High hopes for Pontiac Hops

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Kate Aley

Spring time means gardeners are busy planting, planning and pruning … and the employees of Pontiac Hops, based in Luskville, are no exception.

The business, owned by James and Anthony Nugent, is in its third year of operation and is currently preparing to add a new three-acre field to the farm. The first year the pair put in 3,000 plants; now the count is close to 8,700.

Last week, two workers on a hydraulic platform were 40 feet in the air attaching lengths of string made of coconut fiber as support for the new vines.

On the ground, another person was driving in the special anchors to hold the string in place. Behind them, others were beginning the twisting process that will help the young plants grow to their full height.

The new vines have to be twisted clockwise by hand to in order that they climb effectively.  Two to three strong vines are enticed along each cord. Extra shoots, including the very aggressive but non –fruitful “bull” vines, are cut down.

Another important task at this time of year is removing the runners from the central rhizomes which emerge in the paths between the rows. Dense white clover creates a green ground cover as well as fixing nitrogen in the earth.

“Some of these we replant, but otherwise we need the rows to be clear,” explained James. “This year we are dividing the rhizomes and replanting from our own stock as well as putting in some some new vines we have purchased.”

At harvest, the cord is cut at the top and bottom and both the vine and the cord are sent to the processing plant where the flowers (known as cones) are removed.

The Nugent's grow the most popular and strongest varieties of hops for brewers: Cascade, Chinook and Centennial.

“This crop is almost completely pre-sold,” said James. “It’s nice to have it spoken for. Most of it is going to microbreweries that want local hops; they are our main clients. They generally buy fresh or dried hops, rather than the pelletized version that the bigger brewers want.”

“After the hops are twined we have some breathing space,” he continued. “We need to look after irrigation and watch for pests and disease. All our hops plants are certified, so they are strong to begin with and are not generally susceptible to disease. The plants should be productive for 15 to 20 years.”

After cropping in mid to late August, the rest of the plant is entirely cleared to the ground for winter.

Pontiac Hops employs between eight to ten people, some coming from as far away as Campbell’s Bay and Gatineau, including a number of local students.

When the last of the three-acre fields is planted, construction will begin on a building to house a dryer in order to bring the fresh hops down to the necessary 8 -10% humidity.

The Nugents are grateful for the advice from the Hops Co-op members, particularly growers Charles Allard and Jacques Lance from the MRC Pontiac.

“It’s better to help each other than to compete,” said Anthony. “We were lucky; so many people had done a lot of the research [before we started planting].”

“That’s the idea [of the co-op],” added James. “To share experiences and knowledge.”