Milkhouse Brewery set for next hops growing season
MOUNT AIRY, Md. — The goal of Tom Barse’s Milkhouse Brewery is to support Maryland farming, which is why this year’s bouts of unrelenting rain had a huge impact not only on his hop production, but also on that of the other Maryland hop growers he supports.
Because for hops, the biggest enemy is downy mildew.
In summarizing the challenges of this year’s season, Barse said in 10 years of growing hops, “I never had an infestation [of downy mildew] that was commercially damaging until this year.”
“If you’re able to get the downy under control by mid-June,” said Barse, then it won’t affect the crop. The hops varieties we grow are fairly resistant [to the downy mildew], but you still can lose your whole crop.”
Fortunately, they did not. There were, however, lessons learned.
The biggest lesson learned: “We’re going to be more conscientious about keeping a very clean hop yard right from the get go,” said Barse. “Because if you do it right from the beginning, then you have to buy less crops from other Maryland hops farmers” for the brewery.
A critical component of that clean hop yard strategy includes his wife’s Leicester sheep, a longwool breed she raises for their fleece. Barse, in turn, takes advantage of their voracious weed-eating capabilities in his hop yards.
Barse has been using the sheep since he established his hop yard, the first commercial hops venture in Maryland since the late 19th century.
Next year, he said he plans to “put the sheep out a little earlier” in the spring, both early spring when the weeds first begin to show, and late spring after crowning of the hop plants.
That second part is particularly crucial. “The more moisture there is down in the lower portion of the plant, the easier it is for the downy mildew to take over,” Barse said. “You want air circulation around the bottom of the plant.”
To achieve that circulation, Barse plans to “put out the weed eaters earlier to pull off the lower leaves. But, the hops have to be tall enough up the string to not be decimated. Usually, we wait until the hops plants are around 8 to 10 feet tall to do that because the sheep eat the lower three to four feet of leaves off.
“But, next year, we might put them out at 6 to 8 feet.”
He’s also considering delaying the crowning of his hop plants a bit longer next year based on the lessons learned from the University of Maryland Extension’s hops trials.
In 2018, Extension staff crowned their plants at the very beginning of May and was diligent in their spraying schedule.
“We did have to use a lot of fungicide,” said Bryan Butler, principal Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Carroll County. “We did produce a good crop, but it took a lot of dedication. We had to spray 17 times in 2018.
“The take home from this year is if you want to do it, you better love it. Hops are not a crop you can do on a weekend basis,” Butler continued. “This would’ve been a year that a lot of people would’ve looked at it and hung it up.”
That will not be the case for Barse and his hop yard.
“We’re ready for next year,” he said. “We’ll see what happens and deal with what comes. And, hey, the drought could start May 1st.”
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