Farmer of the Year has bold ideas

CHLOE WINTER
Last updated 06:10 03/04/2014
Peter Yealands.
EMMA ALLEN/Fairfax NZ

FARMER OF THE YEAR: Peter Yealands with some of his baby doll sheep which he uses in the vineyard to keep the grass down.

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A man of many talents. A man not afraid to get his hands dirty. A man certainly not shy of ideas.

Some say Peter Yealands' ideas are wild and wacky and while he admits some work and some don't, without them he wouldn't have developed such a highly successful sustainable and innovative business.

He plays by his own rules and is forever pushing boundaries.

His ideas come to him in dreams, he says, and always involve a more economical way of doing everyday things on the vineyard and in the winery.

He loves animals. That can be assumed from the number of breeds of everyday animals he has hanging around in the vineyards.

Guinea pigs in the vineyard was one idea that didn't work so well, after the local hawk population got their claws into them.

He wanted the guinea pigs to keep the grass down between the rows of grape vines, although to sustain the idea he would have needed 11 million of them. A bit out of reach, he admits.

"We soon realised it was a fun thing, not a practical thing. So I thought I'd better knock that one on the head."

He already had the next venture lined up: baby-doll sheep.

"When I failed with the guinea pigs I came up with using miniature sheep."

He imported 30 of the endangered mini-sheep from Australia to graze more than 4000 kilometres of "vine road".

The sheep are too small to reach the grapes so are safe for the vineyard but are big enough to fight off predators. That makes a win-win for Yealands, he says.

"I like a bit of fun and a challenge."

He is happy with the sheep as they reduce the cost of mowing and reduce the estate's carbon footprint.

They are still a few years off eliminating mowing for good though, he says. The estate is now home to 1500 baby-doll sheep; to eliminate mowing, they will need a flock of 10,000.

Kunekune pigs were another Yealands' ideas. This small breed eats vegetation and doesn't root up the ground like other breeds. It should be possible to spot up to 100 of them roaming the vineyards.

"The highlight of the visitors seem to be the kunekune pigs," he says.

He also has chickens and plays music so they lay bigger eggs and he's planted more than 100 swan plants to attract monarch butterflies.

A power-saving idea may be a world-first if it works. After the grapes have been picked and the juice extracted, what happens to the skins and stalks - the grape marc? Yealands has the answer: Bio Char.

This is organic material which is burnt slowly to create a charcoal, which is put back into the soil to feed the vines. Though this is nothing new, his twist is.

"The difference with our little project is we are trying to do it on a continuous basis. It will run itself [and] the beauty of it is it will last forever and it's easy to make.

"It's not an expensive operation once you are up and running."

He hopes to use grape marc and small vine prunings in the bio char machine, which will create three by-products - charcoal, gas and a liquid to prevent weed growth, he says.

His latest export is sauvignoir, which is made from grapes with red skins and red flesh grown on vines imported from Chile. The idea came from the demand from his Chinese market.

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"I thought if only I could make our sav [sauvignon blanc] red.

"It's a good concept and idea. I like to think it has a future. The wine critics, they don't like it, but some people love it more than any other variety."

- Straight Furrow

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