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Parched growers feeling the burn

The end of the cyclical El Niño weather event can’t come soon enough for Wairarapa’s horticulture sector, which has been feeling the heat, thanks to a long, dry, and difficult season that was capped off by a drought being declared a month ago.

Masterton-based Four Corners Organics and Hydroponics grower Jos Paans told the Times-Age he ran out of water for the first time two months ago because his greenhouse produce was forced to rely solely on rainwater.

When starting the business in 2008, the regional council told Paans that the allocations for Te Ore Ore were oversubscribed so he couldn’t secure commercial water rights, while domestic water rights allow for the use of 10 cubic meters of water daily.

Four Corners invested heavily in tanks over the past five years, storing roughly 16 hundred cubic meters of water on site.

With roughly four months of stored water from October, the company was forced to make “hard choices” when water ran low and start rationing to keep the hydroponic system going.

“Outside of the industry, no one understands the stresses,” Paans said. “This year, we are basically missing out on two months of produce.

“We had to say farewell to a few tomatoes fairly early, and we pulled the cucumbers early, and we left the greenhouse empty.”

“What I would love to happen is that there would be a fairer system of dividing the available water.

“It’s all based on historic rights, so new businesses are out of luck.

“We cannot expand any more even if we would like to.”

Masterton-based Te Manaia Organics owner Jeremy Howden – who has 30 years of experience in horticulture – said this year has tested his resilience in withstanding extended periods of difficulty.

“It’s been quite a battle,” he said.

“We had to work pretty hard to get what I was doing moving in the right direction.”

Howden acknowledged that although it has affected crop yields, he is shifting production away from summer into winter and spring, when soil moisture conditions are higher, to mitigate significant future impacts.

The drought conditions caused lower production rates and a delay in how things grew, he said.

It would have been “catastrophic” if the high temperatures in January had continued, but February and March were quite cloudy, which eased the pressure.

Howden said dry conditions and water resilience go hand in hand and suggested there’s a problem with how water is administered in Wairarapa.

“In critical times, I wish that the consenting and extraction of water were a bit more flexible,” he said.

“Horticultural growers like myself who sit on the domestic market play a big part in food security for our region.

“If all the resources are held by a few very, very big export-orientated farms, it makes it very difficult for us to function and provide that security.”

Howden said either the farming industry needs to address this, or the regulator needs to recognise who will benefit from water.

“It’s a community resource, but it is being held in de facto private ownership,” he said.

“Some landowners are blessed with huge water consents, and I have a really small one.”

While underlining how crucial water resilience is for horticultural and agricultural enterprises, Howden noted there are a few different ways to decrease water dependence through good soil management.

It is imperative to understand soil resilience, he said, and implement soil management techniques like composting, which is as important as water resilience.

Rebel Gardens owner Craig Griffiths said his situation is unique because he farms vegetables on a small and intensive 400-square-metre site alongside a pond that’s about a hectare in size.

“It works for me here, it’s never dried out,” he said.

“Years past, it has been full for most of the year.”

Griffiths said growing hasn’t been a struggle this year and there have to be “quite” a few months without rain for water to become an issue for his operation.

“I get to a point where management becomes more of a priority. I am a lot more conscious of how long the irrigation is on and how well things are growing.”

Although the pond usually replenishes in winter, Griffiths said, this summer had been a bit difficult as there was little rainfall.

The El Niño weather event that’s kept New Zealand relatively dry for most of the past year is expected to be over by the end of this month, although the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has cautioned that dry conditions may persist for at least part of the next three months.

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