Hops producer aims high in B.C.’s interior

The 240 acre operation on First Nations land near Kamloops is expected to be Canada’s largest hops farm

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — A dry patch of river bench land on the outskirts of Kamloops is being turned into Canada’s largest hop farm.

“This used to be a horse pasture,” said Ian Matthews, operations manager for Hops Canada.

The 240 acres of TK’emlups Indian Band land stretches nearly two kilometres along the North Thompson River.

Matthews has been leading a crew of mostly First Nations workers who have finished installing the last of 7,000 spruce poles to hold up a wire trellis system that will support the rapidly sprouting hop plants. The field looks like a giant pincushion.

“I think there is about two million feet of wire up there,” said Matthews.

The crew has also laid 160 kilometres of drip irrigation just under the ground.

“I would expect that this is the largest drip irrigation system in the Okanagan,” he said.

Hops Canada founder Joey Bedard said he was looking for a site where he could develop a larger operation that would take advantage of economies of scale.

“Farmers on the Prairies work large areas of land to their advantage,” said Bedard.

“But here in B.C., and to a lesser extent in Ontario, farming is often on a smaller scale.”

He said it’s a problem for hop farmers because capital costs are high for the infrastructure and the picking, processing and packaging equipment.

“I owned Hops Canada, which is a hops brokerage business,” said Bedard. “We had about $1 million in sales buying hops from other growers. I can contract out five years in the hop world. Things were going good.”

Bedard said the company also has a 20 acre farm in Ontario.

“It just made sense that the next step was to grow to supplement what we are buying,” he said.

“I approached the band to do just a lease, and part of the lease agreement is that they want to see your business plan.… And at that point they wouldn’t let me lease. They bought me out, and I formed a partnership with the Kamloops Indian Band. So I own 33 percent of the farm and brokerage, and the band owns 66 percent.”

He said the business is being developed to be profitable at $4.75 a pound.

Regular hops average $8 to $10 a pound with premium varieties going for more than $21.

“But you can’t build a business plan on $20 forever.”

Bedard plans to sell more than $2 million in hops this year, most of which will be imported from the northwestern United States.

“So we have the advantage that when our fields are ready we have the whole distribution set up already.”

Hop growers in Washington state have captured much of the large craft beer brewery market in North America, he said.

“You could sell hops all day long in B.C. right now, but they would be smaller guys who are going to open and close,” he said.

“We could be driving all around B.C. for the $ 20,000 customers. It’s hard to base a $6 million project on that.”

Instead, he is setting his sights on the overseas market.

“What we have noticed, and where I have put a lot of my marketing effort into the last couple of years, is that places like India and South Africa are just getting into the craft beer market,” he said.

“I think 80 percent of our sales are going to be out of the country and 20 percent domestic.”

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