'I call our ducks the soldiers of our vineyards. They keep (it) completely pest-free,' said the vineyard's managing director.
At Vergenoegd Löw The Wine Estate, on the banks of the Eerste river outside Cape Town, "to get your ducks in a row" is not just a popular idiom. For decades now, the winery has been enlisting the help of a battalion of ducks to keep its vineyards free of pests. According to CNN, in its quest to make wine production more sustainable, Vergenoegd Löw was inspired by the centuries-old practice of using ducks to remove pests from rice paddies in Asia. "I call our ducks the soldiers of our vineyards," said Managing Director Corius Visser. "They will eat aphids, they will eat snails, they will eat small worms—they keep (it) completely pest-free."
Since the 1980s, the winery has been calling on the services of around 1,600 Indian runner ducks to embark on a 14-day circuit through the vineyard, eating and fertilizing the ground as they go. "Indian Runner Ducks are slender in build, fast, agile and can easily reach into vines and burrow between cover crops," David Badenhorst, the social media manager at Vergenoegd Löw told PEOPLE in 2018. Although they cannot fly, the ducks have a highly developed sense of smell. The daily commute of the workforce aka the "Duck Parade" is also a huge attraction at the vineyard, with people—young and old alike—flocking to Vergenoegd Löw to watch the birds.
"Our aim was to draw people back to the farm and this saw the introduction of our famous duck parade to create an awareness of our approach to sustainable farming practices at Vergenoegd Löw," Badenhorst explained. "Indian Runners are interesting little characters," he said, adding that the ducks don't necessarily share a mutual adoration for their human colleagues and visitors. Although they generally avoid people, "they may become familiar with an individual who may have a certain whistle or consistent appearance" over time. The ducks' "annual leave" takes place during the harvest season when grapes are ripe and juicy, and they are "sent on a holiday retreat to the dam," Badenhorst revealed. "If our ducks get a sniff and taste of grapes, snails won't be our only problem."
Vergenoegd Löw, which is one of the oldest wine-producing farms in Stellenbosch, employs a resident farm and duck manager for the upkeep of the duck breeding pens, including the incubation room. The flock is divided into three groups—breeding, working and resting—with the working and resting groups rotating on a daily basis so as to keep an appropriate balance of work, play and rest. The duck manager checks for eggs on a daily basis and he divides them into fertile and infertile batches. "Indian Runners do not have great parental instincts," Badenhorst said of the ducks' tendency to abandon eggs after they are dropped.
While some of the eggs are consumed in the vineyard restaurant, the ducks themselves are never put on a plate—"that would be like eating a colleague," Gavin Moyes, the estate's tasting room manager, told Atlas Obscura in a 2020 interview. Aside from its duck army to fight off pests and thereby limit the use of harmful pesticides, the farm also implements sustainable initiatives such as an extensive solar power plant and a 25-hectare wetland conservation area. "The world is moving away from more conventional farming to (being) a bit more organic," Visser explained. "For Vergenoegd, it's a big goal... to have less influence on the Earth, the soil and the environment."
Vergenoegd Löw is currently in the process of convincing others to adopt its approach. It plans to sell 750 ducks to other vineyards and replenish numbers by breeding the birds. "We can be in a position where we say that we have (not just) the best runner ducks in South Africa, but also the world," Visser said. "I think the industry itself has the potential to engage more in experimental ways." Although this requires money and would result in increasing the price point of South African wines in the world market, this could in turn help fund Vergenoegd Löw and other vineyards' green initiatives. "If we can achieve that, we can then put back some of that (income) into our people, into our land, and become more sustainable," Visser said.