Monday, February 26, 2024

Community wraps around new hop-growing operation

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A conversation over a pint sparked the idea for a hops farm in northern Southland. Soon the whole community was involved.
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In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.

“What have we created? There tractor’s running around, there’s people running around. It’s not the quiet little sheep farm it used to be,” says James McNamee, founder of Garston Hops.

What has been the McNamees’ northern Southland sheep farm for the past 145 years is now a hive of activity of another sort.

Not only is the fifth generation of McNamees already lending a hand with hops production, but extended family has also been roped in too.

Accents from across the globe can be heard as scores of people on working holiday visas move in and out of the Garston Hops office between tasks.

“It’s good to have a bit of a buzz and vibe,” says James.

James’s brother, Terrence, still runs the sheep farm, unchanged, except for the chaos that now abounds with hops production.

Krystella Baker, James’s sister’s daughter, is customer relationship manager.

If you want to buy hops, she’s the one to speak to.

She is also the one to whom media duties have been delegated.

Krystella’s story is a good example of how a hops farm that began as an idea has grown to include the family and a whole town.

The farm grows a number of varieties – Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Rakau, NZ Cascade, Riwaka and Green Bullet. Hops sells for anything between $25 to $60 per kilogram, depending on variety, with about 3000 plants per hectare. Photo supplied by Garston Hops

She came to help with the 2022 harvest, but is now in a permanent role and just as passionate about hops as everyone else.

She loves the beach and plans to move oceanside, but James already includes her name when he talks about the future of the fifth generation on the farm.

Indeed, the sleepy town of Garston and Garston Hops is a true family affair.

“When I first arrived we went to the pub. James pointed to someone and said ‘Do you know who that is, that’s your cousin,’ so I said, ‘Okay, let me meet my cousin,’ Krystella says.

“Terrence and his wife Lynn are up the road. My godfather also lives up the road from me.  Further up the road there’s an uncle, and up from him another one, and even further up, another one. And down the road is another uncle.”  

The hops enterprise was born out of necessity and a good dose of curiosity.

The sheep farm would not have been able to accommodate the next generation on its own, Krystella says.

“We’re not getting rid of sheep. It’s two-tier farming. But sheep are not very economic at the moment. James and Terrence are trying to find a balance so the farm can live on and leave something that’s viable for their children,” she says.

One night over a pint, James and a friend talked about a hops shortage in New Zealand. 

Hops can be grown between the 35th and 55th latitude, and with the Garston farm sitting smack bang in the middle on 45˚28’9”S, James decided to grow a trial plot.

By 2016 the first plants were in the ground.

Blaž Jelen, left, and James McNamee, founder of Garston Hops decided whether the hops crop is ready to harvest.  Blaž Jelen says in the past decade aroma hops has become very popular with craft brewers. Photo supplied by Garston Hops

In 2023 10 hectares were harvested, and the 2024 harvest will be from double that. Hopes are pinned on tipping the scale at 24 tonnes of final processed product, she says.

If all goes well there will soon be 40ha of hops in the ground.

“It’s good soil. It’s where the river used to come through. The bore is close and helps with drip-feed irrigation.” 

In NZ hops are traditionally grown in the Tasman region, with Garston Hops the first commercial enterprise to branch out from this area, Krystella says.

The farm grows a number of varieties – Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Rakau, NZ Cascade, Riwaka and Green Bullet.

Plants are sourced from nurseries in Nelson.

During winter a hop plant lays dormant.

Garston’s extreme winter temperatures mean plants “get a lot of rest and regenerate”, Krystella says.

Once the season warms up, growth starts.

“They just go crazy. We’ve been chaotically trying to keep up with training them,” she says.

Once growth takes off, shoots are trained, by hand, to grow up strings. Stringing is manually intensive, and withabout3000 plantsper hectare it takes a lot of effort, and many family and working-visa hands, to get the job done.

Not all shoots are destined for production, with many deheaded so those that grow have space and sunlight.

“We had this issue at the beginning of this year’s harvest. Some strings had too many shoots, it was hard to get the harvesting machine through,” she says.

Harvesting in the Tasman starts around February, but Garston is much colder and the harvest begins mid-March.

Garston Hops is not at full production yet. 

In its first year a plant is only at about 30% to 40% of production. It is at 70% in the second year and only in the third year does it get close to full potential.

Like all horticulture, growing hops is capital intensive, and the farm is not making a return on investment yet.

James says he had hoped a return on investment would be possible three years after initial production began, but it now looks like five years is more realistic.

Another challenge is that the expertise is a thousand kilometres away, he says.

If the farm has a sheep problem, a quick trip to a neighbour could help solve it.

But with hops, advice is often a phone call or a Zoom meeting away, he says.

A hops plant can be dug up, split in four and kept in a chiller until the temperature is right to grow it. A plant produces for about 20 years; after that production drops significantly. Photo Gerhard Uys

Luckily Garston engineers are now on top of how hops machinery works, James says.

James solved much of the expertise problem by employing Blaž Jelen as hop production manager.

Blažhails from a family of hops growers in Slovenia, and is now the on-site expert in growing, harvesting and processing.

He says with his father a few years away from retiring, he came to NZ to make his own mark on the hops and beer industry.

NZ is an ideal location for hops because there are no established hops diseases or pests of note yet, Blaž says.

Getting to know hops takes time, but once you understand the crop, following the same production principles every year is key, he says. 

There are two kinds of hops – bittering and aroma hops.

Bittering hops are associated with traditional beers.

But in the past 10 years aroma hops, which contain more essential oils, have been gaining popularity, especially with craft brewers, he says.

You have to be passionate about all kinds of beers, and understand how what happens in the paddock influences taste, Blaž says.

James says Garston Hops makes him proud on many levels.

He feels it when he sees the Garston Hops “GH” insignia on local beers.

He especially felt it when the first batch of hops was exported to United States brewery Treehouse, after the US brewers happened to drive by Garston Hops while traveling in NZ, and fell in love with the NZ Cascade variety.

And, says James, he is proud to have brought even more pride to Garston and a sense that Garston Hops is a community affair.

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