Two couples tell us about the challenges - farm dairies destroyed, paddocks split in two, water supplies lost - and how they’ve remained positive in the wake of such a tumultuous event.
Farming only a few kilometres from the Kaikoura township, Mark and Stephanie Hislop’s farming lives have always been shadowed by the knowledge that a big seismic event could be just around the corner. November 2016’s earthquake did not disappoint.
“Our farm borders the Hope Fault line, so we’ve always been a bit on tenterhooks knowing that if it went there would be a major mess afterwards,” says Mark.
Still optimistic and upbeat after a long, tough season, he takes heart from knowing the November earthquake was not the Hope Fault adjusting, but a combination of fault lines moving.
“If it was the Hope Fault, we would certainly be far worse off than we are now.”
As it was, the November event left one of their farm dairies in pieces, written off and needing to be rebuilt; farm houses and buildings in various states of damage; and multiple water breaks and fence damage across the property.
Now almost six months on, with autumn chilling the hills, the farm is well into a routine established to cope with losing its 50-bail herringbone, left shattered and bent by the earthquake.
“Fortunately we could still use our 42-a-side herringbone, and worked a system on once-a-day milking where we put both herds through. It goes from 5am to 1pm, and we moved the milk silo from the damaged shed, along with refrigeration and hot water infrastructure.”
That meant the operation could continue relatively smoothly in the quake’s wake, with Mark's sharemilker and contract milker taking turns to milk their herds while he oversaw rebuilding and reconfiguring of the farm.
The Hislops’ biggest pressure post-quake has been to get a new farm dairy underway. They were one of four out of the district’s 22 dairy farmers whose dairy was written off.
“I pretty much got onto organising the insurance and rebuild the day after the quake,” says Mark. “Insurancewise things panned out okay; we had our shed settlement through with the company working quickly on it.”
He feels for farmers who had to wait weeks for a final assessment of their dairy before learning it had been written off, and only then being able to start organising a rebuild.
Mark says the heat is now on to get construction of his new farm dairy started and completed before calving in late July.
“It’s a bit of a challenge as all the earthworks operators are really busy. It’s due to start in late March, but we only need a wet period to set us back.”
Rallying in support
Mark says there was no shortage of help from DairyNZ, Fonterra and community groups, who all worked hard to support farmers with advice, barbeques and farm help where needed.
“I was lucky in that I had a good team of staff to keep the show running, giving me time to look after recovery. If I’d been milking by myself, it would have been a very different story.”
Mark and Steph say they’ve managed to remain positive about how things have panned out after such a tumultuous event. They attended a DairyNZ GoodYarn session run by wellbeing programme manager Dana Carver about staying mentally healthy.
“It was valuable in giving us pointers about identifying who might be struggling and identifying those behavioural changes to look out for. There was also some self-diagnosis you can do on yourself to check you’re on track.”
Mark believes now could be a good time to run another workshop, six months on from the earthquake.
“I know there are people out there still struggling.”
Mark acknowledges it’s been a tough year for his staff too, and and he and Steph made an effort to ensure the team had a good Christmas celebration. He has a clay bird shoot and barbeque planned for the coming weeks.
“And Steph and I are looking forward to a break in Australia at the end of the season.”
“Something of a speed bump”
Simon Mackle is quick to point out that compared to damage suffered by some dairy farmers in the Kaikoura district, including the Hislops, his operation escaped relatively lightly.
“I know it’s a very different story for those who lost their farm dairies and are still struggling with issues over insurance and recovery. For us, you could say it was something of a speed bump, and one we’ve managed to negotiate.”
For Simon and wife Heather, the initial challenge post-quake was getting their 60-bail rotary platform back on its rollers, achieved with only one milking lost thanks to the help of local engineer Bill Getz.
Their 880-cow herd was able to continue receiving farm water supply for two days, thanks to significant volumes left in the county supply line.
“We were in a bit of a bubble for that time, then it ran out and we had eight days of no water,” says Simon.
With permission from Environment Canterbury, Simon and Heather were able to cut their riparian fences to provide the herd with water.
“But it was interesting, and a testimony to how well cows have been kept out of waterways in recent years, the herd really didn’t know how to go about drinking from waterways. That was a bit ironic after all we hear about cows in waterways!”
Through some smart plumbing, half the farm was hooked up to an old system sufficient to water half the herd.
The region was also blessed with rain while irrigation systems were down.
“If it had been howling nor’westerly conditions, it would have been a very different story; the place would have dried up before our eyes.”
Simon says the support farmers offered each other really helped bring the farming community together, with neighbours helping neighbours resurrect dairies and get herds milked.
“Fonterra and DairyNZ also worked very well. Jo Back, DairyNZ’s district consulting officer, was up here very early on, and she made a point of contacting every farmer in the district, seeing what they needed and sorting things.”
Simon also opted to put the herd on a ‘2-1-2’ milking routine, a compromise from going to once a day.
More than four months on, the farm is only three percent behind last season to date, and life is closer to normal.
The children are back at school and Simon says getting family back into a routine has proven important for the children, who coped well with the earthquake.
“Overall we know we were pretty lucky, and having a lift in the payout did make a difference too. You could imagine the stress if it had been the year before. You learn to see the bright side of these things.”
Eyes and ears on the ground
DairyNZ consulting officer Jo Back was able to get into Kaikoura on the first convoy, having already spent time calling around the 22 dairy farmers in the district to see how they were coping and what they needed.
Going in with her husband Shaun, Jo was also well supported by DairyNZ regional leader Virginia Serra.
“We formed part of a response committee working with MPI, Federated Farmers and council, and part of my role was to let the committee know about anything urgent, being their eyes and ears on the ground.”
She says Virginia’s support was invaluable, as she helped juggle the need to integrate with other support networks, which required up to three conference calls a day.
Fonterra’s support has been huge, Jo says.
“They were on the ground from day one and are still supporting farmers now.”
After seeing farmers in coping mode post-quake, Jo’s most recent visit revealed order and routine largely restored. However, most farms have adjusted their milking routines to once-a-day or 16-hour milkings to give operators more time for repair jobs during the day.
“But for the three to four farms that had their dairies written off, it’s quite a different world, and still very challenging,” she says.
"It will take time for them to get insurance settled and new dairy sheds built in time for the start of next season. Otherwise it's another season that will be impacted as well."
Jo says a key lesson from the earthquake was determining the best processes for helping when access to a district is compromised.
“That’s when more thought needs to go into decision making, and considering the speed of the decision making’s effects. Overall though, it went pretty well in Kaikoura, given the location and scale of the event.”
Resilient and united
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says the dairy sector’s response to the Kaikoura quake highlighted the strength of its collaborative nature.
“The fact farmers continued to be paid for milk that could not be picked up was significant, and took a lot of pressure off them at the time.”
Tim, who is the brother of Simon Mackle featured in this story, says two things stood out for him.
“The first is the resilience of the farmers there. They just got on with things and attended to what needed to be done, only focusing on what they could change.
“Secondly the collective spirit of farmers and the community working together was very strong, alongside the involvement of the wider industry. There were a lot of different bodies there and we managed to work together on it, particularly Fonterra’s emergency response team that was on the ground very early on helping farmers with whatever needed doing."
Jo Back's top tips
There’s plenty of support available to help farmers prepare for and get through tough times, whether caused by a financial downturn or natural disaster.
- Rural Support Trust
This team supports rural people through difficult times. Phone 0800 787 254.
- Adverse Events
For info on how to prepare the farm for and overcome an adverse event, go to dairynz.co.nz/adverse-events and dairynz.co.nz/emergency-plan.
Check out getthru.govt.nz for handy info on preparing for emergencies.
- Have a yarn
Learn to recognise and respond appropriately to the signs of stress or mental illness. Visit dairynz.co.nz/ goodyarn to let us know if you're interested in setting up a GoodYarn workshop in your community.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy May 2017