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Grapes boost farm’s bottom line

Tom O'Leary Dec 12
Grapes boost farm’s bottom line
Grapes are proving the big winners on Phillip and Sheryl Neal’s Motukawa Farm in Marlborough, despite the farm’s Highlander Flock performing well. Arable crops grown include 6ha of garlic and onion, 6ha of sweet corn and 8ha of pumpkin grown for seed.

Motukawa Farm in Marlborough is a highly diversified operation owned by Phillip and Sheryl Neal.

In addition to mixed arable cropping, sheep meat, wool and wine are end-user products which start their life on the 180-hectare Rapaura property. But it is grape plantings that are increasingly boosting the farm’s bottom line.

Philip took over the property as a sheep and arable farm from his father in 1962, long before the possibility of large-scale viticulture in the area was seriously considered.

The area of arable crop has expanded as dripline irrigation has increased, while sheep numbers have decreased.

The Neals are currently growing 6ha of sweet corn, 6ha of beans, 8ha of pumpkin (for seed) and 6ha of garlic and onion. In 1980 they planted their first grapes in the days of the region’s emerging wine industry.

Montana planted its first vineyards in the region in 1973 when cask wine and cheap bubbly were the norm for New Zealand’s then largely uneducated wine drinkers.

Following the large land purchase by Montana in 1973, restrictions were imposed by the Marlborough County Council on where grapes could be planted, Phillip says.

“Until 1978 you weren’t allowed to plant grapes on this side of the Wairau valley; it was in the district plan.”

A hard-fought challenge to the district plan by the Neals’ neighbours, Phil and Chris Rose, forged the way for grapes to be grown in other areas, including Rapaura.

Establishing the vines on Motukawa Farm was challenging as viticulture was a pioneer industry in Marlborough, says Phillip. This and the emergence of phylloxera, a sap-sucking aphid that destroyed grape vines, resulted in Motukawa’s vines having to be replanted three times.

Grapes boost farm’s bottom line

However, over time the Neals’ shift from sheep into viticulture proved a no-brainer. “Economically there’s no question; it’s so far ahead of anything else,” says Phllip.

He estimates the gross return on growing grapes to be 10 times that of farming sheep, with the net return even higher.

Consequently grapes are winning hands down against sheep meat and wool, despite the farm’s highlander flock performing well, scanning 190% and lambing at 160% to 170%.

Grapes from the 1980 plantings were initially sold to Corbans, but have been contracted to nearby wine producer Cloudy Bay, one of the pioneers of the Marlborough wine industry, for more than 30 years.

Phillip outlines the deal: “As (the vines) mature, after two years when the grapes establish, Cloudy Bay takes over the management; I pay a management fee, they pay me per hectare, so on those blocks I don’t have any agricultural risk and I get a good return.”

With viticulture thriving and retirement looming, more of the farm is being planted in grapes. Grapes are now grown on 70ha; 65ha of sauvignon blanc and the balance chardonnay.

In August this year a further 11.5ha of vines was planted, and the sheep flock dwindled further. “I’m down to 800 breeding ewes,” says Phillip.

“Over the next seven years, the rest of the farm, at this stage, will gradually be going into grapes.” He says he enjoys growing grapes.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in growing a premium product. You could argue that the best sauvignon blanc comes from Marlborough, and it’s good to be part of that.”

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