Hops Harvesting and Beyond

I presented an update on small-scale hops harvesters at the 2014 Northeast Hops Alliance (NEHA) Winter Meeting yesterday.  We also talked a bit about drying and pelletizing at small scale.  The presentation is available here.

A summary of harvesters is provided in the table below.

Hops Harvester Table

One of the really exciting things for me to see is the number of small-scale, mobile harvesters available to people is increasing.  Mendon Precision, LLC (HopsHarvester.com), Wolverine, and LaGasse Works all have produced harvesters that they intend to have available in serial production.These are in addition to the Bine Implement and Steenland harvesters noted previously

Mendon Precision, LLC - HopsHarvester.com harvester.
Mendon Precision, LLC – HopsHarvester.com harvester.
Wolverine Harvester
Wolverine Harvester

This past year also saw more grower builds using the UVM mobile platform design including Aroostook Hops in Westfield, ME.

A harvester based on the UVM Mobile design by Aroostook Hops.
A harvester based on the UVM Mobile design by Aroostook Hops.

UVM Hops Harvester, Yellow Dog Hopyard and Rock Art Brewery on Across the Fence

Across the Fence, the longest running daily farm and home television program in the country, joined us when we were harvesting last summer with the UVM Mobile Hops Harvester. In this segment, hear from Nick Aleria of Yellow Dog Hopyard in Cabot. VT and Matt Nadeau of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville, VT about how local hops are important to their businesses and how the machine has helped this to be feasible. Across the Fence is a 15 minute program produced by University of Vermont Extension. The program airs weekdays at 12:10 pm on WCAX TV, Channel 3.

Hop Harvesting Roundup

I recently presented a summary of mechanical hop harvesters at the 2013 NEHA Hops Conference in Morrisville, NY.  As I prepared that material I was struck by how far we’ve come since 2010. In just three years since our small team embarked upon the development of the UVM Mobile Hops Harvester, several independently designed mechanical harvesters have become available and several builds of the UVM type harvester have also been developed by others. These are summarized in the presentation file linked above including videos of some of them.

Does Mechanical Harvesting Pay?

I also thought it may be helpful to show the impact of mechanical harvesting on a small hop farm. The reality is that hand picking hops is only realistic early in the development of a hop farm and only at very small scales of production. It depends on the interest of the pickers and the community atmosphere that many growers develop around their young enterprises.  However, it is unlikely that the hand picking can support larger volume production at current labor rates and the rate of harvest will also be slower than necessary for preserving maximum hop quality.

So how expensive is a mechanical harvester? And can it actually pay for itself? Let’s do the numbers.

Assume a machine cost of $20,000, assembled, installed and ready to go (actual costs for the available machines are included in the presentation file above).  Let’s say that machine is capable of harvesting 60 bines per hour (a light load for most) and that each bine is yielding 1 dry pound of hops.  Let’s also assume 1000 bines per acre, and a one acre yard. We’ll look at high volume scenarios later.  The benefit of mechanical harvesting is labor savings, so we need to assume the base case is paid hand picking at a wage of $7.25 per hour and a rate of 1 dry pound per hour (about one bine). Let’s also note that the machine might require 4 people vs. the one person we’re comparing it to, so it has a higher “per hour” labor rate. We’ll also assume that the machine has a life of 20 years, over which it’s initial cost is spread (as though it is being depreciated like other assets).

We have to make one simplification to the calculation before proceeding. We need to assume a common gross profit prior to harvest.  In other words, the cost of the yard structure, the rhizomes, water, nutrients, any pest and disease management, etc. is all the same between the two cases and allows for a gross profit of, say, $10 per dry pound. With all that laid out, we can summarize the case as shown in the following table.

Yard size 1 acre
Density 1000 bines per acre
Plant yield 1 dry pound per bine
Gross profit prior to harvest  $10.00 per dry pound
Machine cost  $20,000 initial
Machine life 20 years
Machine rate 60 bines per hour
Machine labor 4 persons
Labor cost  $7.25 per hour
Hand picking rate 1 bines per hour
Machine harvest cost  $1.48 per dry pound
Hand picking cost  $7.25 per dry pound
Mechanical advantage  $5.77 per dry pound
 $5,767 annually
Simple payback period
Ammortized 0.2 years
Non-ammortized 3.5 years

Admittedly, we can argue over the assumptions presented here.  A machine could cost more to build or buy than I have assumed.  Someone may be able to hand pick much quicker than I have presented.  The machine rate could (and probably will be) higher than assumed above. The gross profit of $10 per dry pound assumed may be more or less.  But I think it is safe to say that mechanical harvesting can pay for itself and, perhaps as important, allows a certain scale and quality of production that isn’t supported by hand picking.