'It changed all our lives': Farmers reflect on how Kaikōura quake forced them to rethink how they work

Tim Anderson at his property four years after the quake.
Tim Anderson at his property four years after the quake. Photo credit: RNZ

By Maja Burry of RNZ

Four years on from a massive earthquake which rocked North Canterbury, farmers are finding new ways to work.

While time has helped heal the land on Henry and Olivia Pinckney's North Canterbury sheep and beef farm, four years on, evidence of the 14 November 2016 earthquake is still clearly visible.

Cracks cut into paddocks and big slips stick out like scabs on the hillsides. Henry Pinckney said the 7.8 magnitude quake, which struck just two minutes after midnight, changed the landscape significantly.

"It was pretty bewildering, just trying to take stock and yeah, just drove around in shock I suppose... it was just trying to fathom it all, everything was a bit different and there was obviously a lot of work in front of us."

Over the past four years the Pinckneys' have been busy fixing fences, tracks and planting natives to stabilise the land. They are also part of a Post Quake Farming group involving industry representatives, local council and experts. This was established to help farmers explore what future long-term uses the land might have.

Pinckney said the quake had presented an opportunity to consider how they could improve the farm and make their business more resilient.

"Probably made us realise that it's not always going to be plain sailing, so we might have to get ourselves in a better position and we see that all the time with COVID this year. There's always something that's going to create challenges... so [we're] just trying to look long term."

As part of diversifying, Pinckney said they had been looking at forestry and sheep milking. He had started to build up his flock of dairy sheep and saw big potential in the industry, with overseas consumers looking for a premium product.

"It allows us to hopefully market a product based around the credentials of the land.. and actually get some recognition for the way in which we farm."

Tim Anderson has tackled a massive project to place 200 hectares of bush on their land into a covenant since the quake.
Tim Anderson has tackled a massive project to place 200 hectares of bush on their land into a covenant since the quake. Photo credit: RNZ

About an hour east is Tim and Sue Anderson's Conway Flat farm, where for decades they have run a Perendale stud breeding business. Their philosophy is to breed a low-input sheep that will produce efficiently on all types of country.

Anderson said the earthquake had served as a reminder about how vulnerable farming communities were to all the elements.

"It changed all our lives. We were probably one of the more fortunate ones, we didn't lose our house we lost a few other things, and our landscape changed... major slips and cracks in the landscape and tracks and dams forming in creeks, but yeah.. there was some horrendous damage in North Canterbury."

Anderson said the support that emerged post-quake had helped advance a massive project to place 200 hectares of bush on their land into a covenant, requiring six kilometres of deer fencing. It was a big milestone for the farm, he said.

"Probably the single biggest thing I've done in my 55 years farming, in one go, but you know we've been lucky to have support and I'm lucky my family have got behind me."

Post Quake Farming project manager Michael Bennett said agri-tourism and horticulture were also options being explored by some farmers impacted by the quake.

A new report by Plant and Food research, commissioned by the group, had identified some farms in the area had the right types of land and climatic conditions for growing apples, wine grapes, hazelnuts and walnuts, which could provide an additional income stream.

Bennett said the initiative had kickstarted a lot of good thinking among farmers, who may have previously only considered grazing livestock as an option on their properties.

"I think what we've shown in this project is that there's a lot of scope in the land resource in the hill and high country in New Zealand," he said.

"I think now people are realising it's a lot more than a grazing unit, there's a lot more that you can potentially do."