Chris Phillips is keeping his family farm going in South West Oxford, but it bears no resemblance to the dairy operation that once graced the property just south of the 401. South West Oxford Hops is the new agricultural operation on Rivers Road.
“Back in the 80’s interest rates were a little crazy and we either had to expand the farm or close. We decided to stop dairy farming altogether,” he said. The family kept the original 70 acres and used it for cash cropping. “We just couldn’t make a living off it. We were growing corn, wheat, soybeans, the traditional crops, but it just wasn’t enough so we started to look into what other markets we could get into to make the farm more profitable.”
In 2015 Chris and his family started to consider growing specialty crops that would give them a different market to enter. “After much research, we decided to try growing hops since at that time 95 per cent of the hops used in Canada for making beer were imported. I was sure a lot of craft brewers would rather use local products, so it seemed like a good opportunity to try and secure some of that market share.” One of the disadvantages of hops farming is the start-up cost. “The initial investment kind of scared us. We needed to install a trellis system, so it was a major investment upfront,” he added.
Another tricky aspect of the crop is how long it takes to be able to harvest it. “It takes about 4 years to get the full production from the crop. Our first planting was in the spring of 2018 so our first-year yield was small. Our plan was to approach the craft brewers with our hops this year but unfortunately, the pandemic hasn’t allowed us to do that. Restaurants have been closed and with their restrictions, they aren’t selling a lot of beer and the craft brewers aren’t brewing up to their capacity. We did get a good crop this year, so COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Chris.
Despite the setback, he remains positive and is hoping to increase the crop. “We expect to produce approximately 350 pounds of hops with our current set up of a third of an acre. Our plan is to expand our operation over the next five years to 10 acres if we can secure enough market share.”
Chris said they have turned to social media to generate sales and they have had some success with home beer brewers. “We did get our website up last October, trying to at least get a door open for people to try our products. We are also doing some advertising on Facebook and Instagram and that has been successful in driving people to our site, but the sales just aren’t where they should be.”
Chris’ team on the family hops farm consists of his wife, 2 sons, and a daughter. His father and uncle were also very heavily involved in the initiative. Their website can be found at www.southwestoxfordhops.com.