9 Mar 2020

Wider North Island drought declarations expected as Monday's rainfall not enough

7:53 pm on 9 March 2020

Despite rain across much of the North Island today, farmers continue to struggle with water shortages.

Paddocks dry from the Northland drought.
Kaikohe area

Livestock seeking shade amid parched fields in Northland as the drought bites. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Dry conditions have led to droughts being declared from Northland to the Tararua districts this summer and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says the government will likely declare droughts in other regions, too

"We're working with people on the ground, we get accurate information, we don't want to declare a drought too early. We need to keep the confidence in farmers as much as possible but when it's really dry, when they have no option and need assistance we declare a medium adverse event which is effectively a drought," O'Connor said.

It took more than a few sprinklings of rain to ease a drought, he said.

NIWA weather forecasts showed 50mm of rain was expected across much of the North Island between today and next Monday.

But NIWA principal forecasting scientist Chris Brandolino warned the soil was twice as dry as usual for this time of year.

"In order to recover from drought we need to have multiple rounds of rain over multiple days, probably over multiple weeks. You don't want 100 millimetres of rain in one go."

Farmers caught up in the big dry have had to feed out livestock with supplements they were saving for winter, while others are drying off dairy cows, and many freezing works are at capacity.

Hawke's Bay farmer Mark Warren from Waipari Station says it is time to ask for help.

"A lot of my mates are in the same situation, you wake at two o'clock and you get the churn. The first thing you do is have a look at a weather map to see if there's any hope of a decent big low coming in and moisture and then you worry what are we going to do," he said.

Drought conditions were declared an adverse event in the Gisborne, Manawatu, Rangitikei, and Tararua districts late last week - adding to those already declared in Northland, Auckland and Waikato.

Rural support trusts help

The declarations opened up funding for rural support trusts to help support affected farmers, and some are starting to ask for help.

Northland has been in drought the longest.

Its Rural Support Trust co-ordinator, Julie Jonker, was at Northland Field Days in Dargaville at the weekend - where farmers were on to "plan c".

"People are starting to say this has got worse than we planned for in our plan a and we're moving to plan b and some even on to plan c stage where they say right we're going to have to look at serious issues such as destocking stock that we would normally hold on farm," she said.

There are 14 Rural Support Trusts around the country that provide confidential support to farmers and growers facing hardship.

Jonker said the Northland trust usually received around a dozen calls a month but this month's tally spiked to 48, with at least half the callers asking for assistance.

South Auckland and Waitato were the next regions to have drought declared.

Farmer in front of his tractor

Neil Bateup. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Waikato Rural Support Trust chair Neil Bateup said there was a lot of pressure on farmers to feed stock but fields of chickory and turnips had not grown.

"They've grown one small crop but they haven't regrown like they normally do. There's a lot of pressure on farmers out there at the moment and they're just becoming anxious. The longer it goes, the more anxious they'll become," Bateup said.

Bateup said there would be requests for financial assistance in the Waikato if the drought continued.

In Hamilton City, recent rain and conservation efforts meant water restrictions had been downgraded, allowing households to use sprinklers on alternate days.

Auckland Council has shut down playground splash pads due to the water shortage and made some leisure centres available for showers.

O'Connor said farmers should talk to their local rural support trust and ask for help to plan during the drought rather than leave it too late.

He will be visiting Waikato this Thursday to meet with local farmers affected by the drought.

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