Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

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Vines off the grid


May 4, 2015
By Treena Hein

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 The land near Hillier, Ont., where Harwood Estates Vineyard is situated had no power when it was purchased. With one of the owners being an electrical engineer and solar power being as efficient as it was, it was natural for the operation to look into an off-grid solution. Photo by Contributed

Running a business of any kind off the grid is an accomplishment in itself. But for the owners of Harwood Estate Vineyards, it’s only one of many they have achieved over the last seven years.

Being off-grid is one of several significant ways that Harwood differs from all or most of the wineries in Ontario and beyond (it’s Canada’s second off-grid winery). The owners – couples Don and Judy Harwood plus Kerry Wicks and John Rode – employ organic cultivation practices, capture substantial amounts of rainwater and use many energy-efficient approaches, which together have recently won the operation a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.

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The winery was started in 2007 with the first Harwood wines being introduced in 2009. There are currently 10 acres under cultivation and the grape varieties harvested and grown include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, St. Laurent, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, La Crescent, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. Harwood Estate offers 13 wines and has won 16 awards so far, with their Friends Rosé 2013 vintage earning a medal at the Intervin International Wine Competition before it was even released.

The land near Hillier, Ont., where the winery is situated had grapevines already planted on it when the couples purchased it, but the property had no power, even though the main building is only about 300 metres from the nearest hydro line. As they looked into getting electricity installed, the Harwood team were floored to find out a connection would cost about $28,000. With Rode being an electrical engineer and solar power being as efficient as it was, it was natural for them to look into an off-grid solution.

“For a few more thousand, we were able to install what amounts to our own solar electricity substation,” Rode says. “We finished it in 2008, and have no ongoing electricity bills other than some backup fuel.”

Part of the system is set up to produce three-phase power, which is required by big machines.

“We could even run a press we used to share with another winery, a big World War Two press that took a lot of power,” Rode recalls. “Now, we have a smaller, more efficient press, but it’s good to know we have that much generation. Overall, however, we have to keep a close watch on electricity use.”

What does this mean in practical terms? Not doing major tasks all at once, especially in the fall.

“For example, if the winemakers are pressing grapes, retail folks are not running the dishwasher,” Wicks explains. “In November, we’re at the point in the year where the winery needs the most electricity, so it’s a matter of having a close eye on using all the power we have stored in our deep-cycle batteries, or can generate at a specific point in time.”

As the days get shorter during the harvest season, a back-up propane generator comes into play.

“It’ll come on for two or three hours if we have to put in a long night of pressing.”

Energy efficiency also matters a great deal at Harwood. All the winery lights are LED, which provide a lot of bright light at a low consumption rate, and all the appliances are Energy Star rated. There are plans to increase the solar panel array and battery storage to eliminate the need for any auxiliary power.

The design of the main building that houses both the Harwood Estate tasting room and winery (there is also a patio that summertime guests can enjoy) is also important to overall energy efficiency. The team looked into insulating the building with spray foam, but their municipality no longer allows it because in a fire, it creates a dense smoke that’s extremely dangerous for firefighters. Rode found Reflectix instead, an insulation product consisting of tin foil sheets and a bubbled interior, and it works very well in conjunction with the building’s two woodstoves.

“It doesn’t hold heat in, but it reflects it very well,” he says. “We use about eighteen cords of firewood a year.”

The stoves are very popular with guests who like mulled wine by the fire. In the wine cellar, where temperature control is critical, another propane heater is used in winter as needed.

To irrigate during dry periods without straining the local groundwater table, Harwood Estate installed a catchment system that captures 85,000 litres of rainwater annually. Wicks describes the system as a natural pond that fills and generally holds water about nine months of the year, from which they pump water into holding tanks. The tanks also accept rainwater straight from the roof.

The owners of Harwood believe strongly in not using chemicals unless absolutely necessary.

“We’ve had excellent help from pest management specialist Margaret Appleby at OMAFRA on grape berry moth control,” says Rode. “To deal with it, normally you have to use a pesticide, but we’ve used pheromone mating disruptors and we’ve had no GBM pressure for three years.”

They also use cover crops for a variety of reasons, including control of pests such as cutworm, which will feed on a canola cover crop instead of attacking the vines. Bird pests are prevented from eating grapes with netting, hawk sound effects and hawk silhouettes.

“We’re not aiming for organic certification as being strapped to that takes a lot of time and effort, and if we have a huge infestation that threatens our crops and our entire operation, we don’t want to be in that kind of vice,” says Rode. “We just want to be as environmentally friendly as possible and be as transparent about it as possible.”

In terms of employees, Harwood only hires locally.

“Grapevines need daily care from March to November and we try our best to hire from this area,” Rode says. “We pay well and provide many concessions for staff that need it, but we still have a lot of trouble maintaining an on-going team. We’ve never used foreign workers except for this year (2014). We just couldn’t get enough people locally.”

The biggest challenge – and onemany Premier Award winners face – is keeping up with demand.

“We are now building another solar-powered building and hoping to divide our retail and production spaces over the next year,” says Wicks. “Winning the Premier’s Award is huge, and very much appreciated. This kind of validation is invaluable. It gives us more courage.”