It goes without saying: life has looked pretty different lately. With all the changes in the world, many Brewers have been wondering not just when their pub and brewery doors will get to reopen, but the impact the pandemic is having on the 2020 hop harvest and one of their key ingredients.
To help understand how our 2020 growing season is going, I “sat down” with Pete Mahoney, HAAS® VP of Supply Chain and Purchasing, over a Zoom video chat. Particularly, I wanted to better understand how the typical grower indicators are looking, as well as what impact Brewers and the industry can expect COVID-19 will have on the PNW’s hop season.
It was good to “see” Pete as it has been a few weeks since all of us have been in the office! After a few minutes catching up we shifted the conversation to the current growing season and his observations and updates as to what is happening out on the farms.
For starters, Pete was really optimistic about the big picture. Covid-19 challenges aside, he said, “the good news is that our 2020 hop season is progressing just as we would hope.”
Here’s an overview of the specific growth factors Pete studies each day:
WATER: “Here in the PNW, water is crucial for our growth season. We just received the first official water reports from the Bureau of Reclamation for the Yakima Basin. We had favorable snow conditions this winter (95% of average snowpack), so our reservoir water levels are slightly above normal at 102% of average storage levels. Because of this, the Bureau indicated those holding senior water rights will receive 100% of their entitled supply this year and junior water rights holders will get about 96% of their water allocation (for comparison, junior rights for prior years was around 50%). We are also beyond any risk for a rapid melt or runoff. Local farms report their irrigation water has been turned on, and we hear similar reports for water supply for the rest of the PNW growing region. We don’t foresee any water issues this year.”
WEATHER: “Early growing season weather conditions were fairly ideal for getting into the fields for doing work (trellising, early season cultivation, new planting, etc). If anything, the soil might be a bit dry right now; but, because growers are able to irrigate at this point, we don’t foresee any issues.”
CROP DEVELOPMENT: “Crop development looks good at this point, too. Plants came out of the winter nicely and the new plantings that have gone in look like they are off to a good start.”
LABOR: “Initially, given the COVID-19 pandemic, labor was a big concern for this season, but if anything, the pandemic has resulted in an additional supply of laborers. With many businesses shut down, and hop farms deemed essential and therefore operative, we’ve seen an increased number of people looking for work. Also, the government seems focused on allowing guest laborers to continue their work here. The H-2A Temporary Agriculture Workers program is up and operating as anticipated. It might be running a couple weeks later than normal due to additional health and safety protocols but there is no forecast of trouble on the employment horizon.”
“As for the work itself? It’s probably a couple weeks ahead of schedule. At this point, an estimated 75% (or more) of the hop yards are already twined, which is a couple weeks earlier than normal and we had enough workers for these activities. The next big labor push is the training of hops onto the twine as they grow. We don’t foresee any labor challenges for this either.”
COVID-19 ACCOMODATIONS: “The growers have really done a nice job in stepping up their safety precautions. They’ve implemented protocols that include social distancing during work and breaks, as well as within the housing provided for guest workers. There is considerable additional sanitation on the farms, in the restroom facilities, in public spaces and in the worker’s homes. So far we know of only one farm that’s had an employee diagnosed with COVID-19, and that individual was able to quarantine and it did not spread to other employees. That farm has been able to continue with business as usual. Other than that I haven’t heard of any major issues on farms in dealing with COVID-19.”
ANTICIPATED YIELDS: “The industry harvested 112MM lbs of hops in the PNW region (per USDA crop report after harvest) in 2019. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the industry had planned to increase acreage for 2020, particularly for aroma and HBC experimental varieties. When the pandemic set-in the industry met to consider 2020’s changing hop demand estimates and acreage needs. We collectively decided to reduce planned acreage by about 8% of what was originally anticipated for the year. Even with this reduction, we forecast that we will see a 2020 crop harvest of similar size to last year. Of course, we will continue to monitor the growing season so that we can make any needed adaptations and let you know how things are going.”
In sum, Pete indicated that weather, water, crop growth, and labor all look good for 2020 Harvest, and while the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the world, the hop growers are fortunate that they are on track to deliver the hop supply that the nation’s brewers will need.
In a world that looks so different right now, hearing “business as usual” is especially refreshing – nearly as much as those fresh hop beers will be at the end of this grow season.
Stay safe. Stay hopeful.