Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

'If it doesn't rain soon we're in serious trouble'

The Government has officially declared a state of drought in Northland and authorities are expected to do the same in the Waikato today. Reporters Yvonne Tahana and Natalie Akoorie met those facing the big dry.

Selene Campbell, with her daughter Baylee 2, says their water reserves are drastically low and panic is setting in. Photo / Greg Bowker
Selene Campbell, with her daughter Baylee 2, says their water reserves are drastically low and panic is setting in. Photo / Greg Bowker

Northland

Countdown to catastrophe

Don't be taken in by the green on the lower flats of her farm at Maromaku, dairy farmer Selene Campbell says. Most of it is noxious willow weed that not even the drought has killed off.

The Northland farmer points to the hill behind her. Brown and dusty, 60 per cent of the 272ha property looks more like that.

She and her partner are in their first year of contract farming, but the conditions have forced them to dry off 46 of their 360 Friesians. Production last month plummeted.

Up behind their home is where their main dam is, which supplies their milkshed. There's not much water left in it - it's maybe half-a-metre deep and is down by two metres.

"You can usually sit here at the edge and kick your feet in it. Once this is gone we're in serious trouble. We won't be the worst off but it's on the tip of people's tongues - the panic."

The mum of 2-year-old Baylee says a neighbour who relies solely on a creek which has run dry is carting water around.

Baylee, who is a regular out on the farm with her mum in their Rover, was singing "beep beep beep" as they drove back from the dune.

Her mum wants the rain to get a hurry-up.

"All we've had is silly little splutters. We need slow steady rain over the next two weeks, if we don't get it, we're in serious trouble."

Turning off the taps

At Matapouri Bay Lou Oakey is sitting in the shade outside holiday units owned by the Henderson RSA. She's set up with a chillybin full of booze, she jokes, and is here on a girls' holiday with three of her mates who are members of the Avondale branch.

The trio, who arrived last Friday, have struggled with one scary warning during their stay.

"Three-minute showers. That's all we get. We're all used to 20, 25- minute showers."

Her friend Tai Tautuki says she's struggled with it the most.

"That's all I could talk about for three days."

Clive Harris, who manages the non-profit facility, says they'll have to truck water in soon, and he's grateful for guests who've brought bottles of drinking water.

November was the last time he saw any decent rain.

No crisis here

Raymond Halliday, who lives on a 1.2ha orchard on the Tutukaka Coast, is loving this summer. His place is known as The Orange Market and he sells, besides the obvious, feijoas, avocados, pears and soon mandarins.

While others around him might be struggling, he's on bore water.

Back two years from Australia the 57-year-old, who lives with his wife, son and two grandchildren aged 11 and 12 can't remember, after living for years across the ditch, why he didn't come home sooner.

"It's not a bad life. The grandkids love it here, we're lucky."

Turning water into gold

Supplier Bill Tane reckons there's good reason for the teardrops on the back of his Bulk Water Deliveries tanker.

"When they see me they're crying," says the Whangarei-based business owner of his customers.

He's an irrepressible character who takes his puppy Pippy along with him for company during business hours.

Households pay $250 for 10,000 litres, which will half-fill a household tank.

"And then they hope like hell it rains," he says.

The cost increases the further away from town supply he has to travel.

Mr Tane knows that for some it's a cost that strikes deep into pockets and increases stress levels.

"I had one particular lady that rang me in huge distress, she only rang a couple of weeks ago but her tenants had all run out.

"Maybe they'd had an accident or otherwise they're being a bit wasteful."

He has been so busy he's equalled the whole of last season's business in a couple of weeks of this summer.

Waikato

Crumbling under the strain

Dairy and maize farmer Andrew Parker, who shares a 220ha dairy farm with his father Neville at Atiamuri, said he was spending around $10,000 a week on feed for their 700 cows. They hadn't yet reduced milking to once a day like many others but Mr Parker said they would likely have to "dry off" the cows sooner than usual.

"If we dry them off today, we'd lose $180,000 in income between now and the end of May," Neville Parker said. "But at $10,000 a week it doesn't take long to use up $180,000."

Andrew Parker said paying for the feed put huge financial constraints on expenditure and the ability to repay debt such as their mortgage.

"It's a real struggle at the moment, to be honest. This is the worst I've seen it.

"We had a big drought in 2008 but this is drier than that. We've probably coped with it better because we're better prepared because of 2008, but the payout is $6, not $7.90 like it was in 2008 and that's where the crunch is."

In that drought Mr Parker lost 50 cows in the following winter because they were under so much stress in the summer, and Mr Parker did not want to see a repeat of the situation.

Mr Parker's 111ha maize farm in Whakamaru was also under pressure and just yesterday he put for sale signs on it.

The crop, which could be used to feed the animals, would suffer a 15 per cent drop in yield, a loss of about $50,000.

If rain didn't arrive in the next few weeks the Parkers would bring forward harvest of the crop from late March to avoid it dying altogether. Neville Parker said the family investigated an irrigation system after the 2008 drought but set-up cost was $1.3 million and that was without resource consent.

They also could not afford to replant the farm if it came to that.

Andrew Parker said drought relief, if they even qualified for any, was not enough and the Government needed to step in.

"It doesn't get rid of your $100,000 of stacked up bills. What the Government actually needs to do is give us an interest rates holiday. That's what's killing us."

Desperate for relief

Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton said the situation could get "ugly and messy" before it improved, and it could be a year before the country recovers.

He said the dry conditions in the Waikato were compounded by drought in Northland and most of the North Island was cracking under a heat which had sucked the necessary moisture needed to simply grow grass.

On his 110ha farm near Arapuni, his 400 cows were still milking but he would dry them off eight weeks early this year, and will suffer a 15 per cent drop in production.

He has already bought $6500 worth of feed from the South Island. It was costing over $4 to feed each cow instead of $1.70 and he was preparing for the worst following financial disaster in the 2008 drought.

"That cost me close to seven figures in lost income and increased feed."

At the time he was operating two farms with 1600 cows.

Mr Houghton said he was more concerned about the many struggling farmers in the region.

"All I want is to make sure that the families that need it have got food on the table.

"At the moment we hope for the best, which is rain, but we've got to plan for the worst, which is no rain for six weeks."

He said if any farmers or their partners were not coping, they should talk to someone.

If drought was declared today, which he believed likely, there would be some funding available for farmers to buy groceries, but only some would be eligible.

It could also mean tax relief for farmers, access to assistance payments and potentially counselling support.

Whole town feeling the pain

Mechanic Peter Cranch, who owns Central Motors in Putaruru, estimates he has lost between $15,000 and $20,000 in business in the past two weeks because of the drought.

Mr Cranch, who has run the garage since 1991, said farmers had been tightening their belts to pay for feed.

"Every time the farmers have a lot of rain through the summer we're always busy.

"But when we've got these drought conditions it just tapers right off. This time last year we were just absolutely flat out," Mr Cranch said.

"In a small rural town like this farmers feed the whole town. We don't necessarily only do work for farmers, but it's their money circulating round town."

Mr Cranch said the situation was the same for mechanics across the South Waikato and other industries were also feeling the pinch as farmers used money to buy food for their stock instead of spending it in rural towns.

He couldn't predict when business might pick up.

"You can send out service and warrant reminders but you don't get bigger jobs like engine rebuilds."

He hadn't needed to lay off any of his three staff but said one employee left last week and won't be replaced.

"It doesn't really affect the staff. It's more me and my wife who will miss out."

Pushing up prices

At Tokoroa Fruit and Vege, owner Steven Li said the hot, dry weather had affected produce prices, but so far it hadn't put customers off.

"Veges are up because the weather is too dry. And we haven't got much. Normally we have more," Mr Li said.

Spinach was low in availability and two weeks ago Mr Li could not source cauliflower.

When the vegetable did come in some days later, just one cost a whopping $3.99 at his store, or $4.99 at the supermarket.

Usually they sell for as low as $1.99.

Mr Li said he had never seen conditions like this before but he was relatively new to the business.

February's new season kumara tipped the scales at $6.99 per kg instead of $2.50.

"That's quite expensive."

Mr Li was preparing for more availability issues and price fluctuations as the drought continued.

Worst fire danger in memory

Volunteer fireman Mike Gubb said conditions in the South Waikato were the severest he had ever seen.

Mr Gubb, station officer at Tokoroa Fire Station, said an extreme fire risk and total fire ban had been in place in the district for two months.

A couple of minor scrub fires could have turned nasty but Mr Gubb said residents were so aware of the heightened risk they doused the fire before the brigade could arrive.

"We have not had any substantial rain since Christmas."

Mr Gubb, who has a small drystock lifestyle block near Tokoroa, said the big fear in the community was if a tough winter followed the drought.

He said if frosts came hard on the heels of any autumn rain, it will further kill the grass and farmers would continue to struggle, causing a negative flow-on effect for small towns.

"In a community like this, if one does it tough, we all do it tough."

Q&A: Dry times

What is the importance of the Government declaring a drought?
It means people adversely affected may be entitled to tax-payer funded support and financial relief.

What sort of support?
It depends whether it's a small-scale, medium or large-scale event. The Northland and Auckland drought declared this week is deemed to be a medium-scale event and further drought declarations in other regions are likely to follow.

So what sort of support goes with a medium-sized event?
Funding for Rural Support Trusts that exist throughout the country and provide advice for farmers, act as advocates and co-ordinate drought relief. www.rural-support.org.nz
Possible special consideration by Inland Revenue. www.ird.govt.nz
Rural assistance payments for eligible farmers and share-milkers from Work and Income. Contractors such as fencers and haymakers are not eligible but could qualify for other assistance. Affected people could also be eligible for counselling, special needs grants and recoverable assistance payments. www.workandincome.govt.nz

What is the definition of a drought?
The Ministry of Primary Industries declares a drought when it believes lack of rainfall has economic, environmental and social impact on farming businesses and families and the wider community.

What factors do they consider?
Deviation of rainfall from the average, pasture growth, seasonal factors, unusual increases in stock for sale, irrigations consents withdrawn, failure of supplementary crops.

- NZ Herald

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