Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Adapting to the new normal after Gabrielle

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Flood recovery is motivating changes in farming systems, Allan Barber finds.
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It is now 12 months since the flood events of Auckland Anniversary weekend, Cyclone Gabrielle and a third major downpour in February caused catastrophic damage to numerous farms and properties from the Kaipara Hills in the north to Puhoi in the south. 

I recently caught up with several farmers in the area to find out how well the recovery process has gone and how much still remains to be done. This brought home what a cliché it is to assume because farmers are stoic and resilient, they are able to handle the enormous levels of stress such events cause, both mental and financial, as well as generate the energy and resources necessary to carry out the work to repair the damage.

One year on I found that the events of a year ago are still quite raw and at least some of the farmers have already initiated or are seriously considering a change to their traditional farming operations because of the long-term effect of the floods and storms on their land, infrastructure and cashflow. 

The most obvious impacts are the huge number of slips and the resulting disappearance of fences, which has resulted in larger paddocks and the need to reduce the number of different mobs.

Just off State Highway16 at Tauhoa, south of Wellsford, Scott Innes showed me the disruption to his land, which included by his estimate nearly 2000 slips in addition to substantial damage to his parents’ and brother’s neighbouring properties. 

He pointed out an area of native bush that was fenced off two years ago with help from the Forest Bridge Trust, but 100m of new fencing was washed out and would now require 400m to replace it because of the change in the land’s profile. 

He spent $1000 on repairing a drain and culvert washed out in the first flood and then watched it being blown out again two weeks later. He reckons he has spent nearly $40,000 on digger hire to repair the tracks, but that is only a fraction of what he would have to spend to fix them all. 

He is concerned about what might happen during another wet winter and is reluctant to repair all the damage just to see it flattened again. He is now determined to simplify his farming system by running fewer mobs, cutting out breeding from heifers and instead buying cows in, reducing his ewe numbers, and changing from Romneys to self-shedding Wiltshires.

He told me farmers in the Kaipara Hills are just coping, still traumatised by the flood damage, while profitability has also been hit hard by the drop in lamb prices on top of the cost of repairs. 

Apart from the intended changes to reduce risk, he says, they have little option but to replace livestock and carry on.

Steven Dill’s family property, which backs onto the Innes farm, dates from 1889, when the land was originally cleared for pasture; 52 hectares of the most marginal land have been retired and are now being replanted with natives, which he will put into the Emissions Trading Scheme, because it offers greater income potential at lower risk than persisting with sheep and beef. 

At its peak the farm ran 2500 ewes, but that number has reduced by more than 50% and will come down further with the native planting programme. It also runs 125 beef cattle, half Herefords and half Angus cross. 

Dill maintains most of the land is very suitable for beef and especially sheep, but the steepest and most slip-prone areas need alternatives, which is why he intends to plant 85,000 natives, predominantly mānuka, kānuka and cabbage trees. 

The changes to the farm currently underway will also make it possible to run the farm on one labour unit with the employment of contractors as necessary, whereas previously it was an awkward size, not quite requiring two labour units.

Kaipara Hills farmer and Federated Farmers board member Andrew Maclean has been in touch with a lot of farmers in the area through his work with the Rural Support Trust (RST), Forest Bridge Trust and Taskforce Green. He says it will take years and a great deal of money to solve the problems because of the huge amount of work, the cost of materials, and the challenging access to steep hill country. 

The RST identifies the worst-affected farms and co-ordinates the repair programme with input from the Ministry for Primary Industries, Ministry of Social Development and the regional councils. 

As with the state of farming in general, the infrastructure repair work is very different for each farm, but he has 30 farms in the area that have either already benefited from or are awaiting a visit from the Taskforce Green crew based in Dargaville. 

This crew spends one week in three in the Kaipara Hills and Ahuroa district, removing trees from fences, drains and culverts. 

The Dargaville crew has been formed in close cooperation with iwi in that area. Maclean explained he has tried to organise a local crew, but funding, health and safety training, and the availability of manpower are the main problems. 

He also wants to avoid raising expectations beyond the capacity to provide assistance. In the case of his own property, he has converted from livestock to native planting, which means the damage to tracks and fencing from slips are not so much of an issue.

A short distance further south the Araparera Community Catchment Group has been formed to speak with a common voice on behalf of farmers, consolidate funding and compensation applications, clean up the main river and carry out planting programmes.

A year after the floods, farmers and the local community are working together to recover as quickly as they can, but it is a slow, uphill process. The main messages I received were farmers’ determination to carry on and enormous gratitude for the physical and financial help provided and the morale-boosting efforts of all the local groups.

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