Making tracks in Marlborough’s wine industry

SOPHIE PREECE, Marlborough Express, Feb 27 2019

Ben Richards grew up on a Waikato dairy farm, but always knew the life of 4am milking wasn’t for him. Vineyard work at 4am, on the other hand, is part and parcel of a job he loves.

The 23-year-old Indevin Grower Liaison Officer, and winner of last year’s Marlborough’s Bayer Young Viticulturist of the Year competition, manages relationships with more than 30 growers around the region.

That’s a lot on one plate, but given Ben chose viticulture over winemaking because he deemed the latter too quiet outside vintage, it’s simply fuel to his work ethic.

“I do love winemaking, but for a full time job I felt viticulture gave me a lot more to do. I like to keep busy.”

And he is. The week before we speak, he’s been out with a crew obtaining yield estimates in 30-plus degree heat.

He’s also been busy researching the use of tracks instead of tyres on tractors and sprayers to reduce compaction on wet vineyards, “as well as new, improved and out-of-the-box techniques for in the field antimicrobial and antioxidant additives during harvest”, he says.

“This is to ensure when the grapes are harvested they turn up to the winery in the best possible condition and the winemakers can then make the best possible wine from them.”

Indevin’s desire to stay abreast of research is one of the things Ben loves about the company. “They are willing to embrace change and look at new ideas and innovations and techniques. Because they are a bigger company, there’s a bit more money behind that, and they want to be industry leaders in those sorts of things,” he says.

It’s a sentiment he shares, with aspirations to have a positive impact on the industry. “I want to help improve the new innovations side of things, and working with Indevin is good for that.”

Ben’s own career path started when he was 15, looking beyond the cows, but knowing he wanted a job outdoors, that tapped in to his love of science, travel and hospitality.

A friend suggested he consider the wine industry or beer brewing “and I went from there”, he says.

On finishing school, Ben went to EIT in Hawke’s Bay to learn winemaking and viticulture, and soon decided the vineyards were where his future lay.

He was two years into his course when he started working for Indevin, first turning down a full time job – concerned about his studies – then later accepting a position of a few days a week.

The work assisted his studies, as he put lab and book knowledge to the test in the field. “You get the people that learn everything by the book, but then get out there and they don’t have any idea about the machinery or the equipment, and don’t know how to use it,” he says.

“You definitely do need the theory and the practical knowledge.” It also helped to be able to ask questions of Indevin experts throughout the country, when assignments had him stumped.

The company gave him time off to study when required, and supported his preparation for the 2017 Young Viticulturist Competition in Hawke’s Bay, and the national competition that followed.

Soon after, he transferred to Marlborough, and was soon preparing for the Young Viticulturist competition in Blenheim, which he won, and the subsequent nationals, in which he was placed fourth.

There’s not much about his work that Ben doesn’t relish.

“I like the growing of the plants and the technical side. I also enjoy driving the tractor and being out in the field,” he says. “It’s probably the way I have been brought up. I want to start at the bottom and work my way up.”

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