Forever pushing boundaries

Last updated 14:01 28/03/2014

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Peter Yealands held a field day at his estate at Seaview after being named 2013 Lincoln University South Island Farmer of the Year. Reporter Chloe Winter was there to hear Mr Yealands share the secrets of his success. 

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.

The entrepreneur and wine man 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 his Seaview vineyard is so big 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 wasn't too worried about that unsuccessful venture as he already had the next one 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 Peter 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.

Though his animals were just the beginning. From bio-char to hydrogen generator tractors, to his new sauvignoir wine, there is never a dull moment with Peter Yealands.

His most recent innovation is a programmable self-drive tractor, controlled by GPS. A team is devoted to the mechanics of the machine, which can be programmed to mow down each vine row.

"We've got some of the best brains in the world working on this. It's going to be groundbreaking.

"It is 400 per cent more efficient than the person driving it [and] it will be running continuously . . . there is no smoko breaks."

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The prototype is a work in progress, he says.

"We are picking up ways to improve it. The challenge for us is not physically doing it - it's about human behaviour and we have to allow for that."

Their primary concern is the tractor running into a person and how long it would take to shut off.

Shut-off time at present is less than a second, he says.

"We are making the concept safe. We can't afford to have it fail before it starts. We are improving and it might take another six months or a year."

While the sheep are grazing and the tractor is working, a row of solar lights in a wetland on the vineyard are soaking up the sun. When the lights turn on at night they attract all the grass grubs, which can eat the foliage in late spring. He has released trout in the pond to eat the bugs attracted by the lights.

Following on with the solar idea, Peter decided to install solar panels to generate power inside the wineries, reducing the reliance on LPG.

"I felt there had to be a better way. I saw a wasted resource and a good opportunity," he says.

"We only use LPG in an emergency."

The also burn bales of vine prunings to produce energy.

"The amount of energy you get from the bales saves you a lot of money," he says.

Another 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? Peter 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, Peter's twist on the idea 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.

"You can use it as a water sprayer."

These are just a couple of what he calls innovative concepts.

The only problem with the Bio Char machine is it uses only dry, organic materials and grape marc has a high moisture content.

"We have put grape marc in there . . . [but] we have to pre-dry it first."

Once this is running properly, the plans is to mix the Bio Char in with the organic compost they produce, which includes blue and green mussel shells.

While Peter admits last year's earthquakes did some damage in the winery, it has not stopped his label becoming the sixth-largest wine exporter in New Zealand. Not bad for a business that is only six years old. [The business was established on August 8, 2008 - 08.08.08.]

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.

"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."

He says they will get only a small crop this year for export to China.

Peter is always thinking of new ways to help the environment, which is where his PET eco bottle idea came from. He was told "you can't put good wine in a plastic bottle", but he has.

Peter thought about people who carry heavy, glass bottles up long flights of stairs and hills in Wellington and people who hate hearing the rattle of the glass bottles in the back of the car.

"We did it. We tried it.

"I didn't have the balls to put my name on it at first - I put it under a different name. But it didn't do so well."

So he decided to risk it and put the Yealands brand on the plastic bottle under the "general acceptance that it would work".

One reason for the initial resistance was that the plastic bottle looked a lot smaller in volume because they were thinner. Smaller to the point that they can fit an extra 200 bottles in a container.

Peter's aim as the owner of Yealands was to produce the world's best sauvignon blanc, be recognised globally for sustainability and be one of the largest exporters, he said.

"We are all of that now. We are very, very lucky - someone has been looking down on us.

"Look what we have managed to achieve in the short time we've been here."

- The Marlborough Express

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