Drought led farmer to champion irrigation

Fairfax NZ

Retired Darfield farmer Pat Morrison will be remembered for his relentless energy as the founding chairman driving out the Central Plains Water (CPW) irrigation scheme.

The farmer, irrigation champion and big business director died this week in his early 80s.

In a ceremony last month marking the first turn of the sod by Prime Minister John Key, Morrison confided that, along with others, he had spent as many as 800 days working on the scheme.

Longtime friend Fred Bull said if the truth was known, he'd probably devoted more of his time.

"It would be 800 full days because there was a lot of weeks he was in Christchurch for a day or two and I don't think it would be there without his tenacity."

During a long farming history Morrison was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship and AC Cameron Medal and recognised for his services to farming in the honours list in the 1990s.

His commitment to public duty began as secretary of the local cricket club in 1951 and more than 60 years later he was still an active director on the CPW board, resigning as chairman after nine years in 2012.

He served with Federated Farmers, the Young Farmers Club and Malvern A & P Association and was a director of the BNZ bank. He took on the hard jobs as chairman of the New Zealand Wool Board and New Zealand Wool Services International and was a chief opponent of a proposal to put a landfill in the Malvern Hills.

Morrison had the mix of business and farming skills and connections through the industry to make him the perfect choice to lead Central Plains Water, said board member and Buddle Findlay partner Willy Palmer.

"He was respected by everyone and gave everything to any cause he pursued and did it with style and with a great sense of humour. ... I don't believe anyone else had the necessary skills to take Central Plains from a start-up company to where it got to when he resigned as chairman."

Current CPW chairman Doug Catherwood said his personality, connections and determination to get the job done would be missed.

"He had vision for the future and was a really good farmer - his farm was always a picture. He was a top farmer and a top man and we need people like him in water-related issues.

"We had a board meeting this [week] and . . . it was as though the chairman was missing."

Federated Farmers Meat & Fibre chairwoman Jeanette Maxwell said Morrison was respected by farmers for his work with Canterbury irrigation and before that with the wool industry.

"Back when I was a little girl he did a lot of work in the wool industry. He was a strong rural man and passionate about his industry. Along the way he provided strong leadership and would really drive to get things achieved."

For Morrison the realisation that farmers needed to drought-proof their land came during the 1998-99 drought.

That was the year he put in irrigation at his 310-hectare Pauri Bank farm. For three generations the Morrisons had been dryland farmers watching their crops wither under the summer heat.

"The most dramatic impression [of the difference irrigation can make] was in the 1999 drought when we started up our first irrigation when crops were drying and the recovery rate was unbelievable," Morrison recalled in a 2004 interview.

When talk began of building the largest community water scheme in New Zealand he accepted the chairmanship because someone asked him to do the job and because he was a strong believer in water harvesting to raise farm production.

Among the first of many hurdles was raising $4.7 million in a share issue to take the project through the consent and appeal stage.

He said at the time: "It's a lot of money to get off farmers because we are requiring them to invest in something that there is no certainty to. I suppose that is life because there is no certainty, but all the work done by the trust and engineers and consultants suggest that we should be able to get resource consent so it should be possible."

In 2004 this was more than achieved with about $1.5m of applications turned away in the share offer of 376,000 shares at $12.50 each to fund the consent process and afterwards the well-connected Morrison approached the late investor Allan Hubbard to top up the kitty with loans of $1.7m.

A decade later Morrison was the focus for congratulations at the April function marking the start of the three-stage $375m scheme.

Attending the opening was Key, along with Speaker of the House and former primary industries minister David Carter, his successor Nathan Guy and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee.

Work on the scheme, running between the Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers and eventually irrigating 60,000 hectares, has begun on the 17km headrace canal and bridges. Central Plains Water was the first to receive a government loan of $6.5m by Crown Irrigation Investments, a body set up to to help establish regional-scale irrigation schemes and hasten economic development.

It would have been a milestone moment for Morrison who has persevered with the lengthy fundraising, planning and consent process of pursuing with the scheme since a steering committee was formed 13 years ago.

Morrison admitted it had taken a long time to convince people the scheme would not harm the environment or aquifers, but the end result was better than expected.

Many obstacles had to be manoeuvred during this time with a proposed storage dam in the Waianiwaniwa Valley abandoned and Morrison personally targeted by opponents and his house vandalised. Wins came from the delays such as piping water to farms and the canal network to avoid water loss.

Throughout these ups and downs, working for little to no remuneration, he maintained the belief and was reported as saying at the function: "If you came back in 100 years time I'll bet it's made a big difference."

The Press