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The pains of a long, hot summer

Tuesday 26 Feb 2013 9:08 p.m.

(Photo: Lachlan Forsyth)

(Photo: Lachlan Forsyth)

The grass crunched underneath our feet as we walked across the paddock.

Clouds of dust billowed behind us.

The sky was a brilliant blue, and the trees around the paddocks were brightest green.

But the grass paddock in front of us was golden white – a dried expanse of stark vegetation.

We were at Rerewhakaaitu, about an hour southeast of Rotorua, and in these parts just 50 mm of rain has fallen since November. 

VIDEO: Bay of Plenty's parched earth

Where we stood, much of the pasture was simply burned away.

And without rain, nothing can grow here.

The day we met him, Bryon Osbourne was assessing his dairy cows, checking their condition, monitoring their health, figuring out which he would need to sell, when it came to the crunch.

It is a harsh economic necessity - there simply isn’t the feed to keep them all.

Like others in these parts, Bryon is already down to one milking session a day. That conserves feed, but impacts on farm production, and, of course, on income. The only other option is buying in more supplementary feed, and that comes at a cost.

Ordinarily Bryon would send his stock off to nearby grazing land…but the dry conditions are so widespread there is nowhere to send his stock to.

The big dry has gripped much of the North Island.

An experienced farmer, Bryon knows he’ll have to take a hit… one that will probably hurt for a couple of years to come. But there are others who are worse off. Younger, less experienced farmers, or ones who are already heavily indebted… things are already tough for some around here, and if there’s no relief soon, it’ll probably send them to the wall.

There’s little irrigation in these parts. No super-herds numbering in the thousands. Much less of the intensive dairying seen elsewhere around the country.

The wind is maddening. One farmer tells me it’s pretty much been blowing non-stop since November. Then there are the flies. The air is thick with them. There’s barely a moment when you’re not having to swot them away.

With everything around here seemingly designed to test of patience and perseverance, what struck me was how much ready everyone was with a smile.

Like Bryon, Marcel Schweizer is down to one milking a day – and within the next two weeks he’ll decide whether he must ‘dry off’ his herd – ceasing to milk them for the rest of the season. The moment he decides to do that, he’ll have no more income until his pregnant heifers start calving in August. He may only run 180 cows, but this is a profitable little farm. Forgoing an income for six months will hurt.

Like Bryon, he has to figure out just how much expenditure is needed to get him and his herd through the winter. It is a difficult, stressful balancing act.

He’d just been offered $1200 for a cow normally worth $1800. He laughed and told me he’d turned the offer down with a fairly economical two word answer. Things may be bad, but they’re not that desperate just yet.

Rerewhakaaitu is a tiny place, hidden away from the well-travelled Bay of Plenty tourist routes. You’re more likely to end up there by mistake than on purpose. But the conditions in Rerewhakaaitu can be found throughout the North Island. Hawkes Bay. Northland. Waikato.

As a farmer, you can plan for good years, and you can plan for bad years. It’s almost impossible to plan for conditions this bad.

In Hawkes Bay, my colleague Dan Parker was told they’d had the least rain fall in more than fifty years. Farmers are selling off animals by the thousand. Cracks a metre deep had opened up in what would normally be grazing land.

Officially though, there is no drought. The moment the Government officially declares there is, financial and social support will be made available to affected farmers.

Support from the banks will help.

Assistance from fellow farmers will help.

But what these farmers, and their animals, really need is rain.

A brief respite from a long summer proving memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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