4 Nov 2021

Farmers need support to adjust to increase in dry conditions, reports say

5:36 pm on 4 November 2021

Regional councils and primary sector bodies are being told they need to act now to better support farmers to grow food under increasingly dry conditions.

Cattle on a hill, Hawke's Bay.

NIWA predicts that by the mid to late 2000s much of the the country will have worse drought conditions. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Three National Science Challenges, Resilience to Nature's Challenges, Our Land and Water, and The Deep South Challenge held three webinars and a symposium recently to kick-start a research based conversation about climate change adaptation in the food and fibre sector.

A report summarising those talks, Growing Kai Under Increasing Dry, shows farmers need to begin to adapt now.

The report calls for regional councils to undertake clear planning for likely future climate scenarios in their regions, and to engage with farmers and growers to develop a shared understanding of the scenarios' implications for the primary sector.

Regional and local councils will also need to focus on the resilience of rural communities and the mental well-being of farmers, the report said.

NIWA predicts that by the mid to late 2000s the country, except for coastal South Island, is predicted to have worse drought conditions which are expected to be more extreme in the North Island and east of the South Island.

Farmers in most North Island regions can also expect to spend 10 percent more time in drought by the middle of this century.

Fourth generation Marlborough sheep and beef farmer Fraser Avery said drought is not a new challenge.

"Every generation has a year that they talk about and at times, I feel like some people look at it as a competition and say, oh, you know, 97 was the worst or 58 is another one that gets thrown around and at the end of the day, the reality is, they're all difficult and challenging to work with and manage.

"And it's about supporting each other to try and work through it to get the best outcomes."

Avery said extreme weather events are becoming more common so farmers need to adapt how they farm to mitigate the risks from them.

He has shifted his farming practices to suit the changing climate by reducing the capital stock from 80 percent to 50 percent.

Fraser said this approach gives him the flexibility to run more stock in a good season, and less in a drought.

"If you can create as many options as possible, then you feel like you've got a card to play, but when you're struggling for options, you feel a lot more pressure and stress."

Climate vagaries already affecting food production

Manaaki Whenua senior researcher Nick Cradock-Henry who spoke at the symposium said aspects of climate change such as drought, extreme weather events and floods are already impacting our food growing sector.

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A farmer drives through a flooded area in Mid-Canterbury in June. Photo: RNZ / Nate Mckinnon

He said if farmers and growers don't make changes they will experience adverse effects to agricultural production due to climate change. "Absolutely; that's unquestioned."

"Most farming systems, agricultural systems are pretty well suited to and can cope with a bad year. If you get a drought, or you get a flood or you have some sort of pest for the most part, you can adapt, you can get through the year.

"But I think what we do is we get locked into that sort of incremental coping with sort of year to year climate variability but we need to look ahead to what will be coming. And what can we do now in order to be prepared when the changes do arrive, you know, things like changing land use, or creating new opportunities to diversify."

Cradock-Henry said those examples do not happen overnight and involve significant capital investment but there are smaller things that can be done immediately.

"If you're farming in a dry land region, there's been a lot of interest over the last number of years, for instance, with planting things like lucerne, which are much more tolerant of dry conditions than ryegrass and clover.

"If you're in viticulture, you might look at shifting pruning practices. So with warmer temperatures, increased variability, changing the timing of pruning can reduce your risk to getting exposed to unseasonable floods or frosts."

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