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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

At Organic Farm, hops are season's hot crop

This season, Dartmouth's Organic Farm is growing more than just your basic vegetables.

Alongside the lettuce and corn are more unusual produce, such as African peanuts and cotton plants. And included in this category of atypical crops is a plant near and dear to the hearts of many Dartmouth students and other beer cognoscenti: hops.

Hops -- flowers grown on a vine that add the bitter flavor to beer -- are not a traditional farm staple. Rather, the plants currently growing at the Organic Farm are the result of cooperative work by Jeremiah Connolly '04 and the farm's workers, made possible though a small agricultural grant.

Connolly, who has an interest in home-brewing beer, according to farm volunteer Drew Wilkins '03, received a received grant to grow the plants through the Environmental Studies department.

The farm regularly works with environmental studies professor Ross Virginia to provide money to support student projects at the farm, said farm director Scott Stokoe, who added that while Connolly's interest and initiative in the project was instrumental in bringing the hops to the farm, it remains primarily an internal project.

Nursery plants were purchased with the grant money, as well as materials for a support system.

"Hops are massive plants that need to be trellised," Stokoe said. The plants at the farm are growing up a type of maypole trellis: a large pole in the center that supports several lengths of twine which the plants grow up, anchored out around the circumference of the pole.

Now in their second year of growth, the hops have one more year before they will be mature enough to use in brewing beer. Each year, the plants die back to the ground at the onset of winter, and send up new shoots each spring. The flower, a small, green head, blends into the leafy vines of each plant, and is responsible for the bitter flavor of the brew enjoyed by beer enthusiasts.

The Organic Farm's hops have also been bestowed with another title -- they make up the first perennial plant crop to be grown there. Until their planting two years ago, the farm had previously grown only annuals because of concern about weed growth. Cultivated plants must compete with weeds for nutrients in the soil each growing season, and with annual plants both the plants and the weeds can be plowed under each year and then replanted the following spring.

For the perennial hops to be successful, as they cannot be plowed under every year, a strategy had to be developed for managing the weeds. A combination of mulch and weeding has proven successful at preventing weed growth, Stokoe said.

Still, the presence of hops at the Organic Farm does not equate to a future line of Dartmouth-brand beer, he added. For one thing, it is impossible to make beer from hops alone.

"Hops are just a minimal ingredient," Stokoe said. "Trying to make beer from hops is like trying to make milk with a chocolate bar. You can flavor the milk with a chocolate bar to make chocolate milk, but you can't make milk from [a chocolate bar]."

Stokoe emphasized that Connolly's idea, now a farm project, is not about beer, as there is "great value in having people [understand] the horticulture and cultural aspect of plants."

Despite the educational intent of the hops, however, no formal research is being done on the plants at this time, though the plants are being observed as part of a method known as "trialing." Trialing involves an attempt to find a successful match between soil types and a given plant variety -- "cultivars," in farm-speak.

Currently farm members are observing eight cultivars of hops plants -- two specimens of each -- to determine which ones grow well, which are resistant to bugs and which grow best in the Upper Valley region.