RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia farmers are turning to an important ingredient in brewing beer as a potential cash crop for the state known for its agricultural past and present.
Over the past few years, more than a dozen states including Virginia have added hops to their list of crops, mirroring the growing demand and interest in craft beer, as well as the use of local ingredients.
"Increased hop production represents an interesting and potentially lucrative opportunity," state Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore said.
Hops — strung up with twine on trellises blanketed with bines bearing the cone-shaped flower — have been growing in Virginia since the 1700s but are now most notably grown in the Pacific Northwest. Former President Thomas Jefferson even grew hops at his estate Monticello estate near Charlottesville and bought large quantities to brew small batches of beer.
For many years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports only included Washington state, Oregon and Idaho but the latest numbers include 14 additional states that are growing the bittering flower, according to the Hop Growers of America. By some accounts, craft brewers now use nearly 50 percent of all the hops produced in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group for the majority of the nation's more than 3,000 breweries.
While industry figures show only 25 acres of hops being grown in Virginia this year — compared with more than 29,000 acres in Washington state — farmers are hopeful the state's industry will grow.
"Right now we're laughable to the Northwest. This is a very niche market right now but there's a potential. ... There's a big future out there," said Stan Driver, a 61-year-old horticulturist, who founded the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative and has been growing hops commercially in Nelson County since 2007. The cooperative has nearly 40 grower members, as well as other associate members now interested in growing hops.
More than 50 varieties of hops are grown in the U.S. Hope impart different characteristics to beer such as bitterness or citrus flavors. However, a favorable climate and fertile soil are important for commercial hop production — an area of research being discussed at a meeting at Virginia State University later this month. Other universities in the region, including Virginia Tech, also are looking at the labor-intensive crop.
Virginia also recently passed a bill permitting farms to grow hops as well as establish a working brewery onsite and during the last few years, hops were even planted at the Executive Mansion at the Virginia State Capitol.
"Virginia can and will be a player," Haymore said. "My grandfather said over and over when I was a child growing up on the farm in Pittsylvania County that we can grow just about anything in Virginia but we want to be sure that we're producing the styles that best suit what beer makers want."
Overall, agriculture and forestry are two of Virginia's largest industries, providing more than 400,000 jobs and combining for an economic impact of $70 billion annually, according to a 2013 economic impact study conducted by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. On its own, agriculture generates more than $52 billion per year.
Still, farming isn't the business it used to be in Virginia.
That's why, in 2012, Jonathan Scott founded the Virginia Hop Initiative to help existing farms transition to a new product or have new growers enter farming.
"Much of the old tobacco farmland sits idle in places," said the 44-year-old Scott, who grows hops in a rural area outside of Richmond. "Virginia has been losing its farms for quite some time now and our average farmer demographics always appear to be increasing in age. ... Hops are a great crop to bring younger people back into farming and agriculture."
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.