ROUNDUP — On a sunny October day, with 40-mph wind gusts whipping along the Mussellshell River, Chris Hamilton stands by himself at the edge of a field, balanced precariously atop a ladder and stringing lines of steel cable to wooden poles 20 feet off the ground.
The Billings business owner is closing out his first season as a hops farmer, a vocation he says he more or less “stumbled into,” but one he now believes could transform the agricultural landscape of the Musselshell Valley.
“Most of the farmers coming in here are my age, and that’s why they’re watching me,” Hamilton said. “They know the beef market is stagnant. They want more. And this can give them more.”
A former Marine who owns Bodyworks Tattoo & Piercing in Billings, Hamilton is more than happy to admit he’s no farmer. But as a 50-year-old entrepreneur and salesman with the capital required to take on a new retirement venture, he’s confident his sense of an untapped market has led him to the state's next cash crop.
Hamilton’s mother-in-law left him and his wife a farm alongside the Musselshell River, which spans 170 acres and includes what he calls “some of the oldest water rights on the river." Breaking into hop production requires substantial start-up costs, but he said after crunching the numbers, it was clear that growing grass for cows would barely take him north of the break-even point, if that.
“The hops market runs in the red every year,” he says. “It runs in such a deficit, there’s so much room for this.”
Central to the business plan for Hamilton’s “Bitterroot Island” hop farm is the degree to which Montana’s explosion in craft breweries has outpaced the supply of locally grown hops. More than 50 breweries now operate within Montana, yet only a handful of hops farmers have followed suit. And most of those are small-scale or experimental plots scattered around the state on a total of about 30 acres, according to Steph Hystad, a Montana Department of Agriculture marketing officer focusing on the crop's potential in the state.
“A lot of the brewers we’ve talked to, a lot of them are so excited to have Montana hops, they’ll take whatever they give them,” said Hystad, who has been working with hop growers in the state for the past few years to provide grants and marketing support for the fledgling agricultural sector.
Hamilton, for his part, has for the last year been attending hop growers’ conferences and devouring information on both the production and supply sides of the hop business, which has paralleled the nationwide explosion in craft beer production.
So far, he’s planted 2,500 plants on three acres to the south of the river, forgoing a first-year harvest from the immature hop vines to allow them to focus on root growth. Despite his water rights, he drilled a 385-foot well and installed a drip-irrigation system to provide a clean, consistent source of water to the young plants.
A trellis of steel cables creates a canopy over the entire plot, and if he decides to harvest a crop next season, coconut string will provide the connecting tissue between the vinous plants and the overhanging structure.
With $37,000 already invested in the start-up, Hamilton is in the process of buying a harvester ($25,000) and a hop-drying system (cost still to be determined). Because fresh hops begin losing their oils after 24 hours, nearly all hops are sold to brewers in the form of hop pellets, a concentrated form that allows for a longer shelf life and easier storage. The pelletizer will cost another $22,000.
“Ninety-nine percent of brewers in the state use pelletized hops. That’s a big leap that growers are going to have to make is how to get their own drying and pelletizing equipment,” Hystad says. “Chris is on the leading edge of industry development here.”
Despite her optimism, Hystad notes that Montana’s hop growers are essentially going out on a limb, with little data to help inform which varieties of hops are best suited to the climates found in the state.
“In all honesty, there just hasn’t been a lot of research in Montana specifically, in terms of hops,” she says. “The plan at this time is to know a ton more about the potential for the hop industry in Montana and how we want to move forward, how it’s going to develop.”
Those unknowns also create problems for getting the hops to market. Hamilton ultimately decided to settle on a blend of common, high-demand hop breeds and a few he picked more or less at random.
“That’s a real thumper for a guy just starting a farm,” Hamilton said. Cascade and Chinook are among the top five nationally in terms of demand, while the Zeus variety ended up in his portfolio because he “wanted a guardian for my garden.”
And while most brewers are happy to tout their inclusion of local, Montana-made ingredients, Carter’s Brewing owner and brew master Mike Uhrich said there are other market forces that could further complicate the path forward for new hop growers.
“One of the most important things in hops is consistency, like anything in brewing. We’ve got brands that we’ve worked on to develop,” Uhrich explains. “It depends on the quality. If he’s got good quality, we’d take a look at it.”
But, he added, finding room to include Bitterroot Island hops in his beer may take time. Like many brewers, Uhrich tries to offset the unpredictability of the annual hop harvest by signing multi-year contracts with growers to guarantee quantity and price. Until his current five-year contracts expire, he likely won’t be able to incorporate locally grown hops.
“If I could market and sell my product with 100-percent Montana ingredients, I would,” Uhrich says. “People support us as a local business, so we want to support other local businesses. On the whole, I think Montanans aren’t really corporate-driven, and they’d like to keep their dollars local.”
Restoring the family name
Hamilton insists his motivation for trying a new crop in an old farming community is driven by more than his capitalistic spirit.
His grandfather had been a successful businessman in Roundup, he says, known for opening the town’s first car dealership and helping to raise the funds to build the local hospital. When Hamilton’s father moved the family from Miami to his hometown, Chris was a city kid suddenly thrown into a small town, and quickly earned a reputation as a hell-raiser who frequently stole bikes and broke into local bars after hours.
“In a town that small, you do two bad things, you get a bad name,” he said with a laugh. “This really isn’t about money for me ... Now all I think about, at 50 years old, is the name I ruined in that town. I want to be the name that made everybody money.”
If he can make it work, Hamilton hopes to see other hop farms spread up and down the Musselshell Valley — and throughout Montana. Yet despite his persuasive, high-energy business pitch, Hamilton acknowledges the risks he’s taking starting a hop farm with zero agricultural experience.
“I got handed this farm. I’m a tattoo guy, a business guy, and I had to figure out what to do ... and if I fail, I can go back to grass,” Hamilton says. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong. It could fail. But because it’s my own money, nobody gets hurt.”