When Federated Farmers Marlborough president Evan White first moved to the Wairau Valley, he never imagined his farm would one day be nestled between vineyards.
For the last 16 years his family partnership has run up to 800 cows on their 480ha property, pumping water directly from the Wairau River for irrigation and relying on a combination of crops, growing maize on farm and brought in feed when water restrictions kick in.
But times are changing in Marlborough, and so too are the region’s landscapes, as poor meat and wool returns coincide with international demand for New Zealand wine.
Grapes, rather than cattle, now cover much of the region’s ranges and valleys.
In recent years Delegat wines purchased 500ha on the White’s boundary for conversion and have invested millions in water storage and frost fans.
Now the Whites have sold their land to a viticultural company themselves and are seeing out the dairy season before shifting back to the original family farm at Spring Creek near Blenheim.
“Fifty years ago, Daniel le Brun, the pioneer of Méthode Traditionelle in New Zealand, said that one day all of the Wairau Valley will be in grapes; everyone laughed at him,” White says.
“Well, they’re not laughing now. There’s very little prime land suitable for grapes left along the Wairau valley – in fact, some of the bigger players are now pushing out to quite wet land in Koromiko and Okaramio towards Havelock .
“The rise of Marlborough viticulture has surprised a lot of people who were sceptical about where grapes could successfully be grown in New Zealand, and I’ve got to put my hand up and say I’m one of them.
“I’ve been proven wrong with grapes time and time again. I just thought ‘here’s another fad’. We’ve seen the rise of kiwifruit, then olives, alpacas, even angora goats for a while – but it looks like the vineyards are here to stay.”
The numbers don’t lie, and Marlborough’s land use trends are clear: In 1996 about 5,000ha of the province was in viticulture. By 2018 grape vines had spread to 30,000ha.
In the decade to 2018, pastoral land use dropped by more than 100,000ha to 335,000ha.
Of course, not all of that has been put into grapes. Some has been retired or planted in natives. Pine nuts are doing well and quite large areas of hill are now in pine trees.
Despite the rapid changes to the landscape and community, White doesn’t believe pastoral farmers resent the spread of vineyards in the region.
“Sheep, beef, and dairy all remain a very important part of the Marlborough economy,” he says.
“Some farmers have converted their entire properties, but others have diversified their businesses and put blocks in vines, either developing it themselves, or leasing their land to others.
“There’s no denying the grapes have shielded us from some of the economic storms. Even in the dry years, as long as the grapes go well, Marlborough seems to keep going okay.
“On marginal sheep, beef and cropping land, I have to admit green vines in a dry Marlborough summer don’t look too bad at all.”
Dry conditions are a significant challenge for the Marlborough region with NIWA’s soil moisture maps for mid-January showing the region to have some of the most significant moisture deficits in the country.
“That climate is great for growing grapes, but water storage has been an essential ingredient in the region’s success,” White says.
“Access to regular and reliable water is going to be the key to Marlborough’s future prosperity – and that’s for farmers too.”
With warnings that climate change will make the east coast of both islands even dryer, White believes capturing excess water while its plentiful in winter to use productively in dry summers is the way of the future.
He believes plenty of other Marlborough landowners want better water security but consider the current planning hurdles and cost prohibitive.
“There have been some great irrigation schemes in the past – yes, some were Government funded and we’re unlikely to see that again – that changed some dry areas to green productive farmland,” he says.
“Surely, for resilience and production options, the future is in water storage. Even better if water storage and hydro-generation could work together where possible.”
Those landowners will surely be encouraged that the new Government has signalled a renewed interest in water storage.
National’s coalition agreement with New Zealand First coalition includes a commitment to cut red tape and regulatory blocks on irrigation, water storage, managed aquifer recharge and flood protection schemes.
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