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Wineries Grapple With Industrial Projects

British Columbia vineyard owners fear neighbor's expansion plans could hinder agri-tourism business

by Peter Mitham
venturi-schulze vineyard
The owners of Venturi-Schulze Vineyard worry that plans to extract gravel from a 70-acre neighboring parcel will negatively affect agri-tourism in the area.
Cobble Hill, B.C.—A bid to extract gravel from protected agricultural land adjacent to a Vancouver Island vineyard highlights the threat major resource and infrastructure projects pose to peaceful co-existence in wine country.

Balme Ayr Farms Ltd., a dairy operation with a milking herd of 115 cattle, wants to expand its arable land holdings by extracting gravel from a 70-acre parcel and replacing it with fill that would allow cultivation. Topography currently limits the cultivated area on the parcel to just 18 acres; Balme Ayr’s proposal would more than triple the arable portion over a period of 15 years.

British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Commission, which oversees activities on properties protected within the province’s 40-year-old agricultural land reserve, could consider the proposal as early as November.

But neighbors including Venturi-Schulze Vineyard fear gravel extraction could have a negative impact on their operations. While three other gravel pits operate in the area, Balme Ayr’s plan concerns Venturi-Schulze because of its scale and the proximity to neighboring farm properties.

It’s across a highway but close enough for dust, noise and truck traffic to be a concern.

Photosynthesis problems
Speaking with Wines & Vines this week, shortly after wrapping up harvest, Venturi-Schulze co-owner Marilyn Venturi explained that dust from the proposed gravel mine would reduce photosynthesis in her 18-acre vineyard.

Moreover, Venturi worries the dust, as well as increased truck traffic associated with hauling gravel, will make the winery less attractive as an agri-tourism destination.

Plans for the winery’s future—and its passing to the next generation, Venturi’s daughter Michelle Willcock Schulze—include replanting a portion of the vineyard and developing a small restaurant and licensed patio.

Those plans are now in jeopardy, Venturi said. Venturi-Schulze’s bank has backed off financing for vineyard development because of the plans to extract gravel, she said, and private investors also want to see if Balme Ayr will proceed with the project before financing a restaurant across the road from an aggregate mine.

“They’ve backed out, so we’re in a limbo now,” Venturi said. “They said they’re not going to do it until such a time as the gravel pit situation is resolved.”

The situation at Venturi-Schulze underscores the concerns industrial projects present for wineries, which typically have active agri-tourism programs to build awareness and relationships with customers.

“The noise and dust inherent with gravel pits and gravel trucks would have an adverse effect on the extremely important agri-tourism aspect of our farm business,” she writes. “This is a particularly competitive market globally, and we need to maintain the continued ability to offer events using our wine and other products (particularly our balsamic vinegar, jams and jellies) to attract tour companies and customers to our farm gate and maintain an environment that supports the pureness of our products.”

Other cases
Venturi-Schulze is hardly unique, especially in the face of global demand for resources.

Plans for a natural gas pipeline through the Willamette Valley in 2008 drew the ire of vineyard owners (see “Willamette Growers Fight Pipeline Plans”), while fracking has been a more recent concern in California (see “California Wine Confronts Fracking”) and the eastern U.S. (see “Quake Damage Slight at Virginia Wineries”). 

Development of infrastructure such as highways also poses problems; the owners of Lotusland Vineyards in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley remain concerned at the impacts of an adjacent property where soil from government highway construction projects is deposited.

The other side
Oliver Balme, who with his wife Shelley operate Balme Ayr, feels concern regarding his farm’s plans are overblown. He notes that the gravel extraction will be across the highway from his property, too.

While his farm doesn’t have an agri-tourism component, his residence will share any negative environmental impacts with other property owners—although he doesn’t expect there to be any significant impacts.

“There’s not going to dust coming off the property in any great quantity,” he said, noting that drilling and blasting are not among the planned extraction methods, and regional government pledges to establish the conditions of any on-site gravel processing.

“Nobody likes anything being done in their backyard. People want everything to stay the same.”

Point taken, says Venturi, but she pointed out that a lack of oversight of such projects means the impacts could easily be beyond the control of the Balmes, and everyone else.

British Columbia has a single compliance officer monitoring fill activities on land overseen by the Agricultural Land Commission. Contaminated fill has also been an ongoing issue in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, of which Cobble Hill is a part.

“There’s no way the Balmes are knowingly going to bring in contaminated fill, but there have been a lot of concerns in the area,” Venturi said. “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, because obviously I want to protect what we’ ve got. But by the same token I do have sympathy and empathy for the Balmes, and I feel rather bad that it appears to be pitting farmer against farmer, whereas really it’s a project that could have a huge impact on a lot of people.”

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