Hop to It
Drive south on I-75 from Temple Terrace, where the world’s largest orange grove used to be, toward Ruskin, where fields once yielded millions of pounds of tomatoes but now mostly sprout houses, and then east toward the community of Balm, where strawberry fields persist, hopefully forever. There you’ll find the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
Some will be surprised to learn that the University of Florida was not founded for the purpose of playing football but owes its origins as a research university to federal acts in the late 1800s when economic development meant innovation to create a more productive agrarian society. College football didn’t become economically important until decades later. Back then, most of Florida’s tiny population lived and worked on farms. Today, about 14% of the state’s jobs are connected to the agriculture, natural resource and food industries. Florida’s 47,000 farms cover about 9.7 million acres.
Farming was never easy, but modern times have created complex troubles for Florida farmers. Here, UF researchers are deep into the work of producing hardier crops, developing technologies that make farming more efficient, and reimagining the future of Florida agriculture amid ever-increasing demand for land and water; devastating crop diseases; global competition; and farm labor shortages. This is where you’ll find an intriguing experiment that has Florida’s booming craft beer scene buzzing — hops.
On a recent summer morning, professors and grad students worked side-by-side with farmworkers to reach the top of the 18-foot trellises where the hops were growing in lush green curtains scented of bright citrus and sharp pine needles. As one of the men ran a power clipper along the tops of the plants, the hops tumbled to the ground, where they were fed into a machine separating the cone-shaped flowers. These hops were headed to a brewery in Ocala, where brewers extracted lupulin, which contributes bitterness to beer and balances out the sweetness of malt, giving each brew its own distinct flavor profile.
Hops have been cultivated for centuries, but in the United States they were thought to only grow in a few locales. The Pacific Northwest, where summer days are longer and the temperatures cooler, is the main producer of domestic hops, and many in the industry thought it was foolish that warm, humid Florida, where hops plants would be susceptible to fungus, would even try. But UF researchers experimented with different varieties and lighting techniques to produce harvests in June and again in October.
Shinsuke Agehara, a UF associate professor of horticulture, and the research team started developing hops in 2015 with a preliminary greenhouse trial and then expanded to its first hopyard test in 2016. The team achieved a record high yield with the Cascade variety in 2019 grown with LED lights. Yields are reported in pounds of dried hops per acre, and Agehara hopes to see more than 500 pounds per acre from the research facility’s crops. Pacific Northwest hops farms produce about four times more per acre. But this effort isn’t about taking over a market. It’s about creating a product that gives Florida farms and brewers something distinct that produces value. The national Brewers Association ranks Florida fifth in the nation for craft breweries, which employ more than 21,000 Floridians and have a $4.1-billion impact.
This isn’t the only alternative crop that could provide a lifeline for Florida farms. Vanilla is a promising product amid huge global demand and short supplies, as are pomegranates and artichokes. Florida’s resurgent blueberry crop — which isn’t as big as Michigan’s but comes in earlier — is a model for improved varieties developed through research quickly ramping up to meet consumer demand.
Few of the researchers working at this UF outpost are from here. They hail from around the world and many of them are motivated to find solutions to food supply challenges that in some developing nations are a matter of life and death. When the morning sun comes over the horizon and begins to warm the fields, it brings their greenhouses and labs — full of experimental drones and robots designed to weed, water and detect and treat crop diseases — to life. The collaboration between these scientists and farmers means there are few other places in Florida where the path from an idea in a lab to a return on investment in the market is as short.
For many Florida farmers, the difference between sustaining their livelihoods and traditions or buckling under a multitude of pressures and factors out of their control depends on the options and solutions created here. If you want to see tenacity and doggedness, you’ll find it in these fields — and there’s not a single football in sight.