CORVALLIS - Oregon is second in U.S. hop production behind Washington, and grows about 5 percent of the entire world's hops - about 13 million pounds on roughly 8,600 acres last year. That's enough to make a lot of beer.

But such a high-yield, low-acreage crop, worth about $26 million in 1995, puts a premium on land management decision making. So about six years ago, Oregon State University researchers began working with government agencies and progressive hop growers concerned about sustaining the industry, both economically and environmentally.

The work is starting to pay off with more efficient, less costly fertilization that protects the environment, says an OSU scientist.

"We found that most growers could reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they used without reducing their yields," said Neil Christensen, a soil scientist with OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

This sounds simple, he explains, but it is a hard sell to producers because fertilizing is relatively inexpensive. At about 30 cents a pound, nitrogen fertilizer is cheap insurance for hop growers worried about keeping yields high.

"To their credit, though, most of the growers we worked with are aware that there are other considerations besides the bottom line. Too much nitrate-nitrogen remaining in the soil at harvest is a potential environmental pollutant if it ends up in the ground or surface water," said Christensen.

"Ideally," he added, "you want to end the growing season with only small amounts of nitrate-nitrogen left in the soil. Excess nitrate is not only an economic waste, but Oregon's rainy winters tend to move it down into the ground water system."

OSU researchers closely monitored nitrogen levels and hop yields and suggested adjustments that would reduce or eliminate excess nitrogen.

"We found that most growers could reduce nitrogen about 50 pounds per acre without reducing yields," said Christensen.

"Another suggestion was using cover crops (grasses planted after harvest and plowed under in the spring) to keep excess nitrogen from leaching during the winter," Christensen said. "This is the kind of applied research we'd like to do more of."

The work is a cooperative effort with the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, the Oregon Hop Commission, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the growers.

"The growers are concerned about doing things more efficiently," Christensen said. "In this case, doing things more efficiently is also good for the environment.

"The private sector is now using soil and plant testing techniques we found useful in determining nitrogen needs of hops," he pointed out. "We hope that they can confirm and refine our results and management practices."

According to Sandy Sears in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at OSU, Oregon's 1995 hop crop was valued at $26,187,000 at the farm gate. Number one Washington's crop was worth $100,472,000, and the value of the entire U.S. hop crop was $136,985,000.

Oregon's main hop-growing areas are Marion, Polk and Clackamas counties. Farmgate values for 1995: Marion County, $25,159,000; Polk County, $2,398,000, and Clackamas County, $461,000.

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Neil Christensen, 541-737-5733