The big dry: Drought hits farmers hard as winter looms

Up the brown hill where his grandfather lies, Stu Fraser’s epic view tells two stark tales.

Down on the flat of Amuri basin, the local irrigation scheme flaunts its lush rewards: emerald swathes of dairy land, crisscrossing the scenic North Canterbury landscape.

And down by the meandering Hurunui River, Fraser has some green strips too.

But up here on the steep hill country and rolling downs, where 5600 ewes scratch around and trot hopefully behind the red ATV, it’s a different story.

And it could be many places in North Canterbury. Or a bit further south at Banks Peninsula, mid and south Canterbury, Otago. And up the eastern seaboard, Marlborough, Wairarapa, East Cape and Hawke’s Bay.

Dry. Beyond dry. That splash of rainfall back in January a distant memory.

It’s gone beyond those golden yellow hues of high summer, to dusty, sickly browns and greys.

“This is what we’d look like in the middle of summer rather than the end of autumn,” says Fraser, fourth generation on the land.

The average rainfall at Fraser’s place, Mt Benger station, is about 650mm.

So far this year, they’ve had just 80mm – and most of it was around New Year.

“We’ve had nothing over 5mm since January which is what’s hurt us,” father-of-two Fraser says.

When the Herald visited last week, with the mercury topping a balmy 24C, the 10-day forecast featured zero rain clouds.

But even if it did rain now – and it’s not likely – it’s probably too late to grow any meaningful grass to see farmers through the looming winter months.

“We rely on what we can grow in autumn to get us through the winter,” Fraser says.

“Our biggest concern is July to September where, if it’s still like this and we have lambs starting to come … it’s not great.”

Over the Lowry Hill Range, it’s a similar story at Dan Maxwell’s place.

Brown and dry.

“We’re used to it getting dry in January and February – and we always hang out for that March rain to get things growing as we approach mating … but this year it didn’t come,” says Maxwell, meat and wool chairman for the North Canterbury branch of Federated Farmers.

“It’s gone from no rain in March to very little rain in April, to a point where the writing is now on the wall and we’re going into the winter with not enough feed.”

Drought has been declared in many regions across the country, including North Canterbury.

It comes on the back of a three-year drought between 2014-17 which was punctuated by the giant, damaging magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

Maxwell says the fact that this drought comes so soon after the last one is hitting farmers – and their families – hard.

“As the situation has worsened there has been perhaps a wee bit more negativity than normal, just because it’s been so close to the other one,” Maxwell says.

“We’re just at the beginning of hopefully a short bad experience but who knows. It depends how long it drags on for.”

Niwa’s principal scientist Chris Brandolino said it’s a “pretty darn unusual” position to be in by late autumn.

“We need rain in those areas,” says Brandolino, who believes long dry spells will continue.

Niwa’s most-recent three-month seasonal climate outlook says rainfall is about equally likely to be below normal or near normal for all regions, except for the north of the North Island.

MetService says rain isn’t likely until at least mid-May.

A $500,000 drought relief fund set up by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor last year to help farmers in areas facing long-term dry conditions was extended last week.

An extra $900,000 has been allocated to help farmers across Mid Canterbury, South Canterbury, and Otago.

The move will ensure feed support services can continue and extra wellbeing assistance to hard-hit farmers.

In the meantime, farmers are busy feeding out every day.

Fraser is spending about five hours a day feeding out baleage and grain. That will continue through winter every day, seven days a week.

A Fed Farmers adverse events committee is meeting regularly and staying in touch with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Affected farmers around the country are sharing stories via video calls, making contingency plans, and identifying “trigger dates”, where decisions are made quickly if no rain comes.

Stock may have to be moved elsewhere but with so many farmers affected, options are limited.

Last year’s drought caused feed shortages that led to a fall in total sheep numbers across the country.

Hawke’s Bay had the largest drop, with the total number of sheep falling by 12 per cent (346,000), according to agricultural production statistics manager Ana Krpo.

There are also concerns of backlogs at various meat works around the country with high levels of demand and Covid-19 already affecting shipping.

A mild winter and possibility of some rain might mean farmers can grow some feed but it’s unlikely.

Some older heads have even suggested the current conditions remind them of those in 1992 ahead of Canterbury’s “big snow” – the worst blizzard in 30 years which reportedly killed more than one million sheep.

Fraser and Maxwell have heard those fears too – and hope it doesn’t transpire.

They’re making sure to keep in touch with neighbouring farms and others facing the same tough winter.

“That’s the great thing about living in a rural community,” Maxwell says.

“It’s a tight-knit community and everybody looks after each other.”

Fraser says farmers are, by nature, a resilient bunch who are used to challenges.

“It’s not the first drought that’s happened and it won’t be the last,” he says.

“It’s farming … and you gotta love what you do.”

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