Farmers in New Zealand have always had to keep an eye on the weather but, if the past 12 months are any guide, they might as well have been looking the other way.

Region after region has experienced unseasonal, unexpected and unlikely weather events running the whole gamut from extreme heat to summer snow, from drought to cyclonic downpours.

It takes many months — often more than a year — for damaged pastures and infrastructure to be returned to production, and in some cases farmers' remedial efforts have been tossed aside by the next extreme weather event.

For example, West Coast farmers were making little progress in sorting out the devastating mess made by ex-cyclone Fehi earlier this year that turned dairy paddocks into junkyards littered with uprooted fencing, driftwood, damaged baleage, silage tyres and downed trees mixed together in the mud and silt.

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The Hikurangi Swamp in Northland under water.
The Hikurangi Swamp in Northland under water.

Two weeks later, along came ex-cyclone Gita and repeated the carnage. Roads were flooded, washed away or blocked by slips, leaving pockets of rural communities cut off from their neighbours and from immediate help – often without electricity.

Of course — and I haven't even mentioned Hola — for dairy farmers it often meant milk could not be collected or transported off farm, and in some cases, such as on the West Coast, even the dairy factories were inoperable.

That level of wild, tropical-style weather is untypical for any region in New Zealand, but more so as far south as the West Coast, with even the state highway losing its tarseal to 12-metre swells and king tides.

The story was similar all along the western coast from New Plymouth to Haast. Taranaki farmers had battled a persistent drought this summer, only for everything to turn to slush within a 24-hour period when Gita crashed through.

While the dry conditions there had been a boost for maize growers, the cyclonic winds flattened hectares of the healthy maize plants, leaving some lying flat on the ground and others partially stripped and lying at oblique angles that would be hard to pick up in the harvesters.

Farmers worked as fast as possible to salvage as much of the maize as they could, with advanced gangs going on ahead to clear fallen trees, corrugated iron and other debris in front of the machinery. Up to half the region's maize crop could be lost.

Unprecedented rain

The timing wasn't great in Golden Bay Motueka either, with apple harvesting just under way. Paul Thomas, a sixth-generation farmer in Riwaka, says no one he knows in the area has ever seen such rainfall.

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"In our area it's mostly damage to cropping trees – some lost trees altogether. That's long-term damage.

"We mainly got left with silt through the orchard — we're cleaning it out at the moment. The advice is we shouldn't have too much damage. So we have diggers, back blades, a small bulldozer, small bobcats and a lot of shovels at work. Some we own, others we hired, and we have been lent some by a farmer as well."

He says he has received a huge amount of offers for help, even from people he doesn't know in the region.

"It's been hundreds of people — it's incredible, an amazing community response. Food keeps turning up. You can work on a shovel all day and still put on weight!"

For Paul, the storm has left a mess, but he feels lucky that only about $40,000 in green kiwifruit has been lost on his orchard. He says he was also fortunate that he had so many staff on hand. "The rest of the crop looks that good."

Wayne Langford, the Golden Bay Federated Farmers president, says the region has recorded 1.3 metres of rainfall already this year, some of it causing as much trouble as ex-cyclone Gita.

"Five dairy farms are severely affected on this side of the hill. The rainfall in the hills caused the rivers to flood, and a blocked bridge flooded farms. But there was not a lot of rainfall on the flats."

The response was swift, with a crew of about 20 farmers using six or seven tractors getting things back into use for their neighbours.

"This sort of weather is not usual over the summer. Our typography is very well set up for large rainfall and can handle 200mm typically."

The biggest long-term problem is the road over the Takaka hill. Apart from ferrying in essential supplies, farmers need transport to bring in supplementary feed, to take out cows that are to be culled because of the storm or failed pregnancies.

"Freight prices are up 50-60 per cent because they cannot use large trucks with trailers over the hill. Taking out 20 cows in a small truck is dearer than taking out 50 in one go."
He says it's a trade-off between letting contractors repair the road, and keeping it open so essential freight can get through.

Changed the landscape

The Gita visit has changed the landscape in Buller, with the sea swamping coastal land and dragging up to 40ha of farmland away, probably for good, says Rebecca Keoghan.

Rebecca manages seven Landcorp farms, and her own, inland from Buller, so she missed the damaged caused by the raging sea.

"We were pummelled with wind, we have trees down for Africa, sheds and fences. We're good for firewood for a few years," she joked.

Her staff were out helping farmers clear their paddocks of sea water, but in some cases the grass died because of the salt water.

"Some of the roading is awful. Lord knows how they are going to fix it around the Fox River — the storm really thrashed it."

The damage was not restricted to farmland, she points out.

"About 30 houses in Buller are red-stickered, and some of those will be permanent. There's also a whole chunk yellow-stickered.

"Two cyclones in one month is a bit much. I've certainly never seen half of Westport flooded, but we are resilient people down here. The community is great — no one is left on their own."

Peter Langford, Federated Farmers president on the West Coast, says the battle with unexpected weather adds expenses to the business that you don't know are coming. People don't realise how long it takes to recover.

"Four years after ex-cyclone Ita we are still working to get farms back to where they were. We are still waiting for the Granite Creek to settle down after the 2003 floods."

The latest damage will need to be repaired as best it can be if farmers are to get any grass for feed over the winter, he says.¦