BOZEMAN – Montana has nearly 60 million acres of farmland. Corn, wheat, barley, beets, and a handful of other crops are grown abundantly, but what you likely won’t find when you’re driving the back roads is a hops farm.
Unless you drive near Bozeman.
In 2015 Jake TeSelle and Colten Sales planted a small, one-acre test plot on the TeSelle family farm just outside of Bozeman. Both of them enjoyed craft beer, both were from farming backgrounds and both wanted to have a hobby that would allow them to dabble in farming and beer production. The result was that they realized they could make a full-time living as one of the few hops producing farms in Montana.
Two years later and the business partners can’t produce enough crop to satisfy the thirst for craft beer found across our state.
What Began as a Hobby…
Jake and Colt were at first just interested in how well hops would grow in the Bozeman valley. Since there are some hops farms near Kalispell, they knew that it wasn’t impossible. Instead, it was more of a matter of setting up the right varieties, and nurturing the plants in the right way, so that they’re well developed for the Bozeman climate. Their one-acre test farm did well, yielding about 20 pounds of hops in the
They gave those hops away to local brewers as a method of getting their name out there and determining what the market was like for the locally grown hops. That opened the floodgates and for months they were getting multiple calls each week from Montana craft brewers to know when they would be able to supply them with their needed hops.
… Turned into a Career
The demand is obviously there, but getting started in the hops growing business is expensive. Just the trellises to support the vines run around $16,000 per acre. The two knew that they needed some help, and they knew that there was help to be had through the State of Montana Agriculture program. But they were at a loss of where to turn.
So they went to Montana State University and got help from Blackstone LaunchPad. Blackstone is an entrepreneur resource for students, alumni, and others associated with the university. This organization pointed them in the right direction: to Headwaters Small Business Development Center in Butte. It was here that they learned they were going to have to take a bit of a risk.
It was spring 2016, Jake and Colt were ready to get their plants into the ground. The problem was that the grant they needed in order to buy harvesting, drying, and pelletizing equipment wouldn’t be awarded until September. With the help of Headwaters they went for it. They planted 6 acres of hops, wrote the grant, and hoped for the best.
Their gamble paid off, and they were awarded a “Growth Through Agriculture Grant” that allowed them to buy the equipment just in time for the 2016 crop to be harvested.
The Joys of Farming Hops
Just finishing their third year as hops farmers, Jake and Colt are still waiting for when they will actually start making money as hops farmers. Unlike seasonal crops, like wheat, corn, barley, and others, hops don’t really produce well in their first year. Or their second year. Hops won’t really reach their peak production until year 4 or 5 when you’re harvesting about two pounds of hops from each plant.
With many crops, you can grow an organic product that will ultimately command a better price when it’s time to sell. Hops aren’t one of those products. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to grow organic hops. While Crooked Yard does use organic fertilizers and fungicides, they were quick to point out that if you use treated posts to build the trellises, the hops aren’t organic. If you don’t use treated posts you’re out there replacing them every other year. At $16,000 per acre, that’s just not feasible.
This year the 6-acre farm produced over a thousand lbs. of hops. Within a 10-day window the hops were harvested, dried in a kiln, run through a milling machine, pelletized, and vacuum sealed for distribution to local breweries. Months of planning, cultivating, and growing, all wrapped up in about 4 hours of harvest.
Crooked Yard Hops has Montana’s only mobile pelletizer
Next year Crooked Yard hopes to put in at least one more 6-acre farm in the area; or if it’s possible, plant two more farms. These small acreage farms are in the “sweet spot” in size. Any bigger and you have to double up on your machinery (you only get 10 days to harvest, dry, pelletize, and seal or the cones will spoil), any smaller and you can’t produce enough hops to make a profit.
For the last three seasons Jake and Colt have learned what it takes to be hop farmers. And it has been a wild ride. Fortunately, they love the hard work, they love agriculture, and they love the craft beers that Montana breweries produce. That love keeps them moving forward even when setbacks like a clogged irrigation line threaten their harvest.
We developed our processing in collaboration with Bridger Brewing where the first
100% Crooked Yard Hops beer is on tap — The Ascensionist. They have been awesome in helping us grow and supportive since day 1.
The next time you sip a local beer, you may be tasting Crooked Yard Hops.
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