TFWF#42: The night the arks floated

As many of you will know the night of the 19th June was a very wet one for much of New Zealand. Here in the Manawatu we were hit very hard by the run off from the Tararua Ranges. Our farm is split in two by the Waikawa stream, a normally calm babbling brook that you can wade through in gumboots. On the night of the 19th the water level rose to almost 2.5m, breaking the councils measuring system in the process, and the flow peaked at over 200,000 litres per second (on average it is normally around 500l/s). The noise all over the farm was deafening and, it was scary.

The day started early at 5:30am with preparations for Feilding Farmers Market at 8am. At 6:45 I left for the market and whilst the weather was far from enjoyable I had a great day with lots of new and old customers dropping by. We had been warned about the rainfall but standing in the town square it looked like the forecasters had been a little overly cautious, the showers were interspersed with sun and did not feel like flood levels of water.

IMG_3915

The weather forecast for 19th June, watch for flooding they said…

It wasn’t until I left the markets at about 2pm that I started to see the volume of water that was starting to build up in the paddocks and roadways on the journey home from Feilding through Sanson and into Levin. As I drove through the puddles the tension regarding what I would find back on the farm had started to build. Turning into the driveway I could already see the Waikawa stream was high and loud as the water crashed into the banks.

After any market I am tired and frankly want to sit down and have a beer but as always I have a number of food and farm related jobs that have to be carried out. I counted the remaining meat, loaded the fridges, filled in my paperwork and got changed into my farm gear in order to head out to feed the pigs. I filled up the feed buckets and headed out to check on the grower pigs who live in the paddock closest to the Waikawa stream. By now it was about 3:30pm, the rain was still falling hard and the paddocks were very wet, but the stream was no higher than I had seen it before and the water seemed to be draining freely via the drainage ditches that the previous owners of our farm had, poorly, installed. Feeling a little calmer about the situation I went back home to check the forecast, the councils data for the stream and eat some lunch.

The rain continued, hard. My stress levels continued to build. Every couple of hours I headed out into the farm to look at the stream and check on the paddock with the grower pigs. 5pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, the water was rising but seemed manageable. The drainage ditch was now flowing over the track into paddock and would make moving the pigs to higher ground difficult but not impossible. Night had fallen and it was getting hard to see the real situation, at 9:30 I headed out again to look at the paddock and found that the water had risen further, the pigs were not in danger but if this carried on I was in real trouble of endangering life unless i did something.

At times like this the first thing you need is moral support, with my mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second I was running the risk of becoming too overwhelmed to actually do anything. At 10pm Claire asked me to take her down to the paddock so she could see the situation herself. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised that the river had actually peaked at 10:20 and broken the banks at the end of the paddock, as Claire and I arrived we were faced with total carnage as the river made a horseshoe type flow across the paddock cutting it off from the farm. The paddock track was impassable, the drainage ditch had overflowed and the water running over the track was almost waist deep. We could see the pigs in the first section of the paddock, all huddling in their ark shaped house completely surrounded by water, they had no higher ground to get too. It was a terrible sight and both Claire and I had to take a moment to calm ourselves. We decided to go back up to the house and try and call Russell who used to farm all the land around this neighbourhood, we thought he would surely be able to make some suggestions (we later found out he was in Fiji on holiday). Meanwhile I set out in the dark to the DOC campground which backs onto our paddock to see if I could get to the pigs from the other direction.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this 'river' was actually the farm track into the paddock.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this ‘river’ was actually the farm track into the paddock (thats my car parked on higher ground). And those rope like things are the high tensile fences being swept away, the pigs are in the paddock on the right.

Pulling into the campground the sitting water was everywhere. I got out the car and made my way to the fence line, it looked like I could get through and get to the pigs, my plan was to cut some fences and let the pigs get to slightly higher ground in other sections of the paddock. As I walked towards the paddock a quad bike pulled into the campground, thinking it was Russell and at the same time finding the whole darkness, headlamp and roaring river thing a little creepy I headed back to my car. The quad was being driver by Brad, another neighbour, he offered to take me over to the fence line on the quad, I jumped on. We both climbed over the fence and went to look at the pigs. Water was everywhere, at least 12″ deep, but much of the paddock was above the waterline and most of the pigs were at no risk, we kept walking over to the first section that Claire and I had seen underwater about half an hour ago. It looked like the water had receded a little but you couldn’t tell what was likely to happen. Having spent weeks putting electric fences all over the paddock splitting the land into smaller sections for rotation of the pigs I now knew that the only thing I could do was cut the fences and hope the pigs worked out the best places to be. Soaking wet Brad and I jumped back onto the quad and headed for my car.

Back at home Claire had been unable to get hold of Russell and I simply didn’t know if the water was rising or falling, it was now about midnight and we had no option than to call around and get help. Our friends in Otaki couldn’t get through, the highway was cut off just outside Otaki by a stream crossing the road and the Waikawa had actually washed away the highway just north of Manakau meaning that we were also cut off from Levin, isolated in both directions. Our only option was the neighbours and what followed was nothing short of a miracle of logistics by Claire. Whilst the names will mean nothing to you just marvel at the organisation as we rallied the neighbours at midnight

  • Doug was home alone as Julie was stuck in Levin, he couldn’t leave his children who were asleep
  • Claire offered to babysit Doug’s kids but then we needed someone to babysit Fred, also asleep.
  • Denise came around to babysit Fred
  • Brad came back to help, sporting what I think was a wetsuit
  • Chris got our of bed to come and give a hand
  • Doug arrived in his Land Rover

We had a team and we set to work trying to grab as many pigs as possible and get them to higher ground or, thanks to Doug and his amazing trailer towing skills, into the stock trailer. What followed was a torchlit version of a black and white slapstick movie as one by one we dived at black pigs, missed, landed face down in the mud and tried again. We soon got a rhythm and by the time my grip gave out, from the power of grabbing the pigs by their fast kicking legs, we had caught and re-homed about 30 pigs of all shapes and sizes. It was about 2:30am.

As we returned to our respective homes everyone looked drained and ready to sleep, except Brad who I think could have carried on all night wrestling pigs. After a well needed warm shower I sat down at the computer and informed all our Facebook followers that it was looking very unlikely we would be at the Thorndon Farmers Market that day, despite having a trailer full of fresh meat. It was now 3am and I had been awake for 22 hours, tomorrow the clean up had to start and the pigs needed somewhere to live other than the back of a trailer.

From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all those people that came out to help that night, some of you might be reading this. Apart from simply being a really nice thing to do I suspect that you probably saved a life and definitely saved my business. Thank you so much.

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