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Why Barley and Hops Farmers Want Lion-Like March Weather

Scott Patterson • March 6th, 2024.

What hops farming looks like

“In like a lion, out like a lamb” is a saying that represents the often volatile changes in the weather that occur at the start of March, but then lead to calmer weather by the end of March, heading into April. March just started and is already coming in like a lion. Several storms hammered the western US, with 7-10 feet (200-300 cm) of snow in the mountains. While the amount of snow is exceptional, March is notorious for these types of storms that develop in the seasonal transition as higher sun angles and longer days compete with cold air drawn down from the Arctic.

What are the benefits of March coming in like a lion in 2024?

While a few crops are planted over winter, most are planted in the spring and harvested in the summer and fall. Soil moisture deficits and drought have negatively affected large expanses of agricultural regions in Canada and the US. This may lead to delays in planting, lower quality crops, and lower harvest yields. Not only has snowfall been below normal across the Canadian Prairies and the Great Plains of the US, but snowpack in the mountains of the northern US and Canada through February was at 60-70% of its normal amount. Snowpack is critical for farmers because snowmelt in May-July provides water for irrigation and drinking water for people and animals.

When March comes in like a lion, big storms like the one impacting western North America this week can completely reverse the entire winter fortunes. For example in California, the snowpack in the Sierra Mountains was running at 70% of normal before this storm and now the same region is over 100% of normal. Even as planting doesn’t get going until April and May, low elevation rains in March and additional snowpack can improve yield forecasts, especially if extreme weather develops. What happens in March can determine the entire growing season.

March’s impact on barley and hops

As you raise a glass to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this March, take a moment to consider how the climate is impacting your favorite brew. Two crops that make up the four main ingredients in beer, hops and barley, are facing significant risks due to climate volatility.

Hops Title Picture

Hops

Hops are grown in a specific latitude (between approximately 35-55 degrees) in both the northern and southern hemispheres. There are two main regions that grow the highest quality of hops: the Pacific Northwest in the US and in central and southern Europe.

Most hops used by large breweries are grown in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho in the US. In Europe, most hops come from southern Germany, Czech Republic, and Slovenia.

While the largest amount of hops are produced in the United States, the largest area where hops are grown is Hallertau in Germany. Other regions such as Saaz, Czech Republic, Lublin Poland, the Savinja Valley in Slovenia, and the Xinjiang region of China make up the top 10 largest hop growing areas in the world.

Other areas with hop farms are located across southern Ontario, Great Lakes, Spain, the UK, China, southern Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and New Zealand. Hops produced in different regions add different flavors to beer, and this can vary even within the same region.

Hops Growing Regions Globally

Top ten hops growing regions worldwide

What does a hops farm look like?

If you have never seen a hop plant or farm, it is an interesting sight. Before the plants grow, you would see very tall wooden poles sticking out of the ground, angled on the ends of the field. Wires connect from pole to pole, with other wires running vertically in from the top wire to the ground. This creates a trellis for the hop plants to grow vertically upwards. Hop plants grow very quickly once warmer temperatures begin. When it comes time to harvest, a special type of machine is needed to pick the hops off the hop plant while not damaging the wires or the poles.

What hops farming looks like

Hops farm and harvest 

United States Hops

In the US, there are 3 main growing areas in the Pacific Northwest for growing hops.

  1. The Willamette Valley in Oregon, where Portland is located.
  2. Treasure Valley in Idaho, which includes the largest city Boise.
  3. The Yakima Valley in Washington, on the east side of the Cascades mountains and southeast of Seattle.

3 Main Hops Growing Regions in US

Top hops growing regions in the Pacific Northwest.

European Hops

The largest hop growing area in the world is Hallertau in southern Germany, north of Munich. Other well known hop regions in Europe include the Czech Republic, Slovenia, the Orbigo Valley in Spain, and near Birmingham, UK in the West Midlands.

Top Hops Growing Regions in Europe

Top growing regions for hops in Europe

Growing Conditions and Risk

Hops prefer long, sunny days, which is why they are grown at a specific latitude. The days are longer north of 35 degrees north latitude and south of 35 degrees south latitude. The danger of having long, sunny days is that they can be accompanied by extreme heat. As global temperatures become warmer due to climate change, this is especially true during the late spring and summer months.

One primary risk that may prevail this spring is warmer temperatures earlier than normal.  These may lead into a summer of hot, dry days and warm nights, with periodic extreme heat waves. One problem that can develop at this latitude during stretches of sunny, dry days is low soil moisture and drought. While an actual well-defined drought doesn’t need to occur, long periods of drier than normal conditions during the peak growing periods can have a damaging impact on plants. One of the primary risks to hops and to beer is the taste. Damage to hops due to extreme weather can result in less bitterness in the hops, which is the primary characteristic that differentiates one hoppy brew from another.

The transition from El Niño to La Niña mid-year and the state of the Pacific Ocean surface water temperatures increases these climate risks for 2024. One type of atmospheric phenomenon, blocking, is a primary concern this year as it will be the source of extreme heat and dry conditions and pose the biggest risk to all crops in these regions.

Barley Title

Barley

While hops have a very specific region where they are grown, barley grows in almost every sub-tropical country in the world. Barley is a crop that is used for many things beyond just beer. It is also an important food for livestock as one of its main uses. Barley grows best in cool, dry climates. It’s not surprising that the EU, Russia, Australia, and Canada are four of the top five barley producing countries.

Barley in the northern US and the Canadian Prairies is used in most breweries, big and small, in North America. European breweries get their barley from around Europe, rather than importing it from another continent.

Barley in North America

Barley is primarily grown across the southern prairie provinces of Canada, which include Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the United States, this includes North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

Hops and Barley Growing Regions in US

Barley and hops growing regions in the US and Canada.

Barley in Europe

As the leader in barley production, the European Union barley farms stretch from Spain to Estonia and west to Ireland. Top production of barley is in France and Germany.

Barley and Hops Growing Regions in Europe

Barley and hops growing regions across Europe

How has the weather this winter affected hops and barley?

One of the main extremes worldwide this winter has been significant differences in precipitation compared to normal. While much of the talk in the media has been around El Niño most of the winter, the El Niño played a minor role compared to other global weather patterns until February. For this reason, the anticipation and planning for El Niño-like weather didn’t occur. This led to much frustration for farmers expecting dry conditions and getting heavy rainfall and vice versa.

Even as El Niño didn’t play a big role at first, it is still in the driver’s seat, and will continue to be through the start of summer in the northern hemisphere. The expectations at the start of winter and for spring will still be relevant, combined with the chaos of changing seasons in March and April.

While El Niño can bring more rainfall and mild temperatures to the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, it has less of an influence in Europe. Instead, weather patterns that develop over Scandinavia, Greenland, and Russia tend to drive the weather in Europe. One of those that brings cold weather in winter, but brings record-breaking heat and dry conditions is blocking.

What is blocking?

Blocking, in weather terms, is a way in which the storm track slows down and meanders more to the north and south than usual, leading to extreme weather. A block is similar to if you put a large rock in a stream and the water is forced to flow around the rock. It might go on either side of the rock depending on surrounding rocks and the edge of the stream.

This is the same as the storm track. Sometimes a large area of warm air (the rock) forces the storm track and colder air (the water) to move north or south around the warm air. When this happens the storm track becomes very chaotic. This is when you might experience extreme weather in the form of heat waves, arctic outbreaks, and severe thunderstorms that include flooding. Warmer than normal sea surface temperatures increase the strength and heat associated with a blocking high pressure.

Blocking Weather Pattern and Heat Waves in Europe

A type of blocking pattern in Europe that can lead to extreme heat
waves for many agricultural regions.

The US and Canada see blocking as well. Like Europe, this can lead to a long period of very hot temperatures and dry weather, as the storm track (L) is forced to move around the high pressure (H). Due to climate change induced warmer than normal sea surface temperatures, blocks can persist for 1-2 weeks at a time. Even when the weather pattern finally does break down, increased rainfall is not guaranteed. This can lead to significant stress on crops and lower yields, especially the heat.

Blocking Omega Block Heat Waves US

A type of blocking that brings heat waves to the Pacific Northwest is the Omega block. 

Implications for changing from El Niño to La Niña

Anytime the atmosphere undergoes a large-scale change, such as changing from El Niño to La Niña, there is risk that the jet stream or storm track will undergo chaotic changes as well. This, along with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures and other regional weather patterns, will raise the concern for blocking to develop and lead to intense heat waves and drought, especially for hops and barley regions in North America and Europe.

Conclusion

While March is going to come in like a lion, even in Europe, barley and hops farmers may be wishing for March to stay a lion heading into April. The alternative is another year of very warm temperatures early in the growing season leading to damaging periods of extreme hot and dry conditions that persist into the harvest.

Contact ClimateAi to discover how climate intelligence can help you become more climate resilient in the face of chaotic weather patterns.

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