Saturday, April 13, 2024

PULPIT: Time makes difference for trees

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I feel the farming lobby and the Government are talking past each other.  Part of the problem is one of differing timescales.
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Farmers are used to thinking in terms of more than one generation so 50 years is a medium time scale. Governments think in terms of electoral cycles so five to 10 years is a medium time scale.

I would like to look at the points Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor makes, Forestry no threat to farming, Farmers Weekly, November 18, one by one.

While it is true we have 12.1 million hectares of farmland it is misleading when talking of land available for afforestation. 

Land suitable for forestry is sheep and beef hill country because dairy, cropping and horticultural land is too valuable for afforestation. There are 5.3m hectares of that class of land that is not already under woody vegetation or under tussock, which no one is suggesting should be planted because of its special ecology and the danger of wilding pines.

Yes, since 2002 a fair chunk of  flat to rolling forestry land  on the Central Plateau, that was originally planted in forestry during the Great Depression, has been converted to dairy. At the time of planting no one knew that 500g/ha of cobalt could turn that land into highly productive grazing. But the Emissions Trading Scheme has largely stopped conversion from forestry to pasture.

While it might be true the Government has no explicit policy to plant pastoral land the ETS is Government policy. 

Farms regularly come on the market because of the natural cycle of farmers retiring or exiting the industry for other reasons. 

A carbon price of $25/tonne under the ETS means forestry can outbid farming on all classes of sheep and beef land except land under a mixed stock and cropping regime. 

The result of the ETS policy is that whole farm conversions are taking place and will increase when the price of carbon increases. For sure, overseas buyers generate a lot of emotion, however, for the fate of rural communities and their economy it makes no difference if the owner is in Auckland or Austria.

The work of Fergus Rutherford on the discounted rates of return on pastoral farming versus forestry, when augmented with $25/t for carbon, clearly shows forestry interests can outbid farmers even on  highly productive hill country farms. 

That is demonstrated by two recent sales to forestry: Hadleigh Station, a third cultivatable, and Mangaaruhe Station, a past winner of the farmer of the year title. 

The result of ETS policy is a reduction in food production to offset carbon emissions, a direct breach of article 2.1 of the Paris Accord.

The price of carbon under the ETS is the real driver of land use change. Unfortunately, it is the Billion Trees programme that has captured most of the publicity. 

The smart forestry money, especially that investing in carbon-only forestry, realises a much higher rate of return can be gained by not accepting the conditions of the Billion Trees programme, planting pines and foregoing any Government grant.

While it might be true that the purpose of the Billion Trees programme is to integrate trees onto farms, O’Connor’s time horizon of 2028 is too short to reveal the true, long-term effect of afforestation. The ETS incentive to plant trees will continue to be the driver of land change well  beyond the 10-year Billion Trees programme.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has modelled the policy. By 2075, a medium term horizon for farmers, he predicts 5.4m hectares of land will be planted to offset carbon emissions. With only 5.3m hectares of land available for planting, the phrase right tree, right place is revealed as having meaning only in the short term.

The idea being promoted that two-thirds of the Billion Trees will be native is misleading. The subsidised planting of trees is designed to kick-start the eventual planting of a billion trees, by providing grants for 60m trees, 40m of which will be natives. While 40m is two-thirds of 60m it is only 4% of a billion.

I absolutely agree with O’Connor the Government doesn’t hate farmers and is not interested in destroying rural communities. I feel that tension has been largely exacerbated by poor media coverage of the issues. However, O’Connor needs to acknowledge unintended consequences can flow from even the best-intentioned policy.  

Both rural communities and the Government feel under threat from the other side. 

We need to work together on this. 

We need to refrain from making misleading statements that bolster our side of the argument. 

We both need to acknowledge the valid points the other side has made.  

In areas where we cannot agree we need to allow science and the facts to inform our decisions. Of greatest importance is to decide on what is a valid time scale for making irreversible decisions on land use.

Who am I?
Dave Read has spent the last 30 years farming at Wairoa. His interests include sustainable farming with trees for fodder and erosion control and breeding low-input sheep and beef cattle. He has spent the last two years lobbying for the use of mainstream science in climate policy. He just completed work with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to establish willow and poplar tree spacing that will qualify for 30% canopy cover under the ETS.

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