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Sunday, 25 October 2015 22:00

West Michigan entrepreneurs partner to develop mobile hop harvester

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Cory Deeds, right, at E-Motion Controls developed the concept behind the Humulus 1500P, a portable hop harvester. He worked with Todd Vriesenga, left, at Perceptive Concepts to further design the equipment, which was then built by Innertool of Cadillac. Cory Deeds, right, at E-Motion Controls developed the concept behind the Humulus 1500P, a portable hop harvester. He worked with Todd Vriesenga, left, at Perceptive Concepts to further design the equipment, which was then built by Innertool of Cadillac. PHOTO: JOHN WIEGAND

A team of West Michigan entrepreneurs plans to leverage the state’s manufacturing prowess to capitalize on the processing needs of hop growers supplying the U.S. craft beer industry.

As more craft brewers demand locally-sourced ingredients to produce their beers, and as hop-forward beers such as India pale ales (IPAs) gain popularity among consumers, industry insiders expect the number of U.S. hop growers to increase significantly over the next five years.

With more acres of hops needing to be processed, that’s created a growth opportunity for companies such as Grand Rapids-based E-Motion Controls LLC, which recently produced the first prototype of its Humulus 1500P, a mobile hop harvester.

“(Michigan) has such a great background of building automated equipment for the automotive industry, I thought why not harness that to build beer-making or farming equipment,” said Cory Deeds, president of E-Motion Controls and an electrical engineer by trade. “Once

I decided that we had an opportunity to do something, we started putting a design together to do some prototype testing.”

The company’s new harvester has several features that Deeds, the proprietor of Lowell-based 43°Hop Farms, believes will make it attractive both to startups and veteran hop farmers.

For one, the implement is mobile, allowing farmers to move it from field to field or potentially harvest hops on the fly while picking. That differentiates it from competitors’ models, which are often stationary.

“You can go to where the product is instead of having to haul it twice,” Deeds said.

The machine uses a chain to pull the hop bines through a series of rubber fingers that separate the hops from the rest of the plant. (Hops grow on bines that climb vertically up a structure, compared to vines that would wrap around it.) The hops and resulting leaves then fall through a rotating barrel onto a series of conveyors that separates the hops from the waste.

Deeds hopes the fact that the harvester is manufactured in Michigan will act as a draw for customers statewide in the fiercely local farming and craft brewing industries.

Deeds partnered with Belmont-based Perceptive Concepts LLC for concepting and design work on the equipment. Cadillac-based Innertool LLC fabricated the product, including its conveyor belt system.

To date, Deeds has invested approximately $100,000 into the prototype.

The company faces steep competition from the proven Wolf brand of hop harvesting equipment made by Germany-based Anlagen-Technik GmbH & Co. Farmers typically opt for used Wolf equipment that sells for $35,000 to $45,000 per machine, plus additional costs to convert the systems to run on standard U.S. voltage. They also incur setup and transportation fees that can add up quickly, said Todd Vriesenga, president of Perceptive Concepts.

“It’s a huge expense to buy German machines,” Vriesenga said.

To be competitive in the market, Deeds plans to sell his harvesters for $50,000. He hopes to begin taking orders as early as spring 2016.

MARKET GROWTH

Deeds hopes that his harvesting technology will not only catch on with hop farmers in Michigan but also in states such as Idaho, Oregon and Washington where the majority of the U.S hop crop is grown.

Nationwide, companies are projected to invest around $500 million in new hop production and infrastructure by 2020, said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, who spoke earlier this year at the annual Great Lakes Hop and Barley Conference in Grand Rapids.

Currently, Michigan farmers dedicate a little more than 400 acres for hop farms, but that number is expected to more than double in the next year as hop producers expand their acreage and as new farmers enter the market.

On its own, Traverse City-based Mi Local Hops LLC broke ground on approximately 200 acres of additional hops capacity this year and plans to plant an additional 200 acres over the next year, said Brian Tennis, founder of the Michigan Hop Alliance trade group and owner of the Omena-based New Mission Organics farm.

It’s likely that farmers will have no trouble selling those additional acres of hops as annual U.S. hop demand reaches 110 million pounds by 2020, up from the 85 million pounds used in 2014, Watson said.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

Deeds’ company and the others around the country jumping into the market face a key challenge: Hop farmers like Tennis see many of them as amateurish and inefficient compared to the industry standard Wolf machines.

Specifically, Tennis notes that domestically-produced machines would need to process a minimum of 250 bines per hour, have a waste-to-hop ratio in the mid-single digits and be reliable in order for professional hop farmers to take note.

“We’d certainly love to support the home team, but until we have a proven product, we’re not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do it,” Tennis said.

Deeds is well aware of what hop farmers need from their equipment. Currently, he and Vriesenga are working on refining the design for the Humulus 1500P. When it’s finished, Deeds hopes to process 250 bines per hour from his machine and achieve a 10 percent leaves-to-hop ratio.

“The last thing I want to do is to sell something that doesn’t work perfectly,” Deeds said.  

Sidebar: MADE IN MICHIGAN

Cory Deeds, president of Grand Rapids-based E-Motion Controls LLC, aims to capitalize on the growing acreage of hop farms in Michigan and the U.S. with his Humulus 1500P hop harvester, which will provide a mobile processing solution for farmers. Deeds predicts that the made-in-Michigan machine’s mobility and cost competitiveness will appeal to potential customers. So far, Deeds has invested approximately $100,000 into the prototype and plans to begin taking orders in spring 2016.

Read 9367 times Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2015 16:34

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