Remi Van De Slyke – Kinglake Farms
By Lilian Schaer
Growing hops for local beer garners farmer an innovation award
One of Remi Van De Slyke’s favourite beers is produced by a small craft brewery in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Not only does he enjoy the taste of Railway City Brewery’s Dead Elephant Ale, but it also happens to be made from the hops he grows on his farm near Straffordville.
Van De Slyke of Kinglake Farms Inc. got into the hops business more than a decade ago when his family was looking for alternatives to growing tobacco.
His efforts at building markets and helping other farmers start growing hops have just been recognized with a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, and he credits the local food movement with helping spur interest in the crop.
“It was tough in the first few years I was growing to get brewers’ attention, but demand is increasing every year for craft beer,” he says. “The local food movement has really helped with opening markets for Ontario hops.”
Hops are a perennial crop that grows up to 20 feet tall on a trellis system. The hops come up every spring and climb up strings that Van De Slyke attaches between the ground and the top trellis. Around mid-June they start bushing out and producing the hop cones, which are harvested in late August or early September.
“We cut each vine down and bring it to a harvester machine that separates the hops from the leaves and vines,” he explains, adding that the cones are fresh at harvest and most brewers prefer dried hops. “Once they’re dry, I shell the hops myself; I’m one of the few growers doing my own on-farm processing.”
Van De Slyke will also help out other farmers with his harvesting and pelleting machines as the equipment is quite expensive to buy, and he supplies hops rhizomes – the root cuttings of the hop vine – to new growers.
Although there are many different hop varieties, Van De Slyke currently only grows two. They can be a labour-intensive crop and he doesn’t want to overextend his business by expanding too quickly, he says. In fact, he used to have 10 acres and has cut that in half to concentrate on growing a better quality crop.
“Each brewer has a preference for what hops they want or like, depending on the recipe they use,” he explains. “They’re not a crop for everybody; I think you’ve got to have that little bit of adventurous sense and be one of the farmers who like to do something a bit different than everybody else if you want to grow hops.”
Van De Slyke has always been interested in hops, and it was a student from New Zealand who was in Ontario on a Junior Farmer exchange who first told him about former tobacco lands in his home country now being good hops growing regions.
Globally, Washington State and Germany are leaders in the hops market, and it’s there that Van De Slyke went to learn about different varieties, equipment, and growing techniques.
There are now approximately 30 growers in Ontario, and Ontario’s craft brewers are the main buyers of locally grown hops.
“I really enjoy working with the craft brewers. They’re farmer-friendly and they care about what they make,” says Van De Slyke, who also grows ginseng on his 200-acre farm. “Their success makes me successful, and there’s a personality and character to craft beers that makes them fun and interesting to drink and compare to others.”