Green acres: investment, innovation, and the future of local hops

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross peers into the hop thresher designed by student Kyle Willfahrt in the Agricultural Engineering Technology Department // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross peers into the hop thresher designed by UW–River Falls student Kyle Willfahrt in the Agricultural Engineering Technology Department // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Fortunately for smaller-scale hop growers, undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls are on track to create a hop thresher that’s perfectly sized for their hopyards. The prototype can harvest in one hour what a single person can do in eight.

About the size of a refrigerator, UW–River Falls’ thresher is a multi-year project, used as a teaching tool for the school’s Agricultural Engineering Technology program. Since 2012, small groups of Agricultural Engineering Technology students have been researching and implementing different aspects of the thresher each semester.

“They’ll research the different types of metal to use, the angle of the hopper, how far apart mechanisms have to be to separate the leaves,” says Veronica Justen, an assistant professor of crop science who assists with the hops thresher project. “It’s not just a commercial solution, but allows students to explore the hops industry and innovate.”

Kyle Willfahrt, a recent graduate from the River Falls Agricultural Engineering Technology program, was part of a trio of students that worked on the thresher during the 2015 spring semester. His group’s big contribution to the project was getting many of the thresher’s mechanical components on track to be patented.

“It’s a very simple design. We made it to be affordable and easy to use,” Willfahrt says, adding that the thresher isn’t made with any unique materials or specialized techniques. All told, he estimates the thresher in its current form would cost about $3,000, a fraction of the cost of most commercial hops threshers, which can range anywhere from $15,000–$50,000.

University of Wisconson System President Ray Cross with the hop thresher developed by UW–River Falls student Kyle Willfahrt // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

University of Wisconson System President Ray Cross, right, with the hop thresher developed by UW–River Falls student Kyle Willfahrt // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

While the River Falls thresher is an exciting prospect for the future of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s small-scale hop growers, a commercial product is not in the foreseeable future. Willfahrt, who is now working in the agricultural technology industry, said if there were an investor who wanted to bring the thresher to market, he would gladly return to the thresher project. But for now the River Falls thresher stands only as a proof of concept and inspiration to handy and mechanically minded hop growers in the North.

A piece of equipment that will make a more direct impact on the local hops industry is the state’s first hops pelletizer.

Husband and wife team Ross and Annette Vetse, co-owners of Gerhard Hops with Ross’ brother Kurt, realized they needed to be able to preserve their hops when a storm hit in the middle of the 2014 harvest season. In addition to growing hops, Annette is a financial planner, Ross is a mechanic, and Kurt is an electrical engineer. Between the storm, their day jobs, and their families, they couldn’t save all their hops in time. “After that big storm, we couldn’t come back for a few days. There were about 300 pounds wasted, just sitting out,” Ross says. The storm caused them to lose about a third of their crop.

Since then, the Vetse family decided to take big steps toward improving their hopyard. The first piece of the puzzle was to put in an order this summer for a Colorado Eco-3 Pellet Mill. According to the unit’s brochure, the pelletizer can process up to 150 pounds of material per hour. “Talking with breweries, the first thing they ask is ‘Do you pelletize?’ When it comes to a wet-hop beer, the timing has to be just right. A brewer has to be pretty much in the middle of brewing their wet-hop batch when we deliver,” Annette says. “With a pelletizer, we don’t have to worry about those logistics.”

More importantly, she says, a pelletizer will help prevent mass amounts of waste. “We can utilize every single pound we can collect. We predict doubling our potential profits thanks to the pelletizer.”

Doubling their profits means Gerhard Hops will be able to reinvest in their business. After the pelletizer arrives, Gerhard Hops will soon have a commercial-sized refrigeration unit installed at the hopyard for pelletized hop storage. The family business has also put an offer on 40 acres of land, adding to the 10 they already farm. Ross Vetse predicted they will be able to fill in the new acreage at about 10 acres per year. In a few years’ time, Gerhard Hops could be the largest hopyard in Minnesota. “We’ve seen the big boom in craft beer. We know we have to get bigger to supply the need,” Annette said.

Beyond Gerhard Hops, the machine could also be a boon to other local hopyards, such as nearby Hippity Hops to whom the Vetses have rented out time on their industrial hops thresher in the past. “We’d be open to renting equipment and building relationships if it’s equitable for all parties,” Annette says. “The way the industry is right now, you know, other hop growers are technically competitors, but people don’t get too hung up on competition.”

Hops growing on a bine // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Hops growing on a bine // Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Looking ahead

River Falls’ thresher and the incoming local pelletizer is great news, says Brach. Why? Because investment in equipment is precisely how Wisconsin and Michigan’s hop industries got underway.

“When growers go in on large facilities, they can help process the small guys,” Rohwer says, citing Michigan’s hop growers as an example. In Wisconsin, a hop growers’ co-op provides hopyards with equipment to process their goods; the Badger State now has four- to six-times the hop acreage of Minnesota as a result.

Better equipment can lead to better production, which in turn can lead to more resources being available to the hop growing community. And one day, 10 years or so down the road, perhaps a uniquely flavored hop designed specifically for Minnesota’s climate could be developed.

“There’s just so much potential here,” Rohwer says. Based on craft beer’s continued growth in the state, it would seem most Minnesotans agree.

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