Poplars provide shade and in dry summers like the one just past, an alternative source of feed; during winter though they lose their leaves allowing the grass to grow unshaded. PHOTOS/GIANINA SCHWANECKE
As part of a six-month research project towards her Master of Journalism, GIANINA SCHWANECKE looks at concerns that government policy is driving afforestation of productive farmland.
Nestled between Gladstone and Martinborough, scattered between family farms and lifestyle blocks, you’ll find Waikoukou, a 460-hectare farm where I’m meeting third generation farmer Peter Gawith.
As the Toyota Landcruiser hauls us up and down winding hill country farm tracks, it’s clear to see why tree planting is such a necessary part of farm planning here.
Heavy rainfall can wash away huge chunks of hillside and grazing land, destroying key infrastructure such as farm tracks and fence lines or deposit sediment into waterways.
After a large rain event in 1977, he lost about 20 per cent of the hill country to slips.
If he couldn’t protect the hill country, he would lose the farm.
As we climb, he points to towering pines, poplars, and eucalyptus trees which have secured the hillside – like “concrete and steel”.
“We have better than 60 per cent coverage of the property in terms of our vulnerable soils and don’t have the level of discharge.”
Strategically planted and spaced 15-20 metres apart, the trees allow for dual land use purposes and stock grazing.
They provide shade, and in dry summers like the one just past, an alternative source of feed; during winter though they lose their leaves allowing the grass to grow unshaded.
A hard wood variety, they also earn carbon credits Emissions Trading Scheme.
“Poplars have twice the root strength of pine trees,” he says.
“And underneath we’ve got a livestock operation underneath, whereas pine is just pine.”
A small portion of the property has been planted in pine though – some blocks are even on their second rotation.
“It’s really the class of land we can’t protect with our two-tier system, so we’ve retired it completely. For every bit of land I’ve retired, I’ve never lost a stock unit.”
He says land use should be kept “as open as possible”.
“You have to be so flexible because every year is different. It’s about adapting to the needs of the environment and the economy.”
Some plantation pine was important for diversity in case of biosecurity threats such as foot and mouth disease or M. bovis.
On the other hand, pine diseases or forest fires could also impact forest-only blocks.
“That’s why it comes down to ‘right tree, right place’. Planting trees and having plantation forestry on the farm is important, but not the whole farm.”
Gawith tells me there has been a lot of farmer angst about whole farms being sold for forestry, with the ETS changing how land is valued, distorting the price, and making carbon farming more lucrative
“It will hurt us in the future; the farms that went for sale in the northern Wairarapa were very often stepping stone farms for young farmers.”
According to New Zealand Beef and Lamb, about 70,000ha of productive sheep and beef land has been, or is in the process of being, converted into forestry since 2019.
It’s a concern shared by Federated Farmers Wairarapa president William Beetham.
However, it’s not the government’s One Billion Trees policy which is driving these changes, he said. “It’s a policy that has been blamed for afforestation of good sheep and beef country where perhaps it’s not the policy that’s caused that.”
Launched in November 2018 and overseen by Te Uru Rakau, it aims to double the number of trees planted in New Zealand over the next 10 years.
The root of the problem is carbon trading through the Emissions Trading Scheme, Beetham said.
“In reality, afforestation is being driven by carbon trading which doesn’t distinguish between anything.”
Sitting alongside 1BT, the ETS is New Zealand’s main tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It underwent massive changes in June this year, including the establishment of a provisional emissions budget, a NZ ETS cap, and price control settings.
Most significantly the price floor offering of carbon units was raised from $20 to $35 per unit.
“I’d like to be rather blunt,” Beetham said, “we’re moving into a space of absolute madness. It’s poorly informed and thought out policy that has significant intergenerational effects.”
It’s not just rural communities which should be concerned, he said.
“It takes jobs away from people, income away from the country and has a significant environmental impact for generations to come.”
One of his main concerns is how it opened this up to overseas buyers – while the carbon units can’t be sold to overseas companies, they can be sold within New Zealand, cashed up and the money taken out of the country.
It also has significant long-term consequences, and unlike other government policy, such as social welfare payment amounts, was difficult to reverse, he said.
“There’s no thought about what’s going to create the best result for our community whether that’s environmentally, socially or economically.”
He felt the changes were being rushed through, and the public was not properly informed.
“When you look at how 1BT is portrayed and how these issues came out, I can understand how the media has to look for that quick sound bite.
“These are issues with quite a level of complexity and are delivered to the public, who have no understanding, in a two-minute slot.”
It also related to how 1BT came to symbolise the issue.
“[It] was initially designed as a programme for jobs and to drive afforestation of certain areas of New Zealand.”
While there were initially some issues with this, he commended Te Uru Rakau for adapting the policy – one which he now thinks will significantly benefit the country.
Contrary to portrayals within the media, he said forestry and farming shared close ties.
“In the area where we farm in, there would just about not be a farm that has some sort of forestry on it. It’s an important part of our community.”
Concerns about afforestation of good farmland were shared by many in the forestry industry, he said.
“The ‘right tree, right place’ is something that we should all think about it.”
For Erica Kinder, chief executive of the Southern North Island Wood Council, forestry is a family business.
Growing up on the family farm in Marlborough, her father started planting pine trees in the late 1980s.
“It’s sort of what got me interested. A few people had started doing logging in the Sounds and they just made outrageously good money.”
Kinder studied a Bachelor of Forestry Science where she met her husband, an owner at Forest Enterprises, and now their daughter is in her first year of a forestry degree.
She said, she and others in the industry were surprised by the backlash from rural communities.
“I think forestry was more popular in the 90s than it is now,” she said.
“Most locals just don’t seem to know. [Forestry is] out of sight, out of mind.
“Apart from logging trucks driving through towns that’s all people see.”
The SNI Wood Council has been going for years, though others in different parts of the country have been going for far longer.
The relationship between farmers and foresters has always been tense, she told me.
“Foresters consider themselves farmers, they’re just farming trees.”
She said some farmers see forestry as a threat, in competition for different types of land use.
“It’s about the money. Forestry simply makes more money per hectare that every other land use, except for maybe grapes.”
But pinning down exact figures, particularly on a regional scale, is difficult, she said.
“Getting those figures – how many people are employed in Wairarapa, how much does it contribute to our economy – it’s hard to define and companies don’t like to give up that information.”
According to Infometrics, the forestry and logging industry is believed to have made up 0.07 per cent of the Masterton District’s contribution to growth last year, compared to 0.33 per cent for sheep, beef cattle and grain farming.
Sheep, beef cattle and grain farming made up 1.3 per cent of the district’s GDP compared to 1.3 per cent for forestry and logging.
Combined, the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector brought in $115 million last year and employed 12.9 per cent of the population.
“The amount of money forestry makes compared to the amount of people it employs is incredible,” Kinder said.
The first step in developing commercial forestry is looking at the geography. Where is the land? What is its access like?
“Transport costs for your forest are the biggest cost – getting the logs off the land,” she explained.
The next step is figuring out what you want to do with the trees. Are they for export? Will they be processed at a local mill? If so what grade?
Forestry and farming are also interrelated in other ways – among the many products processed in New Zealand, logs are turned into firewood, framing timber and logs which are used as fence posts, by farmers.
It takes between 22 and 25 years for the trees to reach maturity, ready for harvest – a figure improved with good genetics.
It’s not about the age but the size of the tree and Wairarapa trees have the third highest growth rate.
“The more you’ve pruned and thinned the longer you’re going to leave them because it slows the growth process down,” Kinder said.
“It’s quite a big trend that there’s less and less tending. It’s all labour intensive and extremely expensive.”
Pine grows well in New Zealand and its simply what customers overseas want, she said.
“In commercial forestry it’s radiata pine. There are no commercial minor species plantations.”
Contrary to concerns from groups like 50 Shades of Green, she said the One Billion Trees [1BT] scheme is focused primarily on natives.
Kinder said she is not aware of any wood council members who had applied for the grants, nor is her husband. Similarly, many of their members have not been eligible for carbon credits under the ETS.
“The ETS for [our members] is something they were already in,” she said. “There hasn’t been any change.
“It’s for people who have been outside of that system and are now coming into that system where the big gains will be made in planting trees.”
Those taking advantage of this are outliers, she said.
“It’s not the norm. We’ve probably seen more of it here in Wairarapa than anywhere else, and Wairoa, but it’s not really happening.
“It’s simply not for commercial forestry companies. It’s for small-scale landowners.”
The primary goal of 1BT is to get trees in the ground she said; ‘right tree, right place’ is just a meaningless slogan.
“I don’t think it matters what tree. Climate change doesn’t care what tree it is.”
Kinder strongly believes farmers need to be better educated and empowered about 1BT and its potential benefits for biodiversity on their farm.
“It’s about incorporating trees into the landscape.
“It’s farmers and iwi. They’re the landowners and the ones who can apply for the funding.
“I think they need the tools to do it themselves.”
Until more recently, Maori uptake of 1BT funding has been fairly limited and one of the key areas Forestry New Zealand [Te Uru Rakau] has sought to address, with only four per cent of funding granted for Maori-owned land.
One of the key barriers has been the scope of land ownership and governance models where whanau groups may hold rights in relation to parcels of land which fall within a wider block owned by iwi or hapu level governance entities.
These parcels might be too small for viable forestry and thus they may need to negotiate with neighbouring landowners
This was true for the Rangitane iwi post-settlement governance entity, Tu Mai Ra Trust.
Its chair Jason Kerehi said, while the trust was interested in 1BT, it hadn’t really applied in its context.
“There wasn’t any new opportunity for us. We don’t have much land. And the land we do have is covered in trees.”
Last August, close to 6000ha of forested land was returned to the iwi – Ngaumu Forest, comprising of three former Crown forestry blocks, including Castlehill, Tinui, and the Waihora portion of Whareama Crown. Originally planted in the 1940s to help stabilise hill slopes, repurpose marginal land, and supply building timber, it was one of the first major forests planted by the Crown.
He said they would continue to work with Masterton-based wood processing plant JNL, which has owned the current cutting rights since 1990, while the trust decided what it wanted to do with the land in the long term. “It’s early days for us and we would want to understand how the industry works.
“We are learning about the land that we’ve got back.
“I remember talking to JNL about it and the reality is all that land is taken up in trees either in commercial forestry or native vegetation which you just don’t touch.”
There are pockets of native vegetation and several streams running through the different blocks, he said.
He felt these were “taken care of” by JNL, which had a strong environmental plan which aimed to minimise damage to the streams’ water quality during the harvesting process.
Future plans include the possibility of two further rotations, but this has yet to be decided.
In the interim, the trust has developed a good working relationship with JNL, and forestry is a big employer for many of their rangitahi [youth].
“It’s another work stream,” Kerehi said.
While the trust had not sought funding from 1BT for tree planting, they had looked at developing an application for the overarching Provincial Growth Fund for programmes to train young Maori men in silviculture.
The returned forestry had also served to help feed local whanau.
“The hunting has been at the forefront. We put it out there to our membership to register [to be able to access the land for hunting] and they’ve embraced it.
“It’s all about getting food for people, for whanau, and sharing it around.”
He said it was a great opportunity to allow Maori access to land and hunting opportunities which they might have otherwise been restricted from.
“From my perspective, we’re not huge owners of land. There are some pockets of land that are owned privately by Maori that are handed down.
“Iwi have arguably a stronger interest in forestry and fishery because we’ve got quotas in the fisheries and we own forestry.”
He was unsure why Maori seemed to be a ‘silent stakeholder’ in media coverage of 1BT.
Kerehi had read a fair amount about the subject and understood it was a controversial policy, especially with regards to concerns about farmers’ fears about loss of productive pastoral land – much of the trust’s own land is also in agriculture, he said.
“I know there’s mixed opinions. Can our land take more trees? Of course it can, because it used to be covered in vegetation. But what impact does that have on land, water?”
He was optimistic there was opportunity in the programme but said it would be a while before the trust would be in a position to benefit from it.
Along dozens of walking trails in the urban Lansdowne suburb of Masterton, the 1BT programme has contributed to the planting of more than 5000 native trees so far with 5000 more yet to go in.
Lansdowne Residents Association Incorporated secretary and Masterton District Councillor Sandy Ryan said the primary purpose was to help develop the area’s biodiversity.
“It was about clean air, clean water and trying to control the impacts of climate change.
“We’re getting told the Wairarapa is hotter and drier which is evident. The more trees we plant, the more we can control temperature.”
The association wanted indigenous plants which might have once been there, which were locally sourced.
Ryan heard about 1BT from the Mayor Lyn Patterson and put in an application for 12,000 trees over two years.
The application was very straightforward, though she had help from local environmentalists Ray Stewart and Stan Braaksma.
“They were very embracing that our community wanted to do something. The most complicated part was you had to submit detailed plans of your plantings.”
It took just over three weeks for them to learn the application had been successful and they had been granted $64,000 for the plantings and a further $10,000 for a negotiated lime track.
This funding includes the cost of sourcing the trees, preparing them for planting and ongoing maintenance costs.
“It’s very generous funding,” she said. “That’s why I don’t know why it’s not happening more across the town. We need to really escalate taking advantage of this funding.”
The association’s funding came from the Matariki Tu Rakau fund which was aimed at community groups developing projects to commemorate veterans – the Lansdowne project includes an ANZAC memorial walkway with life-size soldier cut-out sculptures.
It’s also been expanded to recognise members of local communities for their service or contribution to New Zealand through living memorials.
To date, $2,687,100 of the $5.5 million set aside for this partnership has been allocated, according to the most recent report from Te Uru Rakau.
Ryan called it the “government’s gift”.
“They’re struggling to get the money out there. They’re adapting it all the time to make it more accessible.”
She said this opened it up to other areas like private reserves, schools and church grounds.
While the programme is often portrayed as being for farmers and large landowners, she was sympathetic to concerns about afforestation of productive farmland.
“The problem with forestry is that farmers get paid to plant and it’s very lucrative. But really our long-term future has got to be in food production.”
There were lessons to be learnt from their own experience, she said.
“We didn’t quite get the plantings right; we’ve had about 20 per cent loss. To be fair it was an increasingly dry summer.”
The list of native plant species has also been revised to include harakeke bushes, karaka trees, tarata [or lemonwood trees], and korokio trees.
“We only ever set out to revegetate what would have been there.”
On the biodiversity side of things, they’ve certainly succeeded.
Ryan said people were often “stunned” by the amount of birdlife in her home garden, which is dominated by natives, and already they were seeing a difference along the trails.
“We also really wanted to bring back the birds to the trails. It’s nice to think that as it matures, it will bring people to the area because it’s so pretty.”
The next half of the trees will be planted as part of a council-driven employment scheme later this year.
She is currently liaising with other Masterton residential groups to encourage them to apply and talking with neighbours about developing a shared reserve area.
University of Canterbury Professor of Forestry, Dr David Norton likes the philosophy behind the 1BT programme, but as an ecologist doesn’t like homogenous landscapes.
“I personally believe we need a lot more woody vegetation.
“We’ve deforested from 80 per cent wooded area in New Zealand.
“I’ve got some concerns about 1BT about putting in fast-growing carbon fixing trees in the ground without the bigger questions of what we’re doing.”
He worried about the long-term consequences of a quick carbon fix, particularly as it is price driven.
“What about all the other consequences of harvesting those trees?
“What are the downstream consequences or broader ecosystem consequences?
“Are we putting trees in the right places?
“I’d be totally happy if every commercial forest went into plant forestry and had a covenant put on it which said they couldn’t harvest.
“Then we’d have the potential to convert it to natives in the long term.”
He said commercial forests purely for carbon sequestration or timber harvesting did not offer the same benefits as native plantations.
“You don’t get the same carbon return short term [with natives] but you do for 300-500 years. And you’re going to get the other benefits – cultural, biodiversity, water quality.”
Benefits such as increased biodiversity was one which was supported by the sheep and beef hill country farmers whom he worked with.
“Biodiversity offers a lot to farmers. We are seeing the dawning of a new age where farmers are seeing the benefit of looking after things.”
He said 25 per cent of all remaining native forestry in New Zealand was on sheep and beef farms.
For many, this involved a bit of forestry here and a bit there as opposed to mass-scale plantings, he said.
This also offered a “market premium” for New Zealand products as producers learn to better communicate how things were made.
“Our environmental story is going to become more important.
“It’s going to be done by getting people in rural environments to feel they’ve got ownership of it.”
For Norton, it’s not about turning back the clock and covering the whole country in forests, native or exotic.
It’s about protecting those things which are “uniquely New Zealand” and creating diverse landscapes to help mitigate climate change in the long term.
He liked that 1BT provided an environment to think differently about forestry in New Zealand and was hopeful that it would survive the upcoming election.
The chief executive behind Crown research institute Scion is a firm believer in “right tree, right place, right purpose”.
Dr Julian Elder said 1BT highlighted the opportunity New Zealand forestry brought.
“All the work we’ve been doing for well over 10 years points to the opportunities around sustainability.
“We’ve seen growing interest from all over the world. That positions New Zealand in a very positive place.”
Forestry serves to lock in carbon in two ways; carbon sequestration from the actual growing processes which stops when the tree reaches maturity, and secondly, the carbon remains stored in timber manufactured products. “It’s probably the biggest opportunity New Zealand has ever had.
“I liken it to when refrigerated shipping came about.
“We are great at growing things, great at the science.”
The institute’s role is to help understand what this means and provide advice for landowners to make their own decisions – in this way Elder seemed very supportive of 1BT and government policy being led from the bottom up.
“For us, it’s always about making good land use decisions.
“What we are very keen on is to help provide the evidence to allow landowners to make the better decisions for their land. They have to be made by the landowners.”
This was the same for farm owners as it was for Maori, whom Elder said were key stakeholders in forestry and their research efforts.
Of the tension between farming and forestry, he said they were complementary industries.
“If you are making the right decisions, they are not competitive industries. We’ve got the opportunity to create new industries.”
The research institute has contributed to more than 70 years of research about tree growing in New Zealand and helped improve the genetics of tree species like pinus radiata.
He acknowledged it was not until recently that more work had been done to understand native trees.
“At the moment, it’s clear that 70 years of research has been put into making pinus radiata very efficient and not enough into indigenous forestry.”
Indigenous forestry research first started in the late 1980s.
Work on a totara based on-farm industry with processing is due to conclude its first phase soon.
One of the biggest challenges with any research relating to trees was the length of the time they took to mature, he said.
“Prior to now, if you wanted a better growing tree [a faster growing tree], you start selection and growing, and this takes 22 years.
“After 22 years, you get the data to start growing the strains so you can plant for the nursery.
“It seems that’s changing quite quickly because of technology. We are aiming to bring that life cycle down to about seven years.”
One of the differences that has been observed with natives versus exotics, is the difficulty growing them.
“The problem with native versus exotic is the cost for the indigenous seedlings is quite high, and the survival rate is not.”
However, natural forests don’t require the same level of management as exotics and in the long-term lock away greater amounts of carbon.
This is where “right tree, right place, right purpose” comes in.
“You need to ask what the purpose is,” Elder said.
“If it’s to sequester as much carbon in the next 10 years as possible, you’ll be planting exotics because they grow faster.
“If you’re looking at erosion susceptible plains, then you are looking at specific trees and management.”
He said ideally 1BT was a “mosaic” of different plantings in different places for different needs like at Peter Gawith’s Longbush farm.
1BT two years on
As of January this year, 149,174,000 trees have been planted in total and $73,923,920 of the 1BT Fund has been allocated.
Current estimates put the potential for carbon sequestration through 1BT funded trees to be approximately 1.5 million tonnes by 2030 and 6.9 m tonnes by 2050 – the equivalent of the annual emissions of 3.5 million cars.
The current portion of indigenous trees planted falls short of the Te Uru Rakau’s two-thirds native to one-third exotic goal, now sitting at about 51 per cent – though this is a significant improvement on 36 per cent for June last year.
Much of the media coverage around 1BT has centred around concerns that the programme is contributing to whole-farm conversion of forestry.
However, Te Uru Rakau states, “the intent is for trees to be integrated into the landscape to complement and diversify our existing land uses, rather than large-scale land conversions to forestry”.
To date 69 farms have received funding relating to plantings over 3294 hectares, the majority for areas between 5 and 49 hectares.
The vast majority of land approved for planting to date has also been of lower production value – less than nine per cent of the approved area is on class 1-4 land.