Or­ganic Win­ery

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Organic To The Core - Ries­ling.

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: info@moa­s­toneestate.nz, 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.”

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