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Farmers high on hops crop

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Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2013 1:01 pm

GORHAM – A historic Gorham farm is growing an ingredient used in beer as one way to stimulate agricultural production – and the effort is getting plenty of doubletakes from passers-by.

Charles Hamblen is shifting some of his farm’s hay production land to raising hops, a flavoring used in beer. Hamblen created a stir in town this spring when 22-foot-high wooden poles appeared in a field at the sprawling farm on Gray Road (Route 202).

The poles support a twine trellis for hops vines to climb, creating curiosity in the community.

“Having local hops is unique and will create significant buzz in the local community,” Hamblen said on Wednesday.  

Hamblen, who has three partners in raising hops, said Wednesday their potential customers this year include both private and commercial brewers.

“Nothing in writing, but several brewers have indicated a willingness to buy quality, locally produced hops,” Hamblen said.

There are some 35 craft breweries in Maine.

Tom Abercrombie, brewmaster at Sebago Brewing Co. in Gorham, said the firm already buys some Maine-grown hops.

“We use them for one specific beer (Local Harvest),” Abercrombie said, and the company is looking for more Maine hops. “We’re all for it.”

Dee Dee Germain of Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland said the brewery “would love to buy” hops closer to home. “One of the issues for Allagash, at least, is the fact that we pretty much use only pelletized hops.  Pelletizing hops takes very expensive equipment that is not currently available to most Maine hop growers.”

The farm, said Hamblen, who works for Acadia Insurance Co. in Westbrook, has six beef cows, 20 chickens and produces hay, and he also raises a family garden. Hamblen has a penchant for the innovative, and installed a wind turbine a few years ago to supply some of the farm’s electrical power.

He’s is the son of Calvin Hamblen, a widely known resident, certified public accountant and a former longtime town councilor.

The farm, with more than 100 acres, has been in the Hamblen family since 1783 and it once had 50 cows.

“It’s trying to get the farm a little more active,” Hamblen said Tuesday evening about hops, as he pulled weeds by hand away from plants.

In planting hops, Hamblen is partnering with three Portland men – Geoff Keating, Ryan Houghton and Peter Busque. They contacted Hamblen through Farmlink.org, a website that helps farmers connect with resources.

“They had the idea, and I had the land,” Hamblen said.

Houghton was born into a Fort Fairfield potato-growing family and is a University of Maine graduate with a degree in finance and management information systems.

Keating earned a degree in communications and studied marketing at colleges and universities in New Hampshire, Vermont and London, England. He co-founded a design and development studio focused on innovative web solutions.

Busque grew up on his family’s sheep farm in Windham. He is a University of Maine graduate with a degree in business administration. He is employed as a pre-sales systems engineer.

The trio is also growing 2 acres of hops on land in Fort Fairfield.

Keating said hops are a cone-shaped, green flower with oils. Keating said there are less than 8 acres of hops grown statewide.

Plans are to install an irrigation system, and some of the plot has been fertilized with sheep manure that Houghton said is rich in nitrogen.

“They need a lot of nutrients,” Houghton said.

They’ve planted about 2,000 hops, a perennial, on 2 acres at Hamblen’s with a goal to add another 10 acres this fall. They will harvest the initial crop in September, but figure three years will be required to reach a full potential, when they hope to harvest 1,000 pounds per acre or more.

According to the Hamblen group, Maine brewers buy hops from the western part of the United States and Europe.

“We want to change that,” Keating said.

“Hops are a plant you can put in your back yard,” Keating said, and added that many brewers hadn’t seen hops grow.

In Maine, hops growers are also located in Lincolnville and in Aroostook County, according to Ellen Mallory, of the University of Maine Extension Service.

Hamblen said hops were a considerable Maine crop in the 1800s, but production moved west. The Hamblen partnership bought their hops rootstock from an Oregon grower, who will visit the local operation on Thursday, June 27. The man, whose family has grown hops for several generations, will view the Gorham farm and provide some expert help as a consultant.

Harvesting will involve labor-intensive handwork this year. Mallory said that harvesting by hand can be daunting.

“With any new crops, equipment and infrastructure can be limiting,” Mallory said.

But the Hamblen partnership plans next year to buy harvesting and processing equipment that will create hops pellets. The group’s equipment would be available to help other local farmers interested in growing hops with harvesting chores – “scale it up,” Hamblen said about the venture.

The cedar poles are a Maine product from Strong. The field has 16 rows of 10 poles each. The poles 10 inches in diameter are 22 feet in height and planted 4 feet deep in the ground. From the ground to cables strung between the poles, coconut fiber ropes provide a trellis for the hops plants to climb.

Drivers passing the farm have wondered about all the poles sprouting in a field near the roadside and the crop is brewing a lot of talk about town.

“We’re getting a lot of people stopping by,” Hamblen said.

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