One of the important secrets behind the successful transition to organic for winery Bellbird Spring is its workers. A specialist team sweeps in each January to work their magic over a few key weeks, playing an important role in caring for the aromatic white grape varieties on the Porter family’s two properties in the Waipara Valley.
“There’s no minimum wage for sheep which is pretty good,” says grape grower and winemaker Guy Porter. “For them it’s great because they’re always on a lunch break.”
The sheep are one way Guy has changed how he manages the health of the Bellbird Spring grape crop now the business is transitioning to organic production. The sheep eat the lower leaves, allowing more light onto the fruit and more air to circulate, helping to prevent fungal infections.
It’s a unique alternative to spraying, and it echoes the pragmatism in the decision to turn from conventionally-run to organic in a three year process which will be completed in January, 2016.
Guy and his family live on Block 8 in the Waipara Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Christchurch. Just up the road are his parents Tom and Sheila Porter, who started the business with him and who live on the original Home Block among pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, riesling and muscat ottonel vines.
It was living so close to their crop that first got Guy interested in turning their conventionally-run vineyard into something more sustainable and safer. The original set-up echoed his training - he has a Bachelor of Agriculture Science with a major in oenology (the study of wine and winemaking) from the University of Adelaide’s highly esteemed Roseworthy course - and Guy says he followed the lead of local grape growers in setting up Home Block and Block 8.
“When I arrived, I didn’t know a lot about the area: I had a technical background, but I went around and asked a lot of people about how they did their grape growing, what their production techniques were, what varieties and clones and rootstocks they used and all
sorts like that, and I sort of synthesised that information and came up with a plan that I thought was rational, and that plan included conventional agriculture.
“I think what was really interesting was the path to organics was really quite pragmatic. As part of OSH legislation you’re supposed to review hazards in the workplace and we did that early on and, in the process, started looking at material safety data sheets for the sprays that we were using in the vineyard and looked at some of the acute effects of the sprays
and thought ‘this might be an effective treatment for the vineyard but if there’s an accident I don’t really like the idea of something going wrong and being exposed to this’.
“We tried to eliminate initially a lot of systemic fungicides and ultimately also eliminated the use of herbicides, so probably some 4-5 years ago we had stopped using systemic fungicides and were on the cusp of not using herbicides. From then on we followed a systemic fungicide and herbicide-free programme - I wouldn’t call it organic because you have to be certified but that was our intention.”
One of the big changes was in the way the vines were maintained. By opening up the fruit to more sunlight and air through leaf removal, it meant less exposure to fungal diseases which like high humidity and lower light levels.
That’s where their specialist workers came in.
“We employ sheep,” says Guy, deadpan.
“For a number of years now we’ve brought sheep into the vineyard after a certain point in berry development, when it’s increased in size to a certain degree, but hasn’t become soft, normally some time in January, and sections of the vineyard are crash-grazed to remove leaves.
“It just happens to be the average height of a sheep’s head in Canterbury fits very well with bunches in our vineyard: the sheep come in, if they’ve not come across vines before they start eating grass, then a couple start eating leaves, then they decide the leaves are quite nice and they’ll go along and strip leaves and very largely leave the bunches untouched.
“It is remarkable: you do get some casualties but it’s relatively little, and if it’s well monitored and you’re moving the sheep around from place to place, while looking and making sure there’s not too much damage, you can actually manage that problem.”
The sheep team is just one management factor that helps to keep the Bellbird Spring grapes healthy. Guy already used a smaller bunch size and weight strategy, something common in organic vineyards.
“Organic production tends to produce lower yields, but we were already producing a high quality product at low yields. If you have relatively loose bunches… and if you have vines that are not overly vigorous you don’t have superthick canopies; if you open the bunch zone up you help to reduce the disease pressure.
“And it’s not as if organic viticulture doesn’t include some sprays: the use of, for example, powdered sulphur is the primary tool to protect against powdery mildew which is probably public enemy number one in North Canterbury, it would be the biggie. There are also some biological sprays that can be applied at certain points of the year. You’ve got to be careful, but in terms of the hazards, it’s a pretty low risk option.”
Finally entering the formal process of organic certification was inspired by the loss of a good overseas client.
“It was a restaurant, an important restaurant, and they decided that they would have 75% of their wine list listed
as organic and in the process of the changes they made, they stopped being a customer and I thought to myself ‘well look, I think this is a good signal we need certification’.
“I already liked the idea of organic viticulture, we had in all but name been practicing it, but I realised we needed certification in order to avoid a loss in sales, and I think improve the preference our wines were given by different customers. I think it will open up more avenues - being organic doesn’t close off existing avenues - because there will be new distributors and new customers we can have conversations with about our wines in a way that’s good for the long term.”
Going organic will add to the business’s bottom line, but that’s just a happy bonus for the Porter family.
“I would take a long term view: if you’re considering organics I wouldn’t be put off by the lead-in period,you’re farming for the long term presumably and it’s not a quick fix, it’s not instant, it’s about the way you want to farm for the rest of your life so it’s not a long time.
“We were driven to produce something that is a good environment for our family: we live on our land and I feel happy that the way we’re growing grapes now is good for us from a health point of view, it’s good for our customers for the same reason, it has a lot of integrity and I get up in the morning not worried about that sort of thing, I’m a happy man that we’re doing the right thing.”
The steep hills and clay soil on this small block might make most people think there’s nothing that could be grown for profit. But for Mika in ‘t Veld and Josh Cornes the best crop was obvious.
“We realised that we’re very fortunate here on the farm,” says Mika. “We have access to the purest water and we’ve got hill country that gives natural gravity, so we started working with these essentials. And the two of us have the combined skills to make this work.”
Josh has worked on farms for years, and Mika lived on a farm in the Netherlands while she developed eco-friendly ways of keeping birds away from fruit and vegetable crops, buildings and airports.
“About a decade ago Josh got inspired and decided he wanted to grow watercress, and from the moment he told me I jumped on board thinking that’s the oldest and most nutritious vegetable there is.”
Watercress grows as a weed in waterways around NZ but it can be a dangerous proposition to eat it when you don’t know the water quality as it can carry
food-borne illnesses like giardia, liverfluke and E. coli.
Josh and Mika’s set-up takes delicious, clean, pure water from the farm’s deep well and runs it through purpose-built troughs, designed and built by Josh.
“We’re using that gravity, using that water, and Josh built it as a re-circulatory water system, so the water comes straight from the well, runs through the troughs using gravity, then we use solar to pump it back so we can re-use the water. We work with several pumps so it’s a continuous stream.”
The decision to go organic was officially made last year, but Mika says she and Josh had already inadvertently made many of the right choices in their set-up.
“It’s actually quite funny… in November last year we decided to take the plunge and go for it, but we didn’t realise that all our preparations, our choices of building materials, fertilisers, the seeds we’d been testing and selected, were possibly according to organic standards. We just WHO: Mika in ‘t Veld, Josh Cornes & Bully the dog, Moa Stone Estate WHERE: Raglan WHAT: organic watercress LAND: 0.4ha (1 acre) CONTACT: email@example.com, phone 07 282-0247
land - it’s part of the family farm - and he’s a dab hand with all kinds of machinery says Mika.
“He’s designing a harvesting machine that can run over the troughs and besides harvesting, it will give us easy access just rolling over the troughs and doing whatever is necessary.”
Their latest project is to fine-tune the growth of the plants. Mika has already thrown a few tricks in: seeds are initially put into the dark; after 24 hours they are placed in the light, giving the seeds a big ‘shock’; seedlings then usually emerge within a day and get to eating size within six weeks.
Watercress is a crop that tends to bolt into flower if grown over summer so the key growing periods are the cooler months of the year to keep the plants producing plenty of delicious, peppery leaves. Caring for the plants organically has been a big learning curve says Mika.
“We can’t spray the weeds, you can’t use chemicals to get rid of algae or to bring the ph up or down in the water. It’s actually during the last month that we’ve learned how to read the ph and nutrient level accurately.
“Also, we learned the seasons when the algae grow, and we are allowed to use natural materials, like a bit of copper wire we used to prevent algae growth. “At one stage we had to use an organic vinegar to work on the ph a little bit. We now pretty much know how high or how low it needs to be coming in or going out of the trough.”
Further experiments will involve keeping the water temperature warmer over winter to see if they can stop the plants from going dormant, and then cooling it for summer conditions to try to stop plants bolting to flower. It’s a big challenge and time will tell, says Mika.
“We haven’t sold any produce yet. We mainly focused on the technology behind it all, the fertilisers, the re-circulatory system and getting certified organic even before we started selling.
“Both of us feel like we should really follow the idea of growing and selling local, that will be our first choice.”
Dealing with the certification process has been helped by the practical support they’ve had from Bio-gro.
“Straight away from first contact we had we felt their support,” says Mika. “Little tips, the friendly way of communication and by being able to use their website with all knowledge available.
“You’ve got to go through a lot of paperwork, but they really encourage you and help you in the right direction, like pointing out we are growing aquaculture, which eliminates booklets we don’t have to struggle through.”
The couple have even more ideas on what to do with their set-up once they start selling their organic watercress, like making new products with watercress.
“It’s an amazing journey: we learn, we innovate and we love it. Both our minds are all over the place and we are not limited to watercress. We just created natural wind breaks with feijoa plants and macadamia nut trees that can use the high quality waste water of the watercress.
“We just keep thinking ‘what grows in streaming water?’ so we’re building more troughs to have different plants, like water chestnut and wasabi, that’s the next challenge.”