When we were rolling through the Goschie hop fields, I was surprised when the bus came along these trim, manicured little rows. Less than half as tall as a regular 20-foot trellis, these are dwarf varieties grown on what are known as low-trellis systems. It turns out there are some advantages to them.
In conventional hop farming, the entire hop vine is pulled from the ground during harvest. Dwarf varieties, however, can be plucked with a special harvester, leaving the vines intact. Nutrients are preserved when they can run down into the root system--making plants hardier and healthier. Researchers are investigating whether low-trellis hops are more resistant to pests and disease, although the data is incomplete. Gayle Goschie, who took us out into a low-trellis field, pointed out that this is how hops used to grow in her grandfather's generation, when hops were picked by hand. England seems to have led the way on breeding dwarf hops, and the field we visited contained First Gold, an English variety.
Of course, there's a downside, too. Shorter trellises mean less length for hops to grow on, and as a consequence, less yield per acre. Goschie calculates that the yield is at least 30% less, and possibly up to 50% less, than regular hops.
With the advantages in health, harvest efficiency, and possible disease and pest resistence, my sense is that dwarf hops are an intriguing option for hop growers--and a trend we should keep our eye on.