'Extreme' summer has southern farmers feeling ignored

Sun, Mar 26

Recent rainfall has alleviated drought concerns in Otago and Southland, but it's been another tough summer for southern farmers.

Hot and dry summers had been the norm in recent years, raising questions about what the future holds.

Hillend farmer Stephen Jack said since about mid-January, he had been staring at the dusty bottom of creeks and dams.

He introduced galaxiids into the creeks around the property decades ago as a child and had feared for them before the rain started to fall again last week.

"I've never seen some of these dams even have their level drop, but they've been bone-dry. So [following last week's rain] surprise, surprise - there was water. And even more of a surprise, and I was quite worried about these wee guys, there's galaxids. This pool is chocca with the wee fellas," Jack said of a pond on his property.

In the past fortnight, rain brought relief at the right time.

NIWA's latest Hotspot Watch showed parts of coastal South Otago, and Southland remained very dry, and other inland areas were still dry, but the soil moisture had increased dramatically over the past two weeks.

Jack said this summer was unprecedented, but it followed several that were hot and dry.

"It's been great for getting a suntan, but it's been bloody hard growing grass," he said.

"Yeah, very hard to grow grass. No grass means it's very hard to finish lambs."

As a result, feed that would normally be kept for winter had been fed to stock since February.

"But we are getting used to these dry summers and better at them and trying to promote use of excess feed when we have it," Jack said.

However, conditions had been tough, and he worried cashing out and allowing prime farmland to turn to pine trees would be easier for some.

"I could retire to Wānaka and die fat and happy, but that's no good to anyone. There's no one fixing the motorbike, there's no shearers, there's no one putting on fertiliser, fencing, you name it.

"There's no employment and nothing filters into the towns. The towns will die and if the towns die, the cities will die."

Adding to farmers' woes was the indifference of central government and the onerous regulation, Jack said.

'Drier than the last two years'

Federated Farmers Otago president Mark Patterson said that was where a declaration of a drought would have been appreciated this year - to show that the government had their back.

"All the stats are showing that it is drier than the last two years that there were medium-scale adverse events, and there's obviously not a lot that can be done - we need it to rain - but I think it's more the acknowledgement that farmers are looking for because they are going through tough times."

Patterson also worried about what the future held as farms around the district got sold and converted into forestry.

The run of dry summers had farmers thinking about the threat of climate change, he said.

"Despite what people might think, we are listening to what the climate scientists are telling us, and it is getting drier in the summers here, and our winters are getting milder. So it's just a matter of changing our farming systems, and farmers are working away on their individual properties just thinking about how they're going to adapt to this because it is getting more regular, and we've got to face the facts."

Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan said it could not be ignored at this point.

"I know in my lifetime that we've never had a summer, you could say, as good as this year -or is it as bad? It's just that it's more extreme," he said.

"It's those extremes that are going to push the changes. So what was an anomaly is now starting to be a trend."

He sympathised with the financial pressure leading some farmers to sell up for forestry and said, at an individual level they were sound decisions.

But he was also concerned for the future of rural areas and the farms which had traditionally sustained them.

Cadogan said he hoped that was also in the minds of those in Wellington driving policy.



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