Apple grower faces over $200k in tornado damage after insurance company won't pay out

An apple grower near Nelson hit hard by last week's tornado is devastated his insurance company won't pay out because it's not classed as a 'natural disaster'.

Thawley Orchard has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of apples, fencing and trees. Now its owner is warning other growers to be careful.

A red carpet of bruised and battered apples is a tragic sight. The ones left on the trees are damaged too.

The crop was due to be harvested on Monday, but six days ago a tornado tore straight through it.

"We're estimating around $200,000 to $220,000 of fruit loss," Aaron Thawley said.

The Thawley family has been growing apples in this area since 1914 - and insuring it with FMG for about 40 years.

The insurance is supposed to cover the loss of fruit crops but when Thawley rang FMG after the tornado he says he was told "a tornado is classed as wind damage which is not covered by your policy - it's not a natural disaster as far as we are concerned".

"It is gutting," Thawley said. "Just feels like we're being fobbed off."

On the Insurance Council's website, a natural disaster is defined as an event caused by forces beyond human control, causing great damage to property and, in the worst cases, people.

The Insurance Council lists examples which do include "severe weather events storms, wind and rain".

"They agreed it is a natural disaster, they were going to take it up with FMG and I'm yet to hear from them," said Thawley.

However in FMG's policy wording, their definition of a natural disaster includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and landslips. But not what many farmers and growers are actually hit by - which is big storms.

"They say they don't cover wind and rain for damage, yet they do cover floods - which surely that comes from rain - so you know a tornado comes from wind, what's the difference?" Thawley asked.

He's urging other growers to talk to their insurance companies immediately.

"It's a good opportunity to have a chat with your insurer and clear up what you are insured for and what you're not."

Damage at the orchard.
Damage at the orchard. Photo credit: Supplied

Some businesses, like many winegrowers, choose not to insure at all because of the huge cost.

"The vast majority of our growers will not have crop insurance, it'd be extremely uncommon - and that's related to the cost of cover," said NZ Winegrowers Association CEO Philip Gregan.

"There is crop loss to one degree or another virtually every year."

And this year is especially bad for Tasman District apple grower Nick Fraser. The Tasman tornado also flattened parts of his orchard, tore the roof off his home, ruined a shed and crushed machinery.

"It hit like a freight train - you couldn't see out the window - it was just leaves and sticks," he said.

More than $100,000 worth of apples has been lost, and he's still working through the insurance process.

"I tell you what it's not getting any easier growing fruit being out in the elements these days, the weather has really changed over the last few years - it's becoming much more of a risk," he said.

To try and salvage the uprooted trees, he's plugged them back into the ground.

"It may work, it may not - I've got nothing to lose," he said.

A feeling both Fraser and Thawley share after a tough year for many growers.

The Thawleys are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to their orchard.

"We just don't have the money to fund the clean-up, let alone redevelopment," Thawley said.

Newshub tried to interview the Insurance Council but they didn't want to talk.

FMG didn't want to talk either but provided a statement that said: "When assessing any claim, we need to be fair to all policy-holders that we're following our policy wordings, which is what we've done in this situation.

"While there will be many differing definitions of a natural disaster, as an insurer we need to define this in the interests of assessing risk and deciding what level we're able to take on.

"Broadly speaking our definition of natural disaster is materially aligned with other private insurers.

"Our policy also states that wind damage is not covered. We are quite open about this.

"As an insurer we do all we can to explain our policy wordings to clients and help them understand what they're covered for. Our policy wordings are on our website and are written in plain English.

"In reference to ICNZ's website on natural disasters, it's important to note that it says natural disasters 'can' include things such as wind - it doesn't say that it 'does' categorically include wind."