The soils of Hawke’s Bay’s highly valuable and diverse horticulture lands could take 50 to 100 years to fully recover from the silt and flood devastation inflicted on the region by Cyclone Gabrielle, it’s been suggested.
Paul Paynter, a fifth generation orchardist whose company Yummy Fruit is a major provider to the domestic market, said a soil scientist would say that is how long it will take for soils to be remediated after the damage caused by half a metre to one metre of silt that’s now piled on the blue chip growing land.
The devastation, which has left orchard trees and vines completely underwater and resulted in dozens of workers having to be evacuated from roofs, will affect domestic market food supplies, he said.
Unable to get to Hawke’s Bay because roads into the region are closed, Paynter told Newstalk ZB’s Jamie Mackay his company has 45ha completely underwater in the Esk Valley alone.
Hawke’s Bay is known as New Zealand’s fruit bowl but grows a huge variety of produce from grapes to onions, squash, peas and berries, much of it for export.
Silt from the flooding deprives roots of oxygen and will change how the land will be used, he said.
While pasture could be grown on affected land in the medium term, deep-rooted plants such as those in fruit orchards need oxygen and with no soil structure remaining, remediation was a long-term outlook.
Paynter said with communications down and roads closed he had no way of knowing the extent of damage to the company’s operations. The Paynter family have been orchardists since 1862. Paynter said the last time there was such a severe flooding event in the region was probably 1938 when 2m of silt was deposited on land.
“This (time) it’s perhaps not so bad at half a metre to one metre ... but it will change the ability to use the land. It will definitely affect food supply.”
For agri-business chief executive Che Charteris, Cyclone Gabrielle has made Gisborne a closed off “big black box” for communications with his staff and operations, while in devastated Hawke’s Bay he’s desperately trying to provide fresh water and dry beds for his teams.
The Whakatane-based head of Craigmore Sustainables, an apple, viticulture, kiwifruit, dairying and forestry business, said he can’t communicate with Gisborne at all and is considering using a helicopter to fly in a satellite phone to his staff.
Meanwhile his orchard teams in Hawke’s Bay have had to be evacuated due to flooding. He said his big concern at the moment is getting fresh water supplies to the Hastings and Napier areas for his staff there, and finding new accommodation for displaced RSE (Recognised Employment Scheme) workers.
Due to phone and internet communication failures in the worst affected areas, Charteris is unsure yet of the extent of damage to Craigmore’s various operations in the upper North Island.
The apple harvest season had begun in Hawke’s Bay when Cyclone Gabrielle struck.
New Zealand Apples and Pears said the focus right now for its grower members is the wellbeing and safety of their staff in Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti-Gisborne.
“This has been the number one priority. We have many people displaced, and a significant number in evacuation centres across Tairāwhiti,” the organisation said.
“We know growers worked tirelessly yesterday to get everyone to safety. In the coming days we will work with our members to assess the impact to the trees and supporting infrastructure and provide help where needed.”
Barry O’Neil, chairman of HortNZ which represents the $7 billion a year horticulture industry, said with phone and internet issues, the extent of the impact on growers in cyclone-affected areas was not clear.
Horticulture covers more than 100 fruit and vegetable varieties and employs 40,000 people in New Zealand. It includes 5500 growers with their exports returning $4.6b last year.
In Hawke’s Bay growers would be stocktaking and trying to figure out how to get big volumes of water out of their orchards. Avocado growers had also been affected by the cyclone.
“They’ll be looking at how much structural damage there is to trees and then there’s the silt issue. They may have one or two feet of silt in the orchard which means they can’t get into it.
“They’ve got to remove silt from the base of trees or trees will suffocate through lack of oxygen for their root system.
“Harvesting of early varieties has started. You’ve got a situation where no machinery can get into orchards. The disruption is going to be significant.”
Bay of Plenty-based O’Neil said the horticulture sector had been already “whacked so much” by extreme weather events.
He lost 70 per cent of his kiwifruit crop in a severe frost in October.
“It hasn’t seemed to have stopped raining in the Bay since November. I’ve been looking at the rain stats, last year we got something like 35ml in January, this year we’ve had 750mls in January.
“It’s such a horrible growing season at the moment. I hope and pray it’s just a glitch.”
Asked if continuing extreme weather events could drive growers out of the industry, O’Neil said he believed horticulture had a real place in the primary sector but the change in climate would mean changing the way produce was grown and where it was grown.
“Some of those growing lands on low flood plains are moving to covered cropping. It’s already started to happen. We’re definitely seeing movement from those who can.”
The industry recently launched a horticulture action plan incorporating a focus on climate change and becoming more resilient.
“So we already have a focus on this in the industry and on what we should be doing. We have work to do but I see that as the primary driver here in bringing the sector together and getting everyone, including the Government, focused on the transition.”
O’Neil, who is also chair of Tomatoes New Zealand and represents the covered cropping sector, said a number of glasshouses had been flooded in the cyclone and in previous weather events.
“The number of instances where they’ve had flooding in different regions has increased in the past 24 months.”
The main glasshouse crop centres are South Auckland, Nelson, the central North Island (Reporoa and Mokai) and the top of the South Island.