When Nick Southan took the opportunity to use land on his family farm in Wicklow, NB, after graduating from Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now the Faculty of Agriculture), he didn’t think twice. As the fourth generation on the large potato farm that has been owned by Nick’s family since the early 1900s, Nick and his wife Kathryn settled in the farmhouse.
However, it would take time and multiple business plans for the duo to begin farming the land.
“We weren’t interested in growing potatoes like my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had,” says Nick. “But we knew we wanted to farm.”
Southern and Kathryn took jobs with the federal government and applied skills learned at NSAC. Nick spent his evenings and weekends devising different business plans while considering different options for the farm. Kathryn would then work out the numbers and look for something workable.
“Again and again, the numbers would tell the story of a business idea that simply wasn’t sustainable,” says Kathryn. Until one day the budding farmers heard about an industry that was faced with crop shortages. The rapidly growing craft beer industry needed more hops.
“Nick brought me a business idea and the numbers for starting a hop farm. The projections have shown that we can do this, ”she says.
An essential ingredient
Hops are an essential part of the aroma and taste of a beer and at the same time keep the cool drink fresher longer. With so many craft breweries popping up all over Atlantic Canada, breweries have struggled to source sufficient quantities of the floral ingredient to use in production. Hops require a lot of manual labor – from sowing to harvest. And there aren’t a lot of mechanizations out there to help farmers.
“Establishing a hop garden involves creating a trellis with a grid of 6.50 meter poles and thousands of feet of aircraft cable. The plants themselves are perennial and have to be planted by hand, either as a rhizome or as a plant, ”explains Nick. “Since these are climbing plants, they have to be tied and attached to a cord with which they can grow up to 6 meters high.”
Each spring, two coconut-coconut strings are tied near the crown of each hop plant and tied by hand to the cable that runs across the top of the trellis. The coconut coconut is cut, also by hand, with a special applicator that inserts a metal clip into the ground to fix the threads.
“We currently have six hectares of hops with around 900 plants per hectare, which is the equivalent of 5,400 plants that need 10,800 strings to be tied and tied each year,” Kathryn adds.
Once the plants begin to produce shoots 12 to 18 inches in length, they will need to be pruned (by hand) and “trained” to scale the coconut. Hop vines are not self-climbing; they must be wrapped around the coconut coconut by hand. A selection of three vines are wrapped around the twine and the remaining shoots are cut out.
“When the plants are about 3 to 12 feet tall, the bottom four feet of foliage are hand stripped to increase airflow and reduce insect pressure,” continues Nick. “When it’s time to harvest, the plants have to be cut by hand and transported to the stationary harvester. The harvest of the hop cones, the drying process and the pelletizing process are fully mechanized. “
The end product at Southan Farms is then sold to breweries in the Maritimes, including Upstreet Craft Brewing, Picaroon’s, Trider’s, Cavok, Grimross, and Maybee Brewing – all of which produce a different delicious and refreshing drink.
But Southan Farm’s success in the craft beer industry didn’t come overnight.
“At first we didn’t have a lot of access to resources,” says Kathryn. As new graduates (and newlyweds) with little to no equity, the two faced a challenge. “The high investment requirements for the infrastructure and the necessary processing equipment were difficult to secure because hops were not a tried and tested culture in the maritime industry,” she adds.
Because credit institutions were wary of sponsoring a commodity they weren’t sure would grow in that area, Kathryn and Nick had to do significant amounts of volunteer work in the early seasons.
Her perseverance has resulted in a successful family business that keeps her busy day and night.
“Most days I answer emails, prepare bills, deliver hops (and children), book payroll and answer all other office work that comes up depending on the time of year,” says Kathryn. “During the more labor-intensive seasons that require additional manpower, I supplement where I am needed for tasks such as stringing, training, pruning and harvesting.”
Nick is responsible for everything from spraying to scouting to fertilizing, watering and everything in between. His days start early and end late in all four seasons.
Agriculture is important to the powerful duo and they are proud of their contribution to the industry.
“Agriculture is an opportunity to build something from scratch and literally watch it grow,” says Kathryn. “It forces us to have an intense relationship with Mother Nature. The sense of achievement when you are successful for yourself is like no other. “
“The nature of the industry teaches resilience and the ability to start over every year. By working firsthand in the agribusiness, we can have a direct impact on the planet that we leave to our children, ”added Nick.
The couple’s two daughters, Madison and Isabella (ages 13 and nine), learn firsthand the value of hard work and the daily selflessness it takes to keep things going. Something that is also important for your family business.
“Our children (and all children from the farm) love all outdoor activities and find simple joys in many things that other people don’t appreciate,” says Kathryn. “You can have a certain amount of pride in what you do every day, and children who grow up on a farm can also be proud of their contribution.”
As for the future, the people at Southan Farms are getting busier. Nick and Kathryn hope to at least double their hop acreage in the next 10 years and to secure contracts for other small to medium-sized breweries across the Maritimes.
“This is our lifestyle. It may have taken time and hard work to get to this point. It will always take hard work, but we love it. “