Manuherikia River: The ongoing battle, an exhausting experience for farmers

Omakau farmers Anna and Ben Gillespie. Photo / Supplied

As the microscope continues to focus on the Manuherikia River in central Otago and its future minimum flows, Otago Daily Times rural editor Sally Rae talks to award-winning Omakau farmer Anna Gillespie, the stress to which the rural community is subjected.

They are two farmers who cultivate – literally.

The couple from Central Otago, Ben and Anna Gillespie, work under the direction of Two Farmers Farming, managing a 400 ha property in Omakau that includes a dairy pasture and a beef finishing operation.

It was a difficult environment to grow, with average rainfall of around 450mm, winter temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius and summer temperatures reaching over 30 degrees Celsius, Gillespie said.

That is why reliable water was essential.

It was a very stressed and stressed farming community; Not only were there concerns about the future management of water for the Manuherikia River, but also the wider range of regulations imposed by the government and uncertainty as to what was to follow.

A friend had put his farm on the market, having had “good luck,” but the harsh reality was that it was unlikely to sell. No one wanted to buy a farm that didn’t have water security, Gillespie said.

Other properties she knew in the area had been on the market for several years and had not moved. When potential buyers did their due diligence, it was the safety of the water that tripped him up.

The Otago Rural Support Trust recently hosted a mental health wellness session with consultant and trainer Lance Burdett, aimed at empowering people to deal with anxiety.

Those who worried them most didn’t come and it was even more worrying, Gillespie said.

There was tremendous pressure; not only did people have to look after themselves and their farms, but the whole community had to look after each other, and that “adds to the pressure in a way,” she said.

Along with the Manuherikia River, she felt the Otago Regional Council was oblivious to the impact of the decisions they made. Huge amounts of money had already been spent to get to this point and it “got us nowhere and the river nowhere”.

At a workshop Thursday, area council staff revealed that its minimum flow for the river, which would be in a report reviewed by councilors on August 25, was 1,200 liters / sec in 2023, 1,500 liters / sec in 2030. and 2000 liters / sec by 2037.

The council’s decision on a river management scenario would be taken upon notification of the regional land and water plan at the end of 2023, when the public could express themselves through briefs and hearings.

The Gillespies have been involved in the Lauder Water Users Group since its inception in 2018 and Anna has been involved in the Otago Water Resource Users Group and the Manuherikia Catchment Group, which she chairs, since 2018.

Gillespie’s advice at the ORC was to “stop and listen” and watch what the band was up to.

“We have done a tremendous amount of science in our app,” she said.

The couple, who have two children Will (10) and Milly (8), lead busy lives, involved in multiple roles within the community, as well as in the industry at large.

Ben sits on the Omakau School Board of Directors and is a member of the Blackstone Rural Fire Brigade, while Anna sits on the Otago Federated Farmers Board and coaches hockey. She resigned as chair of the Omakau School Home and School Committee due to her water commitments.

Two years ago, we spent about one day a week at the home office; now she felt it was probably closer to two days, and that meant they had to employ casual staff.

Although they always had help during the winter, it was not as much as they had now, and there were also the late nights.

Although consumed by problems such as water, they also had to continue farming from day to day. The couple were in sync – literally – with synchronized calendars on their phones and a whiteboard on the kitchen wall, to make sure nothing was missed.

They also shared the same vision for their farm and what could happen there, as well as what the larger watershed could achieve, she said.

From 2014 to 2016, the couple participated in a farmer case study for a Sustainable Farming Fund project on sustainable dairy winter grazing in central Otago to identify the main environmental risks associated with grazing. winter slag in the region and identify management strategies to mitigate them.

In 2020, the couple won the supreme Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards and the judges praised them for avoiding negative impacts on the environment.

Their farming operation included buffer zones, precision irrigation and a philosophy of “the right pasture, at the right time, in the right place”. That same year, they were finalists for the Zimmatic Trailblazer Sustainable Irrigation Awards.

Omakau Farm was their first self-employed farming business, although both are “born and raised farmers,” both being fifth generation on the land.

Gillespie grew up in North Otago and spent three years in dairy farming before earning a Bachelor of Commerce Honors in Agriculture and a Masters of Applied Science in Farm Management Consulting at Lincoln University.

She met her future husband in Lincoln; he was from the Wanaka region and obtained a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a master’s degree in agricultural science (grazing science).

The couple then worked for Landcorp, followed by a brief stint abroad and Ben ran a sheep farm in southern Otago, before moving to Omakau in 2011. They initially rented the farm from the parents of Ben and then bought it in 2017.

Water was crucial on the property. About half of the property was now irrigated by sprinkler irrigation, but the reliability was not 100%.

About every two years they were restricted and soil moisture during extremely dry periods could “drop to zero”.

Anna and Ben Gillespie run an award-winning beef pasture and finishing dairy in Omakau with their children Will and Milly, who are also enthusiastic tree planters.  Also pictured, the property is home to native highland bullies.  Photo / Supplied
Anna and Ben Gillespie run an award-winning beef pasture and finishing dairy in Omakau with their children Will and Milly, who are also enthusiastic tree planters. Also pictured, the property is home to native highland bullies. Photo / Supplied

They put in their first pivot in 2013-14 and the second the following year and that had “completely changed” the farm.

What would have grown about seven tons of grass per year in arid lands, now produced 17 tons under irrigation.

As part of this development process, they had also completed associated fences, water reserves and pathways, so the investment amounted to around $ 2 million.

In the first two years they mostly planted shelterbelts and now they were planting natives in the riparian areas.

Gillespie estimated that they had planted 6,000 or 7,000 plants, and that there would be 1,200 native plants this year.

Next year, all of their plants would “come out of the kitchen garden,” she laughed – as Ben became very interested in sourcing seeds and growing their own natives. Her goal next year was to have 2,000 local plants.

She thanked both of their parents for their interest in planting trees; for the first time, they had a bellbird in their garden this year, among a bund they installed with native plantings. It had taken nine years for this to happen.

Gillespie always thought the farm wouldn’t feel like theirs until they started planting trees and making their ‘mark’ on them.

The Department of Conservation had visited the property to identify small native upland tyrants in their pond system; the family focused on protecting them and ensuring a continuous habitat.

The couple had a real passion for the environment and Gillespie considered this environmental side to be a strength for them. They had skills they could use both off the farm and inside, she said.

The Ballance Farm Environment Awards process was interesting, not least because of the different priorities between the different areas.

The people of the North Island talked about erosion and water supply plans – the Gillespies’ environment was vastly different.

But it was very motivating in terms of “taking people on a trip” and seeing what others had done. They have always been very proactive with an open door policy, organizing several field days and school visits.

While it can be difficult, it got them thinking about what they were doing, like answering questions about why they were using plastic protection around trees.

They were now using more expensive cardboard – “we don’t have plastic where we have an option,” she said.

Each region had its problems and Gillespie acknowledged that there had been discussions about whether it would be easier to farm elsewhere. But the property could produce so much fodder and the stock that came out was “simply magnificent”.

And, it was a beautiful valley to live in and the river and streams were all part of it. Being where their kids grew up was a bit of a connection, too.

“We don’t have a Maori story [but] we really believe this is their river and their place and this is their future and we are going to keep fighting until we secure it for them, “she said.

They spent a lot of time by the river with the kids in the summer, or mountain biking over the Falls Dam and having adventures.

“It’s their part of the world. For these kids… this river is a big part of their livelihood. The assumption that we don’t care… the river is so wrong and so infuriating.”

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