Colorado climate affects how hops grow

Walking through a hops field, with the vines and cones reaching high into the sky, one might wonder how the plants survive in the sunny and dry climates in Colorado.

The answer: irrigation.

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“The west slope and the San Luis Valley are very sunny locations,” said Wendy Ryan, assistant state climatologist at CSU. “They don’t receive a lot of precipitation every year, so they rely heavily on irrigation water.”

Glen Fuller, owner of Rising Sun Farms in Paonia, said they water just under a gallon of water an hour to his hops.

“They are a very water-hungry plant, and they are a very nutrient hungry plant,” Fuller said.

So what happens during times of drought to a hops plant?

“Drought conditions generally cause plants, including hops, to produce less new growth in the spring, and in severe drought the plant may not grow at all, saving its resources in its roots until favorable conditions return,” wrote Tony Knight, professor emeritus of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and plant toxicology, in an email to the Collegian. “In times of drought the leaves will wilt and drop off as the plant reduces the leaf surface area so as not to lose more water through transpiration … Hops, being perennials, have a substantial root system that helps it survive longer than an annual plant. However, prolonged drought will kill the hops plant eventually.”

While severe droughts are less common, they will affect water rights for farmers who use irrigation for their crops.

“Those who possess senior water rights will have often good water supplies,” said Nolan Doesken, director of the Fort Collins Weather Station and senior research associate of atmospheric science at CSU. “Even in times of drought, and those that have less senior water rights … may end up with a very short, inadequate water supply.”

While hops respond to drought conditions much like other plants, the plant is both hearty and delicate during different processes of growth.

“Its a fairly heart plant, but its delicate too,” Fuller said. “They grow crazy in the wild.”

On the other side of climate, the late season snow storms in May caused some growing trouble for Larry Leinhart, hops farmer in Fort Collins who distributes hops to Odell Brewing Co., Fort Collins Brewery and CB & Potts Brewing.

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“This is technically the third year and the third year is supposed to be the start of a big yield,” Leinhart said. “I think, from now looking at the field this morning, the hops are about as big as they were last year. They are behind in both size and yield, to a degree because we got snow in May.”

Despite whether the climate is slightly dry, or in a period of drought, irrigation is an important part of hops growth.

“I don’t really think you could grow hops in this climate without irrigation; sure you could grow it, but not commercially,” Leinhart said.

Content Producer Logan Martinez can be reached at news@collegian.com