15 Jan 2018

Growers' dilemma: Killing a crop to survive the dry

12:36 pm on 15 January 2018

After a drought-inducing start to summer, fruit and vegetable growers are pleading for more dams to avoid having to kill off their own crops.

A file photo shows apples on a tree

Photo: 123RF

Much of the country has been facing water restrictions after the early dry season, with even the usually rain-soaked West Coast having declared drought conditions.

Canterbury went weeks without rain in November and December, and Wellington was forced to use reserve water two months earlier than usual.

Otago settlement Glenorchy was the latest affected with Queenstown Lakes District Council announcing restrictions this morning, asking residents to switch off all irrigation and automatic watering systems.

It said hot weather and low rainfall had coincided with peak demand, and reservoir levels are dropping rapidly. The council said water storage was currently at about 60 percent but it will reach a critical level unless usage is reduced.

Horticulture NZ president Julian Raine is also a fruit grower and said Nelson growers had managed to avoid major water restrictions by the skin of their teeth when rain hit last week.

"We've had a very dry sort of late spring and summer, and we got by with a bit of rain last week which was great," he said.

"We had to make some choices at that point as to which crops we will save and which crops we will turn the water off, so it's getting pretty dire at that stage."

Mr Raine said that in Nelson, fruit and vegetable growers had been close to having to start either sacrificing certain crops in favour of others - meaning a potential long-term loss of income - or water everything sparingly and lose fruit in the short term.

"If the tree actually dies it takes many seasons to re-establish a tree."

Mark O'Connor, the general manager of Appleby Fresh in Nelson said he had to throw away hundreds of thousands of new vegetable plants.

"We can't just afford to plant them, they got too big in their cell trays, so we'll probably have some gaps a bit later on."

He said there would be no point planting them because they would just shrivel up in the heat without enough water.

Kimberley Gardens in Levin is co-owned by Babe Bevan, who said she had been there more than 20 years.

She said high temperatures had baked her crops since November and dried out entire blocks of strawberries, killing 90 percent of her strawberry plants.

"That has to be pulled out, I'm not sure if there's any kind of recovery to revive those plants after they've been sitting out on the black plastic for months and months, I don't think it will really come to life.

Mr Raine said several varieties of fruit were on years-long waiting lists for getting replacement trees, including cherries, apples and avocados.

"Trends with fruit change over time and we have to judge which fruit varieties are going to become popular."

"So those are the choices that we make, either we don't have an income or we give a little bit to everything and at least keep our trees alive so we can live to fight another day.

"We thankfully got through to the end of our berryfruit season, so it was going to be a choice about which apples we were going to keep and which we would not keep.

"The kiwifruit we were definitely going to keep, we only grow gold kiwifruit and because that crop is worth so much we were going to keep that no matter what.

With most of January, and February - the hottest month - still to come, Mr Raine said they were worried water supply would run dry again soon.

There was only so much growers could do to retain water and improve infrastructure.

"Tank supplies is really only good enough for human use, it's not viable for growing a crop. We need quite a bit of water to actually grow a crop - more than many people think.

"Ourselves, we pull from a bore, or many bores, into the aquifer. The aquifer is recharged from the river so if there isn't any water coming down the river the aquifer isn't being charged.

Mr Raine said the community was planning a dam for irrigation as well as urban supply near Waimea.

"We along with Tasman District Council, Nelson City Council and the irrigators are looking at putting in quite a sizeable dam to protect Nelson for the next 100 years."

He said Richmond was becoming a sizeable urban area and would also need more water as it grew.

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