It all started when Jim Galloway rang up his regional council to complain about his river rates. 'I wanted to know what the hang we were getting for all the money we were paying,' the North Wairarapa dairy farmer says.
Horizons regional council sent out a river engineer to talk to him about the place of his farm's small Mangaroa Stream in the wider Mangatainoka River catchment.
The stream was a constant frustration for Jim and his wife Lynette, who milk 169 cows on 80 hectares.
It could be relied on to flood every time their farm was hit by the heavy rains that are endemic to the Nireaha district close to the Tararua ranges, swelling to three or four times its size, breaking its banks and flooding pastures.
The engineer put them in touch with another council worker, engineer Gordon Kuggeleijn. And their lives changed.
He showed them how to fix the stream by fencing it and planting the banks with a variety of shrubs and trees. He organised regional council subsidies to defray the $20,000 cost and then, when the Galloways mused on the benefits of bringing in the other farms the Mangaroa passed through, he visited them, becoming a liaison between the nine families and the council as they made a collective commitment to look after the stream.
'I call him Saint Gordon,' Lynette says. 'He's been wonderful. It would have been a lot harder to do without him.'
Their work, now two years' old, has also brought them a brief burst of fame.
The stream improvements were praised by judges of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards this year. The couple won the Nutrient Management Award and the Margaret Matthews Cup for commitment to sustainability.
Also cited was the admirable way they have coped with their district's extremes of wind and rain.
Mention of the weather is met with ironic laughter from the couple. 'When we came here six years ago the farm was advertised as summer-safe,' Lynette says. 'That really means, it never stops raining.'
They get 2500 millimetres of rain a year, much more than the 1100mm they had been used to at Dargaville, where they had farmed with Jim's parents.
The first year it rained non-stop from September 22 to December 10.
It was a big shock to them. 'By November I was selling the farm every day,' Lynette says.
She remembers driving to Masterton one day for a dentist's appointment. 'I put on my winter woollies, but when I got there it was like summer. The hardest thing I ever did was to get back in the car and come back home - to drive from summer back into winter.'
There was also a financial cost, with the farm being so badly waterlogged in spring, the time of year when grass growth and milk flow was reaching a peak, that the cows had to be put on once-a-day milking to slow their rotation around the farm and save pastures from damage.
Nireaha is positioned under the Tararuas, just where westerly rain and wind come back to earth with a thump after clearing the ranges.
The wind was also something the Galloways had not encountered before.
Lynette remembers it being strong enough to blow a four- wheel farm bike with two people on it along a race at 20kmh.
'That was the day I was literally blown down the steps of the cowshed and into a heap on the floor. I told Jim, 'I'm putting this - beep - farm on the market'.'
But they stuck it out. 'We've grown webbed feet,' Lynette says.
'We can look back and laugh now,' Jim says. 'I remember at the time hearing a saying that summed things up for us: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.
'Extreme weather is something we've come to expect in the last three months of the year. And we've discovered the silver lining, that in summer when everywhere else is brown we stay green. We can milk well into May.'
Selling the farm is no longer in their minds. 'We've made so many improvements we want to stay here to reap the benefits,' Jim says.
After surviving the hard first year, they began a building programme that has included a calf rearing shed and workshop, extensions to the milking shed yard, a feed pad, a garage and other utility sheds. Jim has also laid pipes to extend the area he can spray effluent on to.
The Mangaroa Stream planting is another project they want to enjoy the benefits of.
The work was immediately tested in a month of heavy rain, with 676mm - 220mm in one day - falling on the farm. A few plants were washed away, 'a reminder of how important it is to control this monster', Jim says. 'You can't fight it, you have to work with it.'
The neighbourhood scheme covers the 6.5km length of the stream. So far 9ha of 12ha of planting and 10km of fencing have been completed. They have planted 7900 plants - mainly shrub willows but also gums, cabbage trees, flaxes, toi toi, kowhai, lemonwoods, miro, matai and other natives.
The principal benefits will be the control of bank erosion and a reduction in metal build-up in the Mangatainoka River, but the shrubs and trees will also attract birds, provide shelter for stock and make the stream more attractive to spawning trout.
With a lengthy milking season, the farm is a high producer. The friesian herd averages 440kg of milksolids a cow and 1030kg a hectare.
The herd has high breeding worth and production worth values and their surplus calves and other animals are in such demand their sales are worth an extra 80c to $1 a kilogram of milksolids to them.
But aided by the high rainfall and free-draining soil, the farm leaches 36kg of nitrogen a hectare into the stream, close to the national average.
The Galloways see meeting new targets yet to be set in a regional plan as their biggest challenge.
The plan is waiting on the result of an Environment Court hearing, but the Galloways expect they may be forced to take action to reduce leaching.
The Mangaroa planting will help, as will fencing of drains undertaken recently and the further reduction of nitrogen fertiliser, but more may be needed.
They are waiting for the plan to be finalised before making decisions but see their options as reducing cow numbers, perhaps by as much as 40, building winter housing for the cows or grazing them off the farm in winter - their 80ha hilly runoff only 1.5km away will be part of their farm under the new plan.
Grazing elsewhere may be the least expensive and, possibly, their only option, they feel. It may even be to their benefit if the grazing offers better feed than their run-off.
They have faith the council won't make it too hard for them. 'We'll work with them, they're good people,' Lynette says.
No matter what happens, they can't see themselves leaving the district. They have two sons, Andrew, 18, at Victoria University, and Doug, 17, taking a break on a cropping farm in New South Wales. 'We're part of the community. Our kids have made some good friends and don't want to shift,' Jim says. 'We're proud of what we've achieved on the farm - we've improved it, made it easier to work.'
Lynette agrees. 'I still don't like the climate, but we're settled in now.'
- © Fairfax NZ News
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