Stepping lightly, treading with care - a Backsberg ethos

Thursday, 22 August, 2019
Judy Brower
In the words of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg “We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis – and act even if we don’t have all the solutions.” #steppinglightly

The Back family have owned and run Backsberg for many years with Simon Back being the current generation's caretaker. Simon's dad, Michael, although spending quite a bit of time travelling the world these days in an old Land Rover, continues to assert his passion for sustainable living and farming.  From recycling their steel from the tractor graveyard to ensuring their staff have comfortable homes with their own title deeds, to up-cycling their older barrels into furniture, plates, ceilings and more.

I was fortunate enough to attend a function on the beautiful farm near Paarl some months back, where we followed the journey of the humble grape, from the vineyard to the back of the tractor and back to the cellar to be crushed. 
We trundled off to the vineyards slowly in the back of a tractor trailer to see their newly certified organic Malbec block and then wandered down past the Pumphouse Shiraz block through the farm, languidly being informed by Simon and their very experienced Estate Manager Carel Malherbe on the various projects on the go.

One of their most recent projects is to get off the electricity grid, and to this end they have planted 4 hectares of prickly pears which will be used to fuel their new Biogas Generator which should arrive next year. Starting with the 2020 harvest, the prickly pear leaves, once harvested, mulched, re-moulded and dried will feed the generator. Until then they are hoping to use grape waste from their neighbours. The plan is to try to get off the unreliable Eskom grid as soon as possible - aiming for 2024!

Backsberg also farms extensively with blueberries - and with computerised irrigation systems relying on consistent electricity - getting off the grid is critical to the continued success of the business.

PACKAGING & RECYCLING

The Tread Lightly range of wines was originally released in recyclable PET but seems the public were not yet ready for that and moved to light-weight glass bottles. Their labels are made from Tree Free Paper which is a product made from 95% recycled sugarcane waste, and 5% hemp and linen. Of course there is constant research going into every aspect of sustainability, with their capsules being the next in line.  

 

BUILDING FORESTS - reducing their carbon footprint

Estate Manager Carel Malherbe has had many years of experience in the blueberry farming business and in his 2.5 years at Backsberg has flourished - constantly tweaking projects for maximum effect.  On our wander through the farm, we passed a small forest of poplar trees.  This is a collaboration with Stellenbosch University to analyse wood densities.

There is also a large forest of non-invasive eucalyptus trees which is used to create a wood lot. The wood is then used for general farm maintenance but more importantly as the source for their vineyard poles. This is not only cost-effective but reduces their carbon footprint tremendously as everything is localised.  

HOUSING & EDUCATION

Housing of farm workers has always been an issue in South Africa, because if you lost your job you lost the right to live on the farm. For Backsberg it was important to break down this tradition and ensure that their staff had the freedom to choose where they wanted to work without being concerned about housing.
The Freedom Road Housing Project, launched in 1998, was a three-way partnership between the workers, government and Backsberg, with the name inspired by South African's first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela's book, Long Road to Freedom. Wines produced under the Freedom Road label were primarily sold to the UK supermarket group Tesco, with the first bottle signed by Madiba himself. 
The aim of the project was to create a situation whereby permanent workers of Backsberg could acquire title to their own homes free of substantial debt. 21 yeas later, the title deeds are almost finalised, so this is a long game of changing lives.  

250 of workers employed at Backsberg are employed on a fixed-term contract basis, extending to 400 more (wage-based) workers during berry-picking season.

Backsberg has an active bursary scheme, with over 100 years of tertiary education having been financed by the farm.  As Michael Back likes to say, “Setting people free feeds the soul. And that’s what life for me really is about. To share and contribute to the betterment of others, that’s what success means.”

A little-known fact is that Michael, during his years at University, (some 40 years back!) was instrumental in the running of a night school in Kayamandi, just outside Stellenbosch.

May Backsberg continue to tread lightly, to step with care; to leave no trace.  A successful business is no longer just one that makes huge profits, but makes a significantly positive impact on its people and environment.

#steppinglightly #wineforgood

 

 

Judy Brower

Judy has been running wine.co.za alongside her hubby Kevin Kidson since 1996. She takes photos, attends functions, writes occasionally, sells wine.co.za services, is Mrs HR at the company, cooks yummy lunches from time to time and generally is the glue at wine.co.za

Simon Back explaining
Simon Back explaining

Carel Malherbe explaining to us
Carel Malherbe explaining to us

Vineyards set up for easier harvesting
Vineyards set up for easier harvesting

The dam built by Simon's grandfather
The dam built by Simon's grandfather

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