Ramble On

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Stringing Part 3 - Now We're Done @hawksbillhops

Farm dog Tess hunkered down in the shade.
...at least, now we're done stringing!

When Mary and I went over to the hop yards on Sunday, we took Tess the border collie with us.  Tess is a rescue, and she grew up in a rural situation - we've heard they even made a go of turning her into a working dog - but it didn't work out.  So far, by having her at the farm, I have learned about some of her stronger instincts:  she's very good at finding some shade to hang out in.

Since it was already too hot to do any farm chores, we settled in to getting a count of what plants are up, and then Mary took to training bines.  On that first one, there was pretty good news all around - while some of the plants are still just breaking through, we've had 95% success on the rhizomes since planting them on May 2! There's a chart at the end of this post with the results.

We went back over to the hop yards on Monday to see if we could make some progress on hops stringing.  This activity has been the bulk of the work at the hop yards since May 9, with several folks putting in time on the effort.  We learned a lot from the experience and it's fair to say we have a decent process that we'll get quicker and better at next year.

With about two hours of effort on Monday, Mary and I finished clipping the remaining two rows.  David, Eric, and Grayson had finished the stringing activities earlier in the week, so our focus was to set the anchors.  After we finished that, we started to train the young bines onto their ropes, and ended our work session by pulling the tails of the ropes out of the drive rows so that David can seed a cover crop in them for the balance of the summer.

Pano of the strung and clipped acre of hops!
That puts us at the end of this stage.  We've finished stringing and clipping the hops, so growing season is officially on!

To close out the post today, I've updated the table below to include the counts and a comparison with the first week, which I counted on May 9.  Some of the varieties are at 100%, but I'm pleasantly surprised that we are at 94% and 93% respectively on the CTZ (Columbus) and Goldings - varieties we've been warned may not do so well in the Virginia climate.  Now that we're in growing season, we're going keep an eye on the threats we know about, and to steward the whole shebang into fruition later this summer!

Here is a final count of the plants we got from our rhizome planting on May 2.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

May 24 Check-in @Hawksbillhops

On Sunday, Mary and I drove over to the hop yard for a look at how things were going.  We arrived too late in the day to take on actual farm chores, so I decided to walk through row by row to check out how our plants are doing - I'll post those results tomorrow.

All of the stringing has been done, and what's left to do with this task is to anchor the ropes so the plants can find them and begin climbing.  If we'd been there a little earlier, I would have gotten started on this, but as I mentioned we were already into the hottest part of the day, so I  postponed that for Monday.

While I was making counts, Mary went around and trained the bines that were ready to the ropes.  We have a good number that have found their ropes on their own, and a few others that have put out a long bine or two so they are ready to begin their climb.

A couple of the Fuggles (red flags) and Chinooks (orange), which are shown in these two photos, have already made it up to four feet - I think that is pretty good for just three weeks.  It's remarkable how much energy there is in this crop!

Now to see how far up the trellis they'll make it before the equinox!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

May Check-in - Backyard Hops

For the last six weeks or so I have been very focused on all the activities involved with getting Hawksbill Hop Yards up and running - from working with David to select the site, get it cleared, build the trellis, etc., all the way through training the bines.  I'll have an update on Hawksbill Hop Yards next week, but for today I wanted to check back in on the three bines I have in the backyard in Alexandria.

These plants served as a pilot of sorts, combined with the experiences neighbor Dan and fellow "home gamers" Kevin and Bill have going on.  Learning from them inspired me to try growing hops myself - and eventually led me down the path of starting a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

I have two varieties here - a Willamette and two Goldings bines.  The Goldings have struggled in Alexandria, in part because I moved them and they needed to re-establish themselves.

The first series of three photos above is the Willamette.  This plant is thriving - it is growing out of a five-gallon pot, but it has sent a feeder root out into the garden.  Because of that, I can't move it, and because it is in a spot where there is a power line overhead, I can't put up much of a trellis for it.

Instead, I'm treating it as a decorative plant, and it is taking over our fence.  It's even climbing the Leyland Cypress.  It's determined to find a way to get the altitude it needs, and there are already little burrs on it everywhere.

The Willamette is a variety that used to be very popular, but that has faded in recent years with the advent of high-alpha varieties.  Meanwhile, the Goldings is a variety that I am more interested in using for my home brewing, and things are looking good for it now, in its second year of re-establishment.  There's another not in frame here, but it isn't doing quite as well, possibly because it gets less sun.

The Goldings has a trellis, and it can climb as high as 10 feet on the set-up I provided.  I expect a small harvest this year, and if I get that, I may brew a small "harvest" porter off of it using the fresh hops.  I'll need a pound of fresh hops off it for that - we'll see.

My next check-in on these bines will be around the equinox, which is when the plants will typically cease their vertical growth and start pushing out sideways branches, followed by flowering...even though the Willamette is not following that timeline!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

They Slept in the Space Shuttle - Follow-up

A of weeks back, our friend Nancy posted about the night she and Mark stopped by Hawksbill Cabin on their cross country trip last summer.  They'd set out in their Airstream mobile home from San Diego for a 120-day trip that took them to many of the lower 48 states, and into the eastern Canadian provinces.  I guess it was somewhere around day 106 or so that they pulled into our driveway.

Unfortunately Mary couldn't join us that weekend - she was on deadline for an exhibition or something, but Nancy, Mark, and I made the best of it.  They parked in our driveway, which had a little more slope than their usual stopping places - I offered them the guest bedroom, but nothing doing.  Mark explained that sleeping inside would break their streak of sleeping the "space shuttle," which they managed to do for the entire trip.

Nancy's blog posts are here and here - we managed to get in quite a few Valley highlights.  They were here right at the time where the one invasive grass is seeding, and their dogs Trixie and Dax found a patch of them with their hitchhiker seeds.  But despite that incident and the sloped parking space, we had a good reunion.

My post on the topic from last September is here.  Nancy's blog is linked in my blogroll list over to the right, if you'd like to read more about their amazing trip!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hops Stringing - Part 2

David's photo from the tractor - the sunroof allows him to
keep an eye on all the stringing action...and creep backwards.
Practice makes perfect. That's what they say, and it's hitting home as we work our way through the hop yards stringing so the bines will have a way to climb the trellis.

David and I worked on figuring out this task last weekend, an investment of time that  he was able to build upon over the week.  We had a team come out and untangle the coir rope, and then he recruited some labor to run a row to master the technique.  Finally, on Saturday, Eric joined him to motor through as far as possible with a nearly perfected technique.

Preparation for the second row - 60 or so ropes are tied
to the basket so they'll trail with minimal tangles.
Those guys were out early and were checking out some trellis maintenance to be sure everything was in order with the new stresses the stringing activities are adding to the structure.  I joined them at around 8, and we were quickly getting to work setting up the tying platform with the 60+ cords needed for each row.

Down the row - the second row of Cascades - they went, David in the cab and Eric tying off the coir, with me following behind to straighten tangles so that the ropes quickly settled into place, without the "drapery" effect we had experienced on the first day out.

The team powered through seven rows of hops by quitting time on Saturday morning, so there are only three out of 12 left to do.  We also have four of the rows anchored - so that is the next big process we'll take on.

A number of the bines were already training themselves to go vertical, using the little marker flags as a guide.  Once the yard is strung, we'll go in and start moving them onto the ropes - and that will be prime growing season for the new plants, so they'll really take off at that point.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hops Stringing part 1 @hawksbillhops

With bines literally popping up all over the hopyards, David and I decided to get out there and try our hands at stringing a row or two.  We had plenty of encouragement from other hops growers in the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, and both of us had watched some YouTube videos showing how they do it in the Pacific Northwest.  Still, we knew there was going to be a bit of a learning curve before we got this right...

We ordered rope made from coconut husks - coir - from the Pacific Northwest to provide the lines that will guide our hops bines up the trellis.  The version we ordered comes in 200 line bales, which is shown with me up on the lift.  Foolishly we thought we could just roll out with these lines coming off one at the time.

No such luck: by the time I had the first line tied, the bale looked like I'd just pulled 200 strings of Christmas lights out of storage!

So it was back to the ground to rework our plan.  We decided to separate out handfuls of 10-12 ropes and see if that made things easier.  The answer was yes, but the hanging ropes were still somewhat tangled, only in much smaller bunches.

Still, we rolled doing it this way - finishing up the Fuggles roll fairly quickly, and making some adjustments along the way.

The next step was to anchor the ropes.  Along with the bales of coir we had bought authentic "w-clips" and a special tool for this purpose.  I figured there would be written instructions in the packaging -  there weren't, but we got the hang of it quickly.

Finally we had our first row strung - there was a lot of learning curve about how to do the tying, how to anchor the ropes, and some possible tinkering with the trellis we need to look into.  But all-in-all, I'm pretty satisfied with what we have accomplished.

We do need to get back out there and finish tying these bines, though!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Taking Inventory @hawksbillhops

On Sunday I went back over to the hop yards to check things out.  During the work day on Saturday, I had noticed that there were plants from every one of our commercial varieties up and out of the ground, and even our experimental variety, Centennial, was doing well.  So I wanted to do a status report on which rhizomes were up and out of the ground one week after planting.

I also found that some of the Fuggles have sent up some robust bines already.  That is the row that we had strung on Saturday - our learning curve row - but from this photo it's clear that within a couple of days some of them will have already found the coir ropes on their own, without any human assistance or training!

So back to the inventory status, which was the  little chore I set out for myself on Sunday.  First I recalculated the inventory, which I have been mentally tracking as 800 plants.  Keeping with round numbers, it turns out we are about 120 plants short of this count after putting in about 680 plants.

I can account for the shortfall as follows - we had calculated that there would be an open row, so there's 60 of the 120, and we double planted the Fuggles rhizomes, which accounts for another 50. Next year we'll go back and fill in the open spaces, which will give us another 100 plants, according to the counts on the inventory chart below - of course, we're hoping to plant a second acre next year too, so the counts will be significantly higher!

The chart outlines the estimated count of rhizomes we planted on May 2.  I took this count the day after the planting by counting the marks where plants had been placed - it could be off by a few, but it's close enough.

One week later, I walked the rows to count which plants were sprouted.  I remain very surprised at how well the Fuggles are doing, but then I reminded myself that we put two rhizomes in each hill, which more or less ensured we'd have success with them.

For those who have been reading these status reports, you'll know that I am watching how the CTZ - which I am going back to calling Columbus as of this post - and Goldings are doing.  They are right in the thick of it for viability, which is great news!

I'll do another count like this the next time I am in the hop yards, either May 16 or May 23.  We should be pretty close to fully sprouted at that time, and can begin to truly forecast our yields for our first year!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Up come the Fuggles @HawksbillHops

At Hawksbill Hop Yards, we planted five varieties for commercial purposes:  Cascade, Chinook, Columbus (we're calling it CTZ now), Fuggles, and Goldings.  After the planting event on May 2, I was waiting as patiently as I could for David to send news that something had broken ground - and I wondered which variety it was going to be.  
On Tuesday, a mere three days after they were planted, our first bine sprouted. It was a Fuggles, which caught me by surprise, because I was sure that one of the Cascades, which was predicted to be the most robust variety for our Virginia soils and climate, would be first.

There's always work going on at the farm, but on Saturday, May 9.  I'll post about those activities in a couple of days, but suffice it to say, in addition to getting this photo of one of the Fuggles (many more were up by then), I took a look around and could verify that all of our commercial varieties are up and out of the ground.

I would go as far as to say that there was noticeable growth from some of the plants during the 3 hours we spent in the field.  It was pretty amazing to see.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Spring Flares at Hawksbill Cabin

We were lucky with our garden at Hawksbill Cabin - there is a nice variety of plantings with something in bloom for most of the spring and summer.  Last weekend was just about the peek of it, with the lilac and azalea bushes maxed out.

It was a nice surprise that the trillium we discovered last year returned - I was fortunate enough to catch it while it was in bloom.

The azaleas cover most of the sloping front yard in front of the addition.  There are one or two others off to the east side of the house, but this is really a pretty spectacular spring time show.

This year, we were out doing yard work and an older couple drove by slowly.  They were looking up at the house and made several passes. We figured they were lost, so we waived them down - they told us that they drive by every year to check out the azaleas.

Apparently they knew Bill, the original owner, who planted them.  They said that at one point these shrubs were large enough to obscure that part of the house!

When I found the trillium last year it was a great surprise.  I have taken several hikes in May and early June up in Shenandoah National Park and never caught sight of one.  Just my luck that we have one - a single one - growing over in the side yard.

I don't know what it would take to get this one to spread over there in the wood lot, but I would like that.  It's okay if it doesn't, I'll just enjoy finding it every year in the last week of April and first week of May!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Now it's a Hop Yard - @hawksbillhops

Here's a pano my buddy Hairdoo took at the planting event the other day.  Fairview donuts to the right.
Toasting the volunteers, and
the hop yards!
This will be my final post on getting the hop yards established - it's been an intense six weeks or so, and I have some other things I want to cover in the blog.  From here on out, through the growing season, we'll post a weekly update on how things are going at the hop yards.  This post is a wrap on our May 2 planting event.

I hadn't planned on making much of a speech or anything, but at the end of the event, I suppose it was appropriate, and David and the volunteers drafted me.  I don't exactly remember what I said, except maybe a stupid pun about everybody being HOPPY.  By Sunday it had hit home how much work it was, and how much I appreciated the support of a few communities that I had mentioned in a Facebook post:

"Here's a quick note to put a wrap on the event yesterday - we had a good crowd of quick workers that made short work of our 800 rhizomes. Let me say again how much I appreciate the support we've received from the community - actually three communities, including my Air Force friends, DC friends, and Luray friends - to get this thing started. With the hop yards established, we feel like we are in a good place, and now we'll get to the business of shepherding the plants into production. Thanks again, everyone!"

These are the Cascades rows - in the far back, that is our
row of Goldings...we'll be watching it closely!
 I can't overstate how much all the support has meant to us.  A few final things to check off from this series of posts are the two photos that follow.  They show our Cascade rows all laid out and planted, with irrigation installed.  Plus a close-up of one of the hoses on that row.

We have a row of Goldings in the yard this year, only one row, because I couldn't get enough rhizomes for two.  Several people have told me there's a good reason for it being difficult to find them - apparently they are very susceptible to mildews, so the farmers shy away from them.  My hope is that with our planning - we have them on the last row to the west so they get the best afternoon sun and plenty of airflow - this will be a good variety for us.
Here's a last closeup - probably the Fuggles row.

And then there is the fact that one of our early arrival volunteers planted this row herself...and promised to come back weekly to drive by and check on them.  So with all that energy focused on these guys, I don't know how we can fail!

By surprise, Neighbor Dan brought along some cuttings from his Cascades and his Centennials.  So we used 20 of the Cascades to fill out the end of a row we had over in that section, and then we marked a spare row to put in the 25 or so Centennials.  We'll see how they do - Dan has had pretty good success with propagation.

He told me he has sprouting Hallertauer and Fuggles - about 20 more plants - that are looking for a home.  I invited them to put them in "Dan's Row" with the Centennials - we'll just leave about 10 feet between the varieties so we can keep them straight at harvest.  He said he'd stop by during the week to put them in.

So that brings this phase to a close.  In the next week or two we'll see them break through the surface, and then leaves and shoots will appear.  We'll have to get to work on tying and training them to grow up the trellis soon enough after that - and that will be the topic of my next post on Hawksbill Hop Yards!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

More Photos from @hawksbillhops Planting Day

Today I thought I might share a few highlight photos from our planting event on May 2.  These were sent along from Bonnie, one of our Valley friends, who was kind enough to share them.  I've picked and captioned eight of them to give a good overview of the activities of the day.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Planting Time @hawksbillhops

Two of our volunteers working on one of the Cascades rows,
with steam rising off the new ground to the east.
Almost as fast as that, Saturday morning broke and it was the day for planting our 800 rhizomes at Hawksbill Hop Yards.  We'd set up the event a few weeks ago, and all the rhizomes began to arrive, the finishing touches got done on our trellis, and we did a tour of the yard with the Virginia Tech folks.  Now, as long as the rain held off, we were looking forward to having 20 or so friends and volunteers join us to plant this field!

David had gotten out there early and done some extra set-up.  It's an understatement to say we'd be nowhere without his help.  That preparation was key to things moving so quickly on Saturday morning.

The photos I'm sharing have come from a couple of the volunteers, I got busy enough that I didn't take many, and I think there was a seven-minute stretch there where I didn't even look at Facebook.  As I wrote there:

"Here's a quick note to put a wrap on the event yesterday - we had a good crowd of quick workers that made short work of our 800 rhizomes. Let me say again how much I appreciate the support we've received from the community - actually three communities, including my Air Force friends, DC friends, and Luray friends - to get this thing started. With the hop yards established, we feel like we are in a good place, and now we'll get to the business of shepherding the plants into production. Thanks again, everyone!"

David and Dan discussing the hop yards.
Our volunteers knocking out a couple of rows.
Between worries about the rain and mud, and not knowing how long it might take the group to put in the 800 rhizomes, we'd planned that the event would take 3 to 4 hours.  The soft ground working in our favor, however, and the whole acre was knocked out in about 90 minutes.  I couldn't believe it!

Afterwards, folks spent some time socializing and visiting, and a couple of folks signed on for tours with David, who showed them how the irrigation system works, along with some technical discussion of the trellis - our showstopper!  

Like I mentioned above, with the plants in the ground, now we get on with the work of shepherding them through the growth phase.  These exuberant plans were already sprouting while we let them come up to ambient temperature, so we kept them watered in preparation for planting.  I think we're going to have leaves showing by Monday!

Monday, May 4, 2015

@hawksbillhops - Final Prep Day

The view from the hoop house - where the raspberries grow!
On Wednesday afternoon I received a text message from David with some photos - he and Eric had completed the trellis and now everything was set for planting.  This thing was all set to come off!

I had made plans to be at the farm on Friday to help with final preparation for our planting event on May 2.  Of course there was a drenching spring rain on Thursday, giving us one more thing to worry about - would the ground be too wet to plant, or too muddy to let people out there in anything but boots?

Like he has done several times already on this journey, David reassured me that that time would be on our side, and things would take care of themselves.  There's an old saying, "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity" - maybe Hawskbill Hop Yards is going to be a case study for that one.

The field visit with VT.

One of several reasons we planned to meet on Friday morning was an expected meeting with some folks from Virginia Tech - since hops are still a nascent crop in Virginia, albeit a fast growing one with an increasing number of farms every year, this team wanted to come by and have a look at our set up.

We met for about an hour talking about the crop and about the experiences we're already hearing about from the other farmers, comparing hops to grapes as a crop - getting down to the science of the plants, and confirming or developing strategies for dealing with known threats, such as mildews and pests.

We're not shy about the fact that we're not going to be organic on this farm, it seems the crop is too susceptible to issues once you get to this scale (we'll have 800 plants on one acre this year), so we have a number of strategies all set for fungicides and pesticides which we will use at the appearance of these threats (although in the case of the mildews, we're going to be proactive).

A final look at our preparations - ready to plant!

Following a lunch break, I came back to the farm, and worked with David to mark out the rows.  We planned to put the plants on 3-foot centers; we ended up with 13 rows and we can have up to 66 plants per row.  One row was to be left empty bordering the two rows of the CTZ, to provide air flow on both sides of those, and we put the Goldings on the far west row so it has air as well (both are mildew susceptible).  

So with all the rows marked out, all we had left to do was double check our logistics, hope that heavy rains would hold off, and send out a final note about the field.

On Saturday, May 2, we'd put in the 800 plants and at last we'd be a hop yard!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The @HawksbillHops Press Release

This post is going up on May 1, which - whatever the weather holds - is the day before we're planning to have a rhizomes planting event at the farm.  While we're all (hopefully) looking forward to enjoying our day, I thought I might go ahead and put up the text of our first press release, which went out last week.  It follows:

Press Release

April 28, 2015


Following the growth of Virginia’s craft beer industry to include more than 100 breweries across the state, and an emerging interest in the use of locally-grown ingredients, Page County is also joining the trend with the establishment of Hawksbill Hop Yards LLC, a two-acre hops farm starting up just north of Luray. 

Hops are an essential ingredient in beer, and the growing interest in craft brewing has led to a surge in demand for them.  According to a Wikipedia article about hops, “They are the female flowers … of the hop plant, Humulus lupulis.  They are used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, to which they impart a bitter, tangy flavor, though hops are also used for various purposes in other beverages and herbal medicine.”

Hawksbill Hop Yards LLC has leased two acres from Public House Produce and has plans to establish 800 plants during the spring of 2015.  Activities completed or underway include preparing the ground and building the 16-foot tall trellis.  Also, on May 2, the farm plans to hold a volunteer spring planting event to establish the rhizomes, which will include six varieties of hops:  Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, CTZ, Fuggles, and Goldings.

Founder Jim Turner, also known by his Twitter handle “Cabin Jim,” said, “There’s already a vibrant community of brewers in Page County, and some of them even grow their own hops in their gardens.  I took some inspiration from that and looked for ways to bring an innovative commercial crop to the community, something that would serve to plug us in to a statewide trend.”

He added that a commercial hop yard may be just the first step to other craft brewing ventures in Page County, which could include anything from essential processing and distribution activities to the actual establishment of a craft brewery.  “There’s a lot of interest in having a local brewery in Page County,” Turner said, “and now that we have a hops grower here, it would be great to see some energy focused on building a local customer for our hops!”

For further information, contact Jim Turner via email at HawksbillHops@gmail.com, or by cell phone at (703) 981-XXXX; one can also follow the hops yard on Twitter at @HawksbillHops.


In Which @hawksbillhops Makes the Local News

The Harrisonburg TV station WHSV came out for interviews earlier this week, and then posted a story on Wednesday afternoon - there is a link here:


Now, in case sometime in the future, the video isn't available anymore, here is the short article that accompanied the video footage, written by Emily Sporn:

PAGE COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) -- Page County is taking a step toward expanding its agritourism.
Hawksbill Hop Yards will soon be growing crops to bring more business to the Valley.
The new hops yard is located on Liberty Bell Lane in Page County.
The farm will soon have 800 small rhizomes in it.
Jim Turner and David Sours met at a farmers market. Turner, a project manager from Alexandria, and Sours, a farmer who owns Public House Produce in Luray, are now going into business together.
They're using their combined skills in marketing and farming to build a hops yard in the Valley.
They also hope to bring more agritourism to Page County.
Starting out their first year, with one acre of land, they eventually hope to expand their production to 10 acres.
"Agriculture is the number one industry in Page County. It's who we are. So I think any advance, or diversification in agriculture is low-hanging fruit, said Sours. "So this could be an opportunity for economic development and job creation within the county."
Hawksbill Hops hopes to partner with Valley breweries once its crop has grown.