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. This week she speaks to farmers to understand the relationship between farming and forestry.

Peter Gawith.

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.”

Next week: Forestry industry perspective.