When Jason Johnston and Krista Delahunty decided to try growing a few hops plants on their farm in Westfield in 2009, they would not have predicted that four years later they would be the go-to people for information on hops growing in northern Maine.
Natives of Mapleton, Maine, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, respectively, both are science teachers by profession. Jason, 38, has a “very full time job” on the faculty of the University of Maine at Presque Isle teaching a variety of courses in biology and wildlife ecology. Krista, 36, teaches an online biology course for non-majors at UMPI that she and Jason developed together. They are also full-time parents of two daughters, Kathleen, 4, and Marie, 2.
But hops have taken over the rest of their life. Those first few plants led to more. One variety led to others. The result was Aroostook Hops, an organic farm producing whole hops for brewing and rhizomes for propagation.
“We enjoy working together,” said Krista, on a recent tour of the farm, a statement echoed by Jason, explaining the motivation that helps them balance the multiple responsibilities of family, farm and teaching.
They are continually testing new methods and materials, using each winter to plan what they will do differently the following year.
“It’s the scientist in us, combined with farming,” Krista said.
“We both like the mix of the intellectual with hard labor,” Jason added.
At one point in the tour, we were standing between two hopyards, one mature and one new, both representing untold hours of intellectual and manual labor.
In the mature yard, blossoming vines reached 20 feet overhead on strings of coconut twine clamped to the ground and secured at the top to tight cables supported by rows of timber poles. The one-acre yard produces four varieties: Nugget, Cascade, Centennial and Willamette.
In the new three-acre hopyard added last year, young vines of a fifth variety — Mount Hood — emerged from the ground. Planted three and a half feet apart in 41 rows, each 250 feet long, these vines will eventually clothe the framework of twine, three-eighths-inch aircraft cable and 22-foot timber poles -– a structure that required some intense problem-solving.
The yard started with 350 uniform spruce trees provided by Larry Park, a supportive friend in neighboring Presque Isle. Park not only cut the trees on his land near Echo Lake, but also spent many hours cutting the poles to correct length with a 30-degree angle on top to shed water.
“Larry gets more work done than some of the young people, and he’s in his 80s,” Krista said, adding that he returned to the farm to hand-pick and play music.
The cabling took most of the spring — from April to June. At one point, as Krista and Jason studied the developing structure from their dining room window, they realized a flaw in the way they had planned to attach the cable. It was a serious moment that required a day of study and problem-solving. Such one-time challenges are matched by the ongoing battle against pests and weeds.
“We’re doing things organically to promote the beneficials,” Krista said, describing companion plantings that serve as hosts for insects that consume pests such as spider mites and hops merchant caterpillars.
To suppress weeds, they have experimented with rapeseed as a cover crop that also adds nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.
“We believe strongly in the importance of cultivating a good natural microbe and nutrient balance in the soil without chemical input,” they say on their website. In 2011, they received a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant to test straw versus summer alfalfa to smother weed growth. In 2012, they received a second sustainable agriculture grant to test non-herbicide weed management in the new hopyard. SARE is a program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On July 23 they completed a seven-week Indiegogo online fundraising campaign to generate money for a harvester and sprayer. A harvester would help make the farm a center for the growing number of people interested in growing hops. A harvester can accomplish in 30 seconds a task that takes 20 minutes by hand. Even though the fundraising campaign missed the target of $30,000, a harvester remains a goal for the future.
In the meantime, Jason and Krista have turned harvest into a party. Lured by live music and free food, 20-30 volunteers gathered around tables in the barn last year, picking the mature cones from the hops vines, careful to preserve the precious oil they contain. Hot dogs and hamburgers simmered on the grill, Larry Park played the banjo and fellow UMPI professor David Putnam and his wife Joanne sang and accompanied themselves on fiddle and guitar.
When the crews were done, hundreds of pounds of dried hops were ready to be shipped to breweries in Maine and New Hampshire. In past years, shipments of hops from Westfield have gone to Throwback Brewery in Northampton, N.H., Allagash and Sunday River breweries and Gritty McDuff’s in Portland, which featured Aroostook Hops Centennial and Cascade varieties in its Big Blonde Ale.
“Ed Stebbins at Gritty McDuff’s was impressed with the quality of our hops,” Krista said, recalling he described them as some of the nicest he had received.
Customer satisfaction is just one of the rewards Aroostook Hops has given its owners. “I would love to transport you to the hopyard under a full moon,” Krista tells her visitors. With Mars Hill Mountain and Big Rock ski area to the east and Quoggy Joe Mountain in Aroostook State Park to the northwest, the views from the hopyard at Aroostook Hops are “truly inspiring.”
They tell readers of their website, “The colorful sunsets over the western ridge are breathtaking each and every evening. We do appreciate life here and we look forward to bringing some of The County to you in a hoppy brew.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.