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Carter: Supporting rural resilience

David Carter

7 December, 2010

Supporting rural resilience

Thank you for inviting me here today to close your conference.

But more importantly thank you for your commitment to Rural Support Trusts.

It has been a busy year – droughts, floods, storms and earthquakes.

Unfortunately, I am unable to stand here and tell you that it is going to get any easier; instead it looks like you are in for a busy summer.

Tomorrow I’m heading to Northland – where it’s my expectation I will see a very serious situation.

It is usually late January when I board a plane and traverse the country to inspect drought-like conditions.
But this year it’s the first week of December and we already have record soil deficit figures over most parts of the country.

This morning I received a NIWA briefing which certainly is not hopeful of any significant change or rain in the short term.

So, we are looking at a bad situation, which is only likely to get worse. And it’s not confined to Northland.

I was in the Waikato last week. Just flying in and out was enough for me to realise that an area previously regarded as relatively summer safe is rapidly moving into drought conditions.

And this follows on from drought last summer also.

Last summer we declared drought for Northland, Waikato, rural Auckland, Bay of Plenty, South Taranaki, parts of South Canterbury and Otago and finally North Canterbury and the Wairarapa.

The question that troubles me is: Are these droughts an exception or becoming the norm?

Back to the NIWA briefing, we were presented a grim picture around the level of drought and the length of droughts.

Equally worrying was when the drought does break, the potential is for a significant rain event – in other words – we could go from drought to flood almost overnight.

All this means more stress in our rural communities, and more work for the Rural Support Trusts.

And that’s just the weather.

For Cantabrians like me, the September earthquake will be indubitably printed on our minds.

As the recovery continues I predict a 10 year programme until full recovery is reached, especially for the city of Christchurch.

From a rural perspective we came through relatively lightly – particularly when you consider the epicentre was rural Darfield.

I was on the ground in rural Canterbury in the hours and days after the earthquake and the neighbourly response to the earthquake assisted by our Rural Support Trusts was impressive.

Within hours and with out electricity most dairy cows were being milked.

I heard of one farm, that normally milked 400 cows milking its herd as well as 1, 600 other cows from neighbouring farms over a 24 hour period.

Two weeks after this major disaster the emphasis moved further south to the storms of Southland and parts of Otago.

As farmers we know the risks and we accept risks as part of the business of farming.

But severity of the spring storm that struck Southland with such ferocity and went on for 10 days delivered a massive blow to local farmers.

Again the local Rural Support Trust was immediate with its response. And I’m sure that the mental state of many farmers today in Southland is considerably better than it might have been were it not for Rural Support Trusts.

And the toll of the event will be felt for a long time yet. Southland normally produces around 6.6 million lambs annually. Beef + Lamb New Zealand estimates around one million lambs perished.

I heard of one guy who lost 80 percent of his lambs and 20 percent of his ewe flock. That sort of knock takes years to recover from and let’s be honest there may be some farmers who won’t survive that sort of financial impact.

Then to add to the challenges of 2010 Biosecurity tossed our way the kiwifruit vine disease PSA.

When it was first discovered in the Bay of Plenty only four weeks ago, there was justifiably a sense of panic from those within the industry.

And based on the experience overseas, New Zealand had every reason to be concerned.

In Italy PSA has had devastating consequences.

Thankfully, we now have a grip on the disease. Just over 100 orchards have tested positive covering some 700 hectares.

The industry has a coordinated pruning response underway and is now starting to accept that PSA has probably been here for a number of years.

Inadvertently because they didn’t know they had it, the kiwifruit industry has been living with PSA. And I am very confident it will manage in the future.

I’ve been talking a lot about all the things that have gone wrong. But I want to say there are some good points too.

The agricultural and horticultural industries are very resilient. And many in the industry, due to other factors, are actually in better financial shape, despite all that has happened, than they’ve been in for a few years.

Dairy prices have recovered and the outlook for our international markets is looking good for the foreseeable future.

This is in part due to other dairy export nations being slow to respond to increased demand, with increased production.

Sheep meat prices internationally are as high as they have ever been. Yes, I agree we need more of that money returned to New Zealand farmers, but with some farmers drafting lambs at near $100 there is certainly a glimmer of optimism that I haven’t seen in the sheep industry for some years.

Wool prices are also up - 35 to 40 percent. The question is whether this is sustainable.

Our horticultural industry is in relatively good shape and finally we have won the right to export our apples to Australia – this creates a massive opportunity for growers after being blocked from that market for close to 100 years.

I want to finish on a point of irony – on the way over here an advisor from MAF told me that when the Rural Support Trusts were being set up there was some worry they wouldn’t get enough practice to be effective in a response - this seems laughable now.

Since I’ve been Minister I’ve seen Rural Support Trust have plenty of practice and there is no doubt in my mind that you‘ve in fact had more than your share of challenges.

Your work and mine is about maintaining strong rural communities.

I thank for all you’ve done over the past year and thank you in advance, because I expect you’ll be working just as hard in the foreseeable future.


ENDS

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