Come hop harvest-time, Waikato dairy farmer Mike Visser exchanges his days spent milking 1000 cows for several intense weeks at Foxhill Hops.
Mike and his wife Sue bought Foxhill Hops, seven kilometres south of Wakefield, in 2015 - just six days before Mike’s 50th birthday. The young hop bines were racing up their strings when the couple first visited the property in spring. By the time they returned in December as the farm’s new owners, the bines were “towering over us,” Mike says, though they were yet to produce the distinctive bright green buds which grow into plump, aromatic hop cones.
“We didn’t know a hop cone from a bar of soap,” he laughs. “I hadn’t even seen a fresh hop, let alone a great big pile of hops like these,” he says, indicating the mounds of bright green cones cooling off on the hop-shed floor in preparation for pressing into bales.
“We’ve been share-milkers in Te Awamutu for 24 years, so this was a massive learning curve, suddenly becoming the owner of an 18-hectare farm with 12.5 hectares of hop gardens. But horticulture wasn’t completely new to us, because we grow maize for stock-feed.
“Back in 2008, we invested in a smaller dairy farm with another couple, but they were a bit older than us and, by 2015, they wanted to retire. Sue and I decided we’d like to look outside the dairy industry and diversify – we wanted to try something completely different.”
Around that time, friends introduced Mike to craft beer and, he recalls, there were several conversations about the different way New Zealanders were drinking beer. Consumers were more willing to spend more money on a bottle of beer, and drink less. Instead, they were simply savouring the stronger flavours and aromas of one or two carefully crafted brews.
“When we made up our minds that hop farming was what we wanted to do, so many factors fell perfectly into place for us,” Mike remembers.
Sue’s twin sister Merrin Alexander just happened to work for a local real estate agency. She added ‘hop farm’ to the ‘properties to find’ list.
Merrin’s partner, Nigel Clarke, was looking to make a career-change from his work as a saw doctor. He now manages Foxhill Hops.
“Nigel runs the farm full-time and he goes to the Hop Growers’ Forums, so he has up-skilled considerably.”
“The farm’s former owner, Graham Cole, had been farming hops here for over 50 years and he happily agreed to stay on and pass on his knowledge, particularly when we were getting ready for our first harvest. Six harvests later, he still comes along to work with the team.”
Compared with the way most hop farmers get themselves down to the hop shed in time for the first day of harvest, Mike’s mode of transport from his Te Awamutu dairy farm, which is a 700-kilometre drive away by road, is a little eyebrow-raising. He flies his own micro-light aircraft to a friend’s landing strip in nearby Brightwater – a 2.5-hour journey.
Foxhill Hops certainly isn’t one of the region’s biggest hop farms, he says, and its machinery is by no means state-of-the-art – but Mike says that’s what makes it unique. His engineering background is particularly useful for maintaining and repairing the farm’s traditional and very vintage English ‘Bruff’ hop processing machine.
“The kiln shed dates to the late 1800s and was originally a sawmill, then it was used for drying tobacco before this became a hop farm. We still use the old traditional ways. We hand-cut the bines onto the trailer. There’s no bine-puller and no auto-feed conveyor belt into the kilns. We literally carry bags of hops to the kilns and tip them out onto the drying floor.”
“Nigel and I alternate nights drying the hops. We harvest for 20 to 22 days and stick to a Monday to Friday schedule.” And, with a grin Mike adds: “I soon realised, by the end of March there are a lot of hollow-eyed hop growers wandering ‘round the district.”
Written by Victoria Clark - 2021