Drought in the south: concern about how farmers will cope

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Farmer welfare is a serious concern in Southland after the driest start to the year on record, according to the Southland Rural Support Trust.

Significant rains finally fell this week, but it is too late to address the shortage of animal feed facing farmers in the region.

Farmers in Southland say they expect the economic fallout from the drought to persist into next year.

Southland Rural Support Trust chair Cathie Cotter said it all landed on farmers in the region at the same time with the Omicron wave of Covid-19 at its peak in the south.

“A lot of things have just increased the pressure on our rural sector and we are really concerned about how our farmers will fare,” she said.

“They are known to put their animal welfare before their own health, so we encourage our farmers to get help if they need it. Pick up the phone and call Rural Support or a friend or neighbor or connect Just hang out with someone who may have been through this before who has knowledge they can pass on.

“But we are certainly thinking about them, we are certainly trying to put systems in place to support the rural sector.”

The rain had brought some relief, particularly in beginning to replenish aquifers and residential water supplies.

Southland’s irrigation ban has also been lifted across the region.

Federated Farmers Southland Meat and Wool chairman Dean Rabbidge said the pain caused by the driest start to the year on record was likely to persist until early next year.

“Things have gotten a lot greener, there’s been a lot of pasture growth, but that still doesn’t hide the fact that we’re in a huge food deficit,” he said.

“To speak for us, we need to be growing 61 kilos of dry matter per hectare per day by May 1 just to get back to where we normally are and those growth rates that we don’t reach even at the height of the l summer in ideal growing conditions, so with shorter days and colder growing conditions, we always fall further behind.”

The government this week announced 500 additional border exemptions for meat processors and 500 additional workers under the dairy worker immigration scheme.

But Rabbidge said like the rain, it was too little, too late for rural Southland.

“It’s way too late. Industry bodies were calling for this in December because we could see it happening then and it happens at the end of the season, it’s good for the year next, hopefully, but it’s not even a token gesture – it’s far too late.

“Then when you see they automatically gave 280 exemptions for people to come in and operate lifts, it’s really insulting. We can train Kiwis to do this job now, it’s quite frustrating, it’s the least we can say.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor visited Southland farms, including Dean Rabbidge’s property, last week.

Rabbidge said it gave him a chance to illustrate the situation in the south.

“We probably couldn’t tell him anything that he doesn’t know and I think Damien has farming to the best of his heart in New Zealand, but he’s crippled by powers higher up the ranks than him unfortunately.”

He hoped they would be able to turn the corner early next year, but that seemed a long way off with factors such as interest rates, commodity prices and winter conditions beyond farmers’ control.

“I think it’s all going to plan if we’re savvy and smart we could start to get back on track by January or February next year. It’s going to take a full year to get back on board but with the upside input costs, it’s going to be quite difficult to catch up.

“We just hope that commodity prices will stay where they are, if not better in the future.”

Niwa meteorologist Chris Brandolino said there could be good news on this front, with the rest of the month bringing rain and patches of warmer weather than usual.

Although it takes time to break the back of the meteorological drought in the south, he said.

“Unfortunately it’s one of those things that takes time and the effects of drought can linger even when more regular rains return. So the message is that we’re going to have to be patient.”

Farmers can contact their local Rural Support Trust online or call 0800 787 254. The services are free and confidential.

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