By Bert Hughes RMNZIF
CEO & Forestry Director, Forest Enterprises
OPINION: I’m a rural person, working the land, growing crops. Not a farmer, a forester. I take a lot of stick about forestry from my neighbours, much of it good natured and I give back as well. However, the rural and primary industries have much in common, along with sharing some negative public perceptions about their activities. Ask the caged hen or pig growers, dairy with nitrates, beef and lamb winter grazing, had any bad press recently? Let’s not turn on each other, even where we have differences.
The valid role of carbon forestry is very hard to summarise, given you need to relate it to the international treaties the government has agreed to, the impacts of climate change and the lack of alternatives to reduce our carbon footprint. We are basically only left with carbon sequestration as a tool to mitigate the likely billions of costs in penalties incurred at an international level, since we can’t easily and quickly reduce the emissions. Recently, successful dairy farmers have converted their dairy farms to kiwifruit or avocados, pine forests to dairy, and sheep farms to pine forests, all by the same people because it’s a better use of land and capital.
Pastoral farmers worried about carbon forestry should plant some themselves, get the cash flows and increased land value imbedded into their own businesses. Don’t sell up and enable whole farm conversions when mixed land use will reward the farming entrepreneurs, the backbone of our society. Keeping land ownership at a local scale, amongst successful local businesses results in vibrant rural communities.
Land use drives our economy, especially now tourism and international education have fallen to Covid restrictions. The most efficient users of land can pay more to own that land, while the profitable buy out the rest. The invisible hand of the market from Adam Smith describes the process well. Some farmers, (or foresters) are more profitable than others and this is from individual skill, investment, work ethic, and luck, which means family businesses can endure greater hardship than corporates. The opportunity to improve your position is the motivation that led my ancestors here where we cleared land of forests and farmed and eventually replanted some land with commercial forestry.
Many countries have higher land taxes, or other mechanisms which increase the cost of owning land. This incentivises the sale of land that doesn’t cover ownership costs and contribute to society.
I heard farmers near Blenheim complain that higher rates were making their sheep farms uneconomic however, wasting good horticulture land on sheep is a greater problem than the high rates cost. So, shift the sheep to pastoral land, and I’ll raise a glass of chardonnay to you. The opportunity of swapping low-income pastoral farming for high value viticulture means those farmers can afford better pastoral land elsewhere, and the viticulturalist earns more from that land and creates more rates, tax, and profits.
Our Forest Owners Association, FOA, (Forest Enterprises are members) reached out to me recently for insight into the breakdown in relations between farmers and forestry. Did we know any farmers? Where can we find them? I find many things funny, and the most funny is the most serious. I’m puzzled by the FOA. “Farmers” they ask? Probably hard to find in the corporate high-rise in Wellington. Most people have heard of farmers, some have met one.
I needed some advice, so I rung my father-in-law, the “Retired Sheep Farmer”. “Your Dad was a farmer,” he tells me, “your brother-in-law, your cousins, the Gladstone clay bird club, those blokes you ride trail bikes with at Bideford, the parents from your kids school, the neighbours of our forest lands are farmers.” I haven’t reported back to the FOA yet on where they can “find a farmer”, perhaps I never will.
Forestry has our own professional body, the Institute of Forestry, (representing professional foresters), the Forest Owners Association (representing forest owners), Forest Industries Contractors Association, (representing forest contractors), and eight Wood Councils across New Zealand representing all locally and Forest Enterprises belongs to them all! I’m not a member of Federated Farmers, but I may join now, if you’ll have me.
I’m a member of everything else, because I believe a big society needs us to join up with likeminded people. Erica Kinder, CEO Southern North Island Wood Council recently ran the organising committee to host the annual NZIF Conference in Masterton. She castigated the collected notables about the difficulties communicating with our own industry bodies, let alone farmers. The Forest Owners CEO looked like someone had taken a shit on his ice-cream, I guess he hasn’t raised the idea of talking to farmers among the great councils of our betters.
So, these farmers, what do they want then? Is what a farmer wants different to what a forester wants? If farmers get what they want, will foresters lose something in return? There is a saying, “it’s not enough merely to win, others must lose”.
We are seeing an epic change in land use which produces both winners and losers and losing hurts. Changes come from climate change, urbanisation, intensification of agriculture, new legislation, mechanisation, and the aging work force, forestry cannot be blamed for all of these, and I can’t describe everything, but the world is changing. My daughter won’t eat red meat, how much red meat will we sell to the vegans do you think? I have a tweed jacket, it’s the peak ambition of any sheep to become Harris Tweed, yet my wife, raised on a sheep farm hates it. I wear my tweed to Wellington because I can, you have to stand for something.
Our company, Forest Enterprises manages syndicates that own rural land planted with commercial forest crops. More than 6500 individual urban people and entities share in prosperity arising from this rural land use in our company. Syndication keeps land in New Zealand ownership and employs hundreds of workers living in small towns like Carterton and working rurally. Our people don’t live on the land, but it’s also true that farms don’t use as much labour as was historically the case. Rural settlements like Eketahuna and Pongaroa have been declining for many reasons. Farming doesn’t attract urban people to Pongaroa and neither does forestry. Rural villages where I grew up have changed, as cars replaced horses, and as roads improved, people move closer to town.
My father-in-law’s sheep farm in the Marlborough Sounds was boat access only, until it wasn’t, and then power lines came. Farming ceased to be viable in this outer extreme of New Zealand and their world changed, only a few economic farms remain in this tough corner where once there was over 100, and it was nothing to do with forestry. No one can turn back the clock. We don’t ride horses to school and the schools are no longer a morning’s horse ride apart through the countryside. The only constant in this process is change, and we must adapt, or fail.
I do like a mutton chop, and spuds though, so hats off to farmers.