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Ashburton farmers reflect on Canterbury flood, one year on

Stacey Stewart on her farm, a year after the Ashburton floods. Photo / Sally Murphy By Sally Murphy of RNZ Farmers hit...

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Stacey Stewart on her farm, a year after the Ashburton floods. Photo / Sally Murphy

By Sally Murphy of RNZ

Farmers hit hard by the Ashburton floods say their farms have recovered well and in some cases, their pastures are better than before.

It is a year since heavy rainfall caused rivers in mid-Canterbury to burst their banks, spewing shingle across farmland and leaving hectares of land underwater.

Bryan Beeston’s dairy farm backs onto the North Branch of the Ashburton River in the worst-hit area of Greenstreet.

On the day of the flood, the water breached the two-metre stock bank and tore through the farm, washing away 198 of his dairy cows, ripping out fences and flooding houses and sheds on the property.

“You can’t explain the feeling of seeing your farm underwater,” he said.

“The worst part was my business partner Paul was swept down the farm and had to cling to a tree for hours before being rescued.

“There was water everywhere, one of the houses had a brand new carpet in it and it was completely flooded.

“We have a creek that runs through the property and it was just full of shingle, so even when the rain stopped the water wouldn’t go down because it had nowhere to escape.”

A year on from the flood, apart from all the new fencing and small spots of gravel in the pasture, it is hard to tell Beeston’s farm was so devastated.

Alongside his business partners Paul and Debbs Adams, Beeston has put in a lot of work to get the farm to where it is today.

“We thought we would have to regrass but we got diggers in and scraped all the shingle off the dirt, made heaps and when it dried off enough, we carted it off, so it was a big process and it cost about $480,000.

“We were worried and had to bring in a lot of feed but the land recovered. It’s a bit like a scar on your hand – over time it recovers with the right care.

“The worst paddocks were planted into turnips this year but 90 per cent of the farm recovered on its own, you look at the farm now and you think, what flood?”

Beeston said if anything, they have ended up with a better farm.

Bryan Beeston on his dairy farm. Photo / Sally Murphy
Bryan Beeston on his dairy farm. Photo / Sally Murphy

“We always had plans to invest and modernise the farm but the flood kind of forced our hand and we’ve ended up with a better farm because of it.”

“The support received after the flood was amazing, looking back the support from people and organisations that showed up and gave us a hand with the cleanup was a real highlight,” he said.

Further down the road, it is a similar situation on Stacey Stewart’s dairy farm.

Some shingle and scars remain from the flood but the farm is in full working order and the pastures have recovered.

Stacey Stewart's farm after the Ashburton floods. Photo / Sally Murphy
Stacey Stewart’s farm after the Ashburton floods. Photo / Sally Murphy

Backing onto the South Branch of the river, the flood left 14 hectares of the farm covered in shingle, a further 15 hectares underwater and another 12 hectares of barley was lost.

“Within that first week we were wondering how we were going to survive, then some very wise people came on board, said take some deep breaths and just continue milking.

“We had cleanup crews come from everywhere which was a massive help to just clear all the debris off the farm, and then in October when things had dried out a bit we had the big machines come in and remove the shingle.”

“We’ve had kale in since December which we just never thought would happen,” she said.

“We have actually been incredibly lucky and the flood hasn’t impacted the business which has been phenomenal.

“Our winter barn is what saved us. We managed to keep the cows indoors until mid-November to give the land enough time to recover and get our spring growth back up and going and the wet paddocks got dried out so that we could put cows back outside again.”

Stacey Stewart's farm after water had receded and diggers removed shingle from the farm. Photo / Sally Murphy
Stacey Stewart’s farm after water had receded and diggers removed shingle from the farm. Photo / Sally Murphy

The Canterbury Regional Council had been on the farm and filled in the hole in the stopbank created by the flood and built up more flood protection, but Stewart said there is still too much shingle in the river.

“We feel like sitting ducks really, if you go to any point in the river the shingle is higher than the stopbank so we just pray that there’s not another downpour like that.”

ECAN councillor and mid-Canterbury farmer Ian McKenzie said the council had put in a huge amount of work in the last year but admits there is lots more to do.

Last week the council voted to borrow just over $12 million to fund repairs to council-owned flood protection infrastructure.

McKenzie said the floods highlighted under-investment in flood protection.

“It’s brought to light the piecemeal nature of flood protection systems across Canterbury, and that really only a small portion of the population are paying for it, we spend $15 million a year on maintaining flood infrastructure but that flood protection protects billions of dollars worth of assets.

“Most of our river systems are underfunded probably to the tune of about 50 per cent and that’s been the case since 1989 when the government pulled out – because they used to fund at least 50 per cent of the ongoing maintenance cost through the Ministry of Works.”

A group of regional councils are trying to persuade the government to come back to the table in terms of co-funding flood protection to the tune of about $150 million a year, he said.

“The government has signalled they are interested especially as more is done to mitigate the effects of climate change but there was no room in this year’s Budget.”


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