Sheep, grapes, family a good mix

Sheep, grapes, family a good mix
Tailing is a family affair at Marathon Downs. Leanne Barnes with Will, Jess and Anna.

When Marlborough sheep, crop and wine grower Robbie Barnes left school aged 15, he had one year working with his 75-yearold father on the family farm before his father suffered a serious stroke that left him crippled – Robbie’s cue to rise to the occasion.
“I learned my lessons the hard way from then on. I remember my neighbours – two well established farmers at the time. They told me I was too young to farm and couldn’t do it. They’ve both gone and I’m still here – 40 years later.”
Robbie and his wife Leanne farm 400ha just up Marama Road in the Awatere Valley.
The farm has been in the family for 120 years but Robbie is only third generation on the land – a product of older parents and grandparents.
Things have changed quite a bit over the last twenty years or so. Like many in the Valley, Robbie has introduced grapes to the farm’s income stream and the whole farm has been re-fenced.
The introduction of 120ha of irrigation, a mix of pivots, guns and roto-rainers, has altered the farming system enabling more intensive lamb fattening, along with the growth of sweet corn and green beans for Talleys.
You could say Robbie has been busy over the years creating farm diversification – though he hasn’t done it alone.
Leanne does the books, helps to drench the sheep and drives the tractor from time to time –she’s an essential worker on the land – together a good team. “We have 1700 composite ewes to the ram on the farm – typically we tail 150% – and 400 ewe hoggets to the ram and we usually tail 100%.
We fatten everything of our own. Up until this year I’ve bought in 5000 store lambs and fattened them.
Not this year though – I’m getting old and soft.” The farm is a mix of nice fl at valleys with a lot of easy rolling hill country.
It is in one of the valleys, behind the farmhouse, that Robbie has planted 32hectares of sauvignon blanc grapes, which he grows for Delegat Wines and their Oyster Bay wine label.
Robbie says he chose Delegat Wines because of their very good grower support. “I knew nothing about grapes, when I first started and they provided me with a lot of help.
They’ve been very good to me during the planting processes – teaching an agricultural farmer how to grow grapes. They organise a harvest company and we liaise with them.
The grapes are regularly tested all the way through so we know when harvest will be. We don’t get huge yields – normally it’s around 13 tonne to the hectare – but Delegat’s tell me the lighter harvests make the fl avours more intense.”
Limited to a harvest tonnage, once the tonnage is hit the rest of the grapes stay in the vineyard, which the sheep make good use of.
Robbie says he uses the sheep to do a quick leaf pluck in the vineyard where they are grazed over winter, “It’s a very agricultural vineyard,” says Robbie.
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