Top farming and government officials are set to meet tomorrow to consider officially declaring Waikato a drought zone following one of the driest summers in years.
And if the Government baulks at declaring a drought, there's a chance the regional council will take matters into its own hands.
After weeks without rain and no foreseeable relief for weeks to come, Waikato Regional Council chairman Peter Buckley says it is time to get serious about the situation.
"Whether it is [declared] on Friday or the following week, that is what this meeting is all about," he said.
The ideal solution would be for central government to make the move, because higher-levels of support would be available, but if that does not happen, the council will consider declaring a local drought itself.
All aspects will be discussed at the meeting in Hamilton, with representatives from the council, the ministry, Federated Farmers and the Rural Support Trust.
The minister, Nathan Guy, said yesterday the Waikato had not yet reached the official threshold for a drought but was "not far off".
"I'm keeping a close eye on the conditions and the Ministry for Primary Industries is closely monitoring the situation."
Mr Buckley said it was "getting serious out there" for Waikato farmers.
"For some farmers it is more than serious - it's got to the stage where we need to make some decisions."
No discernable rain is forecast until early next month, and some farmers have stopped milking earlier than usual because of the dry weather.
A drought declaration - at either national or local level - is important because it triggers financial support for farming households through Rural Support Trusts, Mr Buckley said.
"They won't get money to buy stock feed but they can get money for their living costs."
Mr Buckley said a lot of farmers had been approaching the council asking when they were going to declare a drought, and all agencies involved were asking the council the same question.
"One of the reasons we have been holding off is we saw there was a lot of stock feed around on farms but that is going very, very quickly so we need to act now before that feed disappears."
Mr Buckley said the speed with which this year's drought had taken hold had caught a lot of people out.
"It is a different drought to other years - they usually creep up incrementally."
Mr Buckley, himself a farmer, said the situation was as bad on his farm as in the Waikato drought of 2008, with milk production lower than in 2008, he said.
Mr Guy said dry conditions were making life very tough for many farmers around the North Island.
"If we do go into drought then a range of support measures could be available through IRD and WINZ.
"The next few weeks are going to be crucial. Farmers badly need some decent rain to get them through autumn and into winter," Mr Guy said.
Rural Support Trust Waikato chairman Neil Bateup said it was starting to get stressful for farmers in the Waikato.
"There is most concern about availability of feed if it continues for a long time, condition of cows, production levels and financial impacts," he said.
Waikato University agribusiness professor Jacqueline Rowarth said the drought was shaping up as a bad one - but most farmers would rather receive decent pay for their product than drought relief.
A problem with declaring a drought was that urban people would get riled up thinking farmers were getting an unfair advantage, Dr Rowarth said.
People might think farmers were getting tax relief, for instance, but most farmers would not earn enough money in the drought to be eligible for tax relief.
DairyNZ predicts about $40 million could be wiped off dairy farmers' income this season because of the dry weather. Milk production for the month is 15 per cent down on the same time last season.
PRAYING FOR RAIN
Waikato Regional Council information paints a dry picture for the Waikato, but shows that the impact can depend on where you farm.
Soils are very dry – 30-50 mm drier than normal for this time of year – using NIWA data.
February rainfall across the region has been variable. Matamata is at 40 per cent of normal rainfall, while Te Kuiti rainfall has already exceeded the monthly average. Since October at Matamata, three of the last five months (including February) have been below average, but December rainfall was nearly three times the average. Since the start of summer at Te Kuiti, two of the last five months (including February) have been below average.
In rainfall-fed streams, flows are nearly as low as in 2007-08 – e.g. Piako and Waipa. In spring-fed streams, flows are not as low as the same time in the 2007-08 drought – e.g. Waihou and tributaries of the Waikato above Karapiro Dam.
Taupo lake level/storage is lower than at the same time in the 2007-08 drought.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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