Irrigation lifeblood for Waimate community

Waihao Downs farmer Kieran Henshaw (left), with Alfred the dog, and Roger Small, of Willowbridge,...
Waihao Downs farmer Kieran Henshaw (left), with Alfred the dog, and Roger Small, of Willowbridge, inspect a planting at the Black Hole recreation area. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
Irrigation has helped transform the rural Waimate district, providing employment opportunities and future-proofing farming businesses. Business and rural editor Sally Rae pays a visit to the Morven Glenavy Ikawai and Waihao Downs schemes.

If the Henshaw family’s Waihao Downs farm was still a dryland dairy support operation, Kieran Henshaw expects they would not be farming it.

Irrigation development on the property enabled Mr Henshaw and his wife Sonya to return home, generate a larger gross farm income, support more than one family and deal with family succession.

The farm, which also bears the name Waihao Downs, was originally bought by Mr Henshaw’s great grandfather in 1945. In earlier years, it was a sheep farm, along with producing the likes of seed potatoes and some cropping before becoming a dairy support block.

Kieran grew up on the farm and, after completing a commerce degree in agriculture at Lincoln University, embarked on a finance career. That included working as a rural manager with ANZ in South Canterbury, for an investment bank in London and with PGG Wrightson Finance.

He and his wife returned to Waihao Downs just over a decade ago, initially leasing the farm off a family trust and continuing with dairy support: wintering cows and selling feed.

Then they decided to put a dairy shed on and officially became dairy farmers, which coincided with a $3.90 payout. The couple, who have two children — Olivia (8) and Harry (4) — now milk 800 cows and employ five staff, and have been able to buy the family farm.

When Mr Henshaw was a pupil at Waihao Downs school, the roll was 25 — now there are 84 and it employs four teachers. Having water in the community via the Waihao Downs scheme meant the community had been maintained, he said. And the school was literally watered through water provided to it through the irrigation scheme.

Looking to the wider area, the Waimate district boasted several transport firms and two milk factories while there were a raft of builders employed in the area. Irrigation meant farmers had been able to inject significant capital into the development of their farming operations, he said.

The Morven Glenavy Ikawai Irrigation Company is responsible for the Redcliffs, Morven Glenavy Ikawai, and Waihao Downs water schemes.

The Redcliffs scheme, one of the oldest in South Canterbury, was built by the government in the 1930s. Morven Glenavy was built in the 1970s and MGI bought the two schemes from the Crown in 1989.

Following the development of the Waihao Downs scheme, which was commissioned in 2016, MGI is now responsible for supplying water to more than 27,000ha of farm area. The scheme also provides stock water.

Chief executive Andrew Barton said the company’s major water permits to take water from the Waitaki River would expire in April 2028, the first scheme in Canterbury to come up for consent renewal.

A focus for the company was working with farmers to improve on-farm efficiency. One challenge had been irrigating steeper land and there was a move to fixed-grid irrigation which was more efficient, he said.

MGI also released water taken from the Waitaki River into the lower Waihao River. Over recent months, it had been very dry and the only water in the lower Waihao had been that water supplied by the irrigation company.

Had it not been released, then the river would have been dry for the year to date. The water had provided habitat for fish and also a waterbody for local rowing crews and the community, he said.

While the irrigation season had finished, MGI had a consent that allowed it to continue running the water into the river. While the company could have shut the scheme down and undertaken winter maintenance, it recognised that would result in adverse effects, he said.

Willowbridge farmer Roger Small said farmers supported the consent to discharge water into the river, which went naturally dry, because they could see the benefit.

Mr Small has farmed at Willowbridge, 7km southeast of Waimate, for more than 30 years. He recalled earlier years of tough farming times due to high interest rates, low commodity prices and drought, during which time some farmers left the industry.

Those issues were being repeated but irrigation allowed banks to be more confident in sticking with those farmers long-term. There had been "huge economic growth" within the district because of water and it allowed for different land use, predominantly dairying.

Due to intensification and the urban view of farmers and irrigation, that was all the more reason why farmers had got heavily involved in their local catchment, to ensure good water quality outcomes, he said.

Mr Small is chairman of the Waihao-Wainono Catchment Community Group, a group which initially began as a water users group back in 1999 and was later resurrected and began holding field days around good management practice.

It is involved in a community driven initiative to tackle the growing threat of invasive crack willows along the Waihao River which were choking the river, creating flood risk and affecting water quality and quantity.

Willows spread their roots into the riverbed where their high water needs reduce flow and their rapidly decomposing leaves negatively affect water quality. In some parts of the river, willows were wall-to-wall.

Mr Small recalled a flood in 1986 that uprooted large numbers of willows that caused a blockage and collapsed McCulloughs Bridge, resulting in a surge of water and significant flooding downstream.

The catchment group began the project in March. Some trees would be left for shading and it was hoped to spray the remainder over the next couple of years.

While it was being called a 10-year project, Mr Henshaw said those involved would endeavour to get it done over five years if enough funding was obtained. The latest costing, about 18 months ago, was about $800,000. Spraying was not the most expensive part, it was the removal of the willows, he said.

The catchment group has also been helping to restore and enhance recreation areas along the Waihao River, in the McCulloughs Bridge and Black Hole and Waihao Walkway areas.

That included holding a community planting day and installing new toilets near the Black Hole. Thousands of plants were put into the ground, both by community members and then by professional planters.

Already, Mr Small’s harriers group had been running alongside the river and kayaking and tyre tubing down it, while Mr Henshaw said it was a good place to take his young children for outings.



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