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NZ meat packers close as grapes take over

New Zealand has produced a bumper 118,700 tonne harvest – amid fears that the burgeoning wine industry is driving out sheep farmers.

With current NZ exports valued at NZ$240m (€119m) per annum, New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said the increased crop will mean more exports. ‘Since vintage 2000 international sales have been hampered by small crops. This year, rather than simply allocating wine to customers, we can move towards meeting market needs.’

But as the wine industry celebrates, with many of the nation’s wineries already increasing their acreage under vine, there are concerns regarding the changing face of New Zealand farming.

Last year meat trade body Meat NZ predicted a decrease of 48,000 tonnes in sheepmeat production over the next five years as farmers shift out of sheep farming, and only last month the Primary Producers Cooperative Society reported the closure of a Marlborough meat processing plant due to ‘the changing farming patterns from sheep to grapes.’

However the New Zealand wine industry is unconvinced vines are threatening to oust the nation’s 44million sheep.

Clive Jones, winemaker and winery manager of the Nautilus Estate in Marlborough told decanter.com the expansion of vineyards in the Marlborough region is concentrated on valley floors, typically the least productive in terms of sheep farming.

‘I suspect the closure of the Marlborough meat packing plant is as much to do with rationalisation of that industry and the effects of the droughts of 1998 and 2001 as any direct influence of viticulture.’

Jones agreed other horticultural crops, such as apples and stonefruits are making way for grapes.

But fruitgrowers welcome grapes for the money they bring in and the fact vines are usually planted on land unsuitable for other crops.

Jonathan Wiltshire, pipfruit sector chairman of Hawkes Bay Fruitgrowers Association, said, ‘The region will continue to welcome the investment, technology and other spin offs that the increase in wine grape plantings have brought.’

A possible problem on the horizon is the prospect of a grape glut. The country’s total producing vineyard area has risen almost 14% in the past year, from 11300 ha to 12800 ha. It is projected to cover 17000 hectares by 2005.

Peter Hubscher, managing director of New Zealand’s largest wine producer Montana, and chairman of New Zealand Winegrowers, said growers were being urged to plant sensibly.

‘It’s not legally possible in New Zealand to restrict people’s freedom to plant grapes,’ he said. ‘The NZ Winegrowers Federation has been for some years urging new participants in the industry and established players to ensure that they have a route to market and sufficient consumer franchise to sell all the grapes they propose to plant.’

Written by Tracey Barker10 July 2002

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