SUBJECTS: Sustainable agriculture, climate change policy, Hunter wine production, carbon neutral farming.
JOEL FITZGIBBON: I would like to thank Keith and Alisdair Tulloch at Keith Tulloch Wines for having us here today and in particular Verity from Farmers for Climate Change Action for facilitating it. The climate is changing in very challenging ways, we all know that. The sector most adversely affected is the agriculture sector and of course our wonderful vineyards are part of that sector. I’m delighted we are doing this in my own backyard today, of course the centre of the universe, the Hunter Valley Wine Country. The key point here is our agriculture sector needs to change, and by changing in the ways achieved here at Keith Tulloch Wine there are three outcomes. One, we are doing something for the environment of course but the switch to the methods they are using here to secure carbon neutrality save money. The switch to renewable energy, for example less use of fertiliser and more efficient refrigeration processes. Third and very importantly, what they have achieved here and what so many other farmers have achieved across the country is that they are lifting productivity and if you lift productivity you lift sustainable profitability. In fact there are four points. The fourth point is that this is a great marketing initiative because more and more the big purchasers of our products whether it be wine, vegetables or meat, they want it to be produced from sustainable practices so those who are embracing sustainable practices I hope and trust will be able to secure a premium in the future because consumer preferences are changing and consumers are demanding that their product be produced ethically and sustainably and I think everyone who are going down this path, every farmer producer and grower going down this path will be able to secure those premium prices by taking advantage of those consumer preferences. I will invite people to ask Alisdair and Keith some questions.
JOURNALIST: Have you guys noticed a change in your harvest time over the years?
ALISDAIR TULLOCH: Yes so we have records going back 20 or 30 years in the local area. Our family has been growing grapes and making wine here for over 120 years and there has been a definite shift in the harvest dates which is linked to the bud burst dates, the date which the vine comes out of dormancy at the end of winter. That moving forward and harvesting earlier means we are now harvesting some varieties about a month earlier than was previously done as recently as the 1980s and 90s. The effect that has on our wine production and the vintage compression of many varieties and grapes ripening at the same time adds a lot of costs in the way that we receive and process and make the wines. What is really a huge worry is looking further into the future. If it has shifted a month within our own lifetime, within my lifetime and my children’s lifetime what will the picture of grape growing in Australia look like without any action on climate change?
JOURNALIST: I’m keen for any feedback you have on marketing and in terms of sustainable practices. So we know that it is popular with certain demographics and that’s great I think and there’s new opportunities. Can you tell us how you quantify it to if you weren’t promoting sustainable practices as part of your product, what is the difference between the two production systems in terms of marketing?
ALISDAIR TULLOCH: Customers always have a sympathetic view with agriculture products of there being an ethical responsibility in sustainability. We are still very early in marketing the carbon neutral wines but people in the tasting room are extremely receptive of it and really interested in what we have achieved. We’ve had calls from the international market who are interested in what kind of sustainability initiatives wineries have. It’s something that is growing not just here in Australia but internationally as a brand of Australian wine people look for sustainable choices. I’d really compare in a way to free range chickens as compared to cage chickens. We’re not telling people we are solving the climate change problem but we are offering people an ethical decision when they look to purchase wine.
JOURNALIST: Would you like to see either party assist in – you tell me about the cost involved in becoming and getting this carbon neutral certification. Would you like to see either of them give assistance or incentivise farmers to follow this path?
ALISDAIR TULLOCH: Thanks for your question Louise, I’ve discussed this with you previously and also with Joel today, the costs around carbon neutrality don’t extend only to the infrastructure improvement and investments in more efficiencies, they also extend to things like auditing to make sure these systems are reliable and strongly held certifications in the community and as a small business absorbing those costs it is difficult. We call for any assistance we can get from government to make these schemes more affordable for everybody so more wineries can join in on carbon neutrality and sustainability programs.
FITZGIBBON: I might just add to that Louise. Yes government needs to do more to assist those who are making the transition. Alastair has talked about some of the practical things like the cost of certification is all too hard. Labor’s policy approach is to do just that and to give them that additional incentive to participate and to be able to participate in the carbon market. We need to take what is happening here a step further right across the agriculture sector, a step further by making it easier for those operating in the agriculture sector to secure offsets in the carbon market. If we can do that that’s an additional source of income and of course making their revenue stream more diverse and we have a number of proposals already on offer to do just that. You would be aware Louise we have proposed a $400 million Farm Productivity and Sustainable Profitability Plan and it will have as one of its key focuses our effort to assist those make the transition to carbon neutrality more sustainable practices, higher productivity and of course producing the product that consumers are increasingly not just asking for but demanding. I hope I don’t put words into Keith’s mouth but Alisdair used the word people looking or asking for product. I think Keith might agree and might be prepared to say that some of his customers are demanding that into the future. Would that be correct to say?
KEITH TULLOCH: Yes without any doubt. From the consumer basin and into business to business marketing and in international marketing there is so much more engagement in finding out the longevity, potential and sustainability in every practice that we do, on the land, in the place of wine making and overall.
FITZGIBBON: I might just make one extra point, research is very important. The Commonwealth Government spends around $400 million just on our research and development corporations. That’s in addition to what we spend on the CSIRO for example and we need to achieve greater uniformity across their work, less siloing and more cross sectoral work. We need to ensure they too are focusing on the climate change issue and in other words, we need more government guidance to ensure our research dollars are going where they are absolutely needed most and that is tackling climate change mitigation and adaptation.
JOURNALIST: Aside from sustainable production and carbon neutrality you’re also it sounds like you’re going one step further into landscape restoration as well and investing your own cold hard cash into that. I imagine, I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I imagine that the Commonwealth Government scheme to provide financial incentive to do that work would be welcome because you are doing it anyway so that would be good, but you mentioned auditing for your production techniques. Would it be a concern for you if – who bears the cost of auditing for your landscape restoration because both major parties broadly they have schemes on the table to reward farmers for that sort of work. How front of mind is that auditing process and getting the bona fides checked out?
ALISDAIR TULLOCH: As far as auditing goes I know it is really important to make sure there aren’t claims of green washing and that things stack up really. When it comes to the regeneration of the actual vineyard around the vines and trying to restore natural vegetation, we aren’t doing it with any grants or sort of certification, and I do believe some assistance would help people to improve on that but I can’t comment on how the auditing system works.
FITZGIBBON: We are investing $40 million to strengthen, improve and build on the methodologies so that people who are increasing for example their carbon content in their soils have a methodology in which to work and therefore a methodology just not for certification but to earn carbon offsets and therefore another source of revenue on farm or on vineyard.
JOURNALIST: I have a sort of agriculture question to ask about soil carbon content. Have you improved that over time and how so? What sort of improvements have you seen?
KEITH TULLOCH: We started the program a number of years ago to minimise the use of artificial chemicals and to go back to rather old school approaches in our agriculture management here and we have just completed a set of field samples do soil analysis which will then be followed with petiole analysis of leaf growth in spring so we will be able to get a very close track on the improvement not only in the performance of yield but the health of the plant.
ALISDAIR TULLOCH: In addition to that the sowing of cover crops in the mid rows does fix nitrogen and carbon into the soil and that is something we do annually throughout winter whilst the vines are dormant and then we will slash under vine that organic material to act as a fertiliser for the plants.
VERITY MORGAN-SCHMIDT, FARMERS FOR CLIMATE ACTION: So from our perspective this is all about how agriculture can achieve win-wins. We know that farmers are on the frontline of climate change right across the country and we know that we also, as managers of 50 per cent of the land mass actually have huge potential to guide and lead on the kinds of solutions that we need to see. That is why for us as Farmers for Climate Action it is incredibly exciting to see we have this type of leadership coming out of private business because this is where the change is really happening. It’s not necessary always happening in Canberra. The change is happening right here, right now in vineyards and we are all in this narrative together. We need the right policy framework and the right investment setting but we also need farmers like Al and Keith to be engaged in this debate and to really take ownership to how agriculture is involved in the climate conversation.
FITZGIBBON: Can I just finish by thanking you for coming to the very place where we make the very best wines in the world.
JOURNALIST: What varieties do you guys grow?
KEITH TULLOCH: Semillon, the most significant white grape variety in the Hunter Valley is Semillon. Chardonnay we grow here as well Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier which are other white grape varieties from the Rhone Valley in France. Shiraz, it really comes down to the flagship varieties we have, Semillon and Shiraz is what we do.
MORGAN-SCHMIDT: Thank you again to Al to Keith and to Joel and team for coming out here and to get this conversation moving forward and to break out of the deadlocks it has been caught in.