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Abel O Brennan
Abel O’Brennan laughs as he talks to customers on a tour of the winery.
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Coastal Black road sign
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Coastal Black wine
Some farmers are born, some are made out of necessity, and some follow their hearts and wake up one day to discover they too are farmers.
Abel O’Brennan fell in love with his wife, Amanda, and married her when they were both 20. Amanda went off to University and O’Brennan went to work out in the oil patch. His father-in-law asked him for help on his dairy farm, so he left the oil patch and came to the family farm.
“When I first married my wife, her family were strict teetotalers. It took me years to convince them to sell off the cows and go with growing fruit and creating the winery,” explains O’Brennan. “My in-laws now have a dairy farm in Saskatchewan.”
After much consideration, it was decided that O’Brennan and Amanda’s two brothers, Daniel and Phillip, would slowly sell off the dairy cows while they created a fruit winery. The trio worked together well, with O’Brennan looking after the winery business, brother Daniel, a beekeeper, making mead and Phillip, a wood sawyer, doing the necessary custom lumber work for the winery.
“We originally contemplated grapes,” says O’Brennan. “But we changed our mind. We have 650 acres of which 116 acres are planted in fruit. We had planned to be mostly fruit growers. The winery was a secondary plan, but then it became a larger part of what we do. It grew much faster than what we anticipated.”
They planned for a small-scale boutique winery producing 2,500 cases a year, but after a few short years Coast Black Estate Winery produces 9,500 cases a year. Most clients are on the island and 80 private liquor stores carry their stock.
First they planted a test patch. When it did well, they expanded to 15, and finally 70 acres. Then the weather turned on them and frost destroyed everything. They installed wind turbines to keep the frost off and replanted the next year.
Creating wine from fruit isn’t as well thought of as wine from grapes. “I got so much flack about opening a fruit winery that I kind of drove a stake in the ground that says this is what I do,” laughs O’Brennan. “Wine is always something I’ve enjoyed since I’ve been old enough to enjoy it. On a world scale, we are a tiny little boutique winery. However, on the island we have the biggest vineyard and the ability to put out more than anyone else, but we are still growing.”
Along with 80 acres in blackberries, Coastal Black has 20 in raspberries, 16 in blueberries, plus meadowland for corn, grass for silage and plenty of bees making honey for mead.
O’Brennan was only 21 when they brought in the first workers from Mexico. It was hard for him to be taken seriously at first. “People would look at me and think I don’t know what I’m doing so I have to try really, really hard not to screw up because I’m already at a disadvantage,” he says, adding, “It helps that I’m a big guy. At 6’6” it makes me more intimidating. People literally have to look up at me.”
Coastal Black brings in the same workers year after year because O’Brennan finds it is financially advantageous. “I had 26 employees this summer; 14 Mexican and 12 local Canadians. Two years ago, I had 9,000 man-hours that I needed to help prune and tie the entire farm. I was paying the Canadians 25% more money and they worked at 40% less speed than the Mexicans. It ended up being cheaper for me to transfer in eight more workers from Mexico, fly them here and back, put them up in a motel, and pick them up every day.”
At 28, O’Brennan knows without help from family and government loans, it would be impossible to have achieved what he has done to date. “Land is so expensive,” he says, “no matter what type of farmer you want to be. I see my father-in-law and his dairy farm. It cost over five million dollars and it’s not even a great farm. That kind of money is unattainable for a younger farmer.”
O’Brennan does have ideas on what would make farming easier for the next generation to come. “There needs to be more co-ops for young farmers and any farmer to join. You take two or three young guys who want to form a co-op – maybe the government would actually pitch in.”
For aspiring farmers, O’Brennan say, “I would tell any young farmer to start small and grow into things. If you don’t have to work hard to earn things, you don’t have a real grasp of the reality of their situation. You learn as you struggle. You have to be the absolute best, never shoot for mediocrity.”
He concludes, “I look at people who are far superior to me, look at what they did, and aim to be like them. Aim for the stars and you might hit the moon.” ■