As a fan of craft beer, Aeron Moleta has the ultimate career path as the family farming business expands into hops. Anne Hardie reports.

The Moleta family has long been linked with the remote, steep hills of the Marlborough Sounds and Aeron’s father, Noel, grew up at Waitai Station on D’Urville Island before moving to Waitui Station on the mainland, overlooking Cook Strait.

Today, the family still farm sheep and beef on 1470-hectare Waitui Station, have a mussel farm in nearby Port Gore and now the beginnings of a hop farm at Tapawera near Nelson called Kotare Hops.

It’s all part of a diversified family business to incorporate all the family members and provide several income streams that will offset the downturns each may encounter.

While a brother and sister with their partners farm Waitui Station, Aeron, who spent six years as an arborist in Germany with its renowned passion for beer, gets the job of running the hop garden. He returned with his German fiance, Melanie, to help set up the hop venture which has been a huge learning curve to reach its first harvest.

Establishing a hop garden takes a massive investment of about $135,000 per hectare as it requires a kiln to dry the cones, storage and handling facilities, machinery and garden establishment. But the rewards, especially with today’s boom in craft beers, will give them a four-year return on that investment “if everything goes really, really well”,  Aeron says.

This year the farm had 14ha of hops for its first harvest and next year that will expand to about 28ha for a crop that returns on average $30 per kilogram of hop cones (flowers) and produces close to two tonnes per hectare.

Automated harvesting equipment has been imported from Germany to cut the vines in the garden at ground level and strip them of the cones before taking them by conveyors into the diesel-fuelled kiln for drying. The kiln is basically a huge oven, 7 metres by 7m, with layers of hops within the structure that begin their drying at the top and are tipped to lower layers as they dry, before being pressed into bales and sent to the New Zealand Hops’ facility near Richmond.

“The last year has been flat out setting up the garden and the whole family has been here most of the time. Before that we had the hop nursery set up and were potting the plants. So, it’s all brand new and a huge investment, but the value of hops and existing growers have kept our confidence up that we were doing the right thing.

“The price of hops is a record high and New Zealand hops are absolutely loved, especially in the United States which is the craft beer market of the world. Our aroma hops, in particular, and the Southern Hemisphere harvest is different to theirs.”

NZ has 17 unique varieties of hops to offer brewers around the world and in the past decade the tiny industry of about 20 growers transformed its crop from a commodity product wallowing in an oversupply worldwide, to a higher-value craft beer product. That has led to several new growers, like the Moletas, entering the industry which is located solely near Nelson due to the latitude-sensitive nature of the crop. The entire NZ industry is less than 500ha producing close to 800,000t of hop cones – about 1% of the world crop – so it’s tiny, but valuable.

The Moleta family is not new to tackling new business ventures, having gone through a long and laborious resource consent process in the past for their mussel farm, which is now contracted out to a mussel company. It’s proven to be a profitable business which Aeron says has enabled them to now invest in the hop industry and add another string to their bow.

From sheep and beef, Aeron’s daily life is now focused on aroma hop varieties with names such as Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Taiheke, Kohatu and Pacific Jade that have been planted to stagger the month-long harvest which kicked off mid-February.

Organic hops on the agenda

A hop garden becomes a hive of action at harvest and Aeron enlisted a labour contractor to organise a team of workers to help, though they also employ locals and backpackers.

The latter are familiar workers for the Moleta family who have long taken on wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms) to help run organically certified Waitui with its 6000 Wiltshire breeding ewes and 200 Angus breeding cows.

It was the family’s connection with German wwoofers over the years that prompted Aeron and one of his brothers to head to Germany on a working holiday years ago and he enjoyed it so much, he stayed a few years longer than he expected.

Now, their long history with organic farming means Aeron is definitely thinking about organic hops as a possibility down the track and he is keen on composting the huge amount of vines accumulated after harvest and then distributing it around the hops as part of the natural cycle.

“In New Zealand we’re lucky because we need few pesticides and fungicides – the only pest we have is a two-spotted mite which is generally controlled with a predator mite and fish oil fertiliser. If we go organic, it will be a lot more mulching, grubbing and hoeing.”

Half of the 132ha farm runs along the valley floor on the outskirts of the Tapawera village, with the remainder climbing steep hill which is now home to some of the Wiltshire sheep that they farm organically at Waitui. The Wiltshire – with some Texel genes in the mix – are a low-input breed on the steep hills in the Marlborough Sounds without the need to shear or tail and the lambs have proven a quiet option beneath the hop vines, which Aeron attributes to the fact they never went through stressful events such as tailing and shearing.

“We brought them here after weaning and two days later they were under the hops which was against the advice of other hop growers because you don’t want to damage the vines, but they were just so calm.”

Five hundred ram lambs have grazed beneath the hop vines this summer, trimming the bottom leaves, mowing the grass and adding fertiliser.

“It looks like we’re going to have a really good first crop because we planted on time before too much of the rain in spring and had a hot summer which the hops love.”

Once the harvest is complete, the garden will resemble a pole farm without the vines and the sheep will be used to clean up and graze it until the new shoots appear in spring. Then it will be time for ‘stringing’ to give the shoots a string to climb, as well as planting more hops to expand the garden.

“We’re also toying with the idea of growing our own barley for malt and producing our own beer – not necessarily as a business, but as a hobby.”

That’s where the chemical process engineering skills of another brother will come in handy, he says.

Alongside the hops, Aeron will graze older ewes on the hills from Waitui and continue to finish some of the ram lambs each year. In spring, when grass growth takes off, he plans to make balage to sell to local dairy farmers.

“We want it all to be easy to manage when we have so much going on with hops,” he says. “I’m a big fan of craft beers, so it’s exciting and our whole family needs to be busy so it’s a good challenge.”

A Nelson specialty

The New Zealand hop industry produces less than 1% of the world’s hop production and the latitude-sensitive crop is all based near Nelson.

In early settler days, hops were grown all around the country to brew beer, but the crop will only perform about 40 to 50 degrees from the equator where it can get the sunshine hours for the development of the flower. So at 41 degrees south and the right climate, Nelson is the sole region in the country to grow hops.

Until last year, there were about 18 growers and most of them had grown hops for generations, but the burgeoning market for craft beer and NZ varieties securing long-term contracts has enticed a few newcomers.

The industry is not looking for great expansion and establishing a hop garden is not cheap. The combination of kiln, machinery and garden establishment including plants and the 5m poles, costs in the vicinity of $135,000/hectare. But the rewards are worth it, with varieties generally returning between $35,000/ha and $55,000/ha.

Key points

  • Kotare Hops, Tapawera, Nelson.
  • 132 hectares
  • 14ha in hops for first harvest, 28ha next year.
  • 500 Wiltshire lambs graze remainder and under the hop vines.
  • Establishment costs $135,000 per hectare.
  • Production: two tonnes/ha
  • Return: between $35,000/ha and $55,000/ha.
  • Hops are latitude-sensitive, so limited to the Nelson region in NZ.