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"When three buses come at once:" Discovering Breakthrough Sustainability Solutions at Felton Road


A man crouches on the ground a few feet away from a large down hooked up to various hoses. In the background are green-yellow vineyards.

This article was guest authored by Nigel Greening, Proprietor of Felton Road, an IWCA Silver Member winery in Central Otago, New Zealand.


 

Getting to Net Zero isn’t about stopping doing things; it’s about changing how you do things. It’s an early realization that I had. I still have a business to run; a crop to grow; a wine to make and distribute.


You can’t stop, so you have to change.


But if it was that easy, if there was one easy solution, we’d already have done it! I learned that change happens through connections — or, as I say, change happens when “three buses come at once.”


It starts with Bus #1: regenerative farming.


As an organic and biodynamic producer, one of our first big goals was to abandon tillage (an approach to managing weeds without chemicals). Ploughing probably destroys more sequestered carbon in the soil than any other tool; indeed, there are those who believe that if all farming abandoned the plough, we’d solve climate change from that one simple action.


To wean off the plough, it took a zoomed-out view of what we wanted to achieve, and it took a plan. We adopted new technologies, such as underground irrigation (it doesn’t rain very often where we are!), clever seed drills that can get seeds into position without disturbing the soil, etc. It all came together faster and easier than we ever thought, and today we have eliminated almost all our tilling.



Bright green rows of vineyards interspersed with wild grasses and wildflowers in between rows, almost as far as the eye can see.
Regenerative and biodynamic vineyards at Felton Road.


Bus #2 — tractors — looked like a bigger problem than opportunity.


Electric tractors will be an important tool for farmers in the future, but from everything we have seen, we’re not there yet. Not enough battery life, too slow to charge, expensive... I certainly support the brave efforts to develop these machines. They are needed by many, and we have to start somewhere.


But when we looked at this Bus 2 in the context of Bus 1, a big light switched on.


Tractors were created to pull ploughs — big wheels, enormous torque, heavy weight for traction — all to drag a piece of steel cutting through the soil. In an age of no tilling, does that image of a traditional tractor match what we need? 90% of our tractor use doesn’t require that kind of power. But, because we already have this vehicle sitting in the shed, we put trimmers, sprayers, mowers, crimpers, and all sorts of other tools onto what has become a Swiss Army Knife of a vehicle.


If 90% of our tractor use doesn’t utilize the basic design parameters of the traditional tractor… what might a tractor of the future look like?


I have to admit, I didn’t see this bus coming.


When I went into the vineyard and saw the largest drone I’ve ever seen — quietly (yes, it is surprisingly quiet) moving along rows of vines spraying sulphur for mildew protection — I realised I had just seen one of those tractors of the future. Even these early drone models can do the work of up to three tractors in terms of speed of operation, have no ground impaction issues, don’t squash cover crops, and use no carbon (as long as your recharging source is carbon free). They are also extremely attractive price-wise compared with modern tractors. They make it possible to easily reach the surface of our vineyard, whether with sulphur sprays, nutrients, biodynamic applications… a huge opportunity given that spraying is the single largest tractor use we have. This disruptive technology had just shown me the way out of our dilemma.



A man attaches a hose onto a large drone. In the background are vineyards.
Felton Road's new drone, ready for action.

Bus #3 was the icing on the cake.


Normally, we have to spray for mildew preventatively. If we wait for trouble to arrive, it’s too late to react.


But now, we have new technology that enables us to map the spread of spores before it gets to a critical stage. It requires traps to gather spores, combined with PCR DNA technology to measure the level of the problem spores. Not the sort of thing we can do at home, but once there is a local facility with the technology, it becomes a co-operative effort.


With a critical mass of participating vineyards, we can create a map of mildew pressure so we have a “mildew forecast,” just like a weather forecast. Importantly, that means that we can change from preventative use to only spraying when we need to. And that means that there will be less mildew pressure across the region, so there will be less spraying. That benefits everybody, regardless of whether the sprays are organic and especially if they use stronger chemicals.


This is why change can’t happen in isolation. Eliminating tillage, our first “bus,” helped us redefine the purpose of a tractor. That enabled the second bus: a disruptive technology that redefined how we spray our vineyards. With the third bus, we redefined how often we even need to spray. Together, our three buses took us closer to where we need to go.


 

Our thanks to Nigel Greening of Felton Road for contributing his insights! Hear Nigel discuss Felton Road’s use of drones, and see the technology in action, in the video below.



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