On the eve of the very first harvest at Will Prouting’s new farm, Wai-iti Hops, all his equipment was either brand new or borrowed from other hop farmers.
Just imported from Germany, the pristine Wolf hop-picking machine was positioned on its smooth, new concrete pad with two enormous tarpaulins to protect it from the elements.
“I borrowed a conveyor from Holmdale Farm, a bagging hopper from Northwood Hops and bags from a retired hop farmer,” Will remembers. “I didn’t even have a kiln, so I borrowed some horse floats to transport the filled bags to another retired farmer’s kilns, and he taught me - watching over my shoulder as I dried the hops, explaining things to me and giving me advice.”
A year later Will had increased Wai-iti Hops’ gardens from six hectares to 10, designed and built a hop shed and built half of a kiln; completing enough of it to use as a flat-bed dryer.
“I borrowed hop bags again – 220 of them, and I carried them up three metres of stairs to be tipped into the kiln.
By harvest-time earlier this year, Will had added a hopper and a tipper-kiln to the hop shed plant. Wai-iti Hops was finally fully operational with all its own equipment. Eighteen hectares of hops were harvested, and much to Will’s delight, his two hectares of Nectaron® hops produced the highest Alpha content in the NZ Hops Co-operative.
“I feel as though this was my first year growing a half-decent hop,” he laughs. “It’s not bad, really, considering half these hop gardens are planted where there used to be just river-shingle.
“The top-soil depths ranged from one metre deep to just 50mms when we came here. I contoured the land a bit, trying to level out the humps and hollows, but that compromises the soil structure. It was quite a learning curve for me in the early days, realising how it affected some of the hops.”
Named after the Wai-iti River which borders the property, the farm is “truly in a magic spot,” says Will, because it is part of the supportive Wakefield community and a short drive to work for Will’s wife, Laura, who is an Optometrist in Richmond.
Having grown up on a high-country merino sheep farm in the Awatere Valley, Will says he had always believed he would be a farmer someday, but assumed he’d be working with animals, not plants.
On leaving college at 18, he completed a diesel mechanic apprenticeship, worked in Nelson for five years, then in the coal and gold mining industries on the West Coast before heading off on the quintessential Kiwi’s Big O.E.
“In 2016, I started feeling it was time to fulfil my lifelong dream of farming. I managed to convince Laura, to leave the U.K. and move to New Zealand with me.
“Later, we went back to her family’s church in Hertfordshire and got married. When I planted my first hop garden here, I kept an area clear in the middle of the garden, so we could celebrate our marriage with my family. We put down a dance floor and strung up lights and celebrated, surrounded by the hops.”
It took eight months for Will to find a property with plenty of flat land to plant hops, and plenty of water to irrigate them. He had ruled out farming sheep or beef, as those properties were beyond his budget.
“When we bought this, I suddenly had to become a developer, because it was in seven Titles.”
Boundary adjustments were made, and lifestyle blocks were created and sold. Will and Laura were left with 30 hectares, of which 21 are now hop gardens and two hectares are a QEII Trust-protected stand of 200-year-old native forest.
Ironically, Wai-iti Hops was once a 55-hectare stud beef farm, but by the time Will was looking to buy it, he had his heart set on building his own hop farming business.
“Hops don’t kick you in the shins or butt you behind the knees,” he jokes. “Actually, I never thought I would fall in love with growing hops. It was only meant to be a stepping-stone to get me onto the farming ladder. Getting involved in the local hop farming community and having constant support and help, it’s hard to imagine I'll ever give it up.
“There’s something special about watching your carefully laid plans and constant attention grow into something people love and want to buy.”
Victoria Clark - 2021