Friday, December 8, 2023

Year one of trees project mixed

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With the first year’s seedlings in the ground under the Government’s Billion Trees policy the industry has mixed views on prospects for hitting 50,000ha a year of new plantings until 2028.
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The tree-planting season this year has almost closed with foresters reporting generally good conditions nationally for seedling establishment.

In Northland forest operator Kevin Ihaka said the season has been long and generally operators have met the increased demand for plantings with enough labour. 

However, he is concerned farmers need to plan further ahead if they want to optimise their farm forest options that include generous planting subsidies.

Patrick Murray, owner of Murray’s Nurseries in Woodville, said he sold 10.2 million seedlings this season or about 98% of what he had anticipated. 

Typically, planting contracts work on a take or pay basis. 

His seedling count was enough to cover about 10,000ha and was well up on the 5m he sold the year before.

“But you also need to put into context that we already had about 3m of those extra seedlings contracted regardless of the Government’s Billion Trees policy so the difference of about 2m is roughly the additional plantings.”

Next year looks similar for numbers with 10.2m scheduled for planting.

Murray’s plantings were almost entirely pines with only a small amount of manuka going in.

Despite the Government’s efforts to pull away from pine its popularity generally reflects the preference of larger forestry operators.

“That is who has got the money and who will pay for the land.”

Government grants to landowners to plant native trees appear generous at $4000 a hectare, compared to $1500 a hectare for exotics, with a maximum area of 300ha permitted for landowners.

“Native takes time to establish a salable crop for planting, about two to three years, and given its planting density it is expensive to establish.”

But Murray is concerned the Government is disconnected from the reality of land ownership. He predicted two years ago there would be wholesale farm sales to forestry and takes little satisfaction seeing it happen.

“The small plantings the Government is targeting are not going to be eligible to claim carbon from trees planted after 2025 so why would you bother? They are in the wrong space. So we will see whole farms planted in pines with or without government grants.” 

He does expect greater caution by large land buyers as Government and council attention is drawn to the perceived risk of pastoral land loss. 

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has said the Government will seek to tweak things around foreign land purchases for forestry.

But Murray urges farming communities to respond to the perceived threat of afforestation over the coming nine years by joining the fray, even creating farm forestry co-operatives in sub-catchments.

“Rural communities have been built on co-operatives before, why not for trees? If a group of farmers in a sub-catchment can get together and allocate 1000ha to forestry they diversify their land use and may also deal with nutrient loss and water quality issues at the same time.”

He believes that might increase now the Government’s greenhouse gas policy demands farmers find ways to reduce gas losses or risk entering the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Council (Horizons) member and forester John Turkington agrees with Murray’s concerns over future plantings.

The low-hanging options for planting are being rapidly filled with a lot of trees being planted for carbon alone.

“So it comes down to capital from here and you have political changes coming through all the time. 

“It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette – reports on future carbon values vary so much, some at $700/t, some at $200/t, some at zero.” 

It is prescient a large nursery like Murray’s has only the same quantity of seedlings booked for next season that it had this season, given its smaller portion of new plantings.

Turkington’s forestry company planted 1.5m seedlings this year or about 1400ha worth, of which only a third were also new plantings. The rest was replacement forestry.

Both Turkington and Murray maintain the single biggest obstacle to more plantings is the national definition of erodible land with the red-zoned land on steepest country not allowed to be planted.

That is pushing forestry investors down country to higher-value yellow or orange land running head-to-head with pastoral land use.

“There really needs to be a meeting of the minds over what we are trying to do with this land. There is a real disconnect here on policy,” Turkington said.

Both men also agree whole farm purchases are a reflection of rural demographics. An aging farmer population and shortage of farming capital means the sector is struggling with succession and forestry will continue to provide an option for farmers seeking an exit in years to come.

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