Young hop grower Ross Huskins turned left the city to return to the family farm and reinvigorate its business focus. Jack Watkins finds out more.
A TV documentary producer recently rang Kent hop farmer Ross Hukins about coming to film on his land. As the last hop growers in the Tenterden area, they wanted people to sit on straw bales reminiscing about the old days when pickers from London and Essex would arrive in cart loads for the September harvest.
Ross says: “I got slightly irritated because everything you see or read in the mainstream media on hops seems to be about nostalgia and the past. As I told them, we’re a modern hop farm, part of an industry which is looking forwards, not backwards; adapting to meet the consumer demands of the 21st century.”
Ross is one of a small but highly motivated number of specialist English hop producers who are helping revive a sector which 20 years ago was withering on the bine. But although he is proud of his roots as a fourth-generation hop farmer, he admits for a time he looked elsewhere for a career.
“Our family have been farming in this area for about a century,” he says.
“My grandfather farmed 500 acres and then split the farm up between his sons.
“My uncle sold up but my father Peter continued to farm 250 acres as a mixed farmer. He had arable, 6,000 turkeys, a flock of Romneys and the hop gardens.
“As a boy I loved working out in the fields with him, but by time I was 16 I could see he was permanently stressed and the whole thing looked like a financial struggle. So I studied economics at Newcastle University, took a masters in real estate finance and worked in the City of London writing strategies for large estates.”
But for Ross it remained something he felt little affinity for, despite earning four times what he does now, and five years ago he began contemplating a return to the family business.
“I kept coming back to the farm and the hops were still here. They were the one thing we didn’t get rid of. I’d always made my own beer for fun and always wanted to be self-employed.
“I think my father believed he’d soon be selling up because of my London-based career and as I was the only son. One of my elder sisters, Romy, still lives on-farm and helps out at harvest and with packaging our hop garlands, but her time is largely devoted to her career as an artist.
“Things were starting to pick up in the beer market. We’d sold off all the unprofitable bits of the farm and I could see what an amazing opportunity it would be to come back and learn to be a hop farmer.”
This is Ross’ third full season on the farm and he admits his father’s expertise has been invaluable.
“I knew nothing about day-to-day technicalities. Hops are one of the hardest crops to grow and a lot of first-time entrants have tried and failed because they didn’t have an older guiding hand by their side.”
Even so, Ross’ marketing strategy is somewhat different from his father’s in the crop’s heyday, when Kent’s hop gardens accounted for 60 per cent of the UK hop industry and the Hops Marketing Board, which folded in the 1980s, guaranteed a stable price for growers.
“The main hop growers today are Germany and the United States, where the weather allows them to grow is as a commodity. British growers supply 1 per cent of the world market so we are better off trying to corner a smaller piece of a niche market,” says Ross.
This niche opening has come in the form of the rise of craft, or micro, brewers, for whom British heritage hop varieties, which are lighter in aroma and flavour than their punchier American counterparts, are extremely attractive.
“British hops are really in demand. I simply cannot plant them quick enough due to cash constraints,” says Ross, who grows 12 hectares (30 acres) of hops and is currently concentrating on three of the most in demand varieties, Fuggle, Challenger and Bullion.
"As a boy I loved working out in the fields with my dad, but by time I was 16 I could see he was permanently stressed"
The rarity of these varieties mean they command good prices, but it does not mean they are the easy option, Ross says.
“Every hop grower in the country would be planting Fuggle if it was not susceptible to the potentially devastating virus, wilt. They have seen what this did to the industry in the 1970s through to the 1990s, when it put many people out of business.
“I spend one day a week just walking the hops looking for signs of wilt in its earliest stages because the plant can wither and die in five days if you don’t catch it and it will spread through the garden.
“The only remedy is to cut down the plant and burn off the ground round it. If you’ve got cereals and other fruit and you are out on the combine, you simply haven’t got time to do this.
“Most people just decided to grub the hops out and grow something for a lower price and less worry. I’ve chosen to go down to this route because the prices are potentially high.”
Ross believes a yield of 750kg to the acre is satisfying, with 30 tonnes making for an excellent year. Most selling is done through merchants, some on long-term contract, while most of the rest goes on the spot market through the Wealden Hops co-operative at the end of the harvest.
While hop cultivation, growing and harvesting retains a high degree of manual work, Ross’ workforce is slim.
With his father in an advisory capacity, Ross takes main responsibility for growing and selling. His partner Sophie, who works locally as an English teacher, assists in the office, taking orders for their diversification in selling fresh and dried hop bines for garlands in home decoration.
David Bull, who has worked on the farm for more than 40 years, helps string hops and applies nitrogen and magnesium in growing season. A team of Polish labourers arrive in spring to help with training and planting, and they return at harvest time, which runs from August and reaches its height in September when a 12-15hr day is routine.
The different ripening times of varieties enables harvest to be spread but the timing of picking and drying is critical, as hops compost almost as soon as they are picked.
English hops are tender compared to those grown in America and gentle handling is vital. Ross’ three-kiln American style oast house enables him to dry a greater load of hops than the traditional Kent style oast, but Ross has plans for a new hop machine with driers, processing units and two large kilns.
Ross sees the new machine as key to enabling the farm to expand its growing capacity to 24ha (60 acres), the size it was in its heyday under his father and grandfather.
“Next year I’m planning to plant a new hop garden, which will be the first on the farm for 30 years.
“While hop gardens last for years, commercially they stop yielding as well after about 20 years. A hop farm is rather like a vineyard. It is a long-term thing; there’s no quick return.”
Ross is clearly in it for the long haul, but his concerns extend to the wider industry and he is involved with political lobbying regarding chemical protection.
“There are only 10 spray products which are effective now, whereas the Germans have 50. Hops hate competition and weeds are becoming impossible to control. So I am trying to bring local politicians on-farm so they can see the situation.
“People think we are so small in number they can ignore us, but British beer sales amount for to £18 billion and English growers contribute 50 per cent of the hops which go into this.
“I have also set up a discussion group for growers in the South East where cultivation methods will be demonstrated. Although the current price allows us to get a margin, there are still big challenges facing us.”
Just coming into the peak harvest season, Ross is committed and enthusiastic.
“You can’t take your eyes off hops. It’s why mixed farms struggle with them, but it’s also why we love them. You want to understand the plants. Each one is an individual. And the route I took before entering the industry has also helped me adopt a different approach than if I’d gone to agricultural college and studied how to grow barley.
“Having learned about manging other people’s assets, I’ve got a fresh pair of eyes, and a different sense of the markets.”