farm is located in Lyon County’s Richland Township — his wife convinced him to go with something catchier.
After batting around a few suggestions, Hoppy Trails Hop Farm was born. The company's logo even features a caricature of Bonnema triumphantly holding up a seed cone, the technical name for a hop flower.
Within female cones, there are lupulin glands containing alpha acids, beta acids and essential oils, which provide bittering and unique aroma flavors to beer, according to the University of Nebraska Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
Additionally, hops, which are a perennial plant, can act as a stabilizer in brewing and can alter a beer’s taste based on the variety — there are more than 80 types — and where they were grown at.
Bonnema started off by planting 150 plants on less than half an acre in his family’s grove just to see how things would go.
“It’s probably good that we did that because we learned what to do, what not to do, how to set things up, et cetera, what varieties grow well, what varieties don’t grow well,” he said. “After about two years out here, we realized 150 plants wasn’t enough to justify some of the specialized equipment that you need."
Hoppy Trails has made significant investments in its equipment, which include a unique baler and harvester, three dryers and other apparatuses used either in the production or storage of hops.
To justify the expenses, Bonnema dramatically expanded the operation and it now occupies four full acres and contains 3,600 plants and seven types of hops ranging from Cascade to Tahoma.
He and his father also refurbished a more-than-60-year-old building on the family’s farm near the hop fields to act as a drying and cool/frozen storage facility for the hops.
Eventually, the nearly-2,000-square-foot building also will house Hoppy Trails pelletizer, a device that converts hop plants into pellets, making them easier to store, transport and eventually brew.
The Bonnemas aren’t the only Siouxland farmers hopping on the craft beer craze.
Star Sisters Organic Hops Farm of Larchwood, about 10 miles northwest of Hoppy Trails, is another family-owned operation, and it started growing hops around the same time.
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Together, the two farms form the Northwest Iowa Hops Alliance, a partnership Bonnema noted is mutually beneficial.
“We just realized we both don’t need to buy a pelletizer,” Bonnema said. “If we get one together we can easily get both of our product through that pelletizer in a growing season.”
Once that aspect of the business is operational, Bonnema hopes to open it up to other regional hops producers in need of the service.
Across the state line in Yankton, South Dakota, Ryan Heine and his wife, Michelle Donner, own and operate 6th Meridian Hops and Counterfeit Catering and the Counterfeit Food Truck.
“We started in 2014,” Heine said. “My wife and I are both from the area — we were living in Omaha at the time — so we decided to move back home with our family of five and start a hop farm.”
Heine was a backyard hops grower when they lived in Omaha, but wanted to get back to his agrarian roots and to get his children out of their city kid routines of playing video games and staying indoors.
He owned 80 acres of land near Lake Yankton that he inherited from his grandfather. Realizing that wasn’t enough land to run a profitable standard commodities type of operation, he went the hops route.
Five types of hops are grown over a five-acre spread at 6th Meridian, but, eventually, Heine wants to plant hops on most of the available acreage. Long-term, the couple wants to build an events center that offers food from Counterfeit’s menu and beers brewed with 6th Meridian Hops.
America’s traditional strongholds for hop production are Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and more recently Michigan and New York. However, producers in the middle of the map are starting to get in on the action.
Stories of Midwestern farmers making room for hops on their acreages are becoming more common as corn and soybean prices continue to plunge. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service had corn selling for $3.35 a bushel and beans at $8.98 a bushel, both down from the prior year.
Comparatively, hops from the Pacific Northwest are selling between $8-$12 a pound and Midwestern grown hops are going for $12-$16 a pound, according to Katie Kreuser, the Nebraska Extension Hop Program coordinator.
Besides a weak market for commodities, Kreuser attributed the rise in hop farms in places like Iowa and Nebraska to craft beers increasing footprint.
The Brewers Association, a craft beer industry trade association, estimated there were nearly 5,300 craft breweries in the U.S. in 2016. This is more than three times the amount in operation just seven years ago.
“In the past three or four years, it’s really taken off and people have started to do more research and looking at growing hops beyond just a few plants in their backyard,” Kreuser said. “They are actually looking at the commercial production of them.”
Hoppy Trails, Star Sisters and 6th Meridian are all considered commercial hops farms.
With this being his first year selling hops commercially, Bonnema said he’s working on developing partnerships with some regional brewers and hopes to tap breweries in Sioux Falls and in Minnesota.
On the other hand, Heinie, who has grown commercially for more than one season, already supplies hops to a few breweries.
Sixth Meridian Hops can be found in select brews by Crow Peak Brewing Co. in Spearfish, South Dakota; Lost Cabin Beer Co. of Rapid City, South Dakota; and Skagway Brewing Co. of Alaska, which is owned by a Yankton native.
With the era of $7 corn looking like a distant memory, hops might seem like a good way for crop farmers to recoup some of those losses. However, Bonnema warns it's not something to enter into lightly.
“It’s a nice way of diversifying, but it’s a lot of work too,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend anybody putting hops in thinking it’s an easy way to diversify. A lot of hands-on (work), a lot of labor (and) a lot of monitoring.”