By Julia Burke, Niagara Correspondent
Mike Sieczkowski has never brewed beer, he has never been a farmer – and up until a few months ago – he had never even seen a hop plant.Flying Bison Brewing Company brewmaster Tim Herzog, the fertile soil of the Escarpment, and a fearless sense of adventure, he is enjoying remarkable success.
Having moved to Budd Road in Cambria in 1998, Sieczkowski originally planned to use his 25 acres for horses. However, a visit to Buffalo’s Flying Bison Brewery opened his eyes to the world of beer.
As he got to know Tim Herzog, Sieczkowski learned that a severe, worldwide hop shortage was driving the price of hops sky-high. “Tim buys everything he can locally,” says Sieczkowski. “I asked him, what do you think about me growing some hops?” Herzog agreed to partner with Sieczkowski on the project, pairing his technical knowledge with Sieczkowski’s eagerness to experiment with his land.
Sieczkowski began researching the history of hop farming in the area. “Hops were introduced to the Finger Lakes area in the early 1800s, and by1850 New York was the primary hops supplier in the United States,” he says. As folks began to migrate into the western territories, the planting of hops followed, and New York has not been a major hop-producing state since.
Sieczkowski is looking to change that. “I have a passion for things local and fresh. There’s a market here, with Tim at the brewery, plus approximately 50 breweries on the Empire State Beer trail – and a hop shortage. So I said, why this negativity?”
Sieczkowski needed a crash course in hop farming. “I didn’t even know what hops looked like!” he recalls. In April, when he was ready to plant, Herzog and Paul Lehman of the Cornell Cooperative Extension showed up to guide him through the process, and they found more than they’d bargained for. “They were looking at the field covered with weeds, land not cultivated, and said, ‘where are you gonna put ‘em?’ I thought I’d just go out there with a shovel, dig a hole, put the rhizomes in and forget about it.” Together they found a spot with sandy, well-drained Hudson soil and tilled the area several times over the next few weeks. Regarding his tent-shaped trellis system, with runners coming up from two rows to a single middle cord, Sieczkowski shrugs, “I kind of made it up.”
Finally, on May 1 Sieczkowski and Herzog planted the sixteen rhizomes.
Asked if his wife thought he was crazy for attempting this experiment, he recalled a frost warning early this spring after he had planted the rhizomes. “I was out here in the middle of the night with a flashlight and plastic containers from Chinese soup covering up the sprouts. I think she was a little worried.”
Frost wasn’t Sieczkowski’s only challenge. Herzog’s passion for environmental consciousness, well-known to his brewery customers, carried over into the tending of the baby hop plants: no fertilizer, no pesticides. Ladybugs help control pests such as aphids, and Sieczkowski is careful to keep the shoots high off the ground to prevent mildew and achieve better air circulation.
Hops, just like grapevines, need a few years to become established, so Sieczkowski expected little growth this first year. “One day Tim picked a flower and crushed it up and smelled it, and his eyes lit up, and he offered me a whiff and said ‘This is what you want!’”
After only a few months the plants were thriving, producing enough flowers for regular picking. “Tim was overwhelmed at the success,” says Sieczkowski. “We planted in a soil we knew nothing about, they all came up, they’re taller than we ever expected, and we’ve got flowers!” Will this success encourage more farmers to plant hops in the area? “I hope so – that’s the intent,” says Sieczkowski. “I can’t get over the positive feedback from people in the area about my growing hops!”
Sieczkowski’s willingness to experiment is certainly paying off, providing Flying Bison with a local source for hops and the Niagara region with yet another exciting crop.