Farm leader angers 'foreign-owned' foresters

30 Jul 2010

Federated Farmers have drawn the ire of foresters with a claim that "foreign-owned" forestry companies could destroy New Zealand’s rural economy by turning farmland into carbon forests.

President Don Nicolson says that plans by three foreign-owned forestry companies to plant more forests to harvest carbon could cost the sheep and beef industry $5 billion.

His comments were a reaction those from by Ernslaw One, Blakeley Pacific, and Rayonier New Zealand that there are some two million hectares of farmland that could be planted into forest, from which carbon credits could be collected.

Nicolson says that this amount of planting would "level" vulnerable rural communities.

"Carbon forestry doesn't need the same labour force as a farm and in some instances, after planting will require none," he said in a statement.

"What will become of the shearers, mechanics, stock and station agents, builders or vets?

"Trees won't support the labour force farming does in the heartland.  If large scale conversion to trees takes place, it'll rip the heart out of our rural towns and provincial centres.

"We simply don't wish to see our living towns become ghost towns. What we want is profitable farming instead of these misguided legislated incentives not to farm grasses or annual crops for human food production.

"And for what end I ask?  So that these foreign-owned foresters who control 72 per cent of our pine forests, can all benefit from our hard-earned dollars?"

But Blakely Pacific managing director Phil Taylor rejects any implication that his company isn’t interested in New Zealand.

"Blakely Pacific's owners have a long association with New Zealand, dating from the 1860s when its timber was used during the Otago gold rush, and in the construction of many Government buildings," he said.

"We have no ‘grand plan’, but firmly believe that forests can offset farm emissions and improve overall farm profitability."

Taylor says that Nicolson’s attack shows that he is unwilling to provide the leadership that his community needs to face the future with confidence.

"He seems unable to see the ‘good for the trees’," Taylor told Carbon News.

"The Emissions Trading Scheme provides an opportunistic lifeline for many New Zealand rural landowners and communities who struggle to turn a profit from land on which the topography, stability and biological productivity make it extremely difficult to do so."

Taylor says that at a conservative carbon price of $22 a tonne, it is possible to make an 8 per cent return on capital from hill-country forestry - higher than the returns from sheep or cattle.  With a sensible combination of trees and animals on the same land, higher rates than this are potentially achievable.

"It is this potential that is resulting in many farmers, farm foresters and foresters working alongside each other to protect and enhance their land and lifestyle for future generations."

Forest Owners' Association head Peter Berg says that there is room for foresters and farmers in New Zealand, and that Nicolson appears to have lost touch with his members.

"Farmers, farm foresters and foresters are of course stirred up at the moment because the ETS offers both a potential opportunity and creates some issues for all of them," he said.

"Nicholson acknowledges that there is a place for trees on farms ‘where it is suited’, and we agree the aspirations of all landowners, big and small, could include tree planting on reasonable amounts of marginal hill country that is better suited both economically, and environmentally, to forestry."

"However, there is no secret plan to invade two million hectares of farmland. None of the companies he has singled out have any plans to commence planting on this sort of scale."

Berg says that at the rate of planting of the past few years, it would take 500 years to plant two million hectares of new forest – a doubling of the current forest estate which took 120 years to establish.

"At present the most obvious expressions of planting intent seem to be coming from farmers as evidenced by the Carbon News story about a month ago on Neil Walker‘s efforts to convert low productivity land to a higher value use."

Forest and Agriculture Minister David Carter says that farmers are free to decide for themselves whether or not to establish new forest on their land.

"“The forestry industry is hugely important to our economy and our environment," he said.

"Commercial forestry is New Zealand's third largest export earner, at $3.7 billion, contributing 2.8 per cent to GDP and employing around 20,000 people.

"Environmentally, forestry contributes to erosion control, biodiversity and climate change mitigation.

"Many sheep and beef farmers have areas of their farms that are steep, erosion-prone and largely unproductive. Establishing forestry on this land offers the chance to further boost economic and environmental returns from this sector.

"This is hardly negatively impacting on the sheep and beef sectors or rural communities. In fact, a mix of land uses can strengthen rural communities.

"Despite Federated Farmers' constant criticism of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), farmers with forestry blocks are seeing the opportunities the scheme provides and are signing up to benefit from its forestry provisions."

Story copyright © Carbon News 2010