Ducks in The Vineyard
South African Vineyard Utilizes 1600 Indian Runner Ducks as Pest Control
Having priorities while traveling is essential. After a 12-hour flight from England to South Africa, I went straight to a winery.
This vineyard is distinct because it utilizes 1,600 Indian runner ducks as pest control. Yes, I did fly halfway around the world to come face-to-beak with hundreds of ducks. And yes, if I was to stay home, I could have been entertained by my own runner ducks. But what can I say? My hobby is my passion.
This African homestead was founded in 1696 and it is one of the oldest farms in the Stellenbosch region of Cape Town. Back then, each farmer was given a task. Some people focused on vegetables, maize, cabbage, water, or farm labor. Through the 1800s the farm focused on breeding racehorses. Then 150 years ago, someone came up with the theory that wine was a cure for scurvy.
“The theory was that orange juice was sour and wine is also sour, so if citrus cures scurvy so does wine — it is a thumb suck guess,” Ryan Shell, Hospitality Manager of Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate explains. “The government started subsidizing wine production in the Western Cape. So, everyone who was doing other things at the time stopped and starting growing grapes.”
Shell and I were sitting in the historic manor house. Shell is sipping a cappuccino as the fireplace is crackling. Next to us, a dozen patrons laugh over snacks and wine. I stick to water, as I am a professional columnist.
Since wine doesn’t cure scurvy the government eventually stopped subsidizing winemaking.
Thirty-five years ago, the last generation of the farmer lineage, a 15-year-old, wanted pocket money. His father provided him with seeds, a plot of land and chickens. Since the farm is close to a river, when the river bank floods it pushes nutrients and minerals into the soil making for a productive garden. The boy profited from the vegetables easily at school but was having trouble making a profit from the chicken eggs.
“Being 15 he was impatient and at school, he had a friend who had ducks and he did a swap-a-roo,” Shell recalls. “He realized quite quickly that if he wasn’t able to get the chickens to lay eggs, he could have sold the chickens as roasts, but not the ducks. Starting to do research on what he could do with the ducks he found that in Thailand people had been using ducks for thousands of years in farming culture.”
At this time, his father was the most prolific farmer the farm had as its history and was importing grapes for cab sauvignon. They were growing well, but the farm was using a lot of money on poison for pests. By using the ducks as part of an integrated pest management program they could reduce their need for pesticides greatly. Today their flock is up to 1,600 runner ducks and over 100 geese.
“We really are trying to be progressive when it comes to sustainability. We are now more environmentally conscious,” Shell says. “The ducks are part of the story and the other part is our solar plant which provides over 4,000 kilowatt hours. Soon we will be off the grid, not using anybody else’s energy. No dirty energy. And all our water will be recycled. The only water that is not recycled is drinking water.”
Shell walks me across a grass yard to the cellar kitchen. We meet a charismatic sommelier, who introduces me to the first of my six wine glasses. Shortly after, Louis Horn the farm manager, in charge of vineyards, animal husbandry, gardens, and ducks, joins us. With my third wine sample in hand, we tour the ducks sleeping quarters or afdak which is Afrikaans for shelter.
The ducks patrol 5 acres of white and 40 acres of red varieties. Horn says that the same ducks don’t go into the vineyards every day. The first 500 go work for a few hours in the morning and the others go relax at the dam. Duck herders keep the ducks in a square formation of four to five rows of grape vines. The ducks are on a 13-day travel plan. You might be wondering what do ducks eat? The duck’s purpose is to eat the pests on the grapevines. When the herders notice the ducks slowing down their snail and snail egg eating, they bring them back. The ducks then join their friends on the water. A few times a day the ducks parade from the dam to a courtyard where they are hand fed by guests.
Horn says that about 1,000 Indian Runner ducks are in the parades daily. The remaining ducks continue to swim in the dam or are kept separate for breeding.
The 100 or so geese join in the duck parade and act as security in the breeding runner duck pens. This year they are breeding 132 birds out of the 1800 runner ducks with hopes of adding 300 new birds to the program. A new Adopt-a-Duck program allows South Africans to adopt older ducks ready to retire.
Some fun facts about ducks include; they can lay up to 200 eggs a year and it is an Easter egg hunt every day. Vergenoegd Löw has noticed that some ducks will be leaving the water or walking in a parade, lay an egg and keep walking like nothing happened. Freshly discovered duck eggs are used in the kitchens. Guests’ food waste goes to the pigs and then composted, which helps grow the vegetable garden. Another step in their goal of sustainability.
When Horn and I return from the incubators and breeding pens we pass the cellar kitchen and I pick up a fourth glass. We then head into the wine cellar. I am introduced to the vineyard’s winemaker, Marlize Jacobs. I ask Jacobs after long days of winemaking: does she drink wine at home or does she get tired of it? She replies that she enjoys a glass at night to help wind down. Her hobby is her passion.
The main thing the vineyard wants people to know is that the ducks are not pets. They parade them because they want people to know about them. The ducks are not a marketing exercise, they are really a part of what they do, which is winemaking.
The farm was well known for wine in the ’70-’80s and then people forgot about them. At this time, they would have 500-600 guests a month. With their flock of 1,000 Runner ducks, they started showcasing them in a daily parade. One year later the vineyard started seeing 15,000 people in one month. However, people would come and see the Indian Runner ducks and leave. The visitors did not convert into wine sales. Ducks are here to aid in wine production. By combing the duck parades with the wine cellar tours and tastings people started learning how practical the ducks are.
Now guests, as I did, come for the ducks and stay for the wine. In the summer, they can have up to 20,000 visitors per month. Their summer wine is so renowned they don’t have to sell it, it just flies off the shelf.
As our tour concludes, I remind them that I have just come off a 12-hour flight and need to retire to my hotel, which I must locate. Jacobs reply to how I can refresh myself,
What’s your favorite poultry related vacation?