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LI hops farmer gets funds to buy harvester

John Condzella of Wading River with a hops

John Condzella of Wading River with a hops harvesting machine similar to the one he will use at his local farm. Credit: Handout

A Long Island farmer, seeking to supply a key ingredient to the growing number of New York craft breweries, has used the Internet to finance his purchase of a rare hops harvester from Germany.

Hops are the flowers that give most beers a distinctive bitter flavor. John Condzella of Condzella's Farm in Wading River started growing hops two years ago on an acre of land on his family farm, which mostly produces strawberries and asparagus.

"I was looking for something new to bring to the farm," said Condzella, a 27- year-old, fourth-generation farmer. "And with the resurgence of the brewing industry . . . I wanted to provide something unique and of value."

There was a caveat: Hops have a very tight harvesting period -- about two weeks in the fall -- and the labor necessary to pick them in time was beyond what most small farms could afford.

About five months ago, Condzella found a German farm selling a Wolf WHE 140 Hopfen Pflückmaschine, a rare hops harvester, online.

The machine is able to pick hops off the 20-foot-tall plant in 30 seconds -- a task that would take an hour if done by a person. With the harvester, Condzella estimates his whole acre of hops would take only eight hours to pick.

He took to the social crowdfunding website Kickstarter for financial aid, with the promise that he would share use of the machine during harvest season with local farmers. Crowdfunding websites ask for donations to fund business, artistic and charitable projects.

Word of the project spread in the past month, and on Tuesday -- almost a week before the end of the fundraising period -- Condzella hit his goal of $27,000.

He will travel to Germany in a few weeks to buy the harvester for $19,000. It will cost around $8,000 to ship the 14-foot, 5.5-ton machine to New York on an ocean freighter.

The purchase comes at a time of increased support for craft beers here. Legislation passed in the past year has made it easier to start microbreweries in New York State and incentivized brewers to use local ingredients. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 2013 budget also included $40,000 for hops research.

Condzella's hops have already helped local brewers explore new flavors. Beer made with fresh "wet" hops tastes differently from brews made with typical dried hops, said Greg Martin, the co-owner of Long Ireland Beer Co. in Riverhead.

Last year, Long Ireland brewed a wet-hops pale ale, which was made possible with the proximity of Condzella's farm, Martin said. Fresh hops must be used within hours of picking to attain the right flavor.

"People were very excited about it, they liked it better than our regular pale ale," Martin said. "The biggest interest was that it was a local product."

Condzella may have one of the first hops farms on Long Island, but the practice itself has roots in New York history. At the turn of the 20th century, upstate New York produced most of the nation's hops before it was halted by blight and Prohibition.

Nowadays, hops are mainly grown on the West Coast, but Condzella thinks Long Island's climate and soil could make farming hops a fruitful task, especially with help of the harvester.

After the publicity from the Kickstarter effort, he said, "we're getting a few calls from other farmers who're interested in learning about hops."

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