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Tupper Lake hop farm in early stages

TUPPER LAKE – Travis Ormsby is now one of many in a collective of farmers and brewers vying to make New York craft beer an authentic product of the state.

Ormsby’s emergent hop farm on his property off McCarthy Street is a work in progress. His ambition is to take local brewing a step further by generating raw material for beer production in Adirondack soil. A carpenter by trade, he said he has an agricultural learning curve to surmount before he grows bines of hops up the height of the 20-foot-tall tamarack poles he prepared for the farm.

“I’m just starting to figure out a watering system and how to set up trestles on the 2-and-a-half acres of the back field,” Ormsby said. “I’m going slowly about it because I want to make sure I’m doing it right. We have a great climate for growing hops here, so I figured I could do this on the side and help with the increased demand for local produce and products.”

Ormsby wants to help New York state reclaim its status as a national leader in hop production, and he’s not alone. Several farmers are growing hops in Franklin County while others are strategizing hop farm investments. Institutional support to re-establish hops in the North Country is also coming from state government and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County.

New York’s hop history

New York state was at one time a hop capital of the country. More than a century ago, upstate regions produced a large share of the nation’s domestic hop yield. The climate in the Tri-Lakes is ideal for harvesting hops due to its latitude, and in 1880, Franklin County amassed more than a million pounds of hops for distribution, according to the county Historical & Museum Society.

Hop production experienced a steep decline as the 19th century ended. Environmental factors such as mildew and insect pests proved difficult for farmers to deal with. The price per pound began to drop considerably. The national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 was the last nail in the hop industry’s coffin. By 2000, state hop production was virtually nil.

Rick LeVitre, executive director of CCE Franklin County, said his organization is taking a lead in the mission to “re-establish hops in the North Country.

“Depending on when the stats were taken during the 1800s and 1900s, this area was one of the third to fifth most significant hop producing counties in the state,” he said. “Since then, everything has gone west, mostly to … Washington state and Oregon state.”

Re-establishing hops

The state’s hop revival received its first major boost from farm brewing legislation passed in 2012 with encouragement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This law allowed microbrewers to sell pints of beer by the glass, the most profitable form of sale for them, so long as they use at least 20 percent in-state ingredients in the brewing process. This minimum percentage is scheduled to increase to 60 percent in 2019 and 90 percent in 2024.

“Around the era of alcohol prohibition, the government didn’t want you to grow product, make product and sell product all in the same place,” LeVitre said. “This farm brewery law allows you to do that with added incentive.”

As part of the revival effort, CCE Franklin County has hosted several panel discussions and workshops related to farming hops. Themes at these meetings include logistics of hop farming, cultivation, construction plans, pest control and general hop knowledge. The next informational event is tentatively scheduled for July 28 at Paul Smith’s College.

LeVitre said CCE is also discussing reacquiring a part-time educator to travel from farm to farm and offer on-site advice and consultation. CCE Franklin County’s mission has been largely funded by a $28,000 grant from the Cloudsplitter Foundation in Saranac Lake.

According to LeVitre, a revived upstate hop economy will likely take time.

“It’s still at a very small level, but we have four brewers actively growing and others who are putting their ducks in order to invest,” he said. He estimates setting up a hop yard – with poles, a trellis system, plants and irrigation – to cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per acre.

Hoppers and brewers

Catching up to the advanced farms of the West remains a challenge for fledgling hop farmers in the North Country. Many New York hop farms are small and must charge a premium for their yield. Also, their lack of acidity testing and pelletizing of the hops prevents most regional brewers from investing.

Steve Fleury is a college professor who started farming hops near Syracuse three years ago, then started a farm in Westville north of Malone.

“We have plenty of room to expand, and we have the equipment,” Fleury said. “But like most hop farmers around here, we’re really trying to learn on this first acre and refine the process before we expand.”

Fleury’s farm sells its hops to Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton and AuSable Brewing Company in Keeseville.

Most Tri-Lakes breweries are waiting on improvements in this region’s hops before they invest.

Mark Jessie, co-owner of Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake, said he’ll need hops tested for consistency and pelletized for easier production before he strays from his current providers in Washington. Mark Gillis, owner of Blue Line Brewery in Saranac Lake, and Rob Kane, brewer at Great Adirondack Steak and Seafood in Lake Placid, abstain from local hops for the same reason. Each of these, however, expressed interest in using New York hops in the future.

“Our state is not quite up to speed with the demand and quality for commercial production,” Gillis said. “If they came with quality and consistency, and if they had the pellets, I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more to have something from in state.”

Jim LaValley, co-owner of Big Tupper Brewing in Tupper Lake, said cost is also a factor. Nevertheless, he plans to collaborate with Ormsby by using whole-cone hops grown on his farm to generate small batches of beer.

“I’m buying hops in the open commodity market for about 50 percent to 70 percent of what the New York state hop growers are selling it for,” LaValley said. “I think we’ll see those prices become more competitive as farmers like Travis become more involved with hops.”