Sponsoring Institution
National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Project Status
Funding Source
Reporting Frequency
Accession No.
Grant No.
Project No.
Proposal No.
Multistate No.
Program Code
Project Start Date
Aug 1, 2016
Project End Date
Nov 30, 2017
Grant Year
Project Director
Barnes, R.
Recipient Organization
Performing Department
Non Technical Summary
There is a large demand for high quality, locally-grown hops by craft brewers throughout the U.S. Farmers are increasingly looking at establishing small-scale (1/4 to 5 acres) commercial hop yards to supply this demand. Typically, commercial hop farmers use a high trellis system for large-scale production on 60 acres or more. Their hop yard start-up cost (excluding harvesting and processing equipment) is about $6,300 per acre which is roughly 1/2 the cost to put in a small-scale high trellis hop yard. This factor plus a lack of ecnomony of scale for harvesting and post-harvest processing limit the ability of small farms to establish high trellis systems. A much more feasible option is low trellis production. Even though existing low trellis production yields less per acre compared to high trellis production, the plants and pests are significantly easier to manage. If current low trellis production and harvesting technology were improved, then net revenues per acre could be comparable to high trellis production. This would make hop growing a viable option for small growers across the U.S.The objective of this Phase I SBIR project is to assess the technical feasibility of a novel articulating low trellis structure, hardware and harvesting system for growing hops. The system is designed to be practical for small-scale conventional and organic hop production. Harvest equipment will be efficient and more economical than current technology. Other expected advantages of the system's new cultural technique include hop quality exceeding industry standards, easy cultivar rotation and better disease prevention.
Animal Health Component
Research Effort Categories

Knowledge Area (KA)Subject of Investigation (SOI)Field of Science (FOS)Percent
Knowledge Area
205 - Plant Management Systems;

Subject Of Investigation
2230 - Hops;

Field Of Science
2020 - Engineering;
Goals / Objectives
The overall goal of this SBIR project is to assess the technical feasibility of a novel articulating low trellis structure, hardware and harvesting system for growing hops that is practical for small-scale production. Phase I efforts will focus on gaining basic knowledge necessary to optimize yields and preliminary results of mechanical harvest off the trellis structure. The specific technical objectives are as follows:1. Build, install and evaluate a prototype low trellis system.2. a) Evaluate effects of a new bine training method on side arm and flower cluster bud break and b) Assess the ability of portable harvest-aid devices to remove cones directly off the trellis structure when rotated to harvest positions.3. Assess the yield potential of high density organic production using the low trellis system.4. Build and evaluate the ability of a prototype automated harvester to remove cones directly off the trellis structure.5. Analyze and complete cost estimates of materials and manufacturing.6. Complete final feasibility report.
Project Methods
The project uses novel experimental plant training methods along with conventional methods to assess hop yields and functionality of the trellis structure and compatible harvest equipment. Manipulating the trellis structure at key plant growth stages will test the effects of bine orientation on side arm growth, flower cluster bud break and yield in an organic high density planting. Test protocols will gather data on node and side arm numbers, number of cones on each side arm relative to node location, number of cones on each side arm, plant side arm density at flowering and flowering density relative to location on the trellis. Fresh cone weight data will be recorded to determine yields. The low trellis system will be assessed via visual observation of the trellis structure through its cycles of motion, the integrity of its components throughout the project's duraction and the adequacy of row spacing for trellis system processes. The ability of hand-held and automated harvesting equipment to work efficiently and be practical for small-scale production will be evaluated using data collected on labor time, fresh harvest weight of cone and non-cone plant material in addition to estimates of cone weight left on the trellis post-harvest.

Progress 08/01/16 to 11/30/17

Target Audience:Due to the proprietary nature of the hop trellis production system and harvesting technology, TGS has not reached out to our small farm target audience to date. Changes/Problems:Research at USDA-AFRS in WV was delayed in 2016 due to support personnel medical leave. Plant growth in Indiana ranged from average to poor in 2016 compared to earlier pre-project trials in 2015. Plant tissue samples from healthy looking and stunted plants were sent to a testing lab for nutrient analysis. Plant tissue results did not indicate a severe nutrient deficiency that could explain the differences in growth. However, data from the weather station located closest to the trial site revealed that accumulated chill hours were low for good hop growth. This event could have been a contributing factor to the poor growth seen at the Indiana and Minnesota sites since all project plants were held at the Indiana site until March 2016. TGS requested a project extension in early 2017 in order to repeat the trials. In 2017, plant growth at the Indiana site was much better as bines reached the trellis top by mid-summer but still very poor at the Minnesota site. The use of grow bags for the hops will be discontinued in favor of planting directly in the ground. Their use may have been a significant contributing factor in the fair to poor plant growth experienced in Indiana and Minnesota. The hop plants in West Virginia were planted in the ground in early spring of 2017 showed excellent growth and yield potentials. What opportunities for training and professional development has the project provided? Nothing Reported How have the results been disseminated to communities of interest?Due to the proprietary nature of the hop trellis production system and harvesting technology, TGS will apply for patent protection before releasing project results to communities of interest. What do you plan to do during the next reporting period to accomplish the goals? Nothing Reported

What was accomplished under these goals? An affordable hop production and harvesting system is needed by small farms suppling local markets with specialty hops. This project investigated plant growth, yields and new harvesting methods on an innovative rotatable low trellis system. USDA-AFRS research results indicate the system has potential to support good yields and for hop cones to be harvested directly off the trellis structure using a mechanical hand-held harvester. R&D efforts by Adev Automation and TGS resulted in a conceptual model of an automated harvester platform and harvest tool compatible with the low trellis structure. University of Minnesota research results substantiated the difficulty of growing hops using organic methods. This project's research helps support the sustainability of small farms looking to diversify into hop production. The commercial availability of a new hop production and harvesting system designed with these growers in mind would add to the economic vitality of our agricultural communities in both rural and urban areas. The objectives of this project were: 1. Build, install and evaluate a prototype low trellis system. Two 60-foot rows of trellis system were erected at the Indiana trial site. Observations: Trellis rotation was smooth and one person could easily rotate a 60' row to all positions. Row spacing was 11' which allowed access with spray equipment throughout the season and created minimal shading as the rows ran in a west-east direction. At harvest, the trellis arms can be rotated down and the proposed automated harvester can travel under the horizontal arm with enough open aisle space for people access. For 2016 trials, netting was used between the trellis assembly arms. Bines easily climbed the netting but the direction was not always linear and longer side arms of some cultivars often became entangled. For 2017 trials, the netting was replaced with vertical high tensile training wires. A plastic injection molded cross-connector was designed to secure the vertical training wires to the horizontal support wires. The key outcome of this objective was a change in the trellis design using vertical training wires and cross-connectors. This allowed us to: a. position the training wires horizontally to optimize spacing for different hop varieties and yields, b. keep the bines growing in a linear direction, and c. create more stable platform which improves harvesting efficiencies. Further, training wires and cross-connectors are both reusable and thus reduce the typical annual input costs associated with using coir twine and stinging labor. 2.a) Evaluate effects of a new bine training method on side arm and flower cluster bud break A 210' long trellis system was erected at USDA-AFRS in WV. Research was not able to determine if bine rotation to a horizontal position resulted in disproportional placement of side arms and cones on one side of the trellis canopy. The lack of clear field data is thought to be the result of not leaving the trellis cross arm in the horizontal position long enough during side shoot emergence. Observations: Bine orientation did appear to alter side shoot development and their distribution on the bine of a Crystal plant horizontally trained in a greenhouse. All side shoots were observed to be bent upward. Even the shoot developed at a leaf axil pointing downward was observed to bend upward. The key outcome of this objective is that the new bine training method may require research effort to study the effects of bine rotation during different stages of side shoot pre- and post-emergence. 2.b) Assess the ability of portable harvest-aid devices to remove cones directly off the trellis structure when rotated to harvest positions. A hand-held harvesting aid using an olive shaker, air compressor and cone-catching frame was constructed and compared to hand harvesting and the use of a hedger to remove cones directly off the trellis. Observations: Tines on both heads of a shaker harvested more cones than with tines on just one head. The use of a hedger was determined to be too dangerous near the trellis wires so no data was taken on this method. Results: The shaker method harvested an average of 3.3 gallons of cones per minute while hand harvesting averaged 0.48 gallons of cones per minute. The key outcome of this objective is that the olive shaker prototype is a viable harvest aid warranting further R&D as it harvested cones 6.84 times faster than hand-picking. The estimated cost of this harvest aid would be an affordable option for small growers with 1-2 acres of hops. 3. Assess the yield potential of high density organic production using the low trellis system. A 100' row of low trellis system was erected at the Minnesota test site. Three cultivars (Hallertauer, Fuggle, and Viking) were contained in grow bags. Hops were sprayed weekly with OMRI-listed fungicides using a hand-held sprayer. Observations: Growth was weak in 2016. The trial was repeated in 2017. Emergence and early season vigor was poor. Symptoms of downy mildew were observed on many of the plants, despite weekly fungicide applications, as well as spider mites. The key outcome of this objective is that high density organic hop production is likely not commercially feasible in Midwest regions. The cultivars used in this study were reportedly among the most tolerant to downy mildew. However, accumulated precipitation averaged over 600 mm in both years. Equivalent seasonal precipitation in the largest US hop growing region is less than 75 mm while wetter growing regions of the Willamette Valley average at least 200 mm and have greater downy mildew disease pressure. 4. Build and evaluate the ability of a prototype automated harvester to remove cones directly off the trellis structure. A harvesting tool was developed to achieve a design with durability, manufacturability and capability. Using a sliding plate design, bines are harvested one at a time. After harvest, bines are cut at the ground and the training wire is unsnapped from the lowest horizontal wire. Spent bines are slid off the wires and the wires are then snapped back onto the horizontal wires ready for the next season. Observations: Approximately 97% of existing cones were separated from the bine while leaving behind the smaller, less mature hops. The harvested material was 54.5% cone and 45.5% plant debris by wet weight. The key outcomes of this objective are: 1) determining that a rail-based harvester design should work better than an arm-based harvester, reduce system complexity and reduce stress on key structural components, 2) changing the trellis design to use galvanized wire bine supports so that an automated harvesting system can use an inductive proximity sensor to find the bines via metal detection and 3) the sliding plate harvest tool can be mounted on an inexpensive support for manual use by growers with less than 1 acre of hops. 5. Analyze and complete cost estimates of materials and manufacturing. The retail cost of materials to erect a 1/4 acre of our low trellis system is estimated to be $3,552. 6. Complete final feasibility report. The low trellis hop production system performed at a high level during Phase I research at all the test sites. Estimates of labor hours needed to manage hop plants cannot be made at this time due to the small number of plants managed at the trial sites. However, labor needed for fertilization appears to be the same as a conventional hop yard since fertilizers are either broadcast or applied through the irrigation system. The labor hours needed to spray pesticides and foliar nutrients is estimated to be less then a conventional hop yard since working at ground level and applying to the height of ~10 feet requires less time compared to applying chemicals up to 16-20' high.