Saturday, December 2, 2023

Taking a hard look at what sustainable farming looks like post-Gabrielle

Neal Wallace
The toll taken by Cyclone Gabrielle is opening eyes to the way the land is worked.
Gisborne farmer Dan Jex Blake questions why ratepayers and taxpayers should fund any remedial work caused by commercial forestry companies.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

They estimate damage from forestry slash dislodged by Cyclone Gabrielle cost them close to $1 million, but Dan and Tam Jex Blake consider themselves luckier than most.

They still have a business and a home.

Maintaining the 11km access to their Mangapoike Station near Gisborne has been a constant battle since the weather event.

Two farm bridges were destroyed by slash and kilometres of fencing disappeared. An established 14ha of citrus and a new apple orchard and an adjacent flat finishing property were inundated with slash and silt.

The 5ha rocket crop was planted only last year.

The Jex Blakes farm sheep and beef on 2000ha of predominantly steep hill country. 

On the plus side they fortunately had a digger driver/fencer working for a contractor on the farm when the storm hit and he was able to start repair work straight away.

Dan’s brother also had some heavy cultivation equipment and was able to start work on the downland flat block, on which 150mm of silt had buried a mixed herbage crop.

The couple were away from the farm when the storm hit and once it had passed, they had to helicopter in.

Fortunately all houses had back-up generators and radio telephones, but with 11km of the access road damaged, to get out to civilisation the Jex Blakes had a journey through the back of the farm on a side-by-side and walk down the valley to rendezvous with their daughter.

Loss of bridge access meant shearing of 3000 mixed aged ewes was delayed from February to July, while any sheep for sale faced an 11km trek to a point where trucks could access temporary yards. For cattle it was a 16km walk to the closest handling facilities.

Dan said dealing with insurers is ongoing and discussions with forestry companies about responsibility for the damage from the slash has so far not gained much traction.

He said the ministerial inquiry into woody debris has not addressed the forestry issue, responsible for between 75% and 90% of slash.

He also questioned why ratepayers and taxpayers should fund any remedial work caused by commercial forestry companies.

One positive to emerge from the disaster has been the creation of the Te Arai Catchment Group, chaired by Tam, but it has also prompted Dan to question what defines sustainable land use.

“It’s made me sit back and ask if what we are doing is sustainable, if we can do it better and what the future looks like.”

He said he realises it may not be popular but in his view farming and forestry may not be suited to some land on the east coast, and it may need to transition back to native.

One tool, he said, could be the proposed indigenous biodiversity credits, where landowners earn funds for enhancing or improving indigenous biodiversity.

“We can still farm it and be viable but in a manner that is sustainable.”

Another issue is the viability of continually repairing road access.

He said that in their case, with two properties at the end of Paparatu Road, there is commercial justification for investment back into roading. There are 50,000 stock units farmed and 20 people living and working there, representing significant businesses and a community.

“This is similar to many communities up and down the east coast, where the councils and the government are facing sizeable repair costs.”