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North Canterbury drought tough on farmers

Basking in the sun over the long hot summer and keeping the t-shirts on a little longer over autumn may have seemed like a luxury but for Canterbury’s farmers the nice weather has come at a cost.

Weather can often make farming a volatile business but in the last 18 months this has intensified especially in North Canterbury with the area plagued by drought conditions since the start of 2015.

And with NIWA reports indicating the first six months of the year are set to be the warmest on record it’s no wonder farmers are desperate for rain.

Alistair Lawrence knows this all too well.

He’s been farming in North Canterbury for 30 years and currently has an 852-hectare sheep and beef farm near Hawarden.

Right in the thick of the drought he’s seen the broader impact.

“It financially affects you because you have to buy in a lot of feed… secondly it affects you by your stock numbers, you have to sell stock that you would otherwise fatten [reducing] your income.”

But this isn’t the first drought Alistair has farmed through.

Learning from the past this time round he worked hard to ensure the stability of his own farming operation.

“It has cost us a lot of money to keep the stock on board. Another drought in 1986 we did sell capital stock and it took us a long time, it took us four to five years to get back to where we should have been so I was determined not to this time if I could.”

In 1986 rainfall measured from the North Canterbury NIWA site in Waipara recorded 965.2 mm of rain, by 1988 this was down to just 454.9 mm.

Looking at recent statistics in 2014 annual rainfall in the area was 631mm this then dropped significantly to 337.6mm in 2015.

The difference in rainfall between the time periods is something Alistair has noticed.

“We’ve really only had 2 significant drought’s, this one’s by far the worst.”

Despite North Canterbury bearing the brunt of the dry weather conditions the region as a whole has experienced below average conditions.

The autumn 2016 period saw below normal rainfall of between 50 and 79% recorded and soil moisture levels were also down.

In Darfield crop farmer Murray Rowlands experienced a decrease in his soil moisture levels.

A fifth-generation farmer, Murray knows his area well and grows crops best suited to the current farming climate.

“If we go back three years we were very predominantly barley orientated towards the dairy sector [sic] cause it was very easy to move, but 18 months ago sort of started seeing a move in dairy so we’ve moved away and gone…predominantly back towards our traditional crops of grass and seeds.”

Unlike Alistair, Murray has an irrigated farm, which has meant he’s been able to combat some of the effects of the dry weather.

“For the likes of our operation when you don’t have water it can knock you round for 3,4,5 years before you’ll be back to the stage of reasonable production and return but water it allowed us to continue on put our crops in guarantee we’ve got green feed for cows that we graze in the winter [it] just gives a certainty to what we want to do and how we want to do it.”

But he hasn’t been fully immune to the difficult weather conditions and is also crying out for rain.

“That’s the key thing at the moment because that will affect everything, irrigation, we need that heavy rain…we need the recharge in the system… we’ve got to get that soil profile back full of moisture.”

In Federated Farmers January 2016 Mid Season Farm Confidence Survey the second biggest issue for farmers was weather at 14.6% up 1.1% from the previous years July survey.

Although a countrywide survey response one of the reasons for this change was attributed to the impact of drought conditions.

The government has recognized the severity of the situation in Canterbury just recently putting more resources into the area with Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy extending the drought ruling over the eastern South Island through to the end of the year.

“This will mean the area has been in drought for nearly two years, since its initial classification on 12 February last year. This will be the longest period of time a classification of this type has lasted for.”

The minister said he would be putting $88,000 into “drought recovery coordination” with $30,000 of this going into the North Canterbury Rural Support Trust an organization helping farmers in challenging circumstances such as drought.

“This extra funding means a total of $538,000 has been made available by the Government since February last year.”

Someone with keen insight into the wider effects of the tough weather conditions on farmers is Pita Alexander.

Pita has been a farm accountant for 35 years running his practice Alexanders in Christchurch.

He has extensive knowledge of the agricultural sector and has been through many farming cycles.

“I don’t think I’ve seen 3 years drought, Australia has those droughts but they plan for those…because they expect droughts…probably 3 years out of 5, we would hope we wouldn’t have more than 1 out of 5.”

He thinks the government’s money will help with the other side of the drought – the mental side.

“They’re helping people who get under pressure get depressed, avoid suicides trying to help in that area…what they really need is rain and the government can’t fix that and the amount of dollars would be enormous.”

Pita said the most important thing that farmers dealing with difficult weather can do is communicate.

“First thing a man does when he’s under real pressure he stops going to his daughters basketball game, he doesn’t go on Saturday morning to watch his son play football he wants to pull right back out of that, he shouts and swears at his dogs but he doesn’t communicate well with other people, that’s one of the first signs, he gets depressed the minute you get depressed you don’t make good decisions”.

As seasoned farmers Alistair and Murray are doing all the right things to try and ensure their farms can weather whatever comes but in the immediate future they’re just holding out and hoping to see some substantial rain.