by Simon Edwards
Trees versus food production arguments are misleading and detract from opportunities to improve the sustainability and profitability of the wider farming sector, Forest Owners Association President Phil Taylor told the Primary Industries Summit last month.
“Trees, in various places, for various reasons, at various times, are going to complement and protect farming for food production – not threaten it,” he said.
Woodlots have been growing on thousands of farms over the past decades but farmers often thought when they planted out some pine trees that they had ‘retired’ the land.
“They didn’t think back then that they were changing to another complementary, valuable and ongoing land use in its own right,” Phil said.
Farmers are now responding to strong prices and demand by harvesting up to 40% of the total harvest as the boom plantings of the 1990s come on stream.
Increases in harvest volumes over the past few years took forest product export income above $6 billion a year in 2018, and have held it above that level since, except for the Covid-hit export situation last year.
In short, it has been “a major economic plus for many New Zealand farmers”.
Environmental factors are also now weighing in significantly. Global warming denial and delay is no longer an option, Phil said.
Forestry has become a climate change debate flash point for some, with the claim carbon credits under the Emissions Trading Scheme are not a valid market force. It’s said they unfairly tip productive pasture land into trees and deny farmers the right to produce food for a hungry world. The end result is that rural towns decline because there’s no work any more.
“But there are all sorts of factors behind rural population decline – government policies to close what they consider to be under-used facilities, be it schools or post offices, easier transport to the nearest big box retailer, machinery replacing people….
“It happens in both forest and non-forest regions,” Phil said.
“For me, the arguments of trees versus food are misleading. It is not a zero-sum game of one land use against another.”
How will forestry help farming? As well as timber revenue, trees can deliver carbon lockup, erosion control, water filtering as well as shade and summer drought forage.
There’s also the dairy sector’s $8 billion export returns from milk powder, which currently hinge on coal-fired dryers.
In the face of market signals, the dairy industry is moving as rapidly as it technically can to convert its dryers to wood fuel. It will require a lot of wood – potentially millions of tonnes.
Oddly enough, one potential competitor for this supply of otherwise often waste wood, are dairy farmers who use biodegradable wood chips for their standoff pads.
Phil said widely-circulated 2020 analysis by Price Waterhouse Coopers showed average returns from plantation forestry per hectare, per year are much higher that from sheep and beef farming.
He agreed there were a lot of qualifications to this report, including that it dealt in averages and didn’t break it down by region. But most importantly was the fact a plantation forest doesn’t provide much of a return, if any, for nearly three decades after it is planted.
“When a woodlot rotation is established on a property you can see it as a market countercyclical. It can help sheep and beef farmers through the current low prices for wool.”
Both forestry and horticulture are anticipated to deliver $2.6b worth of extra income a year by 2030. The Forest Industry Transformation Plan would not only see more products, such as biofuels and innovative engineered wood products, but more sawmills producing more timber for domestic and export, thus reducing the reliance on the log market.
Wooden construction will increasingly replace the use of steel and concrete which emit – rather than store – carbon.
Global warming is another driver. The Climate Change Commission anticipates 380-thousand hectares of new exotic planting will be necessary to meet its carbon budgeting to 2050.
Not only are we the best growers of radiata pine in the world, we also grow Douglas fir very well. But other species with potential recognised by the Climate Change Commission in its recommendations to the government include redwoods, oaks and acacia, for instance.
There are more than 300,000 hectares of this total exotic estate found on farmland.
Along with the employment rates necessary to maintain sheep and beef farming and production forestry, the labour force needed to establish and maintain the extra 300,000ha of indigenous forest the government wants to see in the next 15 years could be considerable. That can only be good for the viability of remote rural communities, Phil said.
Then there are forests planted solely for carbon returns.
“Nobody at the moment knows how big the area of carbon-only forests are. It is known that such a lock-up-and-leave forest will employ hardly anyone.”
Phil agreed with those who argue carbon-only forests should not be planted on land capable of sustainable production of either farm products or timber.
“There is plenty of marginal or remote land which should be utilised first,” he said.
With less or no surveillance, management and rotation compared to a production forest, carbon-only forestry leads to an increased risk of pests and diseases and wildfire as they age. This needs a government policy response.
The He Waka E Noa initiative includes looking at how farmers can be rewarded for locking up carbon in small woodlots and riparian strips.
Farmers may even be able to claim for providing what are often called ecosystem services, Phil told the Summit.
These are the more intangible and difficult to measure environmental benefits which go with more trees on the land, such as erosion control, biodiversity and water filtering.
Five years ago, NZIER calculated that the commercial forest estate was worth somewhere $1b-$9b a year in ecosystem services.
“If farmers are to be charged by the state for pollution and emissions, so too farmers should be rewarded for preventing and reversing those discharges, at either a processor or individual farm level or both.”
On claims overseas foresters are taking over all our farmland, Phil said in the week before the Summit he looked up the Overseas Investment Office monthly notice of such new approvals for planting forests.
“It was typically for just one block of 320 hectares. At this rate, yes, all our sheep and beef land could go to offshore owners – but it would take more than 2000 years for it to happen.
All these false issues are secondary to the carbon sequestration capacity of growing forestry and the need for a policy which understands how it works, he said.
An established area of native bush holds carbon but doesn’t add to it. The Ministry for the Environment estimates that about two million tonnes of carbon dioxide are locked up per year by additions to the volume of native trees on farmland.
In comparison, MfE also estimates that it was the exotic trees on sheep and beef land which were much more active. They were locking up five million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year as recently as 2018.
Unfortunately, MfE also calculates that will flip into yearly carbonemissions of five million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year as these farmland trees go into their harvesting phase.
“So, farms are a long way from greenhouse gas neutrality at the moment. It remains to be seen what the effect of reduced stock numbers will be, or even whether they will fall.
“And then, if the anticipated transport sector reductions don’t occur, where does it leave the government decision-makers a decade down the track?”
They could buy carbon credits offshore. If there are any credible credits left, they would be hugely expensive.
“Or the government could hit agriculture hard. I’m sure that would not go down well with many of you here today.”
It seems the government has realised it needs to keep its forest options open, with a deferral of any policy to require a resource consent for planting up arable land of more than 50 hectares, Phil said.
There are already more than 400,000 hectares of exotic forest on land capability classes up to five. Nobody seemed to care about this previously, so it was a surprise that both major parties expressed concerns about this during the last election.
Producing food – or wool from sheep for that matter – is not the only worthwhile production from a block of land. It should be a landowner choice to make their own decisions about what to produce from that land.
“For most farmers the decision will be woodlots on a farm which continues to run stock.
“And, contrary to one prevailing myth – they can go back to running stock if they want to,” Phil said.