Growers rally against 'weak' council

Ngahiwi Tomoana (left), Peter Beaven, Ricks Crasborn, Paul Paynter, Rex Graham, Tom Belford and Rick Barker all addressed the crowd at the tractor parade protest. Photo / Duncan Brown
Ngahiwi Tomoana (left), Peter Beaven, Ricks Crasborn, Paul Paynter, Rex Graham, Tom Belford and Rick Barker all addressed the crowd at the tractor parade protest. Photo / Duncan Brown

Glenn and Ingrid Riddell have lived in Twyford for 20 years, a kilometre from the Ngaruroro River.

They drove a tractor each at yesterday's protest tractor march, still angry at being threatened with jail.

They irrigated illegally after going on holiday during the drought, just hours before a council email arrived instructing irrigation to stop at midnight.

Their sole permanent employee irrigated with no knowledge of the ban.

"The council threatened us with two years in jail and a $600,000 fine for deliberately irrigating after the ban was on," Mr Riddell said. The council did not prosecute.

"During the February/March drought period the council denied us just a small amount of water to keep our trees alive, so we had quite a significant crop loss because of that. Farmers in an irrigation ban have the option to move their stock but orchardists don't."

Ingrid said she was more worried about the coming season. "While we were picking you could hear the leaves rustling - they were drying up and crumbling in your hands," she said.

"We need those leaves for photosynthesis to feed our apples, to make good quality apples for the other side of the world so we have an income. The river levels were low and we desperately needed water but council was saying it was not for council to prove they were right, it was up to us to prove they were wrong.

"They've got their head in the sand. They are concentrating on this Ruataniwha dam and are not interested in keeping crops and apples growing in Hawke's Bay. We believe the elected councillors are weak and haven't shown good governance or the council management."

Protesting growers west of Hastings first assembled at Crasborn's Group's Twyford depot.

The Crasborn brothers are one of the top Hawke's Bay growers and exporters, employing 125 permanent and 800 seasonal staff.

Two thirds of their trees suffered after being denied survival water during the recent drought and they are protagonists in the Growers Action Group that seeks to unseat all Hawke's Bay Regional Council (HBRC) members.

Third-generation orchardist and cropper Peter McGowan pulled out his apple trees eight years ago because they weren't economic. He now grows crops and peaches for Wattie's.

While his small Twyford aquifer did not have restrictions during the drought, because growers synchronised their irrigation, that wasn't an option for the larger aquifer that stretched to Crownthorpe.

He said the council had not managing the resource well.

"All these Aucklanders came in and started watering their vineyards and now they are saying you can't have water because it is over-allocated.

"They just kept issuing water rights to everybody with no regard to what's under the ground. They still don't know what's under the ground. Their science is flawed and they are making decisions on that flawed science. Every meeting we go to they say, 'This is what's happening but we can't prove it'."

Twyford Irrigators Group chairman Jerf van Beek's height was an advantage amid the 150 tractors at Twyford yesterday as he advised it was a "march, not a race".

"We are going to have some fun today but this is serious stuff - this is about our livelihood."

Val Osborne of nearby Osborne Orchards was conspicuous among the diesel roar in her lavender top and slip-on shoes, waving off her husband and son. "My husband rang me and said, 'Come down, you've never seen anything like it'," she said.

The protest action was as unprecedented as the recent drought and the council's response, she said. "I've been on Omahu Rd for 60 years and I've never seen anything like it. My father-in-law had the orchard before us for 20 years and neither had he."

The drought period was "absolutely amazing".

"We weren't allowed to turn the irrigation on and the trees were starting to wilt. I think the growers just want a bit of fairness - just to have had a little bit of water in that period."

It was a "tough industry". "The townies say it's easy money - they think we just pick the apples off the trees but they plant, spray, thin, prune, climb and pick on those trees."

But it wasn't just growers' livelihoods on the line, she said.

"Water is vital for Hawke's Bay because if our trees and crops don't flourish so many people would be out of work.

"When you look at the likes of Apatu and Bostock - they have rows and rows of trucks going in for their crops. If we don't have water everything is going to go bung."

The tractors left to meet growers from other points of the compass, on a paddock near Havelock North owned by corporate grower John Bostock.

They varied from antiques to tracked behemoths.

Growers ate sausages and Mr Bostock's Rush Munroe ice cream while grower's daughter Alice Bayley gave a running commentary of the protest signs as tractors arrived.

A plane circled lazily trailing the banner: Vote 4 change at HBRC.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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