Okanagan winery proprietor Tony Stewart on how smart business drives sustainable practices.
Originally published, 23 Oct 2013, on TheTyee.ca
By Colleen Kimmett. Tony Stewart doesn’t exactly think of himself as an environmentalist.
His Okanagan-based winery, Quails’ Gate, has received accolades for its commitment to best environmental practices (not to mention international recognition for its award-winning chardonnay), but for Stewart things like composting, energy-saving lights and water conservation are just good business sense. He prefers to think of himself as a responsible corporate citizen.
Stewart is giving the keynote speech at the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.’s Land Awards Gala this Friday, Oct. 25, which recognizes initiatives that demonstrate leadership, innovation and collaboration in sustainable land use in the province.
He will speak about his family’s long history in the Okanagan (his grandfather arrived in 1908, and his father bought the farm that is now Quails’ Gate in 1956), and the change that has occurred in this unique part of British Columbia over the past several decades.
While some may see the proliferation of vineyards in the Okanagan as a kind of agrarian gentrification, Stewart believes wineries can serve as the hub of an agriculturally-diverse region, drawing tourism dollars and interest that can drive sustainable practices. Here, he offers a sneak peek of Friday’s keynote.
What was it like growing up in the Okanagan in the 1960s and ’70s?
“It was a lot different than it is today. It was more of a rural setting. There wasn’t a lot of tourism traffic back then.
“Our farm was predominantly wine grapes and table grapes, but we had cherries, peaches, apples, pears, apricots. You started off with cherries and worked your way through to table grapes, to working in the orchards the end of summer and September.
“The ALR (agricultural land reserve) happened a few years after dad started the place. There was an understanding of protecting farm land, good farm land, that was growing.”
What was the response when you started Quails’ Gate?
“My brother took over the farming operation in ’79, and my father encouraged my brother and his wife to start the winery. I came on as a partner in 1992. I was living in Toronto prior to that, and when I came back what I found remarkably interesting was that people were discounting the viability of agricultural land in the Okanagan.
“Kelowna used to be called Orchard City. And if you were looking for apples in North America, chances were you knew you were getting them from the Okanagan. As time went on and Washington State and other parts of the world started to produce apples more competitively, the orchard industry went into a state of regression.
“We got comments like ‘I guess you guys will eventually put a golf course in,’ or ‘I guess you guys will maybe be able to get some of the land out [of the ALR] and subdivide it.’
“It was not unusual for people to think that farming wasn’t really going to be that viable. But we definitely had a vision of sustainability.”
How have things in the Okanagan changed since then?
“Over the next 20-odd years, the wine industry has certainly shown that agricultural land in the Okanagan is viable for grapes. But a lot of other pieces of land are in question. That’s partly what I’m going to talk about when I do the speech on the 25th.
“Sustainability and the importance of the rural look of the Okanagan is paramount at this point in time. It’s not that people didn’t have sustainability on their minds 10 or 15 years ago. It’s that now the economics of the winery tourist destination supports initiatives that can start working towards more sustainable practices… things like water conservation, low-impact herbicides and pesticides, more organic farming, conscious decisions around protecting land.
“There are lots of people who are still holding out this faint hope that their land in the ALR is going to be removed. I think, as we prove that there is a future for agriculture valley, some of those lands are getting converted back into farming, and that’s a really good move.”
What about concerns that there’s not enough agricultural diversity in the Okanagan? That it’s becoming another Napa Valley?
“We now have a very solid and very strong economic contributor in the wine industry, but a lot of the lands here are not viable for grape planting. So what’s the step for those lands to be valuable and economically viable for the owners?
“That is what we’re focusing on with our restaurant — sustainability of local farms and local produce. The ability to source 100 per cent of our beef from B.C., from Cache Creek, and the ability to make a market or help develop a market for farmers here that are growing more diverse crops.
“We have Suncatcher Farms, which provides a number of products to us. They’re growing specific vegetables or herbs, and farmed lake trout that we purchase from up in Enderby. So we’re putting more money into the hands of the families that are growing the products. These farmers are finding a way to understand our needs as a restaurant and culinary destination. The wine industry is the hub.”
What lessons can other agricultural sectors learn from the wine industry?
“We are successful because we have direct delivery. That’s a large part of our success, and every wine region around the world does it.
“That’s what the cherry industry did. The farmers understood the market, they grew the cherries, they packaged them the way they should package for that market, and then when they get the money back they’re not having to share it with the marketing board or the distribution system. I think the cherry industry has shown that, given the route to market, you can make land that is suitable for cherries to become viable.
“Value-added agriculture is something that I’ve subscribed to for years — looking at not simply just growing the product but adding a value to it in some way, shape or form.
“Canada and B.C., and the Okanagan, all need to take a look at how they can add better value. Like the wine industry has done, to sustain a more viable market for underlying crops.
“We used to be a grape grower supplying grapes to a commercial wine industry. We struggled financially under that model. Today we’re not only the grape grower — we’re the manufacturer, and we’re the people who sell the wine. That has improved the economics. If you go back to 1988, on relatively the same amount of land, Quails’ Gate employed three people full-time. Today, we employ over a hundred people.
“And we run a year-round restaurant, because we now have created a whole experience around the farming operation. People are interested in the grapes; they’re interested in the process of making wine. More importantly, they’re interested in sitting down and having a glass of chardonnay, enjoying local food and looking out over the beautiful view that the Okanagan [offers.]
“Sustainability isn’t just about sustaining the natural agriculture of the land. It’s about sustaining the natural beauty of the valley, and we need to focus more on that.”