Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Guardians of the land

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As fifth-generation guardians of the land first purchased by UK immigrant David Bishell, Simon and Scott Bishell are continuing a long-standing tradition of diversification and trend-bucking to future-proof. Their great, great grandfather was a farm labourer who arrived in Nelson in 1876, with his wife Mary and three children. He leased some land to grow pumpkins, and following a successful crop, purchased 50ha west of Blenheim township in 1880.
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Innovating to advance is something that runs in the blood of those at Caythorpe Family Estate in Marlborough. Fiona Terry spoke to the Bishell brothers managing the business they hope will thrive for many generations to come.

As fifth-generation guardians of the land first purchased by UK immigrant David Bishell, Simon and Scott Bishell are continuing a long-standing tradition of diversification and trend-bucking to future-proof.

Their great, great grandfather was a farm labourer who arrived in Nelson in 1876, with his wife Mary and three children. He leased some land to grow pumpkins, and following a successful crop, purchased 50ha west of Blenheim township in 1880.

Within two years, and despite the hard mahi converting the flax-covered swamp land into a productive area, he became the first farmer in the country to grow red clover as a seed crop, commissioning the build of an innovative thresher to harvest. He produced quality cereal and vegetables, and later diversified into cattle and sheep – Lincoln’s, renowned for both fleece and meat, and familiar to him from the UK. His purchase of a neighbouring property in 1890 grew the farm, which he named after his home village in Lincolnshire, to its current size of 191ha. 

Now Caythorpe boasts 130ha of vineyard – 90% in sauvignon blanc – with an additional 16ha vineyard purchased off-site. It’s also gained a name for its successful cherry orchard, premium hay products, sheep and beef, and more recently, its own award-winning wine label. With a keenness to use technology and science, and an emphasis on sustainability and traceability, the brothers continue to build a business they hope will thrive for many generations.

David ran the property up until the 1920s, with son Walter then taking on sheep and cattle production, diversifying Caythorpe into a successful stud farm. 

Third-generation Mervyn discontinued the stud operation, but pursued the animal and feed crops, and then in the early-80s, upon his death, eldest son Murray took over the running of the farm together with his wife Diana. They had already borrowed heavily to purchase a portion of the land for Murray to farm in his own right. With Mervyn’s passing, the couple were hit not only by 40% death duties, but interest rates over 20%, together with the demise of subsidies. 

“Death duties were almost greater than the land value,” Simon said.

“They had two options – sell up to pay them off, or stay on the farm and do things differently.”

The couple took a big gamble further diversifying into cherries in 1985-86, then planting a vineyard in 1987-88. Like their forebears, they weren’t afraid to go against the grain to innovate, opting for the then little-known varieties of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.

“There weren’t many vineyards back then and it certainly wasn’t seen as real farming,” he said.

But Murray and Diana’s gamble paid off, and as the sauvignon blanc wave grew, Caythorpe was well positioned to ride it. By 1991-92, the vineyard and orchard accounted for only 5% of land area but produced 30-40% of the income.

Scott and Simon Bishell

Fifth-generation farmers Scott, right, and Simon Bishell at a gateway to the

original Caythorpe Family Estate homestead. Photos: Tim Cuff

Murray, who had no prior experience of growing grapes, embraced vineyard expansion but remained a firm fan of the agricultural side of the farm. He marked a number of other firsts in the region, including purchasing the first axial flow combine in Marlborough and being one of the earliest to irrigate process vegetable crops. A successful national ploughing competitor, his enjoyment was the animals, tractors and crops – a passion eldest son Scott inherited. 

Scott graduated from Lincoln in 2003 with a BCom Ag, majoring in Farm Management, and after working overseas, returned to Caythorpe to continue its highly regarded name in sheep, beef and cropping. He’s carved a niche with customised hay mixes for the equine market, some including the red clover, which is still grown on-site.

As a highly skilled ploughman, Scott still uses the four-furrowed reversible design his father trialled from Europe back in the 90s. For interim rejuvenation of pastures, he relies on his direct seed drill.

“Haymaking has a long tradition at Caythorpe,” Scott said.

“Returns are the same as the processed veg we used to grow, like peas and beans, but this is less intensive for the soil and I pride myself on the bales; I have one customer who bought hay from my grandfather and father, and now from me.”

On the property still rests Marlborough’s first self-tying twine hay baler, circa 1941, but these days Scott is proud to own the region’s first Multipack bale packing machinery.

imon with his wife Sara and sons Cameron

Simon with his wife Sara and sons Cameron, one, and Lauchlan, three, in front of the Caythorpe Homestead.

“It’s a total innovation for hay making and has been a game-changer for us,” he said.

At times paddocks are shut for seed, depending on hay demand, which this year has been high due to very dry conditions. Four wells on the property are vital for irrigation – the bleached Wither Hills are testament to what happens if ground is left to 500mm of annual rainfall.

Scott, who lives on the south of the farm with his son Alex and wife Rachel – who runs a crafting and sewing shop in Blenheim – is also responsible for the farm’s book-keeping and says if he were to put on his accountant’s hat, every paddock would be converted to grapes.

“If all I was doing was maximising our profit, then there’s no way I’d be doing any of this,” he said, gesturing to the paddocks of Angus heifers, ewe stock of Romneys and Longdowns, and meadows with neat lines of freshly cut lucerne, clover, grasses and herbs.

At the property’s border is the primary school he and Simon attended before moving to Nelson College as boarders, and where Alex is now a pupil.

pinot noir vines harvest

Simon overseeing the start of the pinot noir vines harvest.

“But that’s not the whole story for us – history and diversity are important too,” he said.

This provenance has proved a useful marketing tool for the wine Simon started in 2015; the image on the bottle features ancestor David, with his first three Lincoln ewes.

Simon lives in the farm’s 1940s homestead with GP wife Sara – who is also a palliative care doctor and dance teacher. Their two plane-mad boys Lauchlan and Cameron enjoy the farm’s location at the end of Blenheim Airport’s runway.

The vineyard enabled Simon to indulge his passion for science as there are many variables to consider in viticulture that impact flavour, aroma and wine quality. Following his Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology, and Postgrad in Commerce from Lincoln, he was handed the reins by Murray in 2005 for the vineyards, by then 80ha in size. In 2008 he took the title of New Zealand Young Viticulturist of the Year.

With the sad illness and then loss of matriarch Diana in 2012, Murray retired, though still lives on the farm, providing invaluable advice when needed.

Marlborough is now the country’s largest and most famous wine region. It’s vital there’s an efficient two-way relationship between the vineyard and the six wineries Caythorpe supplies with 95% of its grapes. The contractors prescribe ripeness specifications, and harvesting takes place over a crucial three to four week window. Every year Scott buys up to 1300 lambs for finishing, which double as herbicide-free weed and grass control in the 130ha of vineyards.

Until the business’ own label, the brothers had no idea of the true flavours their grapes – which in addition to sauvignon blanc and pinot noir now also include chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling – were creating. With their own single vineyard pick, they can now appreciate the nuances. The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc won Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

The Wither Hills

The Wither Hills are a distinctive backdrop to the vineyards around Blenheim.

“It’s been a hard slog starting a brand from scratch, but we’re lucky because the wine industry is collaborative,” Simon, who’s served in a number of industry governance roles, said.

“Our winemaker Jeremy McKenzie understands the style I’m trying to create, which is quintessential Marlborough, and over-delivers on flavour and intensity at a value for money price point.”

The wine is already being exported to the UK, US, Canada, mainland Europe and Asia.

While specialised harvesting machinery is contracted in, the rows of vines on the property are spaced wider than industry tradition, at 3m apart – an astute move to enable the farm’s agricultural machinery to service the rows, rather than investing in more expensive vineyard-specific vehicles. These days, the estate’s fleet includes Scott’s prized John Deere 6130R, which uses the latest GPS technology with autosteer. Great grandfather Walter, who was the first in Marlborough to introduce a tractor with pneumatic tyres, would be proud. The rows of cut hay for baling are as neat as the vines and the GPS-guided spraying is invaluable for traceability.

“Anywhere we can embrace technology to make life easier to work smarter and not harder, we’ll go for it,” Simon said.

He’s now also trialling an innovative vine-like growing method for the cherry trees and doubling their orchard area to 4ha. Full netting is essential to protect the fruit from birds – the “bane of our lives” they say, since they are also damaging to the grape berries.

“It’s a sweet spot here for cherries because ours ripen in time for pre-Christmas domestic consumption, which carries a premium price. However, there are only half a dozen orchards left in Marlborough because cherries are bloody hard to grow, and vineyards have replaced them as a much more stable investment,” he said.

“Cherries have a couple of crucial growth stages and if you get bad weather at either, it can be catastrophic. A number of critical factors determine success – they need a cold winter to enable fruit set, then warm conditions for the honeybees we bring in to pollinate, and there’s only about a 72-hour window when the flower’s viable. Sometimes there’s nil conversion from flowers to fruit.”

Fourth-generation Murray Bishell

Fourth-generation Murray Bishell has now retired but still lives on the property,

which is a NZ Century Farm, having been worked by the same family for over a hundred years.

Every season throws different challenges. In the vineyard yields have been lower this season due to weather conditions, with the added whammy of employment complications caused by covid-19 since there is a reliance on skilled RSE workers.

“What we do forces us to think quickly and laterally, but also to draw on experiences from years gone by,” he said.

“I’m super proud we’re fifth-generation. Mum and dad worked really hard to diversify and keep the farm in our family, so Scott and I both want to continue that legacy. We’re fortunate because we play to each others’ strengths and bounce ideas off each other.

“Something we both agree strongly about is that technology and markets change so rapidly in this industry that if you’re not progressing, you’re actually going backwards.”

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