Farm Boy Farms started as a homebrewing venture, but it’s grown into much more. Dan Gridley still brews beer, but he also grows hops and works with neighboring farmers to grow barley, which he malts and sells. The side business is more than a hobby. Dan wants to further the craft beer industry in our state by finding methods of growing and varieties of beer ingredients that work in the Piedmont.
Dan began growing hops on family land in 2009. He used data from NC State about which hop varieties grow well in North Carolina. So far, he’s gotten about three pounds of hops per plant, but in Oregon they get five pounds; he hopes to optimize the yield by applying the most efficient plant management strategies. He also planted seven acres of barley on leased land using recommendations from the American Malted Barley Association. Barley for beer-making is not yet adapted to this growing region, so Dan’s been communicating with universities and organizations and sending them samples. He’s found that the “six-row” barley (with six rows of seeds on each stalk) resulted in lots of variability in seed size, which did not work in the seed cleaner. In contrast, the two-row, which has more air space, produced more consistent seed sizes.
Dan’s been encouraging area farmers to grow barley. He shares the research data with them and communicates the different methods that are needed. “North Carolina farmers are used to throwing nitrogen at everything,” says Dan’s father-in-law, Mike Hager, who works on the farm almost every day. But nitrogen won’t work on a barley field; it will cause large leaves that topple the plants. Instead, barley plants need high phosphate and potash soils, which result in large seeds. Ideally, barley is planted after soybeans or tobacco, not corn or grains, so Dan looks for farmers who grow soy or tobacco to partner with. Hopefully growing hops and barley for beer will someday be a sustainable commercial industry in our area.
Dan gives us a tour of the malting house, where grain is loaded into silos, then wheeled inside on a tiny “train track.” The barley is washed with successive rinses; cleanliness is important because impurities will make the beer taste off. It’s then germinated in tanks until it starts to grow. This results in the activation of enzymes that break starch into the sugars that are desired in the beer-making process. The grains are sent to the kiln to dry when the rootlets emerging from the seed are twice as long as the seed. After drying, the rootlets are brushed off and the grain is bagged and shipped to homebrew shops, online customers, and local breweries. The malting process will finish mid-April, and Dan will turn his attention to the hopyard.
The hops have just begun growing in early April. By the date of the Piedmont Farm Tour, they should be several feet tall. Each perennial plant has a rhizome that produces numerous shoots, but Dan and Mike pick most of them off to encourage the best growth and hop cone production. The hops grow up lines that are rigged like a flag pole; they’ll be lowered to harvest the 25-foot-long hop vines in mid-July; the hops will produce a second harvest by September. Hop plants produce for 20 or more years; in the beginning, they produce hop cones only on their vertical vine, but after a few years they start sending out sideways shoots with extra hop cones. The hopyard at Farm Boy Farms is expanding. Dan plans to split and replant the rhizomes they already have in use, which are healthy, succeed when replanted, and have proven to produce well in Pittsboro.
Dan works as a special education teacher and spends his weekends and summers at the farm. Other than Mike, there is no staff, but when it’s time for a big harvest, Dan puts an announcement out, and helps always arrives. “We’re just really excited about local and sustainability,” Dan says. “We really want to have that beer education. The North Carolina craft beer industry is really growing, and we want to be able to spend the dollars here and keep the dollars here, so that’s why we focus on the craft farming, the craft malting, and then the craft brewing which leads to that quality craft beer.”
Visit Farm Boy Farms on the Piedmont Farm Tour to learn all about the beer-making process. Visit online at http://www.farmboybrewery.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/farmboy.brewery. Watch a video of our visit below.