(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 11.)
The coastal strip of Central Hawke’s Bay that was devastated by a freak storm recently is very familiar to me. In my childhood and teenage years, the line of sandy beaches that stretches from Kairakau in the north to Porangahau in the south was something of a summer playground.
One of my earliest memories is of a summer holiday in the shearers’ quarters on the sheep station at Kairakau, which were made available to my family out of gratitude for my father’s work in supervising the building of the electricity transmission line that connected the area to the national grid. Most remote properties on that coast had previously depended on generators.
In the 1970s, when I had children of my own, we enjoyed summer holidays in Dad’s home-built caravan at Kairakau. It’s still one of my favourite beaches.
As a teenager I tended to favour Pourerere, further south. Not only was it livelier (it had a younger demographic, in today’s parlance) but I had a friend whose family owned a bach there - although in Hawke’s Bay, the farming families that own seaside properties have always preferred the posher term “cottages”.
In those days the main cluster of baches at Pourerere, known to all as “the settlement”, was accessible only via the beach at low tide. Its relative inaccessibility lent the place a certain romantic aura and I had mixed feelings when a road was finally built along the foreshore in the 1970s.
Further south again, you come to Aramoana. It was off the coastal reef between Pourerere and Aramoana that my oldest brother drowned in a scuba diving accident in 1958, aged only 21. It was a long time before my parents could bring themselves to revisit that stretch of grief-laden coastline.
Like other beaches on that coast, Aramoana had a basic camping ground, but 10 years or so ago it was transformed into an up-market subdivision called Shoal Bay. I can only presume that the unimaginative name Shoal Bay was preferred over the poetic-sounding Aramoana to avoid negative associations with another Aramoana near Dunedin.
From Aramoana, at low tide and with the right sort of vehicle, you could carry on south to Blackhead. Then you had to cut inland to reach Porangahau, which I recall visiting as a boy with a friend and his father, who was our family GP in Waipukurau. He had patients in the small, predominantly Maori community at Porangahau and we would occasionally accompany him on his calls, driving at breakneck speed on winding metal roads in a 1953 DeSoto. (All country doctors had a reputation in those days for being wild drivers).
There are isolated sheep stations all along this stretch of coast, many of them farmed continuously by the same families since the 19th century. It’s not easy country: the coastal hills are steep and notoriously prone to slips. In the early days, they had no road access. The only way to get wool to market was to load it onto horse-drawn wagons and haul them out into the surf, where the wool bales would be transferred to lighters and then taken to a waiting ship further out.
There were easier ways to make a living, but those 19th century farming families were resourceful and resilient. Some became very wealthy and built magnificent homesteads (many of which, sadly, burned down, a common fate in the days before sprinklers and smoke alarms).
The descendants of those pioneers will need to call on that same resourcefulness and resilience in the months and years ahead, because the storm that struck in the week after Easter caused damage on a scale never seen before.
Some farmers lost up to 50 percent of their land. Entire hillsides have been stripped back to greasy papa bedrock and will never be farmed again. At Mangakuri Station, between Kairakau and Pourerere, 400 lambs were washed out to sea.
It was an especially cruel blow because things were looking up for sheep and beef farmers after several hard years. Meat and wool prices are at their highest levels for years and farmers have enjoyed a benevolent summer and autumn. To be dealt such a savage blow just when they were relishing a long-awaited recovery must have made the pain even harder to bear.
It takes a special sort of character to be a farmer. I can think of no other occupational group that is at the mercy of so many factors beyond their control: the weather, prices, the fickleness of the consumer and the exchange rate, to name some of the more obvious ones.
For some, the stress becomes intolerable. The chief coroner, Neil MacLean, sounded the alarm recently over the high suicide rate among farmers – 25 a year. He spoke of the mental and emotional toll caused by isolation, long hours, lack of sleep, erratic financial returns, pressure from banks and ever-increasing demands for compliance with new rules and regulations.
Matters are made worse because farmers by tradition are supposed to be staunch and stoical, so are usually reluctant to seek help. Traditional rural support networks such as sports clubs and churches are in decline and to make things worse still, Mum and Dad are often alone on the farm because their children see no future in farming and have migrated to towns and cities where life is more comfortable. The average age of the New Zealand farmer is 58.
Should we care? You bet we should.
During the 1980s and 90s it became fashionable to dismiss farming as a sunset industry. Politicians and pinstripe-suited policy makers had visions of New Zealand becoming a Switzerland of the South Pacific; an international centre for financial services. An economic activity as unglamorous as farming had no place in their grandiose aspirations. Even economists lost sight of the importance of the rural sector.
We now know better. Farming remains essential to this country’s prosperity, just as it always been. Those Central Hawke’s Bay farmers gazing in despair at their dead livestock, their wrecked fences, their denuded hillsides and their mud-smothered paddocks deserve our sympathy and support, for pragmatic as well as humanitarian reasons.