There’s barely been a day in the past year that Sam Hain’s digger hasn’t been working to clean up cyclone damage to his farm.
“We bought a digger soon after Cyclone Gabrielle hit, and that digger’s been going every day repairing slips and clearing tracks on our farm,” he says.
“It’s still got probably another six months of working every day to get every track back to the state they were in before the cyclone.”
Like so many farmers hammered by Cyclone Gabrielle last February, Sam and wife Gemma have made progress in the recovery – but there’s still a very long way to go.
The Hains, who farm on 1050-hectare Waikura Station at Pehiri, inland of Gisborne, say they got “smoked” by Gabrielle.
“What does ‘smoked’ look like? Well, we’ve got a two-storey shed and the water was up the wall of the second floor,” Sam explains.
“We had upwards of 5000 slips on our property. We lost cattle yards. We lost a house. Every fenceline on our farm still has a hole in it, some 100-metres long where it’s just been laid flat.
“‘Smoked’ costs probably $1.5 to $2 million if I can put a monetary value on it.”
Despite everything, Sam’s one of the most positive people you’ll meet and a word he uses frequently is “opportunity”.
The cyclone – and other damaging rain events last year, including Cyclone Hale – have presented a chance to build their farm better and stronger, he says.
“We’ve learned to fence in smarter places. We’re taking it as an opportunity to put in a big lane because the fences were so badly damaged that there’s a chance there to refence and make the access better than it ever was before.”
Even losing a house is an opportunity, he says.
“Yeah, we lost a house. Fortunately, we’re insured, and so it means when we build that house back, we build it in such a place that it’s never going to be touched by a flood or a cyclone or anything of that nature again.”
Of course, Sam’s acutely aware of how challenging life remains for many other farmers, growers and rural communities affected by the cyclone, especially on the East Coast and in Hawke’s Bay.
One of those communities is nearby Tiniroto, where locals are still crying out for help to restore its roading access in and out.
Kirsty Playle, who farms with husband Steven on Hackfalls Station, says locals’ frustration levels couldn’t be higher.
“It’s no one’s fault that a cyclone came and demolished our roads, and five out of six of our bridges, but our frustration is over the inaction and lack of decision-making from the council since then,” she says.
“I understand they’re trying their hardest, but we’re not seeing any urgency for the repairs to be done.”
The main road to Gisborne, through the Hangaroa Bluffs, has been officially closed since last July when Gisborne District Council deemed it too dangerous to use due to rockfall risks.
While the council figures out what to do about reconnecting Tiniroto to Gisborne, it’s asked locals to take a long detour through Wairoa or use an alternative route, Parikanapa Road.
But that road is a “very dangerous goat track”, Kirsty says.
“People have just refused to use it; it adds a lot more time and stress on people. We’re now allowed truck and trailer units through Parikanapa, but it’s unsafe and many truck drivers refuse to do it. We’ve seen some bad accidents on that road.
“As a result, farmers are still droving their stock miles to get to trucks.”
Kirsty says locals have taken it upon themselves to keep the Hangaroa Bluffs road clear.
“Even though it’s condemned, people are still using it. It takes three minutes to drive through those bluffs, rather than risking a long and dangerous drive through Parikanapa.”
Kirsty says the community has become even stronger in their adversity – more social events and dinners together – but they desperately need action from the authorities.
Nurses who work in Gisborne are considering giving up their jobs, and parents are weighing up pulling their kids out of school, she says.
“We’ve all got businesses, we’re pretty much all farmers, we’ve got Airbnbs, and not having roading is really affecting that. We just want decisions made on our road.
“Funding has been given from government to Gisborne District Council for an alternative road, which means they’re going to bypass the Hangaroa Bluffs, but they’re 18 months away from even knowing whether that’s possible. So, in the meantime, what are we meant to do?
“We’re coming up a year and we’re pretty much still in the same position as we were after the cyclone.”
About three hours south of Tiniroto, lifestyle block owner Kristin Baylis is just grateful to finally be living back on her land and have some fences up again.
When the Tutaekuri River broke its banks at about 10am on February 14, it deluged the neighbouring farmland, including Kristin’s five-acre block in Meeanee, outside Napier.
“We had about 1.8 metres of water over the property – it was terrifying,” she says.
Kristin lived in five different places last year while her home was rebuilt, and she finally moved home just before Christmas 2023.
But getting her fences rebuilt by the Federated Farmers ‘Commence the Re-fence’ team was almost as big of a milestone in the recovery, she says.
Commence the Re-fence was launched at the Fieldays last June, with Federated Farmers and their ‘Farmy Army’ involved as partners.
Pivotal to its success has been the donation of two tractors by Case IH and New Holland, and post-ramming gear from Hawke’s Bay farm machinery specialist Stevenson & Taylor.
Money from the North Island Weather Event Fund and the Farmers Adverse Events Fund is paying for professional fencing contractors. Owners of cyclone-hit farms and lifestyle blocks have been getting up to three days’ help each.
“I had the team from JK Fencing in here to rebuild my boundary fence and they were brilliant,” Kristin says.
“I’m so grateful to finally have paddocks again so I can get stock back on. I have so much debris under the grass and sunk into silt that I can’t do much until I get stock in to eat around it all.
“This is one of the final big hurdles I have left on my property, and I was really at a complete loss as to what to do.
“It’s made a huge impact on my recovery and mental health. It’s been nearly a year now, and things are really starting to look up.
“So, still a lot of recovery to go, but that’ll be the last step.”
Another farmer grateful for help from Commence the Re-fence is Scott McNeil, part of McNeil Farming, one of the largest privately owned farming operations on the East Coast.
Scott says the group’s farms – like everyone else’s – took a battering from Gabrielle and other storms last year, but they’ve made progress in the recovery.
“The help we’ve got from getting some of these fences back up has been awesome. It’s sped the whole process up and made it less of a blow.
“I don’t like to make a big deal of it, or complain, but it was a pretty daunting task trying to get everything back together. To have that little bit of help has been so good.”
Scott says the flooding left a lot of paddocks unusable, but getting fences rebuilt “has meant we can whip some crops back in and utilise the paddocks again”.
He says he’s grateful to Ben Moore, who’s coordinating the Farmy Army on behalf of Federated Farmers, and his dedicated crew.
Sam Hain says “talking” will be important as cyclone-affected farmers head into their second year of recovery, with many still facing a difficult road ahead.
“One thing that’s amazing is none of us view another farmer as a competitor. If you’re in the retail industry and you’re selling jeans, you look at the guy selling jeans down the road as the opposition.
“But farmers love to talk, and we love to unburden, and we love to give our opinions, and it all helps. You know, every conversation you have, it brings you closer, it knits your community.
“And so that would be my advice: get on the phone and talk because you might talk to somebody who really needs it.”
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.