20 May 2015

'You're faced with it every day'

5:14 am on 20 May 2015

Relentless drought in North Canterbury is taking its toll on farmers and the region's wider economy.

Farmers around Cheviot, the driest area of North Canterbury, say there's been no decent rainfall in almost a year.

There has been no heavy rain in the area since June of last year.

There has been no heavy rain in the area since June of last year. Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps

Sheep and beef farmers have been destocking and buying in more feed, but, with winter knocking on the door, they say they are running out of options.

Sheep and beef farmer Greg Chamberlain said it was the driest he had seen in 25 years of farming in the area, and while it was usually dry, he knew in January a drought was on the cards.

Mr Chamberlain said he had been giving his stock grain and other feed since then, grazing off farm, and selling capital stock.

He said until it rains, he will have to keep selling stock, and winter will only make matters worse.

"It hasn't turned cold yet - we've been pretty fortunate, it's been a mild winter, so the stock have held their condition pretty well, even with not much feed. But as soon as it does turn cold, whether it rains or not, it will, the Southern Alps aren't that far away.

"There's going to be snow, and it's going to get cold, and that's when it's really going to knock the stock about. We're going to have to make some crucial decisions about lambing and calving."

The effects don't stop at the farm gate, as towns like Cheviot and Amberly have their fortunes tied to the farms around them.

Amberly-based John Bassett is in business selling agricultural machinery and said farmers were certainly spending less.

"What hits the farmer hits everyone in New Zealand. Being an agricultural country, and it being a large portion of our income, when things go bad, it affects everything."

Farmlands co-operative field officer Simon Thorne said the drought was putting the strain on drystock farms, and the low payout was hitting dairy farms.

He said the company's sales were down, as was farmer morale.

"Pretty established sort of guys that have been farming in the area for a long long time, and got a fair bit of scope, have just mentioned to me that this would be the lowest they've felt in their farming career.

"You're faced with it every day. You walk out the door, it's dry. You go home at night, it's dry. You spend all your day talking about it. It's just so consuming."

The Rural Support Trust Cheviot representative, Liz Ensor, said the dry was indeed taking a toll on farmers, though many put on a brave face.

Ms Ensor said families also felt the stress.

"Particularly the wives feel it, as much as the men, or even more. Women worry a lot too. They see their husbands go out, knowing how desperate it is, and they come in, knowing the situation isn't the best. They're dying to hear, 'I hope you have had a good morning,' but they almost never do at the moment. There's no relent."

Crop farmer and Hurunui District councillor for Cheviot Vince Daly said it could take years for farms to recover.

He said Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy will visit farmers today. While he can't make it rain, it helped to show the government cares and understands.

"It's no one's fault. It's not because of bad management or anything. There's pretty good livestock farmers in this area. They hate to see their stock in bad condition. It actually gets them quite depressed."

With winter fast approaching, cold weather will hamper grass growth, rain, hail or shine.