Two young men, CEO Eric Sannerud, 25, and COO Ben Boo, 27 of Mighty Axe Hops are paving the way for future hops growers. Hops are used as a flavor and stabilizing agent in beer.
Having already grown three acres of hops, plans to expand are in the making.
The entrepreneurs purchased 120 acres near Foley recently. There, they plan to grow 80 acres of hops, which will make them the first in Minnesota to grow hops on that large a scale.
“Since we’re doing something new to our region, it means that we have to be the first ones to make a lot of mistakes,” Boo said. “We can talk to growers in Idaho, Oregon and Michigan and learn a lot from them. But there aren’t any people we can talk to here in Minnesota that know how to do that many acres.”
Boo said hops are usually grown in the state of Washington and that it doesn’t rain as much there as in Minnesota. Even though the rain doesn’t affect the hops too much in Minnesota, the disease pressure is higher than it is in Washington.
The adventure into growing hops stemmed from their friendship while they were studying agriculture at the University of Minnesota and sharing two common interests — agriculture and beer.
“It seemed like the natural place for those to meet was hops,” Sannerud said.
Boo and Sannerud formed their company, Mighty Axe Hops, and started to grow hops on three acres on Sannerud’s grandparents’ farm in Ham Lake four years ago.
“With my family’s farm, we had a little bit of land we could play at and learn on,” Sannerud said. “That’s where we were able to learn and gain confidence to expand.”
Boo recognizes the unique opportunity he and Sannerud had. The access to Sannerud’s farmland in Ham Lake enabled them to make a jump into farming at a decently sized operation.
Sannerud believes Minnesota will see an increase in first generation farmers — those growing up in the city making some kind of career in agriculture.
“I think that’s going to be something much more common in the future,” he said. “A lot of our generation and our parents’ generation who grew up on the farm often didn’t think there was an opportunity on the farm, so they moved to the city.”
There is a lot of hard work that goes into farming hops. Sannerud said a lot of people are excited about growing hops, but may not fully appreciate the how much work is really involved and have even less experience in agriculture than he and Boo had when they first started.
“Some just think they can put it in the ground, they grow and then they make money,” he said.
Boo said hops require a lot of care and timing, as well as careful consideration when and how much chemicals should be used.
At the Foley location, the two along with about 10 seasonal employees, placed 2,000 18-foot tall trellises into the ground that the hops will grow around.
Each hop rhizome is planted by hand, but since it is a perennial, it returns every year.
“The hops require a lot of care and timing, as well as what and how much chemicals should be used,” Boo said.
Sannerud said there are hundreds of varieties of hops. The two focus on growing four — Cascade, Crystal, Centennial and CTZ hops. The difference between the variety of hops are related to its aromatic and bittering characteristics.
“It’s a funny process of narrowing it down between what we think we can grow successfully and what the breweries want, since hops are bred to grow in a lot of places that are not like Minnesota,” Boo said.
Since Sannerud and Boo are forerunners in growing hops at such a large scale, there is no data available to let them know how many pounds of hops the breweries are interested in.
“They all say they want local hops, but do they want 40 acres or do they want 4,000 acres and how much are they willing to pay for those hops?” Sannerud said.
At the location in Foley they’ve built a large harvest facility where the hops will be processed. After they are harvested, they are placed in a dryer. How long it takes to dry depends on the size of the dryer, Boo said.
At the farm in Ham Lake, they built their own dryer, decreasing the drying period from about 55 hours to 24.
“That’s a good example of trying to farm hops at that scale when you can’t just buy the equipment to do it at three acres,” he said. “Here (in Foley) someone else has put together the engineering, so out here we should be drying it at about eight to nine hours.”
Sannerud estimates they will be able to dry about 1,000 pounds an hour at the new location.
Since not much growth is seen during the first year, they anticipate seeing their first harvest in 2018.
“Those 80 acres of hopes are going to be quite a thing to look at,” Boo said.
For those who plan to go into the hops business, Sannerud recommends they to do a lot of research and spend more time than they think they need before they make a big investment. Especially putting in the trellises can be very expensive, the hard work that is involved with planting the hops and that fact that it will be a year before a harvest can be seen.
Some of the Minnesota breweries they’ve sold their Ham Lake harvest to are Fair State Brewing, Bad Weather Brewing, Fulton Brewery and Brent Brewstillery.
To help others, Sannerud and Boo keep a grower’s guide on their website www.mightyaxehops.com which they update with what they understand about growing hops in Minnesota.