Farmers on the West Coast were more worried about people in the wider community and how they were affected by recent flooding than their own problems, Anne Hardie finds.

The mighty Buller rose to a one-in-a-hundred-year flood that drenched farms bounding the river, but it also brought out the best in the close-knit community that rallied to repair damage.

On one flooded Westport farm, a group of neighbouring farmers turned up as soon as the water receded and had the fences resurrected within a few days. Similar stories abound and are indicative of the community spirit in a region all too familiar with torrential rain and fast-rising rivers.

Chair of the West Coast Rural Advisory Group, Taane Johnsen, says farms lost fences and pasture, but farmers were more concerned about those living in town who lost homes and possessions.

“They talk about the resilience of West Coasters and farmers I’ve spoken to are more concerned about the town. People not having a roof over their heads and seeing all their belongings on the road waiting for the rubbish truck to pick it up.

“Yes, we’re on the back foot for a bit of feed and farmers will have to reconcile their stock numbers around that. I wouldn’t be surprised if farmers with room on their farms tell other farmers they will take some of their cows for a few months.

“Some crop paddocks were badly affected and balage washed away, but not as badly affected as we thought it would have been. Anyone who lives by a river is a good planner.”


West Coast Rural Support Trust chair, Carol Keoghan, told a similar story of farmers turning up to help other farmers in both physical work and supporting their mental health. She says most farms and farmers would be ready to tackle the new season.

“The farmers are more concerned about the people in the town,” she says.

‘They talk about the resilience of West Coasters and farmers I’ve spoken to are more concerned about the town.’

There was one farm that lost a substantial number of cows after the Buller River flooded land not previously flooded and no access to remove the cows. At least one other farming family was removed from a flooded farm by helicopter on the order of Civil Defence.

National Emergency Management Agency communications manager Anthony Frith says a state of emergency enables Civil Defence to remove people for their own safety. He says it can be distressing and difficult for those forced to leave their home or farm, but the aim is to keep them safe. He says they try to get people back home as soon as possible, especially onto farms where stock needs to be fed.

The flooded Nine Mile Rd near the Buller River

In most cases the force of water left little silt on the paddocks which usually causes the most damage. Bede O’Connor and his partner Angela Leslie farm at the entrance to the Buller Gorge near Westport weren’t so lucky, with 30ha under silt once the floodwaters resided. Bede says it will take a year to get those hectares up and running again for dairying, so they would be selling some cows.

Wearing his West Coast Federated Farmers’ president’s hat, Bede says it has been invaluable having an MPI person living on the coast to provide expertise and an important link in the chain. Straight after the flooding, a group was formed that included Westland Milk Products, DairyNZ, Rural Advisory Group, MPI, Rural Support Trust and Federated Farmers which enabled the groups to work together.

He also says the community spirit has played a big part in getting flood-affected farmers up and running again in time for calving which usually begins within the first two weeks of August on the Coast.

“As soon as the water dropped, other farmers were helping farmers affected because they recognised the time constraints.”

Angela is the DairyNZ consultant for the region and says it has been heartening to see everyone helping each other, both on the farms and in the town.

“It’s the people who have made the whole response, both urban and rural, work,” she says. “I’ve had people in town asking if there is something they can do to help onfarm. There’s crews going into farms and getting the work done and some take their machinery and post drivers with them.”

Angela and Bede watched the power poles to their farm fall into the river as the waters rose and because they are at the end of the line they thought they would be without power for possibly weeks. But Buller Electricity had a helicopter flying the lines over the river and power was restored within two days, which she says is part of that community spirit.

In similar spirit, Bathurst Resources that owns the nearby Stockton mine told 200 or so employees to take the week off with full pay and work on their flooded homes or go out and help the community.

Angela says many of those employees were part of the numerous people from the community that joined crews to rectify flooding damage on farms.

She says the flood added more jobs to the list farmers usually faced going into calving and some would have to find extra feed to replace what they had lost.

A coordinator had been appointed to assist farmers who needed to find supplementary feed and those who wanted to farm stock elsewhere. But sourcing the usual supplement would be a challenge after other flooding events in Canterbury where feed was also needed.

“It won’t be the smoothest calving and there will be some holes in the feed budgets and it’s about how to fill them.”

Farm assessments have been carried out on about 30 affected farms which had damage to varying degrees. Bede’s advice to those who were short of feed going into the new season was to make good decisions early, which may include selling some stock.


While Westport copped the most damage, the storm also caused havoc on dairy farms in Murchison, Golden Bay, Rai Valley and further east in Marlborough.

In the Opouri Valley near the Rai Valley, Tim Harvey measured 440mm of rain on the farm and that was after the rain gauge overflowed. The wind was so extreme during the storm that he couldn’t walk forward into it when he was trying to move the reel for the fence break.

With just a couple of weeks to go before calving, he and his brother Matthew employed a team of people to fix the fences that were taken out by floodwaters.

He says river maintenance needs to be carried out along the river or farmers won’t have farms to farm any more. Traditionally that worked, but regulations have stymied any river work and he says that is causing more damage and creating more sediment during flood events.

“You cause a lot less sedimentation if you do river maintenance,” he says.

Farmwise consultant Brent Boyce says farms throughout the top of the south were left with considerable infrastructure damage in the wake of the storm, including tracks, culverts, troughs and fences. So many diggers were busy clearing roads, that few were available to help on farms.

Though most inundated pastures had little silt left on them, he says the flooding had exacerbated porina damage in pasture on some farms. Despite the effects from the flood, he says most farmers would have enough feed for cows going into the new season – as long as they could get the infrastructure fixed.

“It’s just longer hours – they keep working until the headlights run out of batteries.”

He says cow condition took a hammering through the rain and farmers would have to feed them as well as they could which may mean buying in extra feed such as palm kernel.