Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And don’t get me started on plastic mountains in the ocean! Or how we’re chopping down our rainforests.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, we really need a radical overhaul in the way we treat our environment — local, national and planet-wide.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which feeds our precious water pipe came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! Our lovely stream is transformed from trickle to torrent. Now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. This formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather in one part can be completely different from what’s happening in another. I well remember one desperate summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

That was the year that we put a mob of sheep out on the back road every day so they could graze the roadside while we guarded them and warned the occasional car that drove by. We even tried cutting down willow branches to give them some extra greenery to eat that summer.

A Hailstorm! Where?

1991, early evening. Thunderclouds covered the mountains and loomed above our little farmhouse. Windows rattled and the house shook as thunder pealed overhead. Goodness knows where Terry was – somewhere out on the farm. But the kids and I didn’t know whether to dance in the rain or cower under the bed.

Then came the hailstones. I’ve never seen anything like it. They poured in torrents and formed a fountain shooting down the carport roof and off the end of the gutter pipes.

I was due at a school meeting but I phoned Kitty (from the next door farm) who was coming to babysit.

“Don’t come yet ” I yelled down the phone line.

“I’m not going anywhere in this,” she hollered back.

Then, just like that, the hail stopped. So Kitty braved the slick road round to our place and I dashed down to Garston school. Just three kilometres away, and not a hailstone in sight. No wonder they were disbelieving when I said why I was late.

Etched In Our Memories

But none of those weather memories can compare to the wall of water which swept out Blackmore Creek and down the road towards our two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

It’s quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from Blackmore Creek, which winds through our farm on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

Flash Flood

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but Terry was nervous. He could hear a rumbling in the hills that I didn’t even notice.

Abruptly — for no reason that I could see — he dashed out of the house and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos reigned: dogs barking, kids screaming, sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one heard. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and urgency. He had come dashing down ahead of the flood and he’d seen the wall of water sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Minutes later the last animal was hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James, his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm — and 7-year-old Chris dashed across the bridge in their truck seconds before the wave broke across it.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km north, Scotts Creek was flooding too, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams affected. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What A Mess

You wouldn’t believe the mess that a flood leaves behind. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. The fences were piled high with torn branches, bushes and mud. The water swept away everything in its path and left it high and dry on all our fences. It took weeks of effort to clear the mess away. And more weeks to repair the damage.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

Andrew’s water system on Blackmore Creek was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

For weeks afterwards the kids and I wandered up and down Blackmore Creek and marvelled at the path of destruction. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

Well, that wasn’t a question I ever thought of asking. Still very much a city chick, the weather wasn’t important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web I message my Mum daily, and you can be sure that now we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I often thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

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2 Replies to “Weather Matters on the Farm”

  1. Wow, that’s cold alright. And confirms my theory that it’s always worse somewhere else.
    Right now it’s the second day of summer and we are baking in heat usually reserved for midsummer. Those thunderclouds are once again building nicely and have just blocked the sun, which has instantly dropped the outside temperature to a bearable level.

  2. I agree that it is indisputable that climate change is real, increasing in intensity and effect, and becoming a huge economic factor. Those people who refuse to acknowledge the truth for religious reasons, short-term profit, or because the reality is simply too unpleasant to face are deluding themselves. Their grandchildren will smile and shake their heads at such ignorance and stubbornness.

    Funny thing, weather. We rarely remember the extremely hot days. They usually result in forced indolence for man and beast. Fish won’t bite either. But the coldest days generate lots of lasting memories. My coldest personal experience was a winter day back in 1983 – the memory is very clear – when the wind chill was -75 degrees F. Brother, that’s cold! Combined with a horrific snow and wind and sleet storm and a 500 mile trip already underway, with a little dog in the car, and you have a trip that seemed to never end.

    Another winter memory is a cold, cold day with snow on the ground. It was so cold that my brother-in-law’s car (left outside in the weather) refused to start. Diesels were notorious about starting in cold weather anyway. Tom built a fire under the engine block as a desperate measure. Didn’t work but no explosions. Difficult, though, to explain the cause of the resulting damage to the engine, when he had it repaired – but a story for family gatherings 30 years later.

    Yet another memorable winter day was the day I left home for an international flight I absolutely couldn’t miss. An ice storm was predicted and missing any one of the three flights of that journey would have been an economic and career disaster. The ice storm passed by without affecting me too much, but that long, long day and even longer night before the flight will never be forgotten.

    I guess we all have weather memories. Time softens the intensity and the emotions so, in deep retrospect, we can smile… because we survived.

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