High country farmers hunker down

The Mt Aspiring Station calf sale: For many high country farmers, the next chunk of income will come with calf sales at weaning time.

Federated Farmers Central Otago high country representative, Kate Scott said “in common with most people in our communities” high country farmers are in a “wait and see what comes next” pattern.

“But those with tourism operations on their properties, the effects will have been immediate and stark.”

She said she had some tourism activities happening on her farm but didn’t run them herself. Instead, she provided a venue for others “to do their thing.”  “Those guys have been affected by cancellations and a drastic drop in the numbers of customers,” she said.

“Probably the thin silver lining is that the timing could have been worse – if this had happened at the beginning of the season in November or December things would have been grim indeed for tourism operators in rural areas. But in March things are usually starting to quieten down for lots of outdoor-based activities. But there is no doubt farmers will be feeling the pinch.”

Richard Burdon of Glen Dene Station, Lake Hawea runs a safari hunting operation on his farm

With the international borders shut our hunting operation is finished for the season and everything is cancelled until the end of June, he said.

“But most clients seem positive in that yes, coronavirus is a terrible thing but it's not forever.”

The wet start to the summer caused a slow beginning to the high country farming season, Scott said. But farmers managed to get some summer in the end, so there was enough time for them to get some cash in the bank.

The wool price, in common with most commodities, has dived because of the uncertainty across all markets. A lot of merino wool ends up in China or northern Italy, so there will likely be some flow-on effects this coming season, Scott said.

The timing is such that not many people in Central Otago will be trying to sell significant volumes of wool at this time of year and won't be shearing until late winter or spring, so there are some months to go, she said.

Burdon said all luxury products like merino take longer to recover, “but it is such a good product that I don’t see it being forever.”

The merino industry has been very innovative over the last few years, he said.

“There are some smart people out there making all things merino – I know they are using wool in making masks and making them flat-stick, so there are all sorts of opportunities out there.”

“For many high country farmers, the next chunk of income will come with calf sales at weaning time and with our whole world so uncertain the beef trade could change very rapidly.  Whatever it looks like now may not be what it turns out to be tomorrow,” Scott said.

Burdon said he spoke to the meat companies at the Wanaka Show and Alliance was positive that China was starting to trade back in through the ports.

“People need food, and I think farmers are going to play a significant role in the recovery from the pandemic.

“We’ve got to look after the farmers because they will provide the necessary products. And New Zealand is in a functional space because of its isolation.”

“At least we are good at social distancing and isolation in the high country,” Scott said.

“Most local farming families have functional networks of support and strong links to their neighbours. In essence, I'd be more worried about people who are newer to the Central Otago high country and haven't formed those networks and webs of connection yet and are feeling cut off from what feels safe and familiar to them. 

“Primary producers are used to being at the mercy of things beyond their control, like weather or global markets. So maybe we have a slight edge when it comes to hunkering down in adverse conditions. We never get to assume that the good times will keep on rolling and we're always waiting for murphy to stick a spanner in the works.”

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