Monday, March 25, 2013

Rhizomeville - the gift that keeps on giving

Well, it's spring again!

This really doesn't matter to the hop farmer though, because our work never ends. Spring, summer, fall, or winter....there is always something to work on at the farm. 

The above obligatory farmer gripe is well justified because we began pulling rhizomes out of the ground on March 9th while the rest of Canada was still under the strong, frigid grip of winter. Lillooet has been crazy hot over the past few weeks, hitting 16 degrees Celsius as these daily highs begin to warm the soil's surface awakening the underground stems. 

Yes, you heard right - underground stems. But why heck are stems growing underground? I don't know, I'm an ornithologist, not a botanist (Read more here about our research group's most recent work on the amiable Yellow Warbler). But what I do know is that this growth strategy is shared by other plant species, such as the familiar ginger plant and the irises you mom used to plant in your front yard. 

Question #2: Why are we hard at work pulling these out of the ground? Excellent question. Well, the answer is simple: Our friends at Left Fields organic farm in Sorrento, BC asked for some - I mean, a lot. Seems people across Canada have been in search of these odd little pieces of plant material with spectacular growth potential for quite some time. From the small-time gardener to the upstart organic hop farmer, rhizomes are the first place to start if you want to grow hops yourself or if you just want to enjoy their unique growing habit on the south-facing side of your domicile.    

The folks behind Left Fields, Rebecca Kneen and Brian MacIsaac, are perhaps best known for their on-site organic farm brewery called Crannog Ales. But they are quickly becoming equally well-known for their propensity to get hop rhizomes into the hands of botanophiles across the country. Here at Bitterbine, we are direct suppliers of certified organic rhizomes (PACS #16-487) to Left Fields. We dig, they distribute, people grow.

Keep checking back because this hop farmer has plenty more to report on...including the first tranche of hop shoots to be picked and shipped to fine restaurants around Vancouver.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Phytoseiulus persimilis: Ace in the Hole

Mites and aphids. Those two words uttered in the presence of a hops farmer and you will likely see them shudder in fear of their crop. But for these two hops farmers, we get excited at the opportunity to try something cool to combat these pests. 

The first signs of spider mites arose during the last week in June. A few light-coloured leaves with a smattering of bleached spots on the upper side of the leaf and a light webbing on the underside near the petiole was a sure sign that the mites have arrived. 

We have never really witnessed the speed at which these pests can progress so it came as a surprise that in one week's time, a few localized outbreaks had impacted our plants significantly. Tim being the insect man, already had the answer. Unfortunately, he was the only one who could pronounce it: Phytoseiulus persimilis.

It turns out that the above scientific name is nothing but a mite with an appetite for other mites, especially the spider mite pest. What makes these mites so special is that they are small enough to penetrate the protective webbing of the spider mites to attack them on their own turf. Once consumed, the predatory mite can reproduce much faster than its prey. Soon enough, there are are more wolves than deer, so to speak and Voila! Problem solved. At least, that was the idea. 

The application procedure was simple yet time consuming: take one leaflet infested with the predatory mite and attach it to the hop leaf at the petiole. Over an over again to each affected plant. 

The method is proven to be effective in green houses but not fully tested on open-air hop farms. Consider this as trial one.  Time will tell whether this pest infestation will be curtailed by our last-minute bio-control application method. 

Stay tuned with how these organic hop farmers are dealing with the aphids...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"When Hops met Grape"

Rolf and Heleen of Fort Berens Winery asked us if we wanted to turn and wine festival into a wine and beer festival. We said yes. If you find yourself in Lillooet this coming weekend, be sure take in the First Annual Lillooet Beer and Wine Festival on September 19th!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2000 strings of coir on the trellis, 2000 strings of coir...

Farmhand Ale

I don't want to be that blogger who always apologizes when a few months have past since publishing their last post - so I won't.

Let's get down to business. My inspiration tonight happens to be a fine bottle of Farmhand Ale by Driftwood Brewery out of Victoria, BC. We have yet to strike a deal with the folks over at Driftwood re: hops sales, but we think they are the forward-thinking chaps who would entertain such a transaction. Lord knows, there will be enough hops to go 'round this harvest season. Rewind...
It was the first weekend in May when the potted plants went into the ground (that post) and by the third week in May, many of the bines needed to be trained.

Onto what you ask? Well, my friend that is the subject of this week's blog!

Coir - we purchased two bales of the coconut stuff from a distributor based out of Washington. Approximately 5000 strings fit into the bulky shipment, whose origins can be sourced back to Sri Lanka. Coir twine is one of many useful products made from the byproducts of the coconut industry. Lucky for us, this fibre is cheap, strong, and organic. It will break down in the compost along with the waste hop material after harvest.

The bales are neatly bundled together in 100 string bundles, each of which measures 20'6" - enough extra length for knotting the strings atop out 18' trellis and anchoring them into the ground.

I grabbed a few strings and hiked myself up to the top of the orchard ladder to figure out how they should be tied to the trellis. I'm confident there is a knot out there already invented for just such a task, but I'm not aware of it. Instead, this is the one I devised:

When the knot is cinched, it holds in place and doesn't slide along the wire.

Now that the knot was figured out, I realized that walking up the ladder with a handful of coir and tying three or four at a time before having to move the ladder was not an efficient use of my time. Where's Hal? He will have a solution for our little predicament. Our neighbour Hal is always thinking. And while I was screwing around with the ladder and making next to no progress, Hal was thinking, "Why don't those boys move the ladder with their brand new tractor?". And so it was done.

Ratchet straps holds the ladder section cradled in the bucket and a rock box keeps the tripod in place towards the rear of the tractor - brilliant.
When we load up 100 strings to the top of the ladder, tying strings is fast and efficient. Although, this worked well for us in 2010, we have an even more skookum  method devised to make stringing even faster - with two people tying at one time. We'll save that for 2011.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Faith and Uncertainty in Hops Farming

I came across this video that was taken at the Rising Sun Farms of Colorado, one of only a handful of hop farms in the United States growing organically. A late spring hail storm caused serious damage to this 9-10 acre hopyard.

 This video is heartbreaking to watch, particularly to the fellow hop grower. As noted in the video, most of the tender hop shoots were broken from the hail storm, which is likely to stunt the growth of the entire hopyard. One of the comments on the video came from another experienced grower who mentions new shoots will develop just below where it was damaged and continue to grow upwards. True - but such damage is likely to reduce yields significantly, not to mention the additional labour required for retraining the bines.

At our hopyard, we notice that hop plants respond to broken shoots by initiating secondary shoots along the entire bine. Unless these shoots are pruned, dozens will develop simultaneously, creating a bushy like appearance below the point of damage.

From the plant's perspective, this makes sense. As a survival strategy, an explosion of new shoots ensures at least a few bines latch on to the climbing substrate to continue their vertical trajectory. From the perspective of the farmer, this is simply unnecessary vegetative growth and an inefficient use of available nitrogen.  The solution, as we have discovered, is to prune all other side shoots except for ONE just below where the damage occurred. The plant then concentrates its energy into developing this single shoot. This should be done as soon as possible to encourage this single shoot and discourage continued growth of other side shoots.

In any unavoidable disaster such as the one at Rising Sun Farms, its always a good idea to have a few cold ones in the fridge to lessen the blow. Best of luck to those growers in Colorado!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


April was coming to a close and our seven hundred and fifty-nine hops needed to be planted.  I also needed to celebrate my 30th birthday. Light bulb moment. Plan a planting party for the first weekend in May with everyone I know. What an idea! Don't bring gifts just bring your enthousiasm for digging holes! This could have been a tough sell but fortunately I convinced 18 friends from Vancouver who made the trek over the Duffy or through the Fraser Canyon, while pushing through high elevation snow flurries and avoiding unexpected roadside ungulates, respectively. Include the brothers et al from Whistler (5) and a peppering of our limited local contacts (4) and we had a serious party on our hands!
After distributing a few dozen cups of coffee around and rousing a few stragglers from their tents, we began prepping the field. This turned out to be a larger task than we we thought. Fifteen rows needed to be tilled up, cleared of surface rocks, 150 tractor buckets of compost needed to be spread, and of course, the planting.
Hal worked the Woods rototiller in a not-so-traditional fashion by working one 5' section at a time across the field. A dedicated Heather assisted Hal in keeping within the planned rows.

With the soil loosened, myself and a few well-trained tractor operators started depleting our massive compost pile one bucket load at a time. At this point, the compost had been breaking down for just two months and microbial activity had slowed producing a fine organic blend ready to add to the hop yard.
Once the compost was dumped, the crew put their backs into it to have it evenly spread along the rows. A farm can never have too many shovels.
By mid-day there was considerable progress on the field prep. Although we roughed up the green manure a bit, the the young oats and vetch continued to grow throughout May (more to come on the green manure).

The storm clouds started to develop by mid-afternoon and it appeared as though my sunny weekend guarantee was going to backfire in my face. Backfire with hail, to be specific. The change in weather was marked by a strong wind gusts twisting around the confluence of the Cayoosh and Fraser Rivers.

Workers rested on their shovels to witness the change in atmospheric energy and contemplated returning to the shack to change into more weather-proof apparel. This was a good idea, as a rain shower turned into hail and back to rain. Despite the terrible conditions, there was a cheery mood in the air with the crew donning their uniquely-coloured rain jackets!

By this time, we were ready to get the plants into the ground. What better tool to use than the classic maddock?

We spaced the holes 3.5' apart and filled them with organic amendments including bone meal, kelp meal, canola meal, and ash collected from burned ponderosa pines from around the property.
 This is where the real assembly line work began and prompted a few to provide refreshments and nourishment to the rest. Bottled home brew made with last year's hops and Pilsbury's cookies to be precise.

Productivity did eventually slow to a stand still but only after the entire acre was prepped and about 300 hops were planted into the ground. Job well done! Silliness ensued...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Composting 101

Part science, part cooking class, composting is central to any organic farming operation - especially a farm like ours whose soils have no history of cultivation. Recent soil tests confirmed that we had only a modest organic content (2.5%) so composting would be the quickest way to supplement existing organic matter and support the young hop plants. After some quick calculations, we realized that we needed A LOT of compost to cover the 15 rows of the one acre hopyard.  So, where to start? As it turns out, it's not that complicated. However, there are a number of factors that will influence the rate at which your raw material will break down. The most important consideration is obtaining an optimal Carbon:Nitrogen ratio. There are a number of compost calculators online to help you estimate this ratio using a suite of raw materials.

We opted for simplicity on our first attempt with alfalfa hay (carbon source) and horse manure (nitrogen source) as the sole ingredients. We sourced the hay from Texas Creek Ranch and have to thank Ekhard for graciously donating some old, broken down bails and the manure came from our neighbour who boards horses and had accumulated quite a bit over the winter.

Like making the world's largest lasagna, we spread thin layers of hay with scoops of manure, trying to water the layers along the way until we ran out of ingredients. Oh, I forgot to mention that Tim collected a dozen garbage bags of oak leaves he stole from a local Vancouver park near his house - he seemed to think the mold on the leaves would inoculate the pile to initiate the composting process. After covering the massive pile with tarps, we let microbiology take over.
After the first week, we discovered some surprises underneath the tarp...

Aside from being knee deep in animal excrement, my favourite part of the composting process is the stirring. For those of you who know me, this is also why I can't make rice but CAN make a mean stir fry.
Compost piles of such epic proportions, require mixing tongs of the hydraulic variety so when we were installing the poles, we took a moment to have Jason stir the stinking pile.

Of course, we recorded the temperature of the pile periodically over the 5 week period to ensure that weed seed would not germinate, kill pathogens, and to comply with the standards with certified organic protocols.

Temps after the first week. Looks like we need a thermometer a higher scale...temps regularly reached above 135 F in subsequent weeks.