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Why I Farm

Beck's Why I Farm Roadtrip: Pennsylvania farmers, Adam and Diana Dellinger

Published on Friday, July 8, 2016

After moving all around the country for their jobs with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agency in 2013, Adam and Diana Dellinger were ready for something different. So, they decided to start their own hops farm in Carlisle, Pennsylvania called Sunny Brae Hops. “We don’t fit into any of the normal farming boxes.” Diana laughs.

“We started thinking about homesteading and definitely knew we wanted to do that whenever we finally got a piece of property. Adam was starting to get antsy to do something different with his time than being at the office. He was getting tired of that kind of life, but we weren’t ready at that point to do anything about it so he stuck it out until we moved back to Pennsylvania. Even then we didn’t make the jump right away, because it takes quite a leap of faith to say, ‘I’m going to leave my salary job to go farm.’ Everyone looks at you like you’re crazy because it’s hard to make money farming. It took us a long time to get where we are today, and even now we’re just in the beginning stages of the farm.”

The Dellinger’s got their start with just a few acres. “We got in some beginning farmer classes to make sure we understood what we were getting into. We had to figure out what we could grow and make sure there was a market for it. We didn’t inherit land or equipment. If it’s not part of your family, it takes a while to build all that up. We’re starting from scratch. Land is not cheap. Equipment is not cheap. We wanted to make sure we were committed and knew what we were getting into. One thing the teacher said was, ‘You may love growing it, but if no one’s going to buy it, then it’s not really a business.’ We took that to heart and found something we would be interested in, but people also wanted to buy.”

“We’re craft beer fans and I’m a home brewer, so that’s what attracted us to hops. But it takes more than that to grow a crop successfully. You have to be willing to put in a lot of hand labor, a lot of research, and a lot of experimentation, writing things down and record keeping. If you don’t experiment and keep good records you’re not going to improve. We were up for that challenge just to do something a little different and figure it out.”

Starting with nothing is difficult, and like any new business meant a lot of risk. “We started small. I kept my job and then part time, we put in a quarter acre of hops just to test it.” Adam reflected. “We continued on with that for about a year. Then we looked at it, decided it was going well, that we really enjoyed it, and that there’s a market. So I quit my job and put in an expansion, going from a quarter acre to two acres. To a corn or soybean farmer, that’s a joke, but this is all a lot of hand labor. Every string has to be hand strung each spring. All the plants need to be hand trained. The weeding is very difficult. Most people start with between a quarter of an acre to an acre and make their mistakes there before expanding. The biggest hops farm in Pennsylvania right now is five acres. We have two. It’s a very young industry in Pennsylvania.”

Being one of the first Pennsylvania hops yards has its challenges. “Because it’s so young in this area, the support network and institutional knowledge isn’t there for hops. You kind of take that for granted. Cooperative extension knows a whole lot about pests and disease on corn, beans and alfalfa, but with hops in this area, they just look at you like, ‘This might work? Maybe I can tell you a little bit about this…’ That surprised Diana. “I didn’t think about it. I knew this would be a challenge because we were one of the only hop yards, but I didn’t realize how much, as a farmer you rely on those other support networks – cooperative extension, NRCS, even other farmers.” The Dellingers problem solve and brainstorm with other new, small hops yards as much as they can. “We’re all trying to figure this out together, but no one has the answers yet. Whether it’s on Facebook, or text messaging, or emailing, we’re always trying to reach out to people from all over to answer each other’s questions.”

“Hops are supposed to start forming their flowers around summers solstice, or just after. That daylight change is supposed to be a trigger. What we’re finding here is that rule does not apply. For three years here, the plants here have matured early. Out west it’s early. Here that may be normal, we just didn’t know.”

Working in such a young market, the Dellingers have found their niche. “We sell a lot of our hops wet. We pick them and then they go straight to the brewery for a once-a-year harvest sale. It’s a very special thing, especially for the small breweries around here that are a year or two old. They don’t have the resources to go and buy a big bulk order of fresh hops and have it freighted overnight from the northwest. We can provide that service they can’t get. They can come out, see the hops, and even help pick them. We can have our product to some of our closest breweries in 20 minutes.”

“Brewers get a unique hop when they buy local. It kind of plays into the whole craft beer movement. When we supply local hops for that local beer that they’re making, it adds to the whole story. The people that drink craft beer love to feel connected. They like to know they’re helping a local business, and a local farm which really fits well into the whole ethos of craft beer.”
So far, Adam said that farming has been a great fit for his personality. “Being a farmer means you have to do everything. You don’t get bored because there’s always something to do, and its different kinds of stuff. You’ve got to research pesticides, fix equipment, or hand weed. I really like that variety. I like being outside and working with my hands to create things that are physical, things that are meaningful to people. I think it’s more rewarding than pushing paper to see plants grow and people being excited about the beer that comes out of it. It’s fulfilling.”

Diana also enjoys working in the hop yard after her day job and on the weekends. “For me it’s nice to be out and doing some physical labor. I really enjoy that. Overall, it’s been a very positive change for us. He’s so much happier doing this. For us, that’s better. I could see when we started this, this is really what he was meant to do – be an entrepreneur. He’s got the mechanical skills, he’s got the critical thinking skills, and he’s very tenacious. He doesn’t give up and he tackles problems. He’s done it so well. I walk out here and I’m just amazed what we’ve created here. We’ve set every single one of these posts ourselves. He designed all this wire by doing the research. Our family and friends help us put up all the irrigation. I’m just amazed at what we’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time and how many people have pitched in to help us do it. It’s pretty cool.”

That’s why Adam and Diana Dellinger farm.


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Natalina Sents

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