Judco nursery/harvest manager Matt Sowerby in the tomato field he describes as a “salvage operation” after March's catastrophic rainfall. Picture by Kristine Walsh.
It rain, it rained again, and then it rained some more. Gisborne growers are counting the cost of one weather bomb after another.
GISBORNE'S famous fertile plains turned into flood plains with March rains that in places exceeded century-old records.
But growers say the downpour can't be seen in isolation: beforehand, they had setbacks due to heavy rain in November 2021, and afterwards – just before Easter – ex-tropical Cyclone Fili dumped a further 200mm on East Cape in the north, 100mm in Wairoa to the south, and 70mm on Gisborne city.
While most of the greatest damage of all three events was seen on the East Coast, north of Gisborne city, much of that land is devoted to forestry and sheep and beef farming.
So while coastal farmers were hit hard, the biggest impact on produce was seen on the western and southern sides of the city, where the highest volume of horticulture is concentrated.
Back in November, Gisborne District Council chief scientist Murry Cave described the rainfall as a “one-in-50-years event”, which led to the declaration of a State of Emergency.
But while that was short-lived the impact on growers had a longer reach, with the season set back when replanting was required for many hectares, particularly of sweetcorn, maize and squash.
And some were not replanted at all, meaning a potential loss of production for processors like Cedenco.
In March, it was even worse … from late Tuesday 22 March to late the following night, Gisborne was hit by 250–300ml of rain – around three months’ worth.
A State of Emergency was declared and remained in place until 31 March; people were evacuated from their homes, hills slipped, rivers rose, and all roads in and out of Gisborne were closed.
Two days later Minister of Rural Communities, Damien O’Connor, classified the storm as a medium-scale adverse event, unlocking $150,000 of immediate government support for farmers and growers, adding to the $175,000 announced a couple of days before by Emergency Management Minister, Kiritapu Allan.
There was still more to come. MetService reported rainfall of up to (and in some places exceeding) 400mm between 21 and 23 March, and it continued to rain for another week.
And growers had only a short window to harvest what they could before 13 April and the arrival of ex-tropical Cyclone Fili.
One of those racing before that window closed was Matt Sowerby, nursery/harvest manager for Gisborne grower Judco.
The vista from the tomato field at Brown's Beach, just south of Gisborne, is generally a spectacular view of light bouncing off Te Kurī-a-P, the headland known as Young Nick's Head.
In April though, things weren't looking so pretty. After the catastrophic rain in March, the vines had collapsed and much of the fruit across the ten hectares was rotting on the ground.
“It won't be a harvest now, it will be a salvage operation,” says Matt. “The machines can't harvest if there is no height to the vine, so basically we just have to rescue what we can.”
As one of the country's biggest tomato growers, Judco produces an estimated 15,000 tonnes from around 183 hectares.
Back in November 2021, Judco had squash, sweetcorn and tomato seedlings on the Brown's Beach block when major rain meant they had to spend three days pumping off surface water.
Despite that setback however, by February hopes were high for a strong harvest from its good-looking crop of mainly Siren tomatoes … albeit with slightly lower yields.
But after the March rain the water reached well above plant level, so the vines dropped and rotted.
“For us the timing was pretty bad in that we were at peak harvest, and still had nearly 70 hectares to work through,” says Matt. “We're likely to lose around a dozen hectares of tomatoes and that's not the result we were hoping for.”
Most of Judco's crop goes for processing to local company Cedenco, which Matt says will feel the downstream effects.
“It's definitely going to impact there as well … they can't process what they don't have,” he says.
“No one is over the moon about it, but in this business you just have to work with the weather you get.”
Gisborne Produce Growers Association chair Calvin Gedye grows across 100 hectares supplying both domestic consumers (though his Tasty Vege Co.) and major processors (like Cedenco).
He says about 40 percent of his crop has been affected, first in the November rains, then during the March downpours.
“Because of the setback in spring we were already behind the eight ball with our tomatoes, then the March rain caused quite a bit of deterioration in the fields,” he says.
The same went for his sweetcorn, the quality of which Calvin says was affected by having not enough heat units to reach optimum flavour.
And it was even worse for his multi-vegetable operation that supplies Tasty Vege Co.
You can see the hits to crops visible around the region and in our case, we probably lost up to half of what we had in the ground,” Calvin says.
Longer term, such a deluge has an impact on the structure of soil, which growers like Calvin have invested a lot into improving.
Despite those challenges, Calvin was heartened to see good results from growers abiding by the Farm Environment Plans that became compulsory for Gisborne annual croppers from May 2021.
“A lot of work went into that, and this is when it comes into play,” he says. “The required setbacks meant the drains were running well without all that wash into them, and that's great for the long-term protection of our highly productive land.”
But that may be little consolation to consumers who will face increasing costs for their already pricey fresh vegetables.
“We're pretty much all in the same boat in that planting is well behind, which will have impacts through winter and into spring, and will inevitably be reflected in shortages and price pressures for consumers.
“That's not what we want, but we just have to deal with issues as they arise.”
He had his own share of losses, but Gisborne Produce Growers Association chair Calvin Gedye says he was heartened to see good results from growers abiding by the Farm Environment Plans that became compulsory for Gisborne annual croppers from May 2021. Picture by Kristine Walsh
Coxco managing director Omi Badsar says the company's squash plantings were also on the back foot after the November rains.
Back then, the company had to replant 40 to 50 hectares of squash and grain, having lost both the plants and the ground work, like application of fertiliser.
So getting more than twice the November volumes during the heavy rains in March was, to say the least, very unwelcome.
“Because the November setback interrupted our planting season we were late starting harvest, and that meant the March event had a much bigger impact than it usually would,” he says.
“About 40 percent of our plantings had been impacted, and that's what we had left to harvest by the time the rain started.
“We definitely had some damage and had to bypass blocks that were under water, but we did manage to get at least partial harvest to keep our overall losses down to about 20 percent.
“That's still a lot. As well as our own squash we represent five other growers, and our losses alone amounted to nearly 70 hectares.
“And we're still seeing downstream effects like the amount of time the ground takes to dry out before we can put it into grass, which affects our lamb fattening programme.”
Coxco was already facing a challenging season due to transport issues, and the number of staff sick or isolating due to Covid-19 caused a two-week shutdown of the packhouse, which the company dealt with by joining forces with another local packhouse to get the work done.
“So with Mother Nature testing us on top of all that, it's going to be an extremely challenging year,” says Omi.
“We're just finding the best under the circumstances so we can get through … that's what farmers do.”
After the March event, LeaderBrand chief executive Richard Burke says his Gisborne team had done a great job of monitoring the storm and harvesting as much as possible ahead of the severe rain.
“However, more than 300mls of water did impact what buttercup squash we had left on the ground and this was not marketable,” he said.
Spinach and broccoli were also impacted by the rain, which had hit at a critical time when LeaderBrand was trying to finish their summer harvesting and start planting winter produce.
For Richard Burke, however, the major issue was road closures in and out of Gisborne, which had also occurred after the November rains.
“This time, we were able to process but couldn’t distribute from the salad house, which was problematic. Even so, our logistics team at Weatherell’s did a great job of being able to find a way through the closures and while we missed a few deliveries, we were able to get most of our orders out the next day,” Richard says.
“We have a level of frustration about the infrastructure in the region (which has been an) ongoing problem for the last four years, and we can’t understand why something can’t be done about it.”
Gisborne is a major agricultural area that is helping to feed the rest of the country with fresh produce, and LeaderBrand has invested by building a state-of-the-art salad house, a distribution centre, and is currently building the largest undercover greenhouse in the country.
“It is a great region to grow and we’ve learned to build great drainage on the flats to negate flooding.
It’s incredibly frustrating when we are all working hard producing good food for it to be dumped because the main road out of town is closed due to another deluge.
“This type of weather is not going to change (and) is something we have to continue to deal with in the future. We really need both local and central government to review the region’s arterial roads.”
LeaderBrand had been trying to get some attention on the Waikare Gorge – between Gisborne and Napier – because it has 29 high-risk areas that can potentially close the road, Richard says.
To that end, Waka Kotahi/NZ Transport Agency says it is currently undertaking detailed design for the preferred route for the SH2 Waikare Gorge safety realignment, part of the multi-project Connecting Tairāwhiti initiative.
“We understand the importance of a safe, resilient and connected state highway network to the Tairāwhiti region and remain committed to the Connecting Tairāwhiti programme of construction projects,” said the agency's director of regional relationships, Linda Stewart.
However, she added that as the impacts of the March severe weather event on the Tairāwhiti state highway network were the most significant seen since Cyclone Bola in 1988, and that will have an impact on the Connecting Tairāwhiti programme.
For its part, Gisborne District Council says it would cost millions – and take up to two years – to address damage to bridges, roads, and properties and it is lobbying the government and Waka Kotahi for 100 percent funding for repairs.
But for Richard Burke, any support for infrastructure could not come soon enough.
“The main problem is that the criteria for improvements are made on the basis of the number of cars travelling on the roads, (so) the Gisborne region does not qualify,” he says.
“If we want the rural regions to continue to be part of the national economy on a daily basis, then we need the government to support us by reviewing the roads so that we don’t get closed off from the rest of the country every time we have a weather event.”