From reading both national farming publications and local newspapers, it seems that the Ruataniwha Dam is seen as the all-encompassing solution to Central Hawke’s Bay’s economic woes.

It is further described as the main measure which will drought-proof the region’s agricultural industry, and as such is an absolute necessity.

These views are, in my humble opinion, both short-sighted and blinkered, and don’t, or refuse to, take into account other options that are available to lift economic performance and growth for the district. They also conveniently omit dealing with the causes of the economic decline, and attempt, as so many other of these ‘think-big’ type schemes do, to treat the symptoms, i.e. the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, rather than the fence at the top.

It is further an attempt to farm against nature, rather than with it. The scheme is further touted as creating an additional 2,000 to 2,500 new jobs – can anyone please explain how this figure was arrived at, and how sustainable it is?

To look at some of the causes of economic decline, increased droughts can partly be blamed, but to anyone with a modicum of economic knowledge it is clear that the main reasons were as a result of the decline, for many reasons, in the wool and meat industries. These issues resulted in the closure of many freezing works and processing plants across NZ, as well as a huge reduction in the numbers of sheep over the last 20 years. Remember the days when up to 40,000 sheep were offered at the sale yards (long since closed) in Waipukurau?

Hence a reduction in available jobs across the sectors, and the ensuing reduction in the populations of many rural towns. Fortunately the latest MIE and wool initiatives are attempting to reverse this situation, and I wish them every success.

Coming back to droughts, many farmers have not kept pace with the changing climate, and as a result have been caught out during the last two droughts in our region. This resulted in many having to dump stock onto an overheated market, resulting in an oversupply situation and the resulting crash in prices, both for farmers as well as the meat processors attempting to sell the glut on overseas markets.

This was followed by a year in which, naturally, stock numbers available for slaughter were considerably reduced, resulting in a boom year for farmers with enough stock left to sell, and a record lossmaking year for the main meat processors.

Other causes include the ever-increasing size of farms, and more people moving off the land as a result. Farms are becoming ever dearer and less affordable – how can we expect aspirant young farmers to raise huge loans in order to afford their first farm?

Is there a realistic alternative to the dam?

I believe there is, and it will be a lot more cost-effective, as well as increase employment – apropos Marlborough farmer Doug Avery’s recent “Beyond a reasonable drought” road show. His very informative and encouraging talk saw the Waipawa venue packed to the hilt.

Doug is living proof that your farm can be drought-proofed without irrigation by planting lucerne and other drought-tolerant pasture species. From being on the point of walking off the farm, with one employee, to becoming a thriving enterprise with six employees seems pretty convincing stuff to me. And this in an area with an average annual rainfall of 650 mm – approx. 150 mm less pe annum than the part of Central Hawke’s Bay I live in.

It just takes a few sums and some lateral thought to figure this out, and it would be plain dumb not to consider what Doug did as a very viable alternative to irrigation – for sheep and beef farmers anyway.*

Farming with nature makes plain economic sense, and racking up further debt in order to buy into the scheme, not to mention installing the infrastructure, in an increasing interest rate economy seems too much like a risky gamble to me.

On-farm water storage is, in my view, a sounder investment, more environmentally sustainable, as well as more acceptable to a society of consumers which is becoming ever more aware of the environmental impacts of farming.

So why is there such huge pressure to build this dam? I suspect that, firstly, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, wittingly or otherwise, overallocated irrigation consents, forcing them to consider a scheme such as Ruataniwha, as withdrawing or reducing consents to farmers now hooked on irrigation water, with large debts to pay off, would be unthinkable without a readily available alternative source to migrate to.

Secondly, there are many vested interests that will do very well out of the scheme, including banks, irrigation retailers and installers, and those looking forward to a handsome capital gain as a result of increasing land values.

Is the dam the only way to droughtproof the district’s farms, and revive the district’s economy? To those who can think outside the conventional square, the answer is obvious.

Dan Elderkamp is a Waipukurau sheep and beef farmer, and chairman of Forest and Bird’s Central Hawke’s Bay branch.

*[Editor’s note: Indeed, according to evidence Beef & Lamb NZ gave to the recent Board of Inquiry, “The [HBRIC] plan assumes that irrigation is essential to increased production from dryland sheep and beef farming. This is not altogether correct, as the recent development of lucerne grazing and other novel forages and feed sources has demonstrated. Recent work in this area has shown that equivalent levels of production can be achieved on dryland lucerne as are achieved from irrigated pasture.”]

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