Connoisseurs of local beer have reason to celebrate this month, thanks to a $130,000 grant to the University of Vermont to study how to increase yields on hops farms in the Northeast while reducing pesticide use. The University of Vermont received the Integrated Pest Management grant this month from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Heather Darby, of University of Vermont Extension, is the principal investigator for the grant. She said hops are a new crop for farmers in the Northeast.
“There’s a really strong local food movement,” said Darby, “and that local food movement spans into the beverage industry as well. There’s a lot of interest from brewers to buy local hops, especially for microbrews.”
And though she estimates only about 70 farmers are growing hops in the Northeast, Darby expects that number to rise, “and with new crops come new pests. New learning curves and new practices need to be developed to help farmers deal with the issues associated with them.”
Plus, many of the people growing hops are new farmers.
“The industry is growing fast,” Darby said. “There are lots of fledgling farmers. My hope is that we can develop practices that not only protect the environment, but also help those farmers be economically viable.”
The three-year grant will fund research into which hops varieties are most resistant to the crop’s numerous pests. That research, which will take place at UVM Extension’s experimental farm in Alburgh, is applicable not just to Northeastern hops farmers. Darby estimates the research could affect hundreds of growers in the main hops-growing regions of the U.S., including the Midwest and South.
Because hops are plagued by many pests, including insects, spider mites and fungi, Darby says it’s important to educate farmers about how to reduce pesticide use while maintaining and even increasing crop yields.
“We start by teaching farmers how to avoid those pests,” she said. That includes learning how to identify pests and beneficial insects, the pest life cycle, and how various pests respond to treatments. Darby’s team at UVM Extension will also show farmers how to prune hops to reduce fungal pests that spend the winter in branch tips.
Their hope is that by providing new hops farmers with pest-resistant varieties, and then teaching them how to manage pest populations, farmers will be able to use less pesticide.
Integrated Pest Management combines multiple methods to reduce pests while minimizing pesticides, so they are used only as a last resort.
Pennsylvania State University and Louisiana State University were also recipients of part of the $500,000 grant. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University will study how to reduce the use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides particularly toxic to bees. The project at Louisiana State will focus on reducing the use of pesticides to control mosquitoes.