Monday, February 26, 2024

East Coast growers nearing desperation

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Relentless rain and sodden conditions have made it incredibly difficult for growers to get crops underway.
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On the back of two challenging years, Gisborne/Wairoa arable farmers are under pressure again as relentless spring rain prevents them from getting seed in the ground. 

Sodden conditions have made it incredibly difficult for growers to get crops underway, and the opportunity to plant is fast disappearing, Federated Farmers national arable chair David Birkett says.

“Their planting window for crops like maize, sweetcorn and squash goes to about the middle of December, maybe Christmas at a stretch. And, obviously, planting later has a negative effect on yield as well.

“There’s a couple of weeks left, and if it hasn’t dried out enough to start planting in that time, it’ll be getting desperate.”

Birkett says, after talking last week to Allan Newton, Federated Farmers Gisborne/Wairoa Arable chair, it sounds like most growers have managed to plant only about 50% of their crop so far, on average.  

“The worst thing for these guys is that it’s not the first year. They’ve had three years in a row of wet conditions, with storms like Cyclone Gabrielle wiping out last year’s crops.

“And then, of course, on the East Coast there’s a high chance of it drying off at this time of year and getting a drought, which brings a whole other challenge. 

“If El  Niño does kick in and it gets really dry, you need to have these crops well-established so they can withstand the impact, but we’re not getting the opportunity.”

Apart from the potential financial and wellbeing toll on growers in the region, there’ll be knock-on effects for others if maize can’t be grown, Birkett says. 

“Most of New Zealand’s seed maize is grown in Gisborne/Wairoa, so if we can’t get maize into the ground soon, that poses problems for seed supplies next year.”

Birkett says it’s not just arable farmers feeling the pinch.

“For sheep and beef farmers putting in winter feeds, the window’s wider and there’s a bit more flexibility, but the conditions will be putting pressure on them too.” 

Federated Farmers meat and wool national chair Toby Williams, who farms just north of Gisborne, says a relatively dry winter had growers in the region anticipating a strong season.

“It dried out in August, so people got excited and started doing their groundwork. 

“Everyone was getting everything ready to go, feeling confident about the El Niño, thinking we’ll get a bit of spring rain and we’ll be away – but then it just kept raining. Every opportunity to get seed in the ground, it’s rained again.

“You need ground conditions that allow you to drive your tractor along and work the soil up, or direct-drill into the soil, at a certain consistency. If it’s too wet, it’s too clumpy and you can’t plant seeds.”

Williams says he was talking with a crop farmer in Tolaga Bay, who’s just replanted about 20 hectares of sweetcorn for the third time this season. 

“The good thing is the seed companies will supply you with more seed without cost because they want the crop in, but you’ve still got to put in more fertiliser, and you’ve got your tractor and man-hours to do it. 

“So, if you’re doing 20 hectares three times, it’s cost you three times what it should have.

“It costs you a hell of a lot to put crops in. I mean, we had guys spending half a million last year, to get nothing back out of it. You can only do that so many times before you go broke or decide not to do it anymore.”

Birkett says providing morale and wellbeing support will become increasingly important if things don’t improve. 

“There’s nothing we can do about the rain, but us fellow farmers need to show our support,” Birkett says.

Williams agrees, saying what East Coast farmers need most is a sustained period of dry weather, but the sector needs to rally behind. 

“Farming is a real challenge at the moment on the East Coast and almost everybody you talk to at the moment says, ‘I’m really feeling for you with the weather’, which is nice to hear people understand what we’re going through,” Williams says. 

“We don’t want these guys to be forgotten.”

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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