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Josh Mayich's professional life has become a balancing act.
When Mayich isn't tending to his new hop farm in Mount Albion, P.E.I., considered to be one of the largest in Canada, he is also a certified cicerone for craft beer, similar to a wine sommelier, who travels to the U.S. to speak about scientific and evidence-based farming.
And if that wasn't enough, Mayich is a medical doctor who spends 10 days a month in Bathurst, N.B , working as an orthopedic surgeon.
"I think it's a great balance," said Mayich, president of the Island Hop Company Ltd. "(Bathurst) is willing to work around my farm schedule. If you're looking at all of these increased costs due to COVID-19, it allows us to swallow all that and keep the farm progressing."
Mayich was one of this year's $25,000 Ignition Fund recipients from the provincial government. He's using that money to build a processing barn, where the hops will be dried and ground up. Construction on the building started in November.
After seven years of owning and operating a hop farm on Darlings Island in New Brunswick near Hampton, Mayich bought 200 acres of land in Mount Albion and moved to the Island with his wife Naomi (also Island Hop Company's chief financial officer) and their three sons - Oliver, Charlie and Thomas. In August, he planted 17,500 hop plants in the ground on 22 acres on that land. Next year, he plans to increase his crop by 30 per cent and expand the growing area to 30 acres.
"It takes at least a year to two years for the plant to kind of dig into the ground - to throw up any real crop. You can harvest them within a year, so we'll expect some hops this fall, but it's not going to be a lot. It takes five years for the plants to really clip," said Mayich.
He said that expanding the crop to 30 acres will help keep prices down for brewers and restaurants already dealing with a lower profit margin as a result of the pandemic.
"The way to charge less for hops is to grow more," he explained.
Mayich, 40, grew up near Halifax. Hop farming has been in Mayich's family for generations, especially with his grandfather John Sawka, who immigrated to Sydney, Cape Breton (Whitney Pier) from Eastern Europe. Back in Europe, the family grew hops for beer but also for hop pillows to help treat tuberculosis.
In 2011, Mayich got into growing hops with his grandfather's advice and generational knowledge along "every step of the way." It started out small, but "the hops went crazy," said Mayich, with the N.B. crop growing from a small plot to nearly two acres. The Darlings Island operation produced hops for customers across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
When Mayich got started in the hop farm business, he said it wasn't a question of whether he was passionate about growing hops, but whether he could turn his passion into a business.
"Can this be sustainable? Can I make money? Can this be something I can build for one of my three sons to take over?," said Mayich.
Moving the hop business to P.E.I. and setting it up has been challenging, especially with increased costs of lumber and transporting a large hop trellis system from Michigan that supports the plants as they grow. But he's impressed with the support he's received from the provincial government, especially staff at the Department of Agriculture and Land, and even recalls a conversation with (then) federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay, who visited the N.B. hop farm, and asked if he'd ever consider moving it to P.E.I.
But Mayich notes that it's a tough business in which to make a profit. He said that if it wasn't for the family connection, he probably wouldn't have pursued it as a business venture.
Those thoughts follow some additional advice from Mayich's grandfather before he died about the mutually-beneficial relationship between growing hops and people.
"He's like: 'Well, it's going to make you poor. It's going to make your kids frustrated. And if everything goes right, your grandkids are going to be rich.'"
But Mayich also recognizes that he's part of a unique, knowledgable and fast-growing craft beer industry on P.E.I. He's previously sold hops to Island breweries, and is currently working with a couple of craft breweries researching ways to create beer that is world-class with Mayich's locally grown hops.
"And it's something that you can be proud of as an Islander," he said. "Virtually every single brewery across the Island, these are good brewers. And I know that because we've all tasted bad beer before and we know that the beer on P.E.I. is great. We have brewers who are well-equipped and they're starting to develop people on P.E.I. and in the Maritimes who know good beer when they taste it."
Terrence McEachern is a local business reporter for the SaltWire Network.