Downtown Toledo parking lots do not make for easy gardening.
Marleigh Kerr, a senior at Anthony Wayne High School, learned it the hard way by growing hops and herbs for use by the Maumee Bay Brewing Co. atop an old parking lot on Morris Street, next to the brewery’s warehouse.
“Marleigh was the perfect fit to do the initial labor,” her dad and Maumee Bay brewery manager, Craig Kerr said.
As an FFA student, Marleigh, 17, had to complete a supervised agriculture experience and decided the brewery was a good place to work. Her project has been recognized by Ohio FFA, which named her a finalist for a proficiency award. That means she is among the top four in the state in the specialized crop-raising category, despite lacking much prior agriculture experience.
“I was looking for [project] to do that would be related to agriculture, a way to earn money for a state degree, and something that was interesting,” she said.
Whitney Short, the Anthony Wayne FFA adviser, said she was impressed by the project’s partnership with the brewery and its location.
“I think the unique piece is how she transformed this parking lot,” Mrs. Short said. “It’s in downtown Toledo so it brings an ag-literacy piece to it where people learn more about agriculture and where their food is being grown.”
Marleigh’s work included the tedious ritual of weeding the garden and training the vines to grow up the trellis, along with explaining her work to passers-by. That work is paying dividends for Maumee Bay now, which expects to harvest more than 100 pounds of fresh hops in the fall.
The brewery was looking for a way to produce a fresh, local product but had less than half an acre to start a garden. Maumee Bay, like all other breweries, primarily uses pellet hops in their beer, which have been dried and made into small pellets.
The process concentrates the flavor and allows for a stable product that could last years in a freezer.
“With fresh hops, within days or weeks they’ll get moldy, just like any fresh fruit,” Mr. Kerr said. “Obviously, its not practical.”
Hops have not traditionally been grown in the area, but an explosion of craft breweries is starting to change that. Ohio had 45 breweries in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, and 143 in 2015. In 2014, more than 14,000 people were directly employed by craft breweries.
“I get two-to-three calls a month now from farmers with two-to-10 acre farms,” Mr. Kerr said of local farmers. Some of the best American hops are produced in the Pacific Northwest, he said, and plenty are grown in Germany and the Czech Republic.
The plant grows well anywhere grapes can thrive, he said, with more farmers starting to grow hops in Indiana, Michigan, and the northern half of Ohio.
The environment in Toledo is fine for hop growing, but the soil needed to be rehabilitated to grow anything well.
“They have the old grain used from the beer, and we put that in a pile in the back of the garden to make compost,” Marleigh said. “In between the different rows of the hops, we made mounds of the compost. That’s what the herbs are planted in because there’s not enough soil to plant them.”
Marleigh started by planting six-inch root cuttings in the compost and heavily fertilized soil two years ago with her dad.
“The first year it doesn’t do much more than survive in the ground,” Mr. Kerr said.
By the end of last summer, the blossoming hopyard produced 13 pounds of fresh hops, enough for one batch of Maumee Bay’s Fresh Hop 13 India Pale Ale.
“The fresh hops give it a floral character,” Mr. Kerr said. “You get much more of an aroma.”
Maumee Bay staff are now tending the garden established by Marleigh, as she prepares for graduation. She is running for state FFA office, which would keep her in-state for a gap year. Otherwise, she will head to the University of Iowa to study elementary education with a licensure in special education.
The brewery has been in contact with a local farmer who can provide locally grown barley to make an all-Ohio product beer in the fall, a first for Maumee Bay.
“That’ll be kind of neat,” Mr. Kerr said.
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