Mt. Philo Hops farm stirs controversy as project unfolds

Above, the Mt. Philo Hops site is being prepared for planting next year. At right, hops bines grow in a Michigan field the Vermont growers visited recently. Photo by Garrett Brown

When Peter Briggs purchased a 58-acre property from Clark Hinsdale to become the home of Mt. Philo Hops, he anticipated building a business to join the roughly dozen other Vermont hops operations beginning to farm and harvest what could be Vermont’s newest cash crop.

But the project is on the receiving end of criticism by some Charlotte residents who say they fear it will obstruct scenic views and might harm nearby wells or the environment in general.

“We are losing our beautiful and scenic view of the neighboring antique barns and farms and will have our view of the Adirondack Mountains dramatically disturbed by close to 1,000 telephone-pole style supports and the eventual growth of the hops plants,” said Eliza Bedell on Front Porch Forum recently. Bedell lives on Palmer Lane, adjacent to the hops farm property.

Briggs’ farm sits at the intersection of U.S. 7 and East Thompson’s Point Road, Mt. Philo to the east and Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west. He purchased the farmland from Hinsdale for about $235,000 earlier this year, Hinsdale said.

Of the parcel’s 58 acres, 30 to 35 acres will be trellised for hops. “We don’t know how much hops we’ll get,” he told The Citizen. “No one’s built a large hops farm (here) before.”

Indeed, hops farms are a new addition to Vermont agriculture. Heather Darby is the lead agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension’s Hops Project. She said the industry is a small, but growing, and becomingly increasingly profitable.  Darby pegged the number of growers in Vermont at about a dozen with Briggs’ farm is on tap to be the largest in the state.

Growing hops in Vermont goes hand-in-hand with the state’s burgeoning craft beer industry. As the demand for popular hoppy brands grows, so does the brewers’ need for raw ingredients – and sourcing local is a familiar theme for Vermont. Fortunately for the brewers who may benefit from a local hops crop, hops are suited to Vermont growing conditions.

But neighbors aren’t wasting time to react to the upstart operation. Bedell’s Front Porch Forum complaint imagines what the future holds for neighbors close by the farm: “Without warning, we are now the direct neighbors of the new ‘Hops Farm’ in town where the plants will grow to be over 18 feet tall and the supporting trellises made of poles that resemble telephone poles that support these very tall plants will be even taller,” she wrote.

The criticism surprised both Briggs and his business partner and farm manager, Julian Post. “We did our best to reach out to people on a person-to-person basis,” Post said.

He told The Citizen that he and Briggs are eager to discuss the project and what they view as a choice to grow hops as a way to breathe some new life into Vermont agriculture. “We are constantly losing Vermont farms,” Post said. “We’re at the point where we need some new crops in Vermont.”

In reaching out to people who live nearby, Briggs said he has tried to reassure them that the project’s conservation rights are overseen by the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

That doesn’t change the fact that some are just unhappy at the prospect of seeing a large field of tall tree-like plants growing in a spot renowned for its panoramic views that take in the 360-degree vistas from the Green Mountains to the Adirondacks.
“When you turn on to East Thompson’s Point Road, instead of being treated to a most amazing view of the Adirondacks and the lake, you will view a thousand poles,” wrote Peter Demick, another Palmer Lane neighbor to the hops site, joining in on the social media conversation.

This backlash is new to Alison Kosakowski of the state Agriculture Agency. She said the department isn’t “aware of any specific criticism levied at the hops industry” to date. “However, we are encouraged by the interest we have seen in the craft beer movement, and believe this could be a good opportunity for Vermont agriculture going forward,” she said.
Growing hops

Hops plants, called “bines,” look like vines and grow with the help of supports to about 18 feet. On each bine grows a few hundred small flowers. When a fresh hops flower is broken, a handful of bright, yellow sacs are visible, Post explained. Inside, are glands that hold alpha acids and aromatic oils that give beer its bitterness and flavor.

As a crop, hops can be temperamental, and can fall victim to mildew, blight, and an array of insects. Post said they will control plant diseases and minimize the need for spraying using several strategies such as planting disease-resistant varieties, spacing plants to promote good airflow, crowning and weeding.

The Mt. Philo Hops crop will be sold to Vermont brewers and possibly other regional beer producers. The plan now is to prepare the site to have plants growing next spring with the first harvest next fall, Post said.

Hinsdale, a heavy-hitter in Vermont agriculture as owner of a large Charlotte dairy operation and former head of the Vermont Farm Bureau, said the cool reception for Mount Philo Hops is not surprising. He said the presence of large machinery preparing the field attracts attention and sparks concern. “I guess when anything that’s new comes in, it causes controversy,” he said.

Briggs said he expects to continue to talk with neighbors both in person and online. “We definitely want to engage our neighbors,” he said. “We’ve constructed a web site, opened an Instagram account and have email addresses.”
The website mtphilohops.com mostly showcases photos documenting the work so far on site. It links to an Instagram site where Briggs has photos posted from a visit with a hops operation in Michigan as they prepared to break ground in Vermont.

3 Responses to "Mt. Philo Hops farm stirs controversy as project unfolds"

  1. David Wallace   August 27, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    Bravo to a risk taking entrepreneur willing to support a burgeoning new agricultural endeavor, sorely needed here in Vermont.

    Reply
  2. Peter Schubart   August 30, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    I strongly dispute Julian Post’s assertion that he or Peter Briggs reached out to people in the neighborhood. Mr. Briggs has said that his lawyer told him to reach out to people when the poles went up. Ultimately, Mr. Briggs held a meeting on July 29th, 2017, in response to resident concern, where he and Julian balked when asked specific questions about pesticides and fungicides and water usage. Residents are being asked to trust these two men, who built a barn within the town setback, against local land use regulations, and constructed a pond that promises to send pesticides and fungicides into Thorp Brook and Lake Champlain, as well as wash out the neighbor’s driveway, with dangerous pesticides and fungicides. The labels on those products call for a 250 foot buffer zone between the spray area and residences, but Post and Briggs have not stated that they will honor those labels, as required by Federal Law. This project continues to threaten 25 homes and two organic farms with pesticide and fungicide contamination, with the resulting health effects.

    Reply
  3. Steve Palmer   September 22, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    These people want to farm and you people are complaining about it? Really? BTW – its not YOUR view, its THEIR land. You should have bought it and paid the taxes if you wanted the view. The area around you has thousands of corn and many other crops that are all sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. Should we stop all those farms as well?? Very few farms or agriculture of any kind left in Charlotte at all. These people are going to struggle and work really hard just to get this off the ground. Rather than complaining and getting all of your neighbors to ban together and fight them, why not act like a Vermonter and help and encourage them and you’d find they probably would be more inclined to work with you and listen to your concerns. Vermont is a right to farm state, better look that up.

    Reply

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