The weather specialist in the wine industry because he sent facts instead of a fax
When Rob Agnew was in Blenheim School in the 1960s, his favorite thing about cold winter mornings was riding his bike over frozen puddles to break the ice.
More than five decades later, he still rides his bike in Blenheim almost every morning, on his way to work where he’s paid to watch the weather.
But he never sees icy puddles again, he says. And he knows why – the number of frost on the ground has dropped every year since he was a child, from over 100 a year to around 35 in recent years.
Agnew looks after weather stations for his work at the Blenheim branch of Plant & Food Research, in order to maintain records dating back to 1930 in some cases.
* Bold claims: is Marlborough really the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the world?
* Bold Claims: Is Whakatāne Really New Zealand’s “Sunshine Capital”?
* Backstory: How a Kiwi got into a David Bowie video in the Australian outback
* Marlborough has almost its lowest March precipitation in 92 years
Tracking weather trends is useful to winegrowers as frosts, sun and other weather conditions affect the success of a crop.
Agnew’s team is using the data for mathematical modeling to predict things like when Sauvignon Blanc grapes will flower, when veraison or ripening period begins, and how early the harvest will be.
“It gives winemakers a warning about the turn of the season, helps them plan and manage their vineyards,” Agnew said. “For example, this season was probably the first harvest we have had. Bud break and flowering were all very early. Global warming is moving everything forward. “
Agnew shared the weather information in a free weekly bulletin, called VineFacts, to some 2,000 New Zealand winegrower members. Agnew was part of the research program that began publishing in 1997 as a weekly fax.
“At one of the first meetings I was asked to take the minutes … I had never been in contact with a fax machine before and thought they wanted me to send ‘facts’. . What I have done. They thought it was hilarious, ”Agnew said.
“And that’s something that we kept going… A lot of times with research, the work stops after three or five years, which can be frustrating because you don’t build a long-term case. But the industry has recognized the value of having long-term records. “
Parts of France had over 100 years of records for wine growers to review, while Marlborough’s wine industry was so young that there were only a few decades to go.
Although when Agnew started working for the Crown Research Organization in 1986, he spent most of his time researching cherries, not grapes. At the time, Marlborough’s wine industry was still very small, with only around 1,500 hectares of grapes, a fraction of the current 28,000 hectares.
Much of Agnew’s early work was to research alternative crops for Marlborough.
“We looked at apricots, jojoba, peanuts. Cherries were a bit bigger in Marlborough than they are now, as are apricots. Marlborough is a good area for stone fruit as we get sun and little rainfall. And we also had a reasonable apple industry at one point. “
Agnew was hired by senior scientist Dr Mike Trought in 1986 on a three-month contract, with just an undergraduate degree in agriculture from the University of Lincoln.
But that turned into another three months, and another, and after two years, Lincoln’s site Trought boss said “you have to get rid of Rob.”
“And Mike said, ‘If you want to do this, you have to come and do it yourself’ … and here I am 35 years later. And Mike still lives around the corner. He retired a few years ago, ”Agnew said.
Between maps and graphics on the walls of his office at the Marlborough Research Center on Budge Street are family photos.
Agnew’s mother was a granddaughter of Alfred Dobson, surveyor-in-chief of Nelson and Marlborough in the late 1800s, and superintendent of construction of the Picton Railway to Blenheim. Agnew had inherited Dobson’s square piano.
Agnew’s father was from Northern Ireland, an electrician, who served on the Borough Council and the Electricity Board.
Her mother returned to teaching at Blenheim School when Agnew was older.
“I remember a time when I was maybe 7 … and I was crossing the street on my way to school, I turned to say goodbye to my mother and walked into a lamppost, ”he recalls.
“I was lucky to have a very stable childhood, without much trauma. So when I went to a group led by the Church of the Nativity probably 25 years ago, and we all had to relate a traumatic experience to the group, slamming my head on the lamppost was the only thing that I could think, to my embarrassment. “
Although that changed after a serious car accident on National Highway 1 near Kēkerengū, north of Kaikōura, in 2005. He was driving his eldest son Jake to the University of Otago, when an oncoming car crossed the center line, hit a truck and then Agnew’s car. .
“The next thing I remember is my son Jake said ‘wake up, wake up, there’s a train coming.’ We hit the car with such force that we slipped on the tracks, ”said Agnew.
“Fortunately it was on a long straight line … the driver of the truck ran down the road and stopped the train.”
Agnew had “a severe slap on the head,” causing bruising known as raccoon eyes, and was taken to hospital by helicopter. He still had a scar on his chin today. “It was miraculous that we all walked away from it alive.
“I grew up with an active Christian father and we believe in God’s saving power and protection. And somebody had to get off the train to ask for help, because there happened to be a doctor from the United States on board and his wife was an A&E nurse. They were with me within 10 minutes of the accident and assisted me within the hour it took for the ambulance to arrive.
The crash was his second lucky escape. In 1997, he was towing a trailer to Riwaka, near Motueka, when the trailer slipped on overturned diesel in a hairpin bend and dragged it into a deep roadside ditch. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
These are perhaps the two most dangerous events of his life, Agnew said.
“My family was from Scotland, and we have a family plaque with our family motto on it: concilio not impetu, which loosely translates to “by planning, not recklessness.” So my wife is brash, and I am the planner. I am not at all spontaneous.
“Probably the most spontaneous thing I have ever done would be to find the courage to propose on New Brighton beach, when Lynne thought we were just for a walk, in 1981.”
Now 40 years later, Agnew was planning to retire, and looked forward to spending more time with Lynne, possibly more gardening – “good for the spirit”, and volunteer work through the Oasis Family Church. .
“I firmly believe that you don’t necessarily need to be paid to work, although you obviously do most of the time. Probably 40 years ago, a pastor in our church said that if you are unemployed or out of work for a while, the best thing you can do is volunteer, and you will probably find that you will get a paid job quickly. . Sitting on your back hoping that things will come to you won’t do you any good. “
And no doubt there would be more bike rides.
Agnew’s sons, Jake and Tim, had inherited his love of cycling. Agnew highlighted the photo of 1-year-old granddaughter Lexi getting on a special handlebar attachment.
“I don’t work too many hours, but I tend to focus on work. So I can’t wait to spend more time with the grandchildren and hope to enjoy some downtime. “