When one thinks of farms around Yadkin County their mind most likely goes to things like tobacco, corn and soy beans. One Yadkin County farmer is trying to change that. Ben Sunderman at Cedar Ridge Farms is trying his hand at hops.
Stepping foot on the hops farm will quickly prove that this is not your average farm. The hops grow vertically up long lines that stretch down across the acre of land. Each plant holds hundreds of small, green pine cone-esque objects.
Hops are the bittering agent in beer. Sunderman says that hops used to serve as the preservatives in beer to make it last longer.
“Anytime you seen an Indian Pale Ale beer what you’re really tasting is the hop,” Sunderman said. “That’s the bittering agent that some people love and some people hate. It’s what gives beer its flavor.”
Sunderman planted the farm in 2010. His first harvest was in 2011. The farmland he’s using has been in his family for decades and used to serve as a dairy farm. Sunderman started the farm with a $10,000 grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International. This allowed him to plant about 1,300 plants on a little over an acre of land
Sunderman invested an additional $10,000 to $15,000 out of his own pocket to supplement the rest of the farm.
“Originally it was a loop hole in Yadkin County’s no alcohol policy,” Sunderman said. “You had to be able to grow your own ingredients to be able to produce beer or something like that. Since then they’ve changed the law. I thought it would be something fun to do and it’s on our family’s farm land.”
The farm primarily produces two types of hops, cascade and nugget. Sunderman said that the farm has been difficult because there is not a lot of information about growing hops in this area. Due to the southern climate hops a more prone to mildew and mold.
“We’re the farthest south you would go in order to try to grow hops,” Sunderman said. “The cascade is forming a lot better than the nugget. It seems like it’s a lot more mildew resistant.”
Sunderman has been working closely with people in the agricultural department at North Carolina State University to try to learn more about the best way to grow hops in this area. The university is working on a study to provide farmers interested in growing hops better guidelines to follow in order to have a successful crop.
“We learn stuff every single year,” Sunderman said. “The main thing we’ve learned is every year is different and there’s always next year. This year we learned that we need to make sure we get out here and stay on top of spraying the plants more.”
The harvesting period usually falls sometime between August and October. Sunderman said that each year’s harvest is a little different depending on the weather from the summer. They were able to produce about 50 pounds with this year’s harvest, which they sold to a co-op for home brewers.
Last year they sold their first harvest to Foothill Brewery in Winston-Salem to let them add the hops to a beer batch and make sure that it didn’t provide any unusual aromas or tastes.
Sunderman said that he would really like to be able to sell only to North Carolina breweries and co-ops.
“I really want to focus on North Carolina,” Sunderman said. “I’d like to find some brewers in North Carolina and expand in our area and try to sell in North Carolina.”
Another obstacle that Sunderman has faced has been buying the rhizomes to grow the hops. Rhizomes must be bought from Northwest states and they take additional shipping time to get to this area. In years where the summers are particularly hot, that poses a problem.
“When we buy the rhizomes out of the northwest the shipping prices are horrendous and with the hot summers they just don’t last the five days shipping it takes to get them here,” Sunderman said. “We’re hoping to start trimming the root stock on our plants and that will allow us to sell those rhizomes to future clientele interested in selling hops in this area. We can be a supplier of root stock for local people in this area.”
Sunderman said his ultimate goal is to open the first brewery in Yadkin County. This is a goal that is far off he says due to the slow learning curve on the growing habits of hops in North Carolina. Sunderman feels confident that he could be successful if they get the crops producing enough in the future.
“We already have an old tobacco barn that we’re hoping to turn into an oast one day when we get far enough ahead,” Sunderman said. “We’d like to eventually have Yadkin County’s first brewery and be able to grow all of our own ingredients and create the whole product right here in the county.”
Reach Lindsay Craven at 679-2341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.