The Cowra Shire Council calls it a Material Recycling Facility. Members of the Cowra Region Vineyard Association affectionately use its old-fashioned name: the local tip. And that’s where I found myself on a hot summer’s day recently, standing with a bunch of grape growers and winemakers, admiring huge piles of slowly decomposing green waste.
The council have been stockpiling this marvellous mixture of mulched trees and lawn clippings and sundry organic matter for ages. They sell a little bit to the locals in town who spread it on their flowerbeds, but demand is so slack that the council have regular open days and literally give the stuff away.
Now, though, the region’s vineyard owners have twigged to this brilliant resource sitting literally in their own backyard, and are talking to the council about taking the composted mulch off their hands - for a fee, of course, but a very reasonable one. There’s enough material here - 12,000 cubic metres - to mulch the ground under every hectare of grape vines in the region.
The mulching project is part of the recently-launched Cowra Sustainable Wine Partnership, one of many collaborative initiatives popping up across the country. From the Hunter Valley to Tasmania, winemakers are joining forces both with each other and with other groups such as their local Catchment Management Authority or Natural Resource Management board to improve their environmental performance.
For the last two years, the Winemakers Federation of Australia has conducted an industry-wide survey, asking hundreds of vineyard owners about their management practices. The Australian Wine Industry Stewardship (AWIS) programme includes questions on water use, weed control and property management plans, and has identified a number of areas where improvements can be made, such as conserving and encouraging biodiversity in and around the vineyard, and moving to renewable energy sources such as biodiesel, solar or wind.
On one hand, improving such practices at a national level, across thousands of vineyards and in hundreds of wineries, is a daunting task. On the other hand, many individual wine business are already going green - offsetting their carbon emissions, even attaining ‘carbon neutral’ status, etc - but the environmental benefits of each enterprise are highly localised.
And this is where regional collaborative initiatives such as the Cowra Sustainable Wine Partnership come in: working together to identify the environmental issues specific to the region and sharing the experience of each individual with others in the group is the most effective way to instigate change.
COWRA: MULCH, MULCH, GLORIOUS MULCH
‘The lack of rain over the last few years has really united everybody,’ says Tom Ward, president of the Cowra Region Vineyard Association. ‘It’s encouraged us to group together to try and do something about it. It’s also led to other partnerships, like the mulching projects with Cowra council, which is fantastic.’
Michael Carter, environmental service director for Cowra Shire Council, is equally excited about the collaboration.
‘We’re interested in reducing our footprint and encouraging sustainability,’ he says. ‘And because wine is so high-profile, getting involved with schemes like this means we’re able to go to other industry groups in the region and say, look what’s happened here, look what the vineyards are doing, you can do it too.’
Everyone’s particularly mad about mulch in Cowra because, for the last three years, the NSW Department of Primary Industries in conjunction with the Department of Enviornment and Climate Change have been conducting trials in some of the region’s vineyards to measure the effects of spreading composted mulch under vines. And the results are extremely encouraging.
‘We found that we saved up to 30 per cent of water use and increased soil carbon and nutrient levels on the heavily mulched vines,’ says the DPI’s Darren Fahey. ‘And in the mulched low-yielding vineyards, we also measured an increase in yield, despite using less water.’
Mulching under-vine is just one prong of the Cowra Sustainable Wine Partnership. A comprehensive programme of benchmarking has been put in place aimed at reducing chemical use in the vineyards, building soil health, encouraging winter grazing of livestock in the vineyards and increasing the use of renewable energy sources. The CRVA has invited the Biological Farmers of Australia, the country’s largest organic association, to conduct a four-day workshop to encourage more growers to adopt organic viticultural practices. And a number of the region’s vineyards are already undertaking individual environmental initiatives, the results of which will be shared with the group.
At Mulyan vineyard, for example, just across the road from the tip - sorry, the Material Recycling Facility - there is an ambitious plan to rehabilitate a soon-to-be-disused quarry, turning it into a wetlands area, bird sanctuary and series of large dams. These dams could then be used to store the council’s reclaimed waste water - up to 1,000 megalitres of it - which will eventually be available to irrigate local vineyards.
At Rivers Road Organic Farms, the Rosnay and Gardners Ground vineyards are trialling a rare earth magnetic treatment for irrigation water. As bizarre as it sounds, clipping these magnets around the main irrigation pipe has been shown to reduce measurable soil salinity and calcification of irrigation systems and enhance the vines’ water uptake.
And at Wallington Wines, Margaret Wallington has built a straw bale winery that keeps a constant temperature of 18 degrees throughout the year and needs no air conditioning or heating. She also recycles all the winery waster water for use on the vineyard, composts her grape marc, is applying for carbon neutral status and is looking into organic certification.
‘There’s a critical mass of growers in the area going this way,’ she says. ‘We can all feed off each other’s experience.’
RIVERINA: MAKING WINERIES WORK BETTER
Where the Cowra wine producers are focussing most of their environmental efforts out in the vineyard, the Riverina Winemakers Association has started by smartening up the region’s wineries. This makes a lot of sense: the Riverina is home to some of Australia’s largest wine companies including McWilliams, De Bortoli and Casella (makers of the extraordinary export phenomenon wine, Yellow Tail), each with vast grape processing facilities. Casella alone crushes 180,000 tonnes, more than 10 per cent of the total national harvest, so, not surprisingly, there is considerable local community pressure to make sure these huge wineries behave in as environmentally responsible a manner as possible.
Jo Polkinghorne was employed three years ago as the Riverina Winemakers Association environmental project officer. She says that the main areas of concern for the region’s wineries are water efficiency, winery waste management and energy use.
‘Waste management in particular is everyone’s biggest nightmare,’ she says. ‘When I started, I realised that there was a big gap in knowledge in areas even as basic as compliance. To be honest, there had been a reluctance to tackle this issue in the past. It was just one more thing people had to do: they were being paid to work 38 hours but working more like 46, and then on top of that they had to think about waste.’
So in 2006, the RWA grouped together and launched its One Vision Environmental Policy, with waste management at the top of the agenda. In the last twelve months, the group has held successful seminars covering topics such as climate change, food miles and Corporate Social Responsibility - as well as waste - and linked five of the region’s wineries to the state-government-funded Sustainability Advantage program. As a result, Polkinghorne has seen attitudes changing.
‘In 2007, I felt like a dimmer switch was slowly being turned up in people’s minds, ’ she says. ‘You could feel environmental awareness creeping through into everyday activities.’
Rob Glastonbury has seen a similar shift in thinking since starting as operations manager - and, by default, environmental officer - at De Bortoli in 2004.
‘Here in the country, you can guarantee that if something’s complicated, it won’t get done,’ says Glastonbury. ‘So we tried to keep everything very simple, to make the solutions very, very agricultural.’
And you can’t get much more agricultural than a field of barley and oats. That’s where De Bortoli’s winery waste-water goes now that Glastonbury has completely re-invented the company’s water treatment system. Prior to his arrival, the waste would end up in huge holding dams. ‘It was irresponsible to leave water hanging around like that,’ he says. ‘And besides, it smelled bloody awful.’ So now, the water is pH-adjusted, aerated and used to irrigate the cereal crops on the 65 hectare farm De Bortoli bought just up the road.
‘I’ve even got my own grains trader’s licence,’ grins Glastonbury. ‘I can get 15 tonnes per hectare off the farm, and prices this year were $400 per tonne for grain and $200 for stalk. You work out the maths!’
As well as turning waste water into profit, the new treatment system has also resulted in massive energy savings. ‘Before we set up the farm, the old wastewater system used 400 kW of power a year. Now we use 4 kW.’
In line with the AWIS suggestions about encouraging biodiversity, Glastonbury also went to the local Catchment Management Authority for advice on what he should be planting around the farm to help control salinity and a rising water table, and as a result the place has been seeded with native grasses and plants such as saltbush.
And he is also conducting trials on the farm with heavy mulching and seed drilling ‘to increase carbon content, encourage worms and bacteria and make micro-nutrients available’, with a view to expanding the techniques to the vineyards.
‘It’s not about being into hair-shirt organics,’ he says. ‘It’s about stewardship.’
Glastonbury is also acutely aware of the commercial benefits of adopting this new, greener image: ‘If Tesco supermarket in the UK ring up and ask about our environmental credentials,’ he says, ‘we can turn around and say: look, here you go.’
But there are also more immediate concerns.
‘There’s no doubt that we made these changes because we were forced to. We had been bad boys for too long. When I arrived, the locals were about to petition council about us. So the environmental initiative has also been about getting those locals back onside. Now we even get the EPA ringing us for advice.’
MCLAREN VALE: DROUGHT-PROOFED?
‘The strength of McLaren Vale,’ says Jock Harvey, ‘is that it’s always been a very co-operative region. People are prepared to spill their guts about their own experiences with everyone else.’
Harvey is chairman of McLaren Vale’s Grape Wine and Tourism Commitee, and owner of Chalk Hill Vineyards. He says that one of the best examples of the region’s collaborative approach is the reclaimed water scheme.
In the mid-90s, a group of local growers formed the Willunga Basin Water Company and built a $20 million pipeline to pump water from Christie’s Beach residential treatment plant, ten kilometres to the north of McLaren Vale, down to the vineyards for irrigation. This B-class ‘waste’ water was previously flushed into the sea but now it’s used to grow grapes in 40 per cent of the region’s vineyards.
In 2007, the scheme was given a boost that could see the reclaimed water used on even more vineyards in the district. At the moment, the $11,000 connection fee has prevented many small growers joining up, but because McLaren Vale falls in the marginal electorate of Kingston, in the lead-up to the last year’s federal election both major parties announced $3 million in funding to help those growers access the scheme.
And in September the South Australian Research and Development Institute released results of a three-year study showing that the reclaimed water was better for soil and vine health than drinking-quality mains water or salty bore water.
‘We had some concerns before we started the study,’ says SARDI’s Dr Belinda Rawnsley. ‘We weren’t sure whether filtration (of the waste water) had got rid of fungal pathogens that could, for example, cause root disease. But when the results came back, they were very exciting: not only were there fewer pathogens (than in vineyards irrigated by mains water), but there were also higher levels of total beneficial microbial activity in the soil.’
According to Dr Rawnsley, the use of reclaimed water has also ‘drought-proofed’ the region’s vineyards. ‘The vines will still experience stress and produce lower crops in hot, dry years like 2007. But having access to the reclaimed water will mean the vines can at least be kept alive and productive during drought seasons.’
As well as being a hub of biodynamic activity, with a number of the region’s vineyards such as Paxton, Gemtree and Pertaringa joining forces to make their own biodynamioc preparations and share information, McLaren Vale’s collaborative spirit can also be seen in the strength of its Vine Improvement Society.
‘Since the mid-90s, people like Geoff Hardy at Pertaringa and Chester Osborn at d’Arenberg have been championing alternative varieties,’ says Jock Harvey. ‘And now you’ll find a lot of sangiovese, barbera, albarinho, tempranillo in the district. We’re also doing a lot of work on rootstocks and planting density and making sure we share that information with everybody. We still need to keep finding ways to grow better fruit and make better wine.’
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