no 'holy cows' for Backsberg

Submitted by sproutingforth on Thu, 2009-05-07 11:07

I like Michael Back from Backsberg Estate.

Really, you can't help but respond to someone who looks a little like the nutty professor and spouts irreverent yet totally honest and unconventional thoughts on just what he has done on the Backsberg estate to make it the only carbon neutral wine estate in the country, and the third in the world.

When Simon Back first called to invite us out to Backsberg estate, along with a number of other journalists and bloggers (we travelled out there with Pia from Mother City Living), I turned to their website to find out more about them. There had been subtle 'rumours' about Backsberg, the gist of which I hadn't been able to pin down, so I was looking foward to getting the 'inside story'.

My initial reaction to the news of the estate's 'carbon neutrality' (there wasn't too much about it on the website) was – okay, so they've offset their carbon emissions by ...planting a lot of trees.

Noble though planting trees may be, it doesn't change the way you go about things, and that's fundamentally what we need to address if we're going to fight climate change.

I couldn't have been more wrong about the way in which Backsberg has gone about making themsevles carbon neutral. A lot of what Michael had to say was both enlightening and unexpected.

Most of all, it was a pleasure to listen to someone who so enjoys the journey that he is on that he isn't frightened to fly in the face of many of today's accepted 'green' maxims in his attempt to find ways to reduce carbon emissions in a way in which everyone wins, and where there are no 'holy cows'.

For instance, Michael and Simon are growing a forest of Eucalyptus trees on the estate.

I can sense your indignation – aren't blue gums invasive, water intensive, exotics sited by the government as trees that must go?

Yes, they are. But they're also one of the fastest growing, least-fussy-about-where-they-grow trees that Michael knows. So, together with the Forestry department at Stellenbosch University, they've managed to get beneath the radar (they do have champion Status in terms of the Biodiversity Wine Initiative, after all and 30 hectares are set aside for the preservation of fynbos) to run a project on the estate to monitor the blue gum forest.

The wood is for renewable energy on the estate (Michael and Simon have set aside 10% of their estate to produce renewable energy), and it is watered with waste water from the plant. As far as Michael is concerned, 'invasive' is a management issue, and since the land that surrounds the forest is all his, it stands to reason that he will manage its invasiveness.

The same principle applies to the Port Jackson that they have allowed to take root in a section of land on the farm that he describes as 'useless'. The wood from these trees, which grow extremely fast, will again be harvested for renewable energy. Michael sees Port Jackson as a resource, an asset

It's all about a change of mindset, and Michael had me delighted by his approach that completely debunks the accepted school of thought with regards to 'greening' the planet, yet subtly bears some of the seeds of the fundamentals of permaculture, particularly 'small, simple solutions' that work with what is naturally occuring, rather than against it.

Backsberg is also moving away from the standard width for their vineyard layout. They have adopted a method of growing their grapes, that Michael claims has been used for ages in Spain, in a 'V' that gives him more 'factory space' (more leaves, which means the grapes are more productive and their quality and flavour enhanced) but uses less energy, is less intensive and involves fewer tractors in the process. (Backsberg hand pick their grapes, they aren't machine harvested)

Making Backsberg carbon neutral

  • skylights in their factories and out buildings to save on electricity
  • a series of far smaller bakkies and tractors, as these have needed replacing, to save on carbon emissions (no one-ton bakkie for these wine farmers, they've opted for Bantam bakkies – as Michael snorts – his ego doesn't need massaging on a daily basis!)
  • bottling wines in lightweight bottles
  • using a Varispeed controller to control the pressure and volume of irrigation water to some of the vineyards
  • both of their water banks, each holding 160 000 litres, are insulated with straw bales. This translates into having to draw virtually no day time electricity to cool the cellar buildings
  • a small tree nursery where they propogate their own trees used for their carbon emissions offset programme. They also plant trees on behalf of their UK importers
  • their own compost site made to a specific recipe, as opposed to poultry manure for the vineyards
  • furniture made from the spent wine barrels. Had they used these barrels simply for flower pots, 200 years of carbon capture (we're talking imported oak here) would simply end up in land fill
  • running a pilot methane digester and a parabolic reflector experiment
  • they offset production by greening the nearby village of Klapmuts, run by Food & Trees for Africa
  • annual CO2 audits (their first was in 2007)

For more about just what Backsberg are doing to be carbon neutral.

And then there is a unique cooling system they've put in for their red wine as it is undergoes fermentation

Rather than circulating water via huge refrigeration plants, which is the norm, Backsberg have designed and built their own circulation system that pumps dam water from dams above the farm. They've learned that water three to four metres below the surface of the water remains at a constant 15 degree temperature.

This isn't a new concept. It's used in parts of northern Europe for heating homes, but by pumping ordinary dam water to cool the red wine as it ferments (white wine needs to be cooler, so the refigeration plants are still used for these; but 70% of Backsberg's wines are red) and then allowing the warm water to pump back into other low lying dams, Backsberg manages to cool its reds without using refrigeration – saving substantial amounts of CO2 and electricity – they've been able to disconnect four of their refrigeration plants.

Slowly a picture forms in which it is obvious that Backsberg have something pretty unique happening. They are out to save the planet (who else would cut his bathroom towel in two so that his carbon footprint is reduced, and defy us to do the same?).

But they're doing it across a whole series of smart small savings that together have a maximum effect on the amount of CO2 they save, whilst still allowing them to run a profitable business.