20 Feb 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle : Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 20 February 2023
Labour MP Damien O'Connor

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Cyclone Gabrielle has devastated some growers and farmers, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says, but he's optimistic about domestic and export markets in the long term.

Eleven people are confirmed to have died, many remain unaccounted for, nationwide, 28,000 homes have no electricity, roading has been washed out, hundreds of farms are covered in deep silt, crops are destroyed and supply chains disrupted. 

O'Connor and Finance Minister Grant Robertson visited Hawke's Bay yesterday, including the hard hit Esk Valley. 

He told Nine to Noon it was a horrific situation some areas would have never seen before. 

"What we could see from being on the ground and in the air was a horrific situation that they would have to have dealt with: in darkness, water rising, uncertainty. Never before has this occurred in the region ... I've seen a number of events over a number of years, this is the most horrific I've seen in terms of its impact on infrastructure. 

"We didn't get to get a full report from the sheep and beef farmers, and the backblocks saw a lot of slips. Hopefully they're okay, communication still to be reinstated; roading network still to be reinstated."

He was hopeful the overall effect on domestic crops and exports was unlikely to be too prolonged or damaging, however. 

"I think over time, we'll have enough production from probably other parts of New Zealand. We're a huge exporter. One of the things that the industry did want to say from Hawke's Bay is it hasn't destroyed all our food producing or export producing capacity.

The aftermath of massive flooding that swept through the Esk Valley during Cyclone Gabrielle. The river's normal path can be seen running down the right of the valley.

Photo: RNZ/ Sally Murphy

"There's a supply and demand market all through the year and different crops come on different [times] and they're replaced by others and so we'll probably see interruption into those markets. Hard to know what they will do to prices - probably lifting, hopefully not to an unaffordable level."

The impacts on the domestic market were most likely to comes from Pukekohe and around Gisborne, he said.

"Onions, because they had been uplifted and they were drying, some of them been washed away, they won't be suitable for export or domestic market.

"Kumara, as I said, maybe 50 percent of the total crop lost. I'm sure growers in the sector will do all it can to supply fresh fruit to the market and try and reduce the impacts, obviously the supermarkets have to cooperate and try and keep those prices down as much as they can."

Hawke's Bay's fruit produce had mostly been destined for exports, and the impacts there would be hard to predict at this stage, but there was a significant amount of damage, and the silt was likely to kill off a lot of the trees and vines: they would be unable to photosynthesise with the mud coating their leaves. "It will require probably a week of fine weather to dry out before you can even get a machine on it to start working out what to do next," he said.

"While this year's crop has been ruined, the chances are the whole infrastructure of trees will have to be removed and replaced - and it's not simple. There'll be hundreds of kilometres of wire and post that are buried in the mud so, you know, the idea of just working this up in replanting is, again, a huge challenge."

A flooded orchard and apples strewn over the road just outside Hastings.

A flooded orchard and apples strewn over the road just outside Hastings. Photo: RNZ // Angus Dreaver

The areas affected were somewhat random, however, and the region would continue to produce exports, he said. 

"Some growers, you know, have been devastated by this and the impact overall has been significant but we'll still see a lot of exports going from the Hawke's Bay and from other areas of New Zealand."

"These are highly productive soils - on the flats in particular - a huge amount of investment and horticulture completely wiped out, and it's kind of random, some areas were completely flattened ... other areas still had the covers on but of course underneath it was a whole lot of silt."

"For some people ... they're probably a bit more resilient, they're probably used to this, but for others in highly productive areas of the plains around Hawke's Bay - some of those valleys - this is a completely new challenge. 

"While it is a floodplain, while the soils have been built up by floods over millions of years, this is a completely new thing. There's been river protection in place, but that's been breached or actually the river's just come over it."