Friday, December 8, 2023

Native tree windfall from covid

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Promised infrastructure projects and massive injections of covid-19 cash are setting the native tree sector up for windfall opportunities, providing the industry can set itself on a clear course to capitalise on the opportunities.
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New Zealand Plant Producers chief executive Matthew Dolan hopes the industry’s recently hatched action plan will provide that path. It has to ensure the focus is on growing capacity to supply a burgeoning demand for natives coming from farmers and government projects.

“The funding for native plantings is now coming from a few directions. Most recently this includes $200 million of funding for ecology projects and the $100m announced for waterway fencing and riparian planting. 

“The Auckland Council also has a million-trees project to help landowners in the region. There is quite a tapestry of funding there now.”

On top of that is almost $12 billion of infrastructure spend already committed by the Government early this year, which includes $7b in road and rail projects that will require significant native tree plantings.

Native trees are also expected to form 20% or 200m of the Billion Trees to be planted by 2028. 

An earlier survey by the sector found it risks coming up short by 40m trees without significant investment in training, technology and supply chain co-ordination. 

Overall, the sector will need to double production of native seedlings over the next 10 years. One of the greatest constraints is skills and aspects of lost vocational training methods badly needed to be resurrected, Dolan said.

“We used to have nursery training through horticultural science degrees, diploma and Royal Institute certificates but they have been lost in time.”

Growing the numbers of trees also means training in new technology, particularly around propagation techniques and the use of robotics.

He welcomes the chance to get some money for training through the $1.6b set aside in the covid-19 Budget in May.

“When you compare this industry to kiwifruit, which has had 6% year-on-year growth, ours has been 10-15% but 7.5% is the upper end of a sustainable growth rate in volume terms.”

The industry’s action plan includes a call for greater unity at a time when opportunities have never been better for the sector, he said.

“We are finding with infrastructure projects that they are requiring more, not fewer, plantings as the value of natives in these projects for soil stability, visual appeal and noise reduction are better understood.”

The difficulties of harvesting seeds to supply the native market have also been addressed in the action plan. Often native seeds can be harvested only in specific, high-yielding mast years and the seeds do not always store well for any length of time.

“There is a real skills challenge there and you are talking about harvesting seeds from often valuable and scarce stands of natives. We really need a national strategy around co-ordinating efforts on seed-harvesting.”

Podocarps like totara and kaihikatea can be particularly problematic for seed harvest.

Demand is also growing from farmers as more do farm environment plans that integrate forest planting into farm systems over three to five years.

“Increasingly, it is a case that you cannot just roll up with your trailer and grab some natives. We are encouraging farmers to complete their plans and then link them up ahead of time with a nursery that will be able to supply those seedlings when they are needed.”

Despite the opportunities covid has bought the industry is concerned about the amount of funding intended to subsidise nurseries, often volunteer or not for profit, Dolan said.

“There is a need to open up more land for trees rather than supporting more nurseries. The sector is already walking on the edge in terms of the number of not-for-profit operations already there.”

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