To be organically in harmony with nature is costly, risky and difficult. Christian Eedes wonders what makes organic farmers tick.
Shifts in social and economic behavioural patterns are usually too subtle to pinpoint precisely, but last year’s Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition could prove to be the moment when organic farming stopped being the preserve of long-haired, pot-smoking hippie farmers and entered the mainstream.
Among the 20 finalists, many from established producers with formidable reputations, was the 2002 vintage from unheralded Bon Cap, a wine which happens to be certified organic. Though it ultimately was not included among the winners, it held its own in imposing company, suggesting for the first time in South Africa that organic farming is capable of producing wine worthy of serious attention.
Assessing the state of local organic wine farming is no easy task, however. Who is organic and who’s not? A producers’ association has yet to come into being, so no recourse there. Just about all winemakers claim a natural, sustainable way of farming that minimises negative impact on the environment, so what makes organic farming special? Does wine made from organically grown grapes taste different to that from conventionally grown grapes? Where organic wine costs more, is this justified? In short, does organic really matter?
Travel from Cape Town and just before Robertson, you’ll spot the turn-off to Eilandia, the area that is home to Bon Cap winery. Roelf du Preez is both owner and winemaker – and if anybody is qualified to provide a rationale for organic farming, it’s him.
His philosophy is simple. It’s about sustainable farming. “This farm has belonged to the Du Preez family for seven generations. I’d like to think the same family will be on the same land seven generations in the future.”
The aim of organic farming is to support and strengthen biological processes without recourse to the technical remedies associated with conventional farming. Du Preez suggests that at its worst, conventional farming is just another form of hydroponics, the art of growing plants in a sterile medium using water impregnated with chemicals. The plants may grow under these artificial circumstances but are not strong enough to survive without the constant input of more nutrients.
Organic farming, Du Preez explains, is based on the belief that nature is self-balancing. Encourage biological diversity and the vineyard will develop natural defences against attack from pest and disease. As a result, no chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilisers are used in the growing of Bon Cap grapes.
Du Preez is lucky in that climatic conditions in Eilandia are highly conducive to organic farming. Low humidity means his property is free from the threat of downy mildew, a disease that is usually difficult to combat with organic methods.
Bar some spot weed control, he reckons he has been farming according to organic principles for almost 15 years. He took the decision to seek official certification after he became disillusioned with selling his fruit to Rooiberg Co-op. Convinced that he was producing grapes of better quality than most other farmers in the neighbourhood, but not getting any recognition for it, he decided to go it alone. The conversion process, which involves monitoring by a recognised body over three years, was begun in 1999, with Bon Cap receiving full accreditation from agricultural quality control company SGS for their 2002 vintage. (The annual fee for certification is R20 000.)
Snoop around a local wine shop and you’ll find very few labels announcing themselves as organic. But overseas the situation is entirely different. Since the second half of the ’90s, organic foods have enjoyed a period of strong and steady growth in the world’s developed countries: for instance, the value of total organic food sales in 2000 was US$ 8 000 million in the United States and US$1 000 million in the United Kingdom. Organic may still make up only a small share of the total food market – just 1,5% of total sales in the US and 1% in the UK – but the expectation is that consumption of organic foods will continue to outgrow domestic production in these developed countries, leaving room for significant organic imports. It appears the opportunity is ripe to cash in on a valuable market that is still way off saturation. . .
Du Preez, and his wife Michelle, who takes care of the marketing of Bon Cap wines, are both at pains to point out that their motivations are pure. Any commercial advantage to be derived from going organic is of secondary importance. Nevertheless, Michelle du Preez emphasises again and again that they are one of the few local producers to be officially certified organic. Many producers who claim organic status have not yet gone through the procedure of accreditation, it appears.
She concedes that being certified organic is a marketing tool, but doesn’t believe that this provides a sufficient selling proposition on its own. She points out that the word “organic” is discreetly treated on the label, and insists that all Bon Cap wines will be sold on their own merits. But if she can leverage their organic status to demand a premium, she admits she’ll do so.
Roelf du Preez adds that he wants to see his wines succeeding in general competition as this will also go a long way to overcoming any scepticism the consumer might have about organic wine.
For all the success Du Preez has enjoyed with his maiden release wines (also available is Organic Syrah 2002, which picked up a gold medal at the 2002 Michelangelo International Wine Awards), a huge swing away from conventional to organic farming is still some way off in South Africa.
Dave Hutton, marketing manager for top Stellenbosch farm Rustenberg, reveals that they have been experimenting with “some positive and negative results”.
Jeremy Borg, marketing manager for the Fairview and Spice Route labels, relates how the conversion process to organic farming was reluctantly abandoned on the farms he represents when the downy mildew epidemic broke before the 2002 harvest.
“There was simply too much at stake. We stood to lose a whole lot of very hard-won overseas listings.” Nonetheless, Borg says they remain “in favour, where possible” and will soon be launching a Rhne-style wine that will be certified organic under the label “Goats d’Afrique”. A companion brand to the popular Goats do Roam, it will be made from grapes grown in the Olifants River, a district with a climate well suited to organic farming.
Difficulties in implementation, cumbersome and expensive legislation, consumer apathy: major hurdles hinder the establishment of organic wine. And yet, those that have adopted it argue its merits passionately.
Johan Reyneke, owner of Stellenbosch farm Uitzicht and producer of Reyneke Wines, has a postgraduate degree in environmental philosophy. Together with winemaker James Farquharson, he has established a 0.5 ha vineyard of Pinotage that is not only organic but biodynamic.
Also organic in approach, biodynamic has an added metaphysical dimension. “It’s about accepting the role of the cosmos,” Reyneke explains. “We want to invite the influences of the cosmos into the vineyard and into the cellar.”
Sounds kooky, but Reyneke is remarkably level-headed and well able to justify his position. After his family acquired the farm in 1988, he gradually came to the realisation that there were serious flaws with the conventional approach to farming. Essentially, there was not enough respect for nature involved. The farm has 20 ha under vineyard and Reyneke was keen to convert it entirely to organic, but “structural constraints” prevented him: the bank was not prepared to provide finance as the endeavour was too risky.
A compromise was reached, with Reyneke undertaking to prove the sustainability of organic farming by converting one isolated block of Pinotage to organic while managing the rest of the farm by regular methods.
Reyneke’s approach was initially only organic but he was soon intrigued by biodynamic theory, as laid down by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. This ideological approach attempts to connect farming to a higher, spiritual wisdom.
By harnessing the cosmic energy and other influences from the sun, the stars, the moon and other planets, the life processes in the vineyard are maintained and enhanced.
“If the moon is capable of bringing the tides in and out, and a plant is essentially water, then I have to conclude that the waxing and waning of the moon will have some effect on my vineyard,” reckons Reyneke.
Were Reyneke to seek certification, this would be through Demeter, the international body for biodynamics named after the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture, but his current feeling is that the expense entailed is not justified for a mere 0.5 ha of vineyard.
Reyneke is dismissive of certification bodies in general. He accuses them of primarily serving the interests of producers in developed countries, as the cost of acquiring certification makes it difficult for producers in developing countries to qualify. The inconsistency in the requirements for certification between the various different bodies also devalues the whole exercise, as far as he’s concerned.
Reyneke and Farquharson are emphatic that their adoption of biodynamics is not a marketing ploy.
“Anything that supports life is good. Anything that destroys life is bad. It’s as simple as that,” says Reyneke. He uses the clumps of weeds that grow at the end of each row of his block of biodynamic Pinotage as an example. According to conventional farming, these are in competition with the vine for water and nutrients. The usual response would be to get rid of the weeds in the cheapest, most efficient manner possible.
In terms of the biodynamic approach, the weeds are a form of communication, a “letter from nature”, alerting the farmer to the state of the vineyard. Reyneke explains that the soil around the row ends tends to become especially compacted and oxygen-starved as a result. The weeds serve the useful purpose of breaking up the soil. Once they’ve achieved this, they can be mowed and allowed to decompose naturally.
“How can man using science know what’s better for the vine than the vine itself?” asks Reyneke. He is not suggesting that conventional farming is inherently bad, but rather that we have various paradigms of thought at our disposal, and some work better than others. Modern science is hugely beneficial in some areas – it would be wrong-headed to question the advances made in the field of medicine, for instance – but with regards agriculture, perhaps it has had an unduly negative effect.
Philosophical ponderings are all well and good, but consumer acceptance will ultimately rest on the taste of what’s in the bottle. Reyneke foresees no problems here. He relates his experience of tasting the Chenin Blanc 1997 from Nicholas Joly, a renowned biodynamic producer from the Loire.
“Drinking wine has always had a relaxing effect on me, but tasting this was invigorating, uplifting, life-affirming.”
A taste of the biodynamic Reyneke Pinotage 2001 is proffered, and while not quite an epiphany, it does seem to exhibit an unusual purity of fruit. In some abstract way, there is also a sense of a deeper connection to the earth. Reyneke has the final say: “I don’t know if it’s going to be easier to sell, but drinking it, I sure feel better about myself.”
Tagged Education & Information