A “boutique” new nonprofit organization aims to draw more attention to one small but growing agribusiness sector in Michigan.
The nascent Michigan Hop Network, which launched last week, is designed to be an advocacy organization for Michigan’s relatively small community of hop growers and processors.
While other groups are focused on getting hops to market, the Michigan Hop Network aims to raise awareness, educate and advocate for growers and help them make connections with target markets, said Brian Tennis, the group’s vice chairman and the director of sales and marketing for the Traverse City-based Michigan Hop Alliance LLC.
The industry group has a seven-person board and last week filed paperwork with the state to be designated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, he said.
“We don’t see it as an organization to create money,” Tennis said. “It’s more to help farmers than making a profit. We will do some fundraising, but it is strictly for promotional tools. We won’t be selling any hops through there, so we figured we may as well make it a nonprofit.”
Beer drinkers and breweries can soon expect to see some marketing from the Michigan Hop Network, said Tennis, adding that the group will have a presence at industry events and beer festivals around the state.
Membership in the organization is based on a two-tier system, with the first tier being reserved for commercial growers — those with more than 1 acre and/or 800 plants — and hop processors. Annuals dues cost $100. The second tier can be hobbyist growers with less than 1 acre or people in related industries such as breweries or fertilizer industries. Annual dues for the second tier cost $75.
The organization expects to have its first full membership meetings sometime this summer.
The beginnings of the Michigan Hop Network trace back to 2011 when Hop Head Farms LLC was looking to launch in Hickory Corners in Barry County and sought help from the Barry County Economic Development Alliance.
The fledgling growers wanted to network with other hop growers and learn together, said Valerie Byrnes, president of the alliance.
Recognizing a possible broader agriculture/food processing economic development opportunity, Byrnes reached out to Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at The Right Place Inc., to collaborate on a regional basis.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) also got behind the concept and provided $20,000 in grant funding to launch the growers group with regional partners and statewide organizations including the Michigan State University Extension.
The initial meetings in Hickory Corners attracted more than 120 growers, Byrnes said.
“We knew there was a need to spur the education,” she said. “The individual growers were finding each other, but this really formalizes it. It’s a vehicle for them to attract additional funding and expertise. We facilitated the process for them to come together and the growers decided where they wanted to start this.”
Among the common themes that emerged early on: Growers needed to learn more about the volume needs and quality standards of the state’s micro brewers, Byrnes said.
“The growers had the opportunity to learn from each other right from the start,” she said.
While hop growing has a longer history in the Pacific Northwest and although other states and regions have already formed grower organizations, the creation of the Michigan Hop Network attracted plenty of outside attention, including a few growers from Canada, Byrnes said.
The economic developers involved in the group’s launch now plan to step back into more of a traditional advisory role for the new nonprofit organization, Byrnes said.
“We want to stay engaged and be knowledgeable enough to help them be proactive to grow,” she said. “It’s in their hands as a board now.”
Jeff Steinman, the owner of Hop Head Farms, serves as chairman of the new nonprofit.
Even as the organization takes its first steps as a standalone nonprofit, its advocacy can been seen in current legislation such as House Bill 5275 sponsored by State Rep. Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor, and known as the “Michigan Farm to Glass” bill. The proposal seeks to provide incentives for the state’s breweries and wineries to use local ingredients in their spirits.
Despite the booming craft beer scene in Michigan, the hop-growing capacity is very small within the state.
Currently, there are just 313 acres of farmland in the state devoted to growing hops, Tennis said. This compares to the state of Washington which produces 78 percent of the country’s hops on 23,368 acres, according to 2011 figures from Hop Growers of America, a national trade group.
But Michigan’s standing within the industry can be expected to grow, Tennis said.
“We could easily have a couple thousand (acres) in the next two or three years,” he told MiBiz. “Even at that point, I don’t think we’ll be saturated because Michigan breweries are only using a small fraction of Michigan hops in their beers. The more we can grow, the more (breweries) can utilize.”
Because the in-state hop market is so small, the price for Michigan hops remains high, Tennis said. As production ramps up, breweries will also begin to realize economies of scale.
“In a couple of years, we will be a lot closer to what a lot of growers are paying on the stock market,” he said.
Currently, the majority of Michigan’s hop production is done in the northwest part of the state.
Hops typically grow best between between the 38th and 50th parallels, and given that the 45th parallel runs through the Old Mission Peninsula just north of Traverse City, the region is in “the sweet spot,” Tennis said.
While the push for more local ingredients in the region’s craft beers is gaining momentum among some brewers, hopheads should not expect that the state’s popular India Pale Ales (IPAs) such as Two Hearted Ale from Bell’s Brewery Inc. or Centennial IPA from Founders Brewing Co. will be made with all Michigan hops anytime soon. That’s because it would take at least 200 acres of farmland just to supply hops to Bell’s for its production of Two Hearted Ale and is compounded by the fact that the hops grown on the West Coast have different flavor profiles than what can be grown in Michigan, Tennis said.
“We’re not looking to replace (Michigan breweries’) mainstays,” Tennis said. “We’re looking to add to their portfolio.
Written by Nick Manes and Joe Boomgaard
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