Transcript: Food Security After Cyclone Gabrielle - Consume This podcast
A few weeks ago we sent podcast producer Tom up to Napier to report on the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle. This episode will take you on a journey through the Hawkes Bay food supply chain after it was hit by a natural disaster. It’s a story of destruction, personal loss, and ultimately hope for the future.
Sophie Richardson: Kia Ora and welcome to Consume This. It's great to be back with you. In a break from tradition today's episode isn't reported by myself or my co-host, Jon Duffy. Instead, we've handed the microphone over to our producer, Tom Riste-Smith.
Tom Riste-Smith: Hello, it's me.
Sophie Richardson: A couple of weeks ago we sent him up to the Hawkes Bay to learn more about what's been happening in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle.
What he's come back with is a striking story focused on how the damage is affecting our food producers, and ultimately . How that will trickle through to our food security and cost of living. Here you go...
(Sounds of a low drone, rising flood waters and crashing logs)
Philip Barber: Every now and then a log hit the roof, hit the wall and shook the house a bit. Ok this is crazy. I'll be dead soon. So I was more worried about the kids and stuff. But yeah, it was like woah...
Sophie Richardson: Act One: Grapes And Destruction
Philip Barber: Cyclone Gabrielle was tracking down from the Coral Sea. I was looking at it from the early days. Must have been almost a week, at least a week before. It took ages to come down. So I got a digger, a big digger came in, and we spent a week with this guy fixing up all my drains, put in culverts, we put in some retaining walls. And I just got the bill for that, which was a bit painful.
But, um, the work was great and he did an amazing job. And everything was flowing really perfectly up until about six o'clock.
(Ominous music and low drone plays)
Philip Barber: And then it kind of gets dark and this just, the water just starts coming up.
Tom Riste-Smith: This is Philip Barber. He's the owner of Petane Wines. Him and his family have operated the vineyard at Shaw Road in Eskdale since buying the land in 2007. That's 16 years of hard work, during which time they've transitioned from growing grapes for Villa Maria through to producing his own wines and organic brands.
Along with his brother Chris he's also built up another couple of businesses on the site.
Philip Barber: So we had the restaurant, we had the brewery, we had everything there, and it was doing quite well. Weren't making lots of money, but we were almost breaking even. So I mean we could see a future. People loved it, it was so nice. And we had a wonderful year, one year and two months there, and then all of a sudden this happened.
Um, yeah, it'll never be the same again.
Tom Riste-Smith: As we drive down from our Airbnb in Napier to his newly rented temporary home, we stop off at the beach in Bayview. When we arrive it's three weeks on from the storm. So in the city you wouldn't really know anything has happened. That isn't until you see the beach. It's black pebbles are strewn with logs and tree waste.
I'm not sure what's gonna happen with it all. The main strip by the city, well that appears to have been cleaned. But if the outskirts stay as they are I can only imagine it's gonna slowly rot in the damp, salty air, becoming a home for flies.
As we continue down the highway, we approach a roadblock with a large Residents Only sign. Up to that point. Things don't really look too bad, a bit more dust and mud on the road than you'd expect, but that's about it.
Past the sign, things started to change. Fast.
The road itself, well, that was mostly fine. The dusting of mud and silt, a couple of places where it was down to one lane and the odd large pothole. It's off to the sides that the destruction becomes apparent. Beyond the roadblock fields and homes give way to mud flats. Piles of forestry waste, cars and shipping containers now fill the ditches. And of course there's the ubiquitous silt. Silt, silt, and yet more silt. Where will it all go?
Philip didn't seem quite sure, and I don't think anyone else knows either.
But those are now problems. Problems that were yet to cross anyone's mind on the night the cyclone finally struck.
Philip Barber: It must have been 11 o'clock when all hell kind of started breaking loose. We lost power, which made it hard. Just you had candles and, um, bucket and throw the water out the window, and I'm like, oh my God, the water is coming closer up the window. What the hell? This isn't, this isn't normal. And then all of a sudden, um, the water starts coming through the wall, and in the, um, in the laundry. The shower filled up and boom, the door opened and all this waters came out the shower. I'm like, holy shit. Okay Sarah, I think we might have to go upstairs. This is crazy. Let's go.
So I grabbed my guns and wine and everything that I could, and put it halfway up the stairs thinking it'll be safe there. And sure enough, the water every half hour would just come up another step, another step, another step. Oh fuck I better move this wine further up. I move the guns further up, and next thing I'm putting everything in the top level.
I'm thinking the water's not gonna come up here surely. And the kids were asleep in their room. I thought we'll leave them there. And this is probably, I don't know, maybe this is like about 12 o'clock. Cause it took a long time.
And then it's like, oh my God, the water is coming in the kids' room. It was up to my shins. I said, okay, I'm gonna have to wake them up now, unfortunately, cause they were sound asleep. Got them into the lounge room, sat them on the couch and we'll be fine up here. And then I'm monitoring the water level and it's just creeping up higher and higher. And then it's like, it starts coming through into the, into the main level.
I thought, this is insane. I started getting worried then, and then I said, oh, look, I'm not happy being in this room because a container or anything could come through and smash this wall. So I said, we're gonna get up onto the roof. This is about three in the morning, maybe four, and I opened the ranch slider and all this water just pours in ,and just what hit me was the noise. This crazy amount of noise. You hear the surf breaking. There was a cyclone going over, and there's just a raging river. We're in the middle of of the Esk river. Woah!
Then I look up on the roof, and the roof was kind of eerily calm. It was really strange. I felt really much more calmer up on the roof, cause I could see what was going on, which wasn't nice, but at least I realised we weren't gonna get smashed by a log or a container.
Tom Riste-Smith: And it was here sitting exposed on the roof, his children and wife Sarah huddled under an old barbecue cover that Philip had his first chance to stop, look around, and really take in what was going on in his vineyard.
Philip Barber: It was very dark, but I could just see, you could see the moonlight and you could just see this raging torrent of water.
It was like, as far as you could see, it's just water, angry water. And there's containers floating past. These tractors going past. There was a car with this lights on floating past. What the hell's going on there? Yeah. And that car actually was in the distance and then it disappeared and I think it actually speared into the wall of, um, my brother's house cuz there was a car stuck in the wall. So I think that's what happened to that car. There's no one in that car, luckily.
I was like, when is this gonna end?
And finally I was just waiting for the sun to come up, and about 6:30am, maybe six o'clock, the sun starts coming up and the rain slows down. And oh my God, thank God for that. It was life and death for like a few hours there. Yeah.
Tom Riste-Smith: As the sun rises and the rain stops still huddled together on the roof with his cold, wet family, Phillip's attention turns to his brother Chris. His home's at the other end of the vineyard. Well, I guess vineyard now turned river, but there was no sign of anyone on the roof.
Philip Barber: And I was thinking the worst. Thinking oh he's, he's dead for sure. And that was horrible.
Tom Riste-Smith: It's at this point that a boat turns up sailing over what, just the previous evening had been grapevines and lucerne paddocks. Philip quickly assures the captain that him and his family, they're all okay and he sends him off in the direction of Chris's home.
Philip Barber: And they raced over there in their Jetboat, and they were there for at least half an hour. But then, um, yeah, he appeared after half an hour with them on the boat.
I was like, oh my God, they're alive. So nothing really mattered at that point. I was like, vineyard's fucked, whatever, don't care. But everyone's alive, which is the main thing.
Tom Riste-Smith: One of the details of Phillips retelling that really struck me was what happened next. The water just disappeared. As fast as it had come. Half an hour after that boat had come sailing by, it was land again. Not dry land, but land nonetheless. But what wasn't gone, what is still not gone are the meters and meters of damp, waterlogged, silt that it left in its wake.
Philip Barber: It was very wet and boggy and, um, I jumped down from the roof and made my way out to the road.
You walked on the road it was like a big sponge. All the water was under the, under the road. There was no one around until a guy called Johno turned up in his four wheel drive. He helped me get the family out across the lawn and, um, gave us a ride.
Tom Riste-Smith: After evacuating the area, Philip and his family spent a couple of weeks staying with a friend, Ben Duclercq, who for different reasons We'll actually meet later in this story.
Eventually Phillip's family managed to secure their own place. It's a cute little beach front house, which is where we're currently talking. I was concerned that with the number of displaced people it would be tricky for him to find somewhere to live. But actually he was very positive about the experience. And as with many of the positive experiences that I learned about on this trip, it was the wider community that came together and pointed him in the right direction.
In the immediate aftermath, again, it was the community that came to his assistance. A crew of 20 from a local forestry company spent a week digging out the literal tons, and tons, and tons of silt from his restaurant.
Another group of volunteers spent four days digging out and salvaging as much of his wine store as possible. Those bottles are bound, amongst other places, for a special fundraising auction in Auckland.
Philip Barber: Aside from not being killed, the community response is what's kept us going for sure. A hundred percent. Without that, I think I would've been, I just would've been lost.
Yeah. A lot of people said, they've said to me, yeah, you've worked real hard these 16 years and yeah, hate to see this happen. I've got more friends out there than I ever thought. Yeah. Which is really cool.
Tom Riste-Smith: Three weeks on everything that can be easily salvaged, well it has. The volunteers have slowly started drifting back to their regular jobs and the adrenaline has started to recede.
So it's now, for the first time Philip is starting to reflect on the situation he finds himself in.
Philip Barber: Yeah, exactly. It's different, different parts. I mean, the first few weeks I was just, you know, there every day digging out the brewery, getting the wine, rushing around. And now, now I get a bit more time to think.
I've still got lots and lots of work to do, obviously, but it's, the last few days have been quite hard. I haven't been feeling great. Um, The enormity of it all has really hit me the last two days. Yeah.
Tom Riste-Smith: As we speak, the big question that Philip is grappling with is whether to invest in rescuing, repairing, and replanting the vineyard. Or not.
It's an issue he goes back to constantly throughout the time we spend together. One minute he's convinced it's salvageable, the next that it's just not worth the investment.
Philip Barber: Do I go and buy a digger and start digging, or what do?! Is it, is it worth putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the vineyard to get it back? Or is it worth, just dunno doing something else. Yeah.
Tom Riste-Smith: As our conversation continues, it becomes clear that the driver of this indecision is financial uncertainty. Philip has applied to the recovery fund and he's expecting about $23,000 to come his way.
Now, to me that sounds like a huge sum of money, but according to his estimates, that will clear maybe half a hectare at best. And that leaves another eight or so.
And the real sadness about all this uncertainty is that for now at least, some of the existing vines are still alive, buried under two or three meters of silt.
Philip Barber: Oh, I could easily save probably a third of the entire vineyard, I reckon. And then the other two thirds could be saved as well, but it'd be a lot more work.
Yeah, you might just have to say, okay, this part of the vineyard is now gonna be a hill of silt. This part of the vineyard I can save, something like that. It'll look different. It's just gotta factor out - is it worth it? There's no point in pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cause vineyard are expensive to run at best of times, and yeah, it's, it's just, yeah, it's a tough one.
Tom Riste-Smith: And this unexpected, unprepared for life-changing decision, it has to be made quickly. Starved of oxygen and sunlight the vines won't survive forever, and time is running out. But of course, as well as the financial, there are personal reasons why Phillip is hesitant. I mean don't forget it wasn't long ago that his family thought they were gonna die there, cold, wet, and alone in the dark.
Philip Barber: Sarah has decided she doesn't wanna live there again, and she's happier for us not to ever, ever a vineyard again. So the back of my mind is like, if we do all this and we replant it and save the vines, what's to say another one of these events doesn't happen five, 10 years time? They say it's one in hundred years, but really one in 50 and the way things are going, it could happen again. So yeah.
Tom Riste-Smith: Whatever Philip and his family decide, he's convinced that It'll be at least four, maybe five years before he harvests grapes again. And that's that he gets going now. The impact of this decision, it also goes further than wine. Philip grows lucerne as well. I'm a city boy, but apparently that's kind of like hay and it's used to feed grazing animals, mainly cattle and sheep throughout the winter.
Philip lost 60 bales, plus another 90 or so that he was yet to harvest, and of course, he isn't the only grower that's been wiped out. The impact of these losses is already being felt across the region. According to another local lady sandra Spice, she's been struggling to find Winter Feed. Unable to source it locally her fear is that it will need to be trucked in from outside the region. A huge cost increase that people obviously aren't well placed to bear, particularly at the moment. And of course those costs will need to be passed on. Passed on to us. Further down the food supply chain.
Philip Barber: Um, I'll take gumboots and put some socks on.
Tom Riste-Smith: I've got, some gumboots in the car, yeah.
So far we've been talking about all of this from Phillip's New Rental by the beach, but it's time to head over to the vineyard and see the reality of the situation firsthand. We jump in the car. Yes, with our gum boots on and head off.
As we drive, Philip becomes almost kind of a disaster tour guide.
Philip Barber: Look at the railway lines. It's been destroyed.
Tom Riste-Smith: It's actually a very sobering experience.
Philip Barber: One of the people's died from down there. A container hit there, a container hit their house.
Go down here if you like.
(Car indicator sounds)
Tom Riste-Smith: As we turn onto Eskdale Road, we get stuck behind a small, slow moving ute. It's carrying a single barrel of wine.
Philip Barber: That might be Linden there actually.
Tom Riste-Smith: It's the kind of barrel you might find serving as a table outside a slightly bougie pub. Maybe even smaller than that. It turns out that that barrel was Linden Estate's entire salvageable production of Souvignon Blanc.
Philip Barber: So yeah, that'll be their entire harvest. Shocking.
Tom Riste-Smith: Personally, I think even more than seeing the silt piled up, the orchards vanished and the grapevine's buried in rubbish, it's this image that really hit home impact of the devastation here. It's a year's worth of work reduced to under a thousand bottles of wine. And as we continue up the road, we drive past, what I'm informed is, well, I guess was, an apple orchard.
Philip Barber: So that used to be a vineyard. Yeah. And it's um, apple orchard for the last, probably four years.
Tom Riste-Smith: Now there is not a hope in hell you'd be able to tell from looking at it. It was just a muddy, slightly waterlogged field. And given how long it takes to grow a mature, producing apple tree this year would probably've been their second harvest. Not even enough time to recoup the setup and planting costs, let alone make any actual money.
Now, all of that work, it will have to start again. Unless the owners decide to do something different with it, that is. Or I guess just to retreat and not bother at all.
Further up the street there was a cleanup crew. They're helping the affected homes to shovel silt, remove rubbish, free up tree roots and all those other things that need to happen very quickly.
Philip Barber: Alright, so it's just this driveway coming up on the right. So you can see the silt. That's normally flat land.
Tom Riste-Smith: Yeah. Like how much higher do you think the land is?
Philip Barber: Uh, at least two to three meters. You can pull in here somewhere and that's all my stuff.
(Sounds of car pulling up)
Tom Riste-Smith: As we arrive, it's clear that he hasn't been over hyping the mess.
Phillip's house is surrounded by its former contents, all waiting to be appraised for insurance and then sent to landfill. A recently purchased car is leaning end up on a tree. It's filled with silt except for a small tunnel dug out to access the glove box. They're about the only things on the vineyard it's possible to insure. The vines in the land are uninsurable, at least any reasonable price.
Looking beyond the house, there are no visible grape vines. Just the tops of a few posts sticking out the silt pile.
Philip Barber: Man, if you walk around there, you can see, yeah, this row could be saved. This row could be saved. If we went over it with a bobcat and stuff.
It's like far out, man. I spent 16 years planting all this out and it's just nothing there, nothing there. It's ridiculous. Ah, it's just awful. It just feel horrible. I feel sick.
Tom Riste-Smith: Despite the scene of destruction surrounding us, Philip was particularly concerned with the fate of a bridge. A bridge that crossed a small stream on his land. It forged a path from the block with his house on over to the larger vineyard. It had been standing last time he was here.
Philip Barber: That's been smashed.
Tom Riste-Smith: Now after two days off.
Philip Barber: That's a shame.
Tom Riste-Smith: Not so much.
Philip Barber: Because it had survived. The bridge had survived.
Tom Riste-Smith: He was convinced it was Billy, the council employed digger driver currently carving out a drainage channel across his property that destroyed it. He was also convinced that it could have been saved.
Philip Barber: I'm sure he could have saved that bridge. Eh, it had actually survived the cyclone, but it didn't survive the digger. That's why I'm, it's one of the things that I could have kept. Now it's gone as well.
Tom Riste-Smith: To be totally honest. I didn't even notice the bridge before he brought it up, but everything else was destroyed, so it's spindly, broken frame, sticking up from the stream, well it didn't exactly seem out of place.
His home is ruined. In the kitchen on the second floor, there are damp children's drawings still clinging to the wall, but today it's the bridge that Phillip seems most distressed by.
Philip Barber: Like I say, it never gets easier coming back here. Like I've been away for two days and um, it's quite horrible.
Philip Barber: This guy ruined my bridge, man. What the fuck? I'm a little bit mad about that.
Tom Riste-Smith: I guess when you have one thing that you think has survived, you cling onto it. It takes on a symbolic kind of meaning. So to turn up and discover even it's gone, well that's tough.
Philip Barber: That bridge that couldn't be saved.
Billy the digger driver: Nah, nah, that's knackered.
Tom Riste-Smith: As we walk around the silt fields, he keeps coming back to it.
Philip Barber: So that was my bridge. Such an amazing bridge. That was such a good bridge. I really liked that bridge. I'm really disappointed he had to smash that cuz...
But I guess what's gonna happen here? Am I ever gonna have this place again?
Tom Riste-Smith: And like that, we're back at the inescapable question. It's the question that kind of looms over everything we're talking about.
Will this land produce grapes or really anything ever again? It's an impossible question to escape. As we traipse across the silt it comes up a lot, stream of conscious style, and Philip regularly changes his mind. But by the end of our tour, standing by the digger, he sounds like he's reached a conclusive decision.
Philip Barber: Yeah, I wasn't thinking, I was gonna do this for another 10 years, 10 to 15 years, and then, you know, retire. But it's been brought forward now. I'll have to think about, yeah, it's an opportunity to do something else
Tom Riste-Smith: because if it's gonna, I mean, if it's gonna take you five years,
Philip Barber: I know I'm only gonna have, maybe
Tom Riste-Smith: you're only gonna stay for 10 years.
Philip Barber: Yeah. I'm only gonna have another five years, aren't I? There's no point. There's no point really is there, for me. I might as well do something else. I'll go and work for someone, be a lot less stressful. Obviously I loved it, but I mean sheesh there is more to life than just growing grapes. Maybe it's some opportunity to do something else.
Tom Riste-Smith: Now, obviously, I don't really know Philip, but based on the couple of hours we've spent together, I'd be surprised if he walked away. I've got a feeling that there'll be a Petane wine produced on this land again.
So that's Philip's story. But zooming out to take in the big picture...
The Hawkes Bay region, well it's lost around 25% of its harvest this year. Some of those vines will bounce back quickly. The fruit was just rain damaged or blown away in the wind. They'll have a harvest next year or maybe the year after. But then there are those like Philip who've been totally wiped out. And as we've heard, that supply won't come back online for years if ever.
It's a tragic event. But on a selfish note, it's unlikely to have a huge effect on the availability or the price that you pay for your. Sure, maybe the 2023 vintage will be smaller than usual. There might be a flood premium on the Hawks Bay bottles, but the rest of the country, including our largest wine region, Marlborough, well, they should more than make up for the difference.
That's not something that can necessarily be said for the region's other crops,
Sophie Richardson: Act two: Apples And Investment
Tom Riste-Smith: Unlike grapes, Hawkes Bay is our largest growing region for apples and pears. Collectively, they're known as pipfruit. The current estimate is that nationally the crop is gonna be down over 20%. Although in Gisborne the damage still hasn't even been fully assessed. And that's just this season. But it'll take years to replace and regrow all the trees, so it's not like it's gonna jump straight back up again.
Philip is a relatively small scale producer, but the same can't be said for our next destination.
Paul Paynter: So my name's Paul Paynter. I'm a fifth generation grower. We started growing in Stoke in 1862. We now are in Hawke's Bay since 1904. And uh, we are growing about 550 hectares of fruit trees in the bay. That makes us probably the largest family business here. So we sell, uh, under the Yummy brand and we're big suppliers, probably 70% of our fruit goes to the domestic market, which has always been a, a great passion of ours.
Tom Riste-Smith: Despite all his talk of domestic supply, Paul only has about an hour, maybe an hour and a half before the arrival of an important Vietnamese export customer. So rather than chat in the office, we jump straight into his truck and head out to see some orchards.
Paul Paynter: Sorry about my messy Truck.
Tom Riste-Smith: That's all good. It's not that bad.
As we drive the thing that really sticks out to me is how much of a difference half a kilometer can make. In Haverlock North there are people out buying expensive dresses and sitting in cafes. Before we head over to Paul's place we actually joined them. I had a coconut water and a plum slice. It was quite good. But it was a very different experience to the Esk valley we left. And honestly sitting there, well, it kind of felt a bit weird.
Paul has 53 orchard spread across the region so his apples aren't in the same basket. Excuse that terrible, terrible pun. But this geographic diversity, it does mean that sure, he suffered some significant damage. But his entire crop hasn't been wiped out, not in the same way it has been for Philip and some of the other growers.
Paul Paynter: 17% of the orchards have been destroyed completely. Um, in fact, they're basically beyond recognition. And then we've got probably another 15% where the jury's out.
Tom Riste-Smith: And of those totally wrecked orchards, well, at least some of them are the bare, treeless, silt mounds, that neighbor Phillips property in the Esk Valley, the ones we talked about earlier. Everyone in the region seems connected somehow.
Paul's recent attempt at creating an orchard there is the first time that fruit trees have been grown on that land since the last great flooding event, and that was 1938.
Paul Paynter: The soils had just sorted themselves out, and we just started planting. We just planted a piece of land that had never been planted since then, about three years ago.
Tom Riste-Smith: The land has previously been cultivated with grapes and plums.
Apparently they can survive in lower quality soils because after an event of this magnitude well, it takes a long time for the soil to recover.
Paul Paynter: Most soil scientists would say, you know, if you can wait a hundred years, that'd be good. 200 is better.
Tom Riste-Smith: And the reason for this is because healthy soil is alive, it's full of bacteria and microbes.
Those invisible organisms play an important role in the ecosystem. They break down organic matter and provide crucial nutrients, the nutrients that help keep the land arable.
Paul Paynter: When you go through a flood like this everything drowns. Everything drowns. And so that's why often after a lot of rain event, you know, the, the soil sort of smells.
That's basically the anaerobics and the death of all of that, the, uh, insects and microbes in the soil. So it sort of stinks.
Tom Riste-Smith: Personally. I'm not sure that stinks is exactly the right word, but there is a sort of... it's an indescribable kind of musty odor that hangs over the silt plains.
In the Esk valley Paul does have one key advantage over Philip. He doesn't own the land. It's leased from a local church. So he can walk away, leave the silt and move on elsewhere.
Paul Paynter: Uh, in the Esk Valley, shut the gate. Um, we'll never plant an another apple tree there. What they should do is just level out the river silt, sow it in grass, and put a few sheep on it for a generation, and then we'll think about it again.
But, um, it will be out of action for a while until it sorts it's self out. But of course, this new river terrace actually is a little bit of protection from subsequent floods. So this has just made flooding less likely, if we leave it where it is. We certainly shouldn't clean this silt away in my view.
Tom Riste-Smith: As we continue our drive down towards Pakowhai, Paul takes us past scenes of destruction. They're different scenes to the ones we saw in the Esk valley. This time it's caravans In hedges, a shipping container end up in the middle of a field of trees, and there's less silt. But what there is is a very liberal scattering of rotting vegetables. When we pull into Paul's first orchard, it looks kind of ok. The trees were dirty and dusty, but they had little red apples hanging on their branches still.
Unfortunately they will all likely die.
Paul Paynter: Apple trees tend to get a lot of soilborne diseases and the most well known ones phytophthora and uh, we had a minor flood in the Esk valley five years ago, and we've still got trees dying today. We could be living with this problem for, I don't know how long. We won't actually know until next spring how many of these trees will survive.
Tom Riste-Smith: And this will prove difficult to navigate. It doesn't make any economic sense to rip out the trees just in case. But the uncertainty also makes it very difficult to estimate their future crop yields.
As we drive further into the block, the destruction becomes clearer cut.
Paul Paynter: It's a real mess. Actually back there we've got some shade cloth on these granny smith cause they can tend to get a bit of sunburn and it's 3.6 meters in the air and we've got pumpkins on top of it.
Tom Riste-Smith: As well as the pumpkins the trees are covered in rubbish, broken fences, metal, and dead sheep.
You'd think it'd be the dead sheep wrapped around the trunk of a tree that would stick in my brain. But I look out the other window and there's a bright pink packet of prawn crackers lying on the ground. Who knows where it floated in from, but it does feel very out of place. Another 30 meters past the prawn crackers is a big, empty, muddy strip. Apparently there used to be trees here but you'd never know that now.
Paul Paynter: The flood has come through here and it's ripped the whole orchard out and all of the posts & wires and the irrigation and everything, and it's gone. If someone says, where is it? I don't know. Uh, it'll be in somebody else's place or in the river or floating the Pacific or I don't know where it is, but it ripped the whole lot out so there's nothing left.
Tom Riste-Smith: We drive further down past more orchards. Again some look fine, others look ruined. This time it's the fences that stick out. They're full of onions. Like thousands of onions, just hanging from the wire. If it weren't for all the silt and reeds caught up around them, they'd look like they were intentionally hung there. Left to dry now that the flood waters have receded. But dry or not, these onions are ruined. I wouldn't eat them and you shouldn't either.
Further down the Brookfields Road are Paul's most prized apple blocks. Home to ambrosia trees.
Paul Paynter: Last year we, we got more than $50 a box for these apples, and they're not ready to pick yet. There's a couple in the trees still, but most of them are on the ground.
This block here produces, um, more than 90 tons per hectare every year. Great packouts, great size, and north of $50 a box.
Tom Riste-Smith: In previous years that's made it Yummy fruit's most profitable patch. The trees are still there, but the fruit is gone. It's carpeting the grass and painting the surrounding fields in a patchwork of red hues. Under different circumstances, it would actually look quite pretty. Again, whether these trees will survive well, that remains to be seen over the coming months. But either way, it's a big blow.
Paul Paynter: Well, we might have spent something like $3 million producing the crop that's disappeared, so that's gone. But I think our revenue will probably be, say, $15 million under budget. And I think the loss of the capital assets we've got to replace them will cost $15 million plus the, the lag of getting them all into production over a few years. So people don't understand this I don't think.
The growers can't recover from it. They've lost their revenue, they've lost their capital assets, and basically they're outta cash. So unless there's new equity coming from somewhere there's no way we can reestablish. I can't, I haven't got $15 million to replant all these orchards. So we'll be much smaller operators than we were. We will downsize and and survive. And I'll go back to driving the tractor.
Tom Riste-Smith: Downsizing is ultimately something that Paul tells me he's reluctant to do. It would mean the loss of about a hundred jobs. Skilled staff who he reiterates over and again, he really doesn't want to lose. And there are other logistical difficulties as well.
Paul Paynter: We've got a packhouse designed to pack the crop we've got. Cool stores designed to store the crop we've got. Trucks and tractors and all the infrastructure designed for the crop we've got, now we haven't got the crop.
Tom Riste-Smith: Mm-hmm.
Paul Paynter: So what I do with my cool store? I could try to lease it commercially, but there's 20 other cool stores around town trying to do the same thing. So everybody's got smaller. So I haven't got any people that wanna pack fruit in my packhouse and I haven't got any people who wanna store in my cool store. So I've got an infrastructure overhead that I can't downsize.
Tom Riste-Smith: At least four of those - now excess tractors - well, they've been flooded and buried in the silt, but somehow I don't think pointing that out would be much of a consolation to Paul. So instead I just stay silent.
The orchards carry on across the other side of the Tutaekuri River, but we can't get there. The Brookfield's bridge has been washed away and the end's been blocked with a large tree stump. I guess, to stop any unsuspecting drivers from careening into the river. So instead, we sit in the car and Paul comes back to his real issue. Finances.
Paul Paynter: People keep talking, um, somewhat mindlessly. I have to say about, oh, growers, you know, we'll need time to recover. We won't recover. I think we've gotta be really clear about that.
I'll give you a really good example. Somebody bought a piece of land in this region, nice land, uh, worth $160,000 a hectare say. Then they planted orchard on it. It cost them $140,000 a hectare. So they've spent $300 grand. They might have borrowed, say, a $100k from the bank, 33% debt. Pretty sensible. Well now the improvements have been wiped out. So they can kiss goodbye to the $140 grand there and the land's not worth $160 anymore. It's worth $90. So they owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars and the land's worth $90K. How they gonna rebuild?
They've now got, uh, debt that's more than their equity. They're underwater, they're outta business, and they say, look, Mr. Banker, I'd like another $140 grand to replant the orchard and plus throw it a bit more so that I can clean the land up first. Well, that banker isn't gonna lend to them. They're not viable. So in truth, without some massive amount of new capital, we haven't got a future. But the banks aren't gonna lend it. It actually isn't commercial for them to do so. I wouldn't either, uh, because we've had our balance sheets hammered. We've had our income for this year and subsequent years hammered. And we've got a massive cleanup job. So we're, we're, um, we're all kind of today insolvent.
There was a lot of new money coming to the industry from MyFarms and Craig Moore and Rocket, private investors. And those private investors are gonna go, well, I didn't know about this sort of risk. I feel a bit... You know, mum and dad, investor.
Tom Riste-Smith: Now I have to agree with Paul here, especially in the current environment with rising interest rates, investing in a flooded orchard, well it really doesn't seem that appealing. I mean, my sharesies account personally has rarely have ever been in the green, but even I probably wouldn't do it.
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Paul Paynter: So that that money will dry up. So where's the money gonna come from?
Tom Riste-Smith: Although Paul does seem a little despairing about this, he has an idea of what he'd like to see happen.
Paul Paynter: Rebuildings a really good idea. There's a good economic case, but unless the government come up with some sort of, um, well, some grants to clean this up, which is gonna take way more than anybody ever thought. And then maybe a Gabrielle Bond where they can sell to people and then lend us the money for reasonably friendly interest rates. It's not gonna happen.
Tom Riste-Smith: And this is one thing that he is very clear about. According to Paul, replanting is the right thing to do. A few people I've spoken to on this trip, and not just those involved in the Apple industry, have told me that it could be a boom time for exports.
Paul Paynter: The story of food exports to Asia is absolutely compelling. There's gonna be huge demand for food in the future. Uh, agriculture is basically on the decline in Asia and everybody's moving to the coastal big cities. They love New Zealand. They love our brand. They believe in our food quality. They believe in our food safety. And so the demand for produce out of Hawkes Bay and out of New Zealand in general of all types is high, and it's gonna get more. All of the, all of the data with population growth says it's a winner. And so the most important thing is we develop a pathway and we're gonna need government help to do it. To replant and reinvest and build back better, because we've got some varieties and some opportunities to plant new orchards. Using new technology.
And so if we can do that in 15 years, we are gonna look really smart and we'll be better off than we are today. But the pathway to get there is onerous. We are probably gonna lose 3000 hectares in Hawkes Bay. Well $150 grand to replant. So that's $450 million to get replanted and throw in another 50 to get us through until we get to cashflow break even, which is four years after replanting. So we need half a billion to get going basically. That's a lot of money.
Tom Riste-Smith: Now here we're talking about the entire Hawk Bay pipfruit industry, not just Yummy Fruits, but even then half a billion dollars, well, that's a lot of money! And it explains why, despite the predicted boom in the Apple market, it's gonna be hard to find.
And as all the producers scramble around trying to find it, it brings us back to a classic issue.
Paul Paynter: And the challenge for New Zealand is the growers desperate for cash sell to highest bidder. If that's the Chinese, they won't want to sell it here, so we're gonna have to compete with international demand. And people are going well, outrageous prices.
Um, well, unfortunately it's probably gonna get worse.
Tom Riste-Smith: And this makes sense to me. It's a classic supply and demand issue. For the next few years, there's just gonna be less supply and the growers, well, they're gonna need to raise money to replant and wait for those trees to mature. Sure we grow enough apples to ensure that there won't be any shortages, but as there are less to go around, prices are likely to rise, especially as we compete with those overseas markets.
For pipfruit the general consensus seems to be that we won't feel the full impact of these price rises until towards the end of the year.
But I mean, imagine you're a farmer. You're staring down a $15 million bill, and however much you might enjoy supplying the domestic market, well, you're really gonna wanna get that export cash. Because ultimately Paul's main goal is to rebuild and recover.
Paul Paynter: When you're sitting on the, on the doorstep talking to your grandkids, in the fullness of time, you won't tell 'em about the really good year. It'll be boring story. You'll tell 'em about this disaster and how you recovered from it.
You know, life's a journey, not an outcome. So I'm pretty philosophical. I think this will make me poorer. Uh, it may be, uh, more empathetic, more compassionate person. And, um, I hope that out of the back end of this, I personally will be richer. And I hope that I'll build something for the next generation, so that'll keep me going.
My kids are, you know, still at school, but by the time they're interested in coming back into the business, I hope to have rebuilt them something that they say, wow, that looks exciting. Um, I'm gonna go and work with dad. Which is what I did with my father and what we've done for five generations now. So it's my job, like my fourbears who've survived earthquakes and floods and wars to survive this and to build for the next generation.
Sophie Richardson: Act three: Vegetables And The Cost Of Living
Tom Riste-Smith: Vegetables are almost the exact inverse of apples. I mean that in that the impact of the losses is immediate, but the repercussions are actually much shorter term. It just doesn't take as long to regrow broccoli or a tomato plant. Vegetable supply in particular has also been affected by the flooding in Northland and Pukekohe earlier this year, so we were already experiencing some limited shortages.
It actually proved hard while we were in Hawkes Bay to track down a vegetable grower with the time, or maybe just the inclination to talk to us. But then again, the big buyers are the supermarkets, and they aren't exactly our friends at the moment either. Eventually, we managed to arrange a meeting with Ben Duclercq. Remember him from earlier? He's the man that Phillip stayed with when he evacuated his house. He's also the owner of a smallish Bay View farm Petit Jardin. He's been growing on the property for the last four years.
Ben Duclercq: Ah, there is over 40 different veggies here. So it's a market garden from strawberry to lettuce, kale uh, rocket broccoli, beetroot.
Tom Riste-Smith: Bay View, where Petit Jardin is located is slightly further down the coast than Eskdale, and crucially it's further away from a river than either Philip or Paul's properties.
Ben Duclercq: It's kind of far. It's good 800 meter from here or probably, or maybe more flying.
Tom Riste-Smith: But that distance, well, it wasn't enough to prevent his farm from flooding. Ben and his family went to sleep on the night of Gabrielle mostly unconcerned, but when they woke in the morning, the fields were underwater. And his new car, which for some reason he'd unfortunately parked at the lowest part of the property - perhaps a sign of that confidence that they were actually quite far away from the river - well, that was also submerged.
Ben Duclercq: Yeah, just flooded.
Tom Riste-Smith: Ben is the kind of person that I would describe as very sunny. He's almost a kind of bafflingly positive person, to be honest.
Even faced with his farm being underwater, he just decided to make the best of it.
Ben Duclercq: Yeah. Took the kids on the kayak. The little kid in myself was having a blast. (Laughter)
It's just when the water go down, it's a bit different.
Tom Riste-Smith: It was at that point after the water receded that he could see the extent of his losses. Most of his crop had been totally submerged.
Ben Duclercq: Over 75%, 80%. It's just the time of the year where, um, autumn veggies come, like egg plant, capsicum. All those things have been lots of time to grow and they were just about to produce. Watermelon and they all rotted in the water. I have to throw everything. So, yeah, lots of planting, rotting, rotting.
Tom Riste-Smith: With Philip and Paul their producer has largely been washed away. No one really knows where it's gone. Ben, on the other hand, well, he still needs to go through the process of harvesting his, but then rather than packing it up and shipping it off to customers, it's all destined for the compost bin. A season of work that's just lost.
There are two main places that Ben sells his produce. The first is via his own veg boxes.
Ben Duclercq: I just stop it because I don't have the, the range and the quantities to do that part of the business. So I shut that part of the business.
Tom Riste-Smith: For now, the people that he used to supply directly will need to look elsewhere for their produce.
In normal times he also supplies Chantal a medium size grocery store in Napier. That too is on pause.
Tim Stevens: Yeah. As far as impacts from the supply issues are going, we are having to readjust quite a bit.
Tom Riste-Smith: This is Tim Stevens, he's the manager and part owner of Chantal. I meet him next to a large fridge in the produce section of the store.
Tim Stevens: And gaps here would be from Petit Jardin in Bay View. Then there's citrus. A lot of that came from Links Road. She had to escape up to her neck along a fence line, and now she's all silted up. Avocados we're getting some from Northland, but our grower was in Esk Valley. 400 trees are just gone.
Tom Riste-Smith: Tim has a kind of straight ahead, dissociated look. It's a gaze I've come across a lot on this trip. Like he has to stare into the middle distance and think about the storm as an abstract event, not something personal that happened to him. We move into the back room where he explains that he's already seeing significant increases in cost.
Tim Stevens: We are definitely paying more for produce, just for transport.
Tom Riste-Smith: Tim's currently filling the gaps by shipping up food from a farm in the south island.
Tim Stevens: Got two pallets last week and got a pallet this week coming up. For a crate from the south island, one crate of veggies, which holds say 20 heads of broccoli. That's an extra $10. You know, it's an extra 50 cents a head of broccoli just to get it here. They weren't even that cheap to start with, and that has to be passed on. You know, we don't have any room in our margins to eat up $10 a crate.
Tom Riste-Smith: And the StatsNZ data, well, that agrees with Tim. Since the storm, it's showing a spike in the fresh fruit and vegetable prices. But as well as those price rises there are also things it's just not possible for Tim to source at all.
Tim Stevens: I don't think that we'll have the variety of things in our produce chiller to give people, but I think we'll be able to muddle together with our basics for sure. Kumera's will be more expensive, onions will be more expensive. We'll definitely have to have more imported onions. And garlic is another one we can get from the USA.
Yeah, we'll pay more and there'll be holes.
Tom Riste-Smith: As we said earlier, there is some good news on the vegetable front. The storm hit just early enough that Ben and the other growers, well they still have a window to get their winter crops in the ground.
Ben Duclercq: The first thing I could do, I couldn't touch the, the paddock, so I went to put some seeds in the nursery and um, I've got lots of little plant coming up. Um, that will be all the things that can grow for the winter. Yeah, once it's winter, nothing grows. So in a way it's good that the cyclone hit us at that time already a few weeks back. It's a very small window.
Tom Riste-Smith: It might be a small window, but it is one he expects to hit. The seedlings from his nursery will just about make it out into the field in time to provide some proper winter veggies, and by spring he should be up and running at full capacity again. That's not something that can be said for Philip or Paul.
We started this episode talking about food security, and if I'm honest, when I began this journey, I was expecting more despair, predictions of supply imbalances, gaps on the shelves, and increased prices. And while it does seem clear, we will continue to see some of that - particularly - in the north island, my main take home is more one of personal loss. The region has been smashed. Individual growers, their families and employees have taken a huge hit, one that's gonna take them years to fully recover from, financially and mentally. But it's also clear to me that there is a determination to recover. To grow back better. Once they figured out how to pay for it that is.
Sophie Richardson: This episode of Consume This was introduced by me, Sophie Richardson, and reported and produced by Tom Riste-Smith. Our thanks go out to everyone in the Hawkes Bay region who took time out of their day to drive us around, show us their properties, and share their stories.
If you have been affected by cyclone Gabrielle and need someone to talk to, please free call or text, 1737 anytime for support from a trained counselor.
Consume This is brought to you by Consumer NZ. We're a small not-for-profit organization advocating for your rights. You can support our work and access our full range of resources by becoming a member. Full information on the benefits of joining and how you can do it are on the Consumer NZ website.
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