Hop industry is set for revival through hedged varieties
By Andrew Blake
HEDGED hops are set to revive a declining industry, say specialist researchers.
Dwarf varieties yielding the same as conventional types should slash the cost of producing the crop, according to Dr Peter Darby of Horticulture Research International.
Out will go expensive traditional high wirework supports to be replaced by simple 2.4m (8ft) tall plastic netting fences. Pesticide costs should be halved through more efficient spraying. And specialised machinery should trim harvest labour costs by two-thirds, he predicts.
Dr Darby believes the whole package will help growers stave off competition from countries like Germany and the USA, where costs are lower and yields often higher.
Key to the new system is a trio of varieties, the first results of a dwarf breeding programme started 10 years ago at Wye College, Kent. All have a "runt" variety in their parentage. Originally useless because of its poor quality it provided the vital short internodes for subsequent crosses, he explains.
Attempts to grow conventional varieties on lower, cheaper trellis systems have not been successful, he claims. "The most you get is 60-80% yield."
To tackle the hedge-grown dwarfs a new-style, tractor-mounted harvester was designed. Several firms, including Herefordshire-based Pattenden Machinery, are already making commercial self-propelled versions similar to soft-fruit pickers. The resulting cone and leaf mix is separated and cleaned by existing static equipment.
Big brewing firms using hops from experimental plots at Wye last year gave dwarfs the thumbs up, says Dr Darby. "In fact they liked them so much that growers are getting five- to 10-year contracts for First Gold." This should provide the boost needed for change.
Difficult to itemise
Precise costs are "difficult to itemise". But he reckons a dwarf garden could be established for "two-thirds to three-quarters" of the "£5000-£6000/acre" for putting up a conventional one.
The ease with which predatory insects move along the hedges offers better scope for biological control of aphids and spider mites, says the HRIs Colin Campbell. Resistance to pesticides is a big problem in the crop.
The potential was shown in 1990 when a biological approach kept large-scale plots "commercially clean". MAFF is now funding HRI and ADAS with £450,000 over the next three years to develop integrated pest management. Green lacewings will be used to deal with aphids and predatory mites to combat spider mites.
However, to be fully reliable the predators need the backing of resistant varieties which are "a few years away".