Brewers Problem: Climate Challenges and Pest Problems Affects Hop Production
Controlled Environment Agriculture

Brewers Problem: Climate Challenges and Pest Problems Affects Hop Production

Happy first day of summer! This season brings longer days, warm weather, and fun outdoor activities like barbecuing and enjoying cold beers. Unfortunately, climate change and pest infestations are impacting hop production globally, which could lead to higher beer prices.

However, innovative solutions like indoor vertical farming can help protect against these challenges, increase yield, and stabilize prices. Despite some challenges in scaling this system, such as the cost of hops, it offers a promising solution for the future of beer production.

The Problems Facing Hop Production

The brewing industry was dealt a heavy blow last year as hop production worldwide took a significant hit. The situation was especially dire in Europe, where severe weather events such as droughts and heat waves caused devastating damage to hop farms. 2022 marked a challenging period for this vital industry, with crop yields from some of the most crucial production regions, including Germany, experiencing substantial decreases. Estimated figures reported by Craft Brewing Business indicated a drop of 18 percent compared to a typical yield and a decline of 20.4 percent compared to 2021, which had previously produced an impressive 47.862 tonnes.

Meanwhile, American hop growers were not immune to these agricultural hardships either. They battled against a host of challenges, including unseasonably cold spring weather that delayed plantings and fierce wind and rain storms that threatened to damage existing crops. This turbulent climate created an unfavorable environment for hop growth, making it difficult for farmers to maintain their regular yields. The struggles faced by these American growers were not lost on industry experts, who noted the decreased productivity within the American hop industry throughout the year.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS) confirmed these observations in its National Hop Report for 2022. It outlined a sobering picture of the country’s hop production state, detailing a 12 percent decline in yield from previous years. This marked decrease underscored the challenges hop growers encountered over the past year. As the world grapples with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the implications for hop production—and, by extension, the brewing industry—could be profound. With the dramatic impacts of 2022 serving as a stark reminder, strategies to weatherproof this vital agricultural sector are becoming increasingly critical.

But that doesn’t end there. Demand for beer is continuously expanding (as shown in the graph below), especially for locally crafted beer. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of breweries increased by more than three times, from 95 to 302, as the New York State Brewers Association reported. This industry plays a significant role in the state’s economy, contributing $3.5 billion annually.

Image provided by Statista Research Department, May 17, 2023. Source here.

Nonetheless, several states have begun offering incentives designed to boost the number of hop growers to meet the escalating demand for locally brewed beer. Notably, many of these emerging growers have never previously engaged in any cultivation. While this initiative enhances the number of hops available to the beer industry, it also presents a significant issue. A substantial number of these novice growers lack experience in this specialized field of agriculture, leading them to grapple with specific challenges.

Foremost among these challenges is the complex issue of pest management. Novice growers may not yet have the expertise to effectively control pests that can damage hop crops, potentially leading to suboptimal crop yields and quality. Thus, while the increased interest in hop cultivation and the corresponding surge in growers might provide a short-term response to demand, there remains a clear need for training and capacity-building within this burgeoning sector. Such measures will ensure these new entrants can navigate the complex landscape of hop cultivation and contribute meaningfully to the industry in the long run.

One of the most notorious pests impacting hop production is the two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae). These tiny arachnids feed on the plant’s sap, leaving stippled leaves that eventually turn yellow and drop prematurely. Severe infestations can cause significant yield reduction and impact the overall quality of the hops. Unfortunately, these mites reproduce rapidly, and populations can skyrocket under the right conditions, especially in hot, dry weather. Therefore, successful management requires regular field scouting and integrated pest management strategies.

Another pest that substantially threatens hop production is the hop aphid (Phorodon humuli). These tiny insects suck sap from the leaves and stem, leading to leaf curling, yellowing, and potentially plant death in severe cases. Furthermore, hop aphids excrete a sticky substance called honeydew, which can encourage the growth of a black, sooty mold that affects the quality of the hops. A secondary concern is that these aphids can vector certain plant viruses, further exacerbating their detrimental impact on hop plants.

Then there’s the Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica), an invasive pest that can cause severe damage to hop plants. Adult beetles feed on the foliage and flowers of the hop plant, causing considerable defoliation and potential yield loss. Their larvae, on the other hand, feed on the roots, affecting the overall health and vigor of the plant. Management strategies for Japanese beetles include using traps, specific insecticides, and biological control methods such as parasitic nematodes. These various pests highlight the need for robust and integrated pest management strategies in hop production, particularly as new and inexperienced growers enter the field.

Turning Indoors As One Of The Solutions?

Growing hops in indoor vertical farms is an innovative approach that could solve the brewing industry’s challenges. It combines modern agricultural technology with traditional brewing processes to achieve improved yields and quality, regardless of outdoor climatic conditions. By controlling environmental variables such as temperature, humidity, and light, growers can cultivate hops year-round, allowing for continuous production and supply to breweries. This is a considerable advantage over traditional hop farms, which are limited by seasonal growth cycles and the unpredictability of weather conditions.

One advantage (which can be a challenge, too) is that hops are vigorous climbers, known to reach heights of up to 25 feet in a single growing season, which poses a particular challenge for vertical farming where space is a key constraint. Growers must develop novel training and pruning strategies to manage rapid vertical growth.

Ekonoke, a pioneering agricultural company situated on the outskirts of Madrid, is harnessing the potential of vertical farming to meet the burgeoning demand for hops. This initiative is being carried out in collaboration with Cosecha de Galicia, the agricultural innovation arm of the Hijos de Rivera Corporation. It is renowned for its ownership of the esteemed beer brand Estrella Galicia. The primary objective of their research is to discover the most efficient method of cultivating hops in vertical farms that will satisfy market-determined quality standards and price points.

In a recent conversation with Vertical Farm Daily, Inés Sagrario, Ekonoke’s CEO, shared insightful reflections on the competitive landscape of hydroponically grown hops. Sagrario highlighted the nuanced considerations that should be factored into the cost analysis, which is currently perceived as a deterrent to the widespread adoption of this innovative cultivation method.

Sagrario articulates, “The initial complexity of attaining financial viability with hydroponic hop cultivation may seem formidable. In the current scenario, our pricing model may seem non-competitive due to a lack of comparison with the comprehensive price structure of traditionally farmed hops. However, a broader economic evaluation presents a contrasting perspective. When we incorporate the external costs related to conventional agriculture, such as the impact of pesticide application, excessive fertilizer runoff polluting groundwater, actual packaging, and extensive transportation, the narrative changes.”

Although providing a promising alternative to conventional hop farming issues, the indoor vertical farming approach brings with it a unique set of obstacles and intricacies. First, the startup capital necessary to create a working vertical farming system can be considerable. The modern tech that supports these farming methods, including advanced climate regulation systems, high-output lighting, and hydroponic or aeroponic infrastructure, is a significant investment. As a result, the financial outlay for establishing a vertical farm might seem daunting given the competitive pricing norms of hops cultivated in traditional farms.

Moreover, the operational expenses involved in running indoor vertical farms are significant, with energy costs being a predominant factor. Indoor agriculture relies heavily on artificial illumination and climate regulation mechanisms, which results in substantial power consumption, translating into elevated energy costs. Even though there are ongoing efforts to enhance the energy efficiency of these systems, it continues to be a critical hurdle in making indoor farming economically sustainable. Also, indoor farming requires a high degree of competency in conventional horticulture and technology management. The necessity for proficient professionals who can oversee these state-of-the-art farming systems adds to the operational expenditure. Lastly, given the spatial restrictions of vertical farming, ensuring ideal plant density without jeopardizing plant health or yield presents a complex task. These challenges highlight the imperative for ongoing research, innovation, and the establishment of optimal practices in indoor vertical farming.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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