Gary Stokes' farm sits on 8m deep peat soil. Every summer, it moves a little. But this year, it's so dry that the fences are leaning, his shed roof dips and the step up to his front door has dropped away. When you kick at the dirt, it shakes.
Recently some Argentinian farmers visited, and when the cows began to run and the earth moved "like jelly", they thought it was an earthquake.
Stokes thinks the 140-hectare farm he share-milks near Gordonton, just north of Hamilton, looks like the moon. The tiny craters are the result of the cows ripping the last remaining grass up by the roots. Everything is brown and cracked. The only green is weeds, because the cows won't eat them.
The colour went quickly. Stokes' wife Denise was hospitalised for a week with a badly-broken jaw, courtesy of a stray horse's hoof. The graas was green when she went in to hospital, brown when she came out.
"You just have to survive this year," Stokes says simply. "If you ask all the old farmers, they say the one thing you never worry about is the weather, because you can't change it. So if you follow that philosophy, you deal with the weather, but you don't worry about it. I ask my father [a farmer himself] when is it going to rain, and he says ‘you're closer, it's going to happen'. You just cope with what you've got."
But yes, even Stokes' father say this ranks with the worst summers he can remember.
His mate Alfie Jones, who farms in Ngatea, near Thames, has been mocking him, saying it should be him in today's paper, because he's doing it tougher. "We all ring up and cry," jokes Stokes. "It's a competition who is most desperate."
But Stokes knows he's better off than others. Those who will struggle most, he says, are the young farmers who've stretched themselves to invest in their first herd. "Farmers can sit on the farm and not talk to anyone, stay secluded and worry about the weather so much it actually gives them depression," he says.
"I know [in the past] people have committed suicide from the stress. When you've got your bills to pay and you've lost $60,000 [the milk payout], the only way you can help these cows is to buy more feed and the bank is on your back, you can see how the stress builds up. For the younger guys - their arse is against the wall - they are struggling to survive."
The declaration of drought, he says, will only - and rightly - help those who are all but destitute. What really helps most, he reckons, is the industry unity - having the dairy, milk, and fertiliser companies co-operatively owned means farmers get some help and they also tend to help each other.
One young guy lost his herd to disease the other year, so everyone gave him a cow. They have regular discussion groups to share problems. One local farmer, Neil Bateup, set up an advisory trust which helps farmers in financial trouble.
STOKES' COWS are feeding, but not on grass. Lunch is freshly-cut maize - they're already eating their winter provisions. When the tractor comes, they chase it because they know it means food.
He began the year with 420 cows, but is down to 370 now. "We're constantly stripping cows out that are empty, that are no good - anything that doesn't deserve a feed goes in this weather," he says frankly.
But the freezing works are paying just $450 a cow instead of the usual $550 and some are quoting a three-week wait. "You get pissed off, but if you were in the freezing industry, you would do it."
Some of his cows are all angles and jutting bones, visible ribs. Scored from one to ten, a three is positively anorexic, 10 obese. Ideally, they should be between five and six. Stokes points out a 3.8, a 4.2. They need to reach a score of five to get through winter and be ready to calve - so he has to dry them off [stop milking them] so they can gain weight. And he needs to do it now because it takes 45 days to improve by one point.
Since January, they've been on once-a-day milking, instead of two. It's costing him about 2,000 litres a day - 20 per cent down on usual production figures. By next month, he says, they won't be milking at all and it will cost him between $60,000 and $120,000 in lost milk payments."And it's not like a car that you can turn off and on again, once these are dry, you kiss goodbye to the season," he says. "It's not a decision made lightly. You're going until August before there are more cheques coming in."
Tomorrow, one of Stokes' three staff members loses his job. The remaining two are both long-serving employees, but Stokes says, being honest, he'll be weighing up whether he can afford to keep both. Many farmers cut back to family only, others aren't replacing equipment.
There's other hidden costs a townie wouldn't consider: those ruined paddocks will have to be re-sown; pasture grass is expected to last 10 years, but is surviving just four in these hot, dry summers. Those deep cracks are paradise for the growing population of crickets and black beetles, who act as an extra blight upon the crops.
When it does rain, properly, it will take a fortnight to have any positive impact; at first, all it will do is rot any remaining dry grass left on the surface. On Thursday, it rained for half an hour. It didn't even dampen the dust. "Most farmers look to a 10-year cycle, not a one or two-year cycle. And if they're not, they should be," he says calmly. "It's [always] either too wet, or too dry, or too cold, or too hot. You just learn to deal with it. If you don't you go nuts."
Stokes glances at the weather forecast, but pays little attention. "We're one day closer to that rain," he concludes. "As my father says, it has never not rained."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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