Hop farmers have an old saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s in the bale.” Hop farming in the U.S. today is more business oriented and technologically advanced than any other country. Due to the climate, hop farmers in the Pacific Northwest control and precisely monitor inputs more accurately than anywhere else. Satellite imaging, soil micronutrient analysis and other tech toys all help defend against Mother Nature. You might reasonably think therefore that farmers have figured out how to control yields from one year to the next. Even with all those tools, they can only maximize production under ideal conditions and minimize losses during difficult times. At the end of the day though, weather makes or breaks the crop every year.
Let’s look at the three public varieties with the largest acreage, Cascade, Centennial and CTZ. Those three varieties make up 34.6% of U.S. production according to the 2016 Statistical Packet from Hop Growers of America. The chart below represents yield fluctuations from 2012-2016 for those three varieties in Washington State, where farmers produce the largest concentration of those varieties. You can clearly see the variation from year to year. Look at the behavior of Cascade (blue line) relative to Centennial (red line). They move in opposite directions guaranteeing that one variety will deliver below average yields regardless of weather conditions. It’s not uncommon to see yields that move like this from year to year. In the industry, when people talk about an average yield, they usually refer to a 5-year average yield to account for the highs and the lows.
Hops can look beautiful in the field, but sometimes cones don’t weigh what they should once they’re baled. That happened with Centennials in 2015 causing Centennials to be short. Powdery mildew can be a problem in many varieties. Higher than normal humidity in 2016 caused a lot of powdery mildew around the valley, which led to CTZs yields to be significantly lower than normal. Every variety has particular conditions that it prefers. With so many varieties, each with their own requirements, there is at least one variety stressed at any given time.
German hop growers have long followed an unwritten rule not to contract more than 80% of what they anticipate producing in any given year. The majority of German growers do not use irrigation. Average yields from year to year vary greatly due to weather. For the past couple years, the German industry has sold well over 80% of their anticipated yields. This year, for example, the German delegation to the International Hop Growers Convention (IHGC) reported the 2017 crop is 99% sold ahead. That doesn’t leave much margin for error. High levels of sales continue for the next couple years as well.
New Zealand, a small but important producer in the global hop market, reported their 2017 crop was approximately 60 metric tons (approximately 7%) short. New Zealand varieties are amazingly popular. As a result, the crop is completely sold out each year. Brewers relying on those hops will search for substitutes elsewhere to get by until next year. You should never believe in average yields 100% of the time. Average yields don’t tell the highs and the lows or the variation from year to year. It’s only part of the picture.
It is still too early to predict what the Northern Hemisphere will yield for 2017. The U.S. enjoyed a strong winter with lots of snow, but a cold wet spring delayed new plantings and the stringing of the crop. A streak of warm weather can quickly bring the crop back on schedule. There is no doubt Mother Nature is in control. We are all just along for the ride.
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