Continued drought support unsustainable: English

JO MOIR
Last updated 09:06 11/03/2013

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DRY TIMES: Rural communities reeling from drought conditions are likely to feel the pinch for years.

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Farming

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Farmers must adapt to the risk of increased droughts, with the Government unable to support them them continually, acting prime minister Bill English has warned.

Experts have been warning that the drought affecting most of New Zealand, said to be the worst in 70 years, will become a more-regular event in the future.

As the Government officially declares droughts in affected regions, it triggers financial support and funding for support groups.

Finance Minister English, standing in for John Key while he is visiting Latin America, said that while the Government was providing support now, this may not be sustainable if severe droughts became regular events.

"If there's going to be more droughts, more regularly, farming practices will simply have to adapt," he told TVNZ's Breakfast.

"We've got research in place for instance to find more drought resistant grasses and farmers have for years been adapting their management practices.

"That would have to continue because . . . Government simply can't support them to maintain practices in the face of continuous droughts, if that's what happens."

English denied the government assistance was supporting failing businesses in a way it would not do in other industries, with the measures now in place developed under the previous government.

"It's not supporting the business in terms of paying the bills for them, it's just dealing with those cases that are in extra hardship," he said.

"In fact if they showed up to WINZ looking for food vouchers or whatever, they would get it."

Bruce Wills, national president of Federated Farmers, said the industry had been dealing with wildly fluctuating weather for many years.

Wills said that in Hawkes Bay, where he farms, 2012 had been the wettest year in 60 years, while this year was the driest in 70 years.

"But farmers are adaptive and there are things we can do to cope better with these weather events," he said, such as more water storage, more trees, longer pasture cover and a more flexible stock mix.

In the last five years Wills had built 60 water storage dams on his farm.

"I learned from the very tough experience we had in the 2007 drought that we had to change the way we farm," he said.

The Government has said the drought could cost the economy $1 billion, but Wills said this was a figure which "will be growing every day".

DROUGHT EFFECTS TO BE FELT 'FOR YEARS'

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Rural communities reeling from extremely dry conditions are predicted to feel the pinch for years to come as everyone from truckies to shopkeepers begins to suffer.

By Wednesday, Wairarapa, Manawatu and Rangitikei are expected to be official drought zones, bringing the number of regions in the North Island asking for government support to nine. Scientists say conditions are the worst in 70 years, with long, dry spells forecast to double by 2040 as temperatures continue to rise.

Future droughts could spell the end for farming as we know it and may cost the country billions of dollars in relief each year, experts have predicted.

But it is not just farmers taking a hit. Contractors and local businesses are suffering from reduced spending, and residents across the country are facing increasing water restrictions.

Manawatu Mayor Margaret Kouvelis said farm services were noticing farmers closing their wallets. "Initially it's the water restrictions that town people are impacted with but it's going beyond that now and will only get worse as prices continue to increase through into the winter," she said.

The Central Districts Fieldays held at the weekend hoped to attract more than 40,000 people but Ms Kouvelis said numbers were down because farmers stayed home to deal with bigger issues.

"It's quite a scary situation and farmers really need access to financial help and support services as soon as possible."

Federated Farmers Manawatu-Rangitikei spokesman Fraser Gordon said he was hearing horror stories about stock culling in Taihape that would have dire spin-off effects.

"A large station has got rid of 8000 of its lambs, that's capital stock, which means without them going to the ram to mate, the property will be 10,000 lambs down next year," he said.

"Trucking companies being used to transport those lambs have had to call in 20 extra trucks to cope with the numbers, which means other businesses contracted in get the financial gains."

Fertiliser prices also had "fallen off the cliff" - another industry suffering the effects of no rain. Mayor Garry Daniell said the Masterton business community relied heavily on rural sector spending.

He contrasted current conditions with flourishing conditions last year which had extended to this summer.

"The contrast is quite extreme and those businesses that service the farmers directly are certainly noticing the change. The flow-on effects of this drought will continue for years to come."

Feed for stock is also proving more difficult to come by and farmers are starting to look to the South Island for help.

The logistics and cost of bulk-buying feed were being looked at by Federated Farmers, president Bruce Wills said.

"We're looking at train and shipping options at the moment as we need to plan forward in case things don't improve and look at doing bulk orders for farmers."

HIGHS AND LOWS

The diving cost of lamb may be a boon for shoppers, but don't expect prices to stay low for long.

A leg of lamb costs between $8 to $9 a kg – half the price of this time last year.

Beef+Lamb chairman Mike Peterson said: "Farmers are desperate to off-load their stock and they're going to market at lighter weights, which lowers the value and consumers enjoy cheap lamb.

Next season there will be less stock so the price will increase significantly.

Beef had remained stable, and though dairy farmers were also struggling with the long, dry summer and less milk production, the price had not been affected.

- The Dominion Post

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