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Big challenges align for 2021

Words by Richard Rennie

For many people around the world, farewelling 2020 came with the hope that 2021 would somehow bring a break to the gloom and depression of the Covid-19 epidemic.  But many in Europe and North America may well have felt 2021 has so far offered little such respite, particularly as winter descended.

Meantime in New Zealand the sense of being a lifeboat country amid the tumultuous global epidemic continues. This was only heightened amid the swirl of festive events and holidays as the country enjoyed its summer break.  It was easy to forget the grief and stress engulfing much of the rest of the world.

But for New Zealand farmers the business year has rolled on, and a collection of factors are lurking on the horizon demanding every farmer’s attention.

As big as the issues like Brexit, the new US presidency and even the epidemic itself are, all are less likely to be within the control of farmers here compared to some of these more immediate events that must be grappled with much nearer to home.


The most immediate issue to kick off the list of concerns for many growers and farmers has been the issue of labour. With seasonal crops like apples, pears, grapes and kiwifruit all hanging ripe and ready, this year is again a challenge for sourcing sufficient staff to harvest it all.

The industry’s reliance upon the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme has become an established and successful part of the horticultural sector that Covid crippled last year, and the impact continues to reverberate for this year’s harvest.

After a mammoth effort by growers, farmers, orchardists and processors last year’s harvest was managed despite the expected 12,000 RSE workers being sliced back to only 8000 as a result of the travel restrictions.

Many of those 8000 have returned home, with about 5000 remaining for this season, often retained by their seasonal employers who were desperate not to lose them before this year’s harvest.

This year’s numbers will be no where near the 16,000 workers the industry had been aiming for a year ago.

However, there were cheers in later January when the first flights of RSE workers from the Pacific Islands arrived with 150 workers on board. This represented the first major opening of New Zealand’s borders to any single group since the travel restrictions began.

In all 13 flights mean eventually 2000 extra workers will join the 5000 still here.

While much less than hoped, their arrival was welcomed by Apple and Pear NZ chief executive Alan Pollard who says the valuable workers will be spread among industries and regions in coming weeks.

The workers’ isolation costs have been met by industry and a minimum wage of $22.10 an hour is paid, including while in isolation.

Just before Christmas, immigration minister Kris Faafoi announced visa changes that have also provided some more hands to harvest.

A six-month extension on working holiday visas now means anyone on a working holiday visa can work in any job without restrictions. This opens the door for up to 13,000 working holiday visa holders, and has been welcomed by the primary sector.

However, competition for staff will remain strong, and job vacancy figures released in January revealed job vacancies were almost back to pre-covid levels, with some provinces reporting higher job vacancy rates than before the pandemic.

The dairy sector has also been hit hard by Covid’s effect on staff. Many skilled foreign workers are struggling to get back to New Zealand, often an attractive country to work in due to good pay, conditions and respected employers.

Estimates made by DairyNZ last year were that even if all migrant workers were retained, New Zealand will still be at least 1000 staff short, intensifying competition for locals who often may not have the skills needed to start working straight away on farms. 

The six-month extension beyond September last year on working visas was welcomed by Federated Farmers employment spokesman Chris Lewis.

“It makes sense as we seek to rev up the post-covid economy to keep the services of migrant workers already in New Zealand while we train more kiwi workers,” he said.

The Fed’s “getkiwisonfarms” programme has also helped boost local interest in dairying, and hopes are it can be extended.

Weather volatility

Summer fruit growers had a well-managed programme to recruit staff that was successful, at least until the next major issue for 2021 hit home - namely the weather and the increasingly extreme events it is bringing.

Cherry growers have had as much as 6000t or half their crop wiped out by hail in Nelson and some of the heaviest rain for 40 years in Otago. This event is likely to have cost over $50 million in lost cherries alone, and a similar value for lost kiwifruit, hops, stone-fruit and apples.

The weather’s volatility has become more intense in recent years, and the past 12 months have only highlighted the growing vulnerability of the primary sector to increasingly extreme weather events that would have once been labelled “one off.”

This includes the searing drought through Hawke’s Bay, intense flooding in Northland and most recently the devastating storms that wiped out large portions of Nelson and Otago crops.  

For a region like Hawke’s Bay, the latest drought is the second major dry period in a decade, and has left aquifers and water systems vulnerable to continuing dry weather this year.

The declaration of a “climate change emergency” may have been scoffed by some in December, but for farmers and growers at the sharp end of weather, it is proving real.

Phil Duncan, director and founder of WeatherWatch says it is undeniable the planet is getting warmer, and while this is a longer-term trend it is bringing some immediate impacts to the primary sector, some already witnessed this year.

“I do think one of the things definitely being experienced is more extreme weather events,” he said.

The most recent example is the Nelson hail event that inflicted almost $100 million worth of crop damage on the region on Boxing Day.

“Ironically, when you add a bit more heat, heat makes hail with increased cloud build up causing more water, and more water freezing leads to more hail.”

Philip maintains New Zealand is witnessing more extreme, localised weather events, like the Napier floods late last year.

These events are exacerbated by Kiwis choosing to live and farm on areas already vulnerable to flooding, such as the Taieri Plains where the land sits 2m below the sea surface.

“And the intensity of drought is also increasing too, we are getting drier dries, but also extreme events like snow in summer.”

One particular area of concern he is tracking is the occurrence in the past two years of more intensive high-pressure systems dominating New Zealand’s weather systems.

“These have a real effect upon the upper half of the North Island in particular, but it remains too early to know if this is just part of a cycle, or a longer-term shift that has major implications for growers and farmers through all of New Zealand.”

A Ministry for Environment risk assessment report on climate change impact released last year highlighted Canterbury’s exposure as two-fold.

Reduced snow days are already being experienced, reducing the level of stored water in the Alps, while drought is predicted to increase in frequency and severity, particularly along the eastern side of the Southern Alps.

The two developments work together as more dry weather demands more water, which in turn is less available due to lower snow fall water storage.

This year efforts are likely to ramp up efforts to buffer farms and crops from more severe weather and climate events.

Some examples already in the market include a variety of apple commercialised by T&G capable of being grown in hotter, drier environments and now found in Spain and France.

Work is continuing on AgResearch’s genetically modified rye grass that demonstrates not only improved drought resistance, but also lower methane losses. 

Meantime the government’s Covid recovery funds have delivered an unexpected opportunity for water storage schemes, with a Northland project fast tracked in only two months, and work is continuing apace on the Waimea dam project near Nelson.

Carbon reductions

Inevitably linked to climate change and weather, the government’s move to lower New Zealand’s carbon footprint may complete the triumvirate of concerns for farmers this year.

In 2019 the government announced plans for agriculture to be folded into the emissions pricing scheme (ETS) by 2025, with the time in between to be used to develop a farm level pricing mechanism separate to the ETS.

The aim has been to give government and industry time to measure and reduce agricultural emissions, with incentives for farmers to review practices and adjust accordingly.

This is aimed to be more direct than simply placing a carbon charge on final stage processors as is the case at present.

While this means the sector does not have to pay any emissions levies or climate change taxes until 2025, the clock is ticking faster this year on farmers to demonstrably show they are reducing emissions within the farm gate. 

Already over 10,000 farm environment plans containing GHG assessments for the first time have been sent to farmers.

The He Waka Eke Noa partnership between government, industry and Maori intends to equip growers and farmers with the ability to adapt to green-house gas limits.

The “big stick” the government is waving requires the scheme to prove it can reduce its emissions, with progress to be reviewed next year, or agriculture be forced to enter the ETS and buy carbon credits like other emitters. 

While water quality regulations have crept up over time for the farming community, the ETS pressures have come relatively quickly, and demand farmers attention from a government compelled to reduce emissions as a signatory to the Paris Accord.

With the bulk of greenhouse gases emitted by dairy cows, dairy farmers will be particularly feeling the pressure.

Early work by DairyNZ has shown some positive progress with one trial farm reducing gas emissions by 8%, or about a tonne a hectare while farm operating profit actually lifted by 14%.

Less bought in feed, a 5% reduction in stocking rate and lower nitrogen applications all played a big part in achieving this. They should give farmers some focus as pressure lifts to prove reductions have been made in the coming two years.

The “low hanging fruit” of supplement reduction and lower nitrogen application are likely to be the first stop for many farmers, but getting further gains beyond this may prove difficult for those already at that point.

The DairyNZ work has shown further reductions would require reducing stocking rates, possibly by 7% and building feed pads to capture nutrient losses and make it possible to add cereal crops like maize to the system may help achieve further gains.

2021 will see the pastoral sector in particular calling out for more tools to help mitigate green house gases, with scientists still working on developing vaccines and boluses.

Harry Clark, leading green house gas researcher has likened the reduction efforts to making dozens of minute improvements on farm.

Meantime methane inhibitors are well down track to being commercialised, and may even be available over the next 18 months.

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