The very first time Willy Macdonald noticed numerous little hop burrs forming on the bines, he jumped onto his farm-bike and raced back to the farmhouse, excitedly calling out to his wife - “Edi! – quickly, come and see what has happened!”
“She got onto the bike with me and I took her out to the hop garden to see what had grown virtually overnight. We were like little kids,” Willy laughs. “When the burrs developed into hop cones, it was just as exciting and I went to fetch Edi again.”
“Some mornings, Willy will come out to the kitchen to get his first coffee and he looks out to the hop garden which we can see from the house and he calls out to me ‘Edi, come and look – is it just my imagination or have the hops grown taller?” says Edi.
“Everything was so new to us when we came here – the smells of the hops, the noise of the machine in the picking shed and the speed of the hops’ growth – we both think it’s absolutely incredible. We’re into our second season now and it’s still exciting for us.”
When the Macdonalds packed up their lives in Zimbabwe and arrived in Christchurch in 2017, they had plans to eventually establish an avocado plantation. Willy had grown up helping his father grow tobacco, maize, wheat, oats and a whole raft of vegetables – and with a Diploma in Electrical Engineering under his belt, operating and maintaining all manner of farming machinery wasn’t too much of a daunting prospect.
When one of Nelson’s oldest hop farming operations was purchased by a group of South Island investors and farm business developers, Willy was invited to invest in the property too and become the farm’s manager.
“It was daunting, but it was exciting, too. I’d never seen hops before. All I knew was that they were grown to put into beer,” Willy remembers. “Edi and I got onto the internet and started reading all we could about hops.
“We were totally blind going into this, but right from the start everyone who grows hops around us were there to give us advice and show us how things are done.
“It has been a steep learning curve and we’re still asking people for advice. The hop growers have a wealth of experience over generations and they’re some of greatest people I’ve ever met. If you have a problem and you ‘phone any one of them, they’ll drop what they’re doing and come over to help.”
Willy describes the hops as “a lovely and interesting crop to grow.” His 2020 harvest will produce eight varieties ranging from the immensely popular Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Green Bullet, Whakatu, Waimea, Dr Rudi, Wai-iti and Moutere.
Hops were very new to the property’s buyers, too, but the farm business investors and developers were confident the property had huge potential, says one Canterbury-based member of the group, Ben Giesen.
Ben would often visit the farm’s third-generation hop-grower George Hill – not to talk about hops, but to discuss the trotting horses George trained, and to plan their next pheasant or duck shooting trip. He rarely thought about the hops growing in the centre of George’s trotting track.
Every summer, the bines would race skyward, eventually blocking the view from one side of the trotting track to the other, but, to Ben, they were just another one of George’s hop gardens.
But when George, who has worked more than 50 years of harvests, decided he was ready to bring in his very last crop, Ben saw the investment opportunity.
“We bought the 34-hectares from George and 21 of those were hop gardens. Willy is increasing that over the coming season or two.
“We’re pretty excited we’ve taken over a property with a fascinating history. There are so many stories about the Hill family of hop growers. They’ve had good times and tough times, but right now, we believe hop farming is really ‘on the up.’
“Although we suddenly owned a hop farm and none of us were hop farmers, we found a great farm manager in Willy. He is a passionate grower, he’s professional and we can see this hop farm has a big future.”
– written by Victoria Clark