Monday, 19 June 2023 15:25

Sweet Inspiration: Wine sector successes influence rural leader

Written by  Sophie Preece
Kate Acland Kate Acland

New Zealand's wine industry "lent into" the sustainability space early on, says the new chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, applauding that industry-wide momentum.

Kate Acland, who is founder and owner of Sugar Loaf Wines in Marlborough, and also runs Mt Somers Station in Canterbury with her husband David, says the wine sector has been a leader in "looking to see what the market was signalling and actually delivering from the field up", supported by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand.

"The wine industry should be really proud as a sector at how good we've been at being market focused; being early adaptors in delivering the sustainability metrics the market demanded and extracting value for those sustainability actions we take in the field."

After being elected as chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), Kate called for a staged approach to farmers paying for on-farm emissions, delaying pricing until the establishment of a "robust emissions measuring and reporting system" can be developed, and "outstanding issues such as the recognition of sequestration for vegetation grown on farms can be resolved".

B+LNZ is part of government's He Waka Eke Noa industry partnership, which was established to provide an alternative to farmers entering the ETS after it was determined they would pay for emissions from 2025. Kate says that farmers acknowledge they have a part to play in addressing climate change and that expectations around agricultural emissions will only increase, "but we need to take the time to get this right because the future of our sector relies on it", she says. "There are still too many unknowns to put a price at this point, so this is about slowing the process down, starting with the measurement and reporting of emissions at farm level."

Driving back to Canterbury after Sugar Loaf's post-harvest celebration, Kate says it is a "massively challenging time" in farming, talking of the "scale and pace of change", regulations that disproportionately impact sheep and beef farmers, and a sector that is "really divided" because of those stresses.

Kate is the first female chair of B+LNZ and, at 41, is the youngest member of the board. That's a great age for people to step up to governance roles, she says. "We have got 20 or 30 years ahead of us in the sector. So if you want to change something for yourself and your children, then getting involved in your 40s is absolutely what we should all be doing." It's also helpful to have the perspective of younger people on the challenges being faced by the industry, and "particularly climate change", she says.

Kate was 23 when she established the Sugar Loaf Wines label in 2004, with a degree in Viticulture and Oenology and a Masters in Farm Management Consultancy. Three years later, blissfully ignorant of the global financial crisis around the corner, she bought a winery and vineyard on Marlborough's Rapaura Road. "It hasn't been smooth sailing the whole way throught," she says, calling 2008 and 2009 "pretty tough years".

When she married David and moved south in 2010, the fortunes of the wine industry remained "quite dire", and she knew she had to sell Sugar Loaf, or grow it. With five "amazing" long term staff managing the operation, and a "dream run" this vintage, she's "constantly glad" she chose option two. These days they process around 500 tonnes for Sugar Loaf, from leased vineyards as well as their own block. A similar amount is processed through contract winemaking for smaller parcels of wine - a model she established to get through the toughest times.

Having worked through "brutal" years in wine, she looks at a "quite tough" period of farming right now, with interest rates up and product prices down, and knows it's just a matter of time before things improve. "You just have to hang on, sometimes by the skin of your teeth. But you know it will pass and you need to farm through it."

The wine business adds "a nice diversification" to the Mt Somers operation, with its 30,000 head of sheep and beef, 850 dairy cows, 400 beehives, and 500 hectares of native bush and beech forest. It also offers a valuable lens on the business of governance with B+LNZ.

"At that whole-of-industry strategic level, the wine industry is one sector you can look at and show, 'here is a great example of seeing what the market is doing and being quite market led in what you do, right back in the field'," she says. "I genuinely think the wine industry should be quite proud of what we do in that space."

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