Saturday, December 9, 2023

Growers plead for swifter cyclone action

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An open letter to the government warns of effects on harvests for years to come if uncertainty is not addressed.
HortNZ chief executive Nadine Tunley signed the open letter to the government together with industry heads from all other horticulture sectors, warning that a lack of clear direction following the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle is threatening to set the horticulture industry back by years. Photo: Richard Rennie
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Cyclone-ravaged growers have penned an open letter to the government in a desperate quest for action. 

They say that many government ministers have visited the affected areas, and various government departments have asked for and received data and information on the cyclone’s impacts to the horticulture industry, leading to a nationwide impression of responsiveness – but the reality is less reassuring.

It is now more than two months since Cyclone Gabrielle struck, causing widespread devastation to commercial fruit and vegetable growing in Hawke’s Bay, Tairāwhiti, Northland and northern Manawatū.   

In the letter, published on Wednesday, April 19, HorticultureNZ says the delay in providing direction and announcing further support is affecting growers and regions.

On April 5 the government announced a further $23 million for farmers and growers to help rebuild, bringing total government support so far to $78m.

The letter acknowledges the government’s swift response to the immediate crisis, “which our industry has appreciated”, but calls for urgent action and further support from the government.

It says delays in relief will have a cumulative effect on current losses, setting the industry back by years. 

The letter says growers need government decisions regarding land use to be announced as soon as possible.

The harvest of surviving crops is concluding, and planning has begun for next year’s crops, but there is still too much uncertainty for affected businesses to plan and reinvest, the letter says. 

“Furthermore, banks need a strong signal from the government if they are to continue to support the horticulture sector in affected areas.”

Many growers from affected areas have lost a significant portion, if not all, of their income for the season. 

This has created cashflow issues, which means that businesses are currently struggling to fund immediate clean-up expenditure, which includes current and additional staff wages.

That expenditure does not include the costs of reinvestment for the next season and beyond.

Businesses that lost crop income may not have lost infrastructure, so have no insurance payouts to reinvest into their businesses. 

Crop income losses are not insurable and business interruption insurance does not extend to lost crops.

“We understand the government’s desire to get its response to the recovery right,” the letter says. 

“However, the ambiguity and delay in announcing next steps is doing more harm than good with grower frustrations, fears and stress rising.”

The letter says the timing of the government’s response will be the make or break for many businesses, which have only the next few weeks to make decisions about next season and beyond. 

“The horticultural industry is a vital part of the country’s economy, providing thriving businesses, job opportunities and growth in regional communities. 

“The timeline for industry to recover and to build back better is quickly closing.”

The open letter is signed by HortNZ chief executive Nadine Tunley together with industry heads from the kiwifruit, summerfruit, onion, fresh vegetables, asparagus and strawberry, citrus, persimmon and feijoa, process vegetables and apple and pear sectors.

“We look forward to receiving your immediate response,” the letter concludes.

The industry’s plea was echoed by the National Party’s horticulture spokesperson, Sam Uffindell.

“From talking to growers on the ground and to the various industry groups, it is clear that growers need certainty so they can start rebuilding and assurance the government will be there to assist them.

“Clarity and decisive decision-making are also needed in other areas and local and regional councils need to step up and work with the government to make this happen,” he said.

In announcing the extra funding earlier in the month, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said helping rural communities to get back on their feet as quickly as possible is a priority.

“We understand farmers, growers and other rural businesses are critical to the local economies, providing jobs as well as export revenue for us all,” O’Connor said.

“It’s important they have access to help now to protect future production, for example by saving vital trees, vines and pasture, and making repairs.”

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the government is committed to helping people and businesses recover from the cyclone. 

“The way we do that will change as we shift from the response to the recovery phase,” he said. 

“We will continue to closely monitor the needs of local communities and work with local agencies, iwi and councils as we move from response to the recovery and rebuild from these extreme weather events.”