Sustainable farming practices

Posted by YOLANDI GROENEWALD | JOHANNESURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Feb 19 2010 06:00

Once upon a time on farms in Stellenbosch owls roamed the vineyards looking for mice.
But as years passed and farming techniques became less friendly towards them, farmers stopped spotting them as often. As the owls disappeared, the mice became a pest for the farmers.

Some said it would be wise to introduce chemical solutions to control the mice, despite their harsh green footprint. But wine farm Neethlingshof decided on a more sustainable measure: bring back the owls. The challenge was to get the owls to breed again on Neethlingshof to establish a resident population, the farm management says. “As their favourite way of hunting is swooping down on their prey, owl posts were erected on the vineyards close to where the field mice created the most damage.”

Since the introduction of the programme, the number of mice has dropped considerably. Now Neethlingshof is selling the narrative of the return of the owls to its farms as a wine.
The Owl Post tells the story of how owls and not chemicals defeated the mice. Wine critics love the wine, not simply for its green story, but because the wine matches its green credentials with taste. The Owl Post, a single-vineyard Pinotage, was formerly known as Lord Neethling and is one of the estate’s premier wines.

Neethlingshof also markets its flagship Bordeaux blend, The Caracal, in the same way. Previously known as Laurentius, the wine celebrates the return of the rooikat, or caracal, to Neethlingshof. Although abundant in the Western Cape until the middle of the past century, a loss of habitat and natural prey (guinea fowl and small antelope) slashed their numbers.Neethlingshof staff say that in the past two years caracal living in the hills of the adjoining Bottelary conservancy started migrating to Neethlingshof, attracted by the swarms of guinea fowl.

“There are strong indications that caracal have started breeding in the densely wooded areas around the granite hills on the farm,” the farm’s staff say. The wine farm is just one of many Cape wine farms that are opting for the green route, conserving the unique Cape Floral Kingdom and using sustainable farming practices.

Like Neethlingshof, Lomond near Gansbaai has used conservation as a marketing tool for its wines, naming them after fynbos such as the Conebush (shiraz), Snowbush (white blend) and Pincushion (sauvignon blanc). Lomond conserves about 200ha, including Elim ferricrete fynbos, which is an endangered vegetation type. It is also a member of the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy. All its vineyards, planted in 2000, were established on previously cultivated land and not on virgin land.

Because 90% of South Africa’s wine production occurs within the Cape floral kingdom, environmentalists were concerned that the Cape might lose its fynbos to make way for vineyards.

But following an initial study by the Botanical Society of South Africa and Conservation International, the wine industry and the conservation sector began a journey together to protect the rich biodiversity of the kingdom. Called the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, it presents a great opportunity for both the wine and conservation sectors.

The wine industry benefits from using the biodiversity of the floral kingdom as a unique marketing tool to sell its wines to green-conscious consumers, while conservationists benefit from pioneering biodiversity best practices in the wine industry.

Champions of the initiative include Backsberg, Cloof Wine Estate, Delheim, Hermanuspietersfontein, Graham Beck Wines, Vergelegen and Waverley Hills Organic Wines. Like many of these farms, Neethlingshof moved away from a monoculture of vines and, by doing so, it has been able to reserve 116ha, or 42%, of the farm for conservation.

Corridors of indigenous vegetation were created to allow free movement of non-flying insects between vineyards and renosterveld areas.

In the past five years the farm has strived to recreate a balance between vineyard developments and natural fynbos and renosterveld. In certain cases vineyards were uprooted and replaced with renosterveld species that occurred naturally in this environment. The eradication of alien vegetation is an ongoing process and to date 15ha have been cleared and the return of renosterveld species promoted. Renosterveld islands are created within existing vineyards to promote the return of beneficial insects that occurred in the vineyards many years ago.

Although biodiversity from the outset formed the basis of the replanting programme, it really gained momentum only when viticulturist professor Eben Archer was appointed on a permanent basis at Neethlingshof in 2003, farm management says.

The main purpose of the biodiversity programme is to restore the natural wild life (insects, birds, snakes, small mammals and caracal) to help regain the original balance.

The insects help control pests in the vineyards. To keep their numbers in check, guinea fowl, for which they are a natural food source, were introduced, while certain undisturbed wooded areas attracted caracal (which in turn prey on guinea fowl) from the hills of the adjoining conservancy. No snakes on the farm are harmed because they help control rodents damaging the roots of the vines. Owl posts are spread through the vineyard. But farming green with wine is not only about protecting the fauna and flora.

Green wine pioneer Backsberg states proudly that every underlying principle of its policies and business must be evaluated to see what impact it has on the environment. It then adjusts its principles accordingly. Michael Back, proprietor of the estate, says Backsberg is committed to operating in a green and sustainable way and thus the integrity of what the farm does has to be above reproach and open to debate.

The first area of focus for Backsberg was to reduce its carbon footprint. Back says a carbon audit revealed that 90% of the farm’s emissions were from electricity and fuel.
Energy reductions the farm has introduced include buildings being fitted with energy-saving bulbs. It has also investigated skylights to introduce natural lighting. Backsberg’s diesel boiler was replaced with an ozone generator, “meaning that all sterilising is now done with ozone-enriched water”, Back says. The fermentation temperature control of red wines was revamped totally, with water from the dam used to cool the wine down to the appropriate temperature. The dam water can be recycled, which does not impact on the farm’s water footprint. The farm also replaced large tractors with smaller vehicles and it has scaled down its vehicles in general.

SA wines a corker at UK awards ceremony
South African wines sparkled at the inaugural Drinks Business Green Awards this week in the United Kingdom, highlighting again the environmental work that wine farms in the Cape perform. The international Drinks Business Green Awards are designed to highlight and reward leadership on environment, sustainability and climate change.

Paul Cluver, founder of Paul Cluver Wines, won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his ongoing visionary approach to conservation and exemplary environmental credentials.

Inge Kotzé of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative was awarded the Personality Award, and Backsberg Estate walked away with the Sustainability Award.

Paul Cluver Wines and Stellar Organics were named runners-up in the Ethical Award category, giving South Africa a notable presence in four of the eight award results.

Commenting on the success, Su Birch, chief executive of Wines of South Africa, said: “This is a significant moment in the development of South Africa’s green credentials and we are delighted so many of our champions are being recognised for the substantial contributions they are making to the advancement of sustainable practice in the wine industry.

“South Africa is a leader in production integrity and is committed to working in harmony with the environment to ensure long-term sustainable and profitable growth.”

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