Tillage focus: A ‘hopping’ tillage farm in a wet January

Tillage farmers – all over the country – are awaiting an improvement in the weather, as ground conditions have halted work. However, David Walsh-Kemmis, a tillage farmer from just outside Stradbally, Co. Laois, was able to plant one crop this week – a crop of hops.

David started planting in what will be his second hop garden during the week. The hops will be used in the production of beer in his own on-farm brewery – Ballykilcavan Brewery.

David was planting rhizomes by hand. These rhizomes should be established by April, but won’t produce a high-yielding crop until year three.

“We have a hop garden already. We did a once off commercial brew last year, which was from all of our own barley and hops.

We sourced all the dry ingredients from the farm. That’s what I want to do every year. I started planting the second hop garden this week.

The hops will grow 6-8m in height and a hop trellis will be built to support the crop. The crop is harvested by hand.

Hops last summer at Ballykilcavan Brewery

Last year, the farmer took to Facebook looking for hop pickers. 30 people made light work of harvesting and the job was completed in just a few hours. He explained: “There are two things you want from hops – bitterness and flavour.

So far so good, they’ve produced nice cones and flavour each year.

David explained that having two hop gardens provides a type of insurance. The hops are basically organic; no chemicals are cleared for use on the crop in this country.

“It’s good to have two separate sites, as they are very susceptible to mildew. If you had mildew infection in one site, you’d hope the other site might survive. We would then have some chance of getting hops.”

brewery

Hops have become quite rare in this country, but there are still a few commercial farms. It is very important that Ballykilcavan Brewery uses its own hops from a traceability point of view, but also for flavour.

The flavour you get off of an Irish hop is definitely more subtle than American or German hops.

“They grew really well last year. They don’t like humidity all of the time, which is what we get in Ireland. There are some varieties that are better suited to our climate than others. The traditional English varieties grow pretty well here.

“The best hop I had last year was Cascade. This hop originated from the north west of America, where it does rain a lot. That’s one of the traditional American high-citrus hops.”

Cover crops

The wet weather has left land unworkable, but David thinks that the cover crops on his farm are helping to drain the soil.

“To be fair, our fields are not under water but are very wet at the minute. We have cover crops in the fields. I have sheep grazing some of them; but even if I didn’t, they are still very wet.

The cover crops make a huge difference. There are fields that I’d suspect should be under water and they’re not.

“I sowed tillage radish in the mixtures, which has quite a long root. I think it breaks up the soil and helps with drainage.”

David hopes to cut back on fertiliser usage and improve soil organic matter levels by planting cover crops.

“I’m an instant convert to cover crops. I think they’re great. There is a bit of hassle getting them in and out, but we’re low on soil organic matter here and I think they’ve got to help with that.

I really like the idea of having something in the ground to collect nutrients. We’ve always grazed crops and we’ve never sprayed them off. Having the animals in and getting a bit of dung has to help as well.

David is unsure what effect the cover crops are having on his crop’s protein content, as they are holding nutrients in the ground and adding to soil organic matter.

“That is the really dodgy bit of it”, he explained.

“We had good proteins last year; not the usual low ones that we get. The brewing was bang on specification and the distilling was on the border.

If you knew exactly what you were getting back from it, you would be able to tailor your nitrogen to that. That’s the trick.

Establishing the on-farm brewery

David’s family have been growing malting barley for three generations and started producing beer, from this barley, last year. Until now, the beer has been brewed off the farm. Work is to start on building an on-farm brewery in the coming weeks. The brewery will take in this season’s crops of barley and hops.

Building work on the brewery will start in a couple of weeks. Hopefully that will be installed by the autumn and we’ll be brewing on site.

The brand is still developing and, as the distribution area widens, plans continue to be made. Setting up a visitor attraction area is also in the pipeline.

Future in tillage

David, like so many other tillage farmers, stated that his farm was under pressure and he needed to make a change.

“If any of my kids want to take over the farm, I would like to be able to hand it on to them. If I stayed going the way I was, I wasn’t sure it was going to be sustainable.

It was a case of finding something different to do. We grew malting barley. I had an interest in it, so we went with that.

David still sells malting barley off the farm to Waterford Distillery, but gets great satisfaction out of using his own barley to create his own beer.

“I get great satisfaction out of preparing a field; putting in a crop of malting barley; looking after it for six months; and getting it off to the maltsters. I agree with the maltsters on how it will be malted and then brew the same barley.

It’s lovely to see it going into the mashing kit and know that we’ve looked after it.