Friday, December 8, 2023

Cyclone-hit farms pin hopes on spring

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The six months of wet weather that followed Gabrielle’s devastation have meant a long hard slog for the east coast.
Many landowners are in limbo awaiting a decision on how habitable their homes on orchards may be, depending on their risk category, apple grower Brydon Nisbet says.
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The same weather patterns that wiped out east coast growers and farmers continued to confound recovery efforts for months afterwards, with some respite and access to many back country blocks coming only in recent weeks.

Rere farmer and Rural Women New Zealand chair Sandra Matthews said it has taken until the past fortnight for her husband Ian to be able to get to the back of their 536ha Gisborne district property, which bore the brunt of Gabrielle six months ago.

“We have only been able to get around on foot to the back of the farm, and we have only just managed to get diggers onto the farm to repair the culverts and slips that came with Gabrielle,” she said.

Their story is shared by farmers the length of the east coast, across regions that received up to 300mm of rainfall a month through June and July. 

Those events piled water upon water, turning soil into what the Gisborne District Council’s chief scientist described as “ice cream”.

Jonathan Bell, Hawke’s Bay area co-ordinator for the Rural Support Trust, said the midwinter blues have descended on the region. He hopes they will lift by September 1. 

Farmers are finally welcoming a drier weather pattern that is giving them a better run through calving and lambing. 

But it is also giving many pause as they finally get to absorb just how much damage their properties have sustained in country they may not have had the chance to get to earlier.

“A lot are realising this will not be a quick fix, that it will take more than a few months. There is an acceptance that even if a fence is temporary, if it is stock-proof then leave it where it is, move on to the next job to work on,” Bell said.

Down on the Hawke’s Bay plains, he said, recovery is being complicated by uncertainty over a property’s risk category, whether that be Category 1 (safe to return to) or Category 3 (cannot be returned to).

“It is putting some in limbo. Some are happy to accept C3 and move on. We know overseas sometimes people can continue to farm or grow on the land but they just can’t live there.” 

He knows of one grower who moved himself and his family to Napier while still continuing to run their orchard block out of town.

“Once people have certainty and know what their future is, they can talk to their bank and insurance company. They will be in a better space then.”

Brydon Nisbet, chair of the Hawke’s Bay Fruit Growers Trust, said while the government’s long-term loans are welcome for those needing them, the time taken for them to arrive seemed lengthy given that growers had passed relevant information on damage and losses to the government in March. 

Those growers who acted early in removing silt are in a strong position heading into springtime, with plants starting to recover and prospects good for budding over spring.

Deciding to stay or go is complicated by lease orchard arrangements. In some cases the landowners have wanted to exit, leaving the lessees out of an orchard.

The cost of rehabilitating orchards and valuable cropping country has proven eye-watering for many. 

Nisbet said having 30,000 cubic metres of silt removed from his 5ha orchard cost almost $100,000 a hectare – and he classed himself at the lighter end of the inundation.

For those on flat country northwards in the Gisborne district, the silt challenge was compounded by also having to move forest waste. 

AgFirst consultant Peter Andrew said he has a client at Tolaga Bay with 1000ha and 700 individual piles of slash waiting to be burnt on their property alone.

“We have only had windows of opportunity up until now. We have seen a lot of work done by forestry companies, but these are big machines and need solid ground to work on.” 

The shared legacy for rural communities the length of the coast is a shattered roading system some doubt will ever be fully restored.

Federated Farmers Wairoa-Gisborne president Toby Williams said in future some roads may be best cared for by having their maintenance management folded into resource consents for forestry companies to oversee. 

In Hawke’s Bay, Bell said the State Highway 50 bridge at Tikokino remains out and is likely to stay that way for months. It had turns a 15-minute trip to town into an hour and a quarter for farmers on the wrong side of the bridge. 

North of Napier, he fears for when Glenbrook Toad at Putorino will be restored. Since the cyclone the five farms it serves have had to re-supply by crossing the river by tractor.

Andrew’s concern is whether the political will to restore the region will falter in light of the costs involved.

“The last thing we need is for people to have doubts about farming on the east coast. 

“That’s where the goodwill will run out, particularly as we have had to bear the impact of pine trees, which are part of a Wellington policy and are now sitting on our beaches.”