Making their mark on the landscape

Rob Tipa talks to the newly elected president of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

The new president of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association Neil Cullen with his son Simon and dog Murphy in a stand ...
Rob Tipa

The new president of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association Neil Cullen with his son Simon and dog Murphy in a stand of eucalypts on the family's Glenmore Farm in the Glenomaru Valley near Owaka.

Farm foresters have a tongue-in-cheek expression that aptly sums up their love of trees and their patience waiting to harvest their first crop: They say the first 30 years are the hardest.

Only when they harvest their first crop of trees do they finally see a return on at least 30 years of investment and effort, have funds to replant trees and start planning for farm succession and retirement.

The new president of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association, Catlins sheep and beef farmer Neil Cullen, can personally vouch for that philosophy. He inherited his passion for trees and landscape from his mother, a keen gardener.

Alongside his father and brothers, Cullen started planting trees on the family farm in the Glenomaru Valley near Owaka in the 1970s.

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When he and his wife Pam returned to take over the home farm in 1993, the property had 43ha of exotic forests already established. An unusual feature of the property today is that now about 43 per cent of the farm is either in native bush or exotic forest.

Glenmore is 648ha of steep hill country backing on to native bush and a Department of Conservation reserve. About 160ha are in cultivated pastures, there are 216ha of uncultivated pastures and another 130ha in native bush, 90ha of which is protected under a Queen Elizabeth II Trust covenant.

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The farm today has 150ha in exotic forests, about 86ha in radiata pines, 32ha in douglas firs, 18.5ha in cypresses, including macrocarpa, and a few smaller blocks in eucalypts (5ha), redwoods (2ha) and a hectare of other species.

Cullen says the farm has pockets of poorer soils and steep south-facing slopes that were better suited to forestry than development into pasture.

The aim is to make the best use of the land they have by planting gullies, steep faces and south-facing land in trees, he says. Keeping stock out of these areas makes farm management a lot easier, provides shelter for better lamb survival and protects waterways.

For many years stock numbers remained constant at around 4000 stock units without dropping production despite closing up parts of the farm for forestry.

They scaled back numbers to 3600 stock units in 2011 when they took 29ha of rougher country formerly grazed by cows out of production and planted it in trees.

Since 1999 the Cullens have progressively fenced off the lower reaches of the Glenomaru Stream, which flows through the middle of the farm, and are gradually working their way upstream with riparian plantings of native grasses, flaxes and trees.

In 2011 they won the NZ Farm Forestry Association's South Island Farm Forester of the Year Award and they have won similar awards for innovation in sustainable farm forestry and environmental management.

"One of the great things about farm forestry," Neil Cullen says, "is that you get to make your mark on a landscape on a large scale.

"It has been a good land use on this place. It's very satisfying seeing the property planted and trees growing well through to the harvesting stage."

It has been even more satisfying for the Cullen family watching truckloads of export logs leaving the farm every few years since 2000, when they first started harvesting blocks of radiata planted out before 1990.

Cullen says quite a few members of the Farm Forestry Association are in the same boat, harvesting blocks of trees they planted in the 1980s.

"There was a lot of forestry planted in the 1990s, so there will be increasing volumes of harvest totals coming from small forest growers," he says. "At the moment it's about 20 per cent and we expect it to increase to about 30 per cent in the 2020s."

With those projected volumes of timber coming on to the market, Cullen is confident farm forestry has an exciting future with a strong outlook for timber sales in New Zealand.

Log prices are reasonably strong at the moment and have been steady for the last year or two. Half the logs harvested are being exported, mainly to China.

While the demand for timber, markets and prices look reasonably stable, he says government uncertainty over the Emissions Trading Scheme has been unhelpful for farm foresters.

The global financial crisis of 2007-2008 blew New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme apart as carbon prices dropped from about $20 a unit to $3 or less when the scheme was undermined by a flood of cheaper carbon credits of dubious conservation value from eastern Europe.

The Government stepped in suddenly to stop the tide of worthless overseas credits, but the lack of certainty around the ETS scheme has put farm foresters off planting trees for their carbon credits and led to fewer new forest plantings.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, New Zealand has agreed to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030 and Cullen believes "there's only three ways we can achieve that, by reducing our actual carbon emissions, by buying carbon units overseas or by planting new forests".

If the government chooses to meet its targets by buying credits from a country such as China, which has a huge afforestation programme, Cullen believes this would undermine the value of home-grown credits.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and other industry players are urging forest owners to plant another million hectares in trees, but foresters are wary of the scheme going into freefall again.

Cullen says if the Government could give the scheme more certainty, possibly by introducing a floor price for carbon credits, it would be more attractive for farm foresters to plant trees.

Other issues on the horizon for the new president of the association are an aging membership, the need to find markets for species other than radiata and tax issues around buying and selling forests.

The association has 25 branches throughout the country and some are struggling to recruit enough new members to keep them running, a challenge the organisation is likely to face for the next decade.

"I'm not sure why that is," Cullen says. "I guess with the number of dairy conversions, a lot of dairy farmers aren't really into planting trees and, with farm amalgamations in general, our membership has dropped from its peak in the 1990s."

Many farm foresters are growing alternative timber species – such as macrocarpa, cypresses and eucalypts – that are likely to be harvested in the next 10 to 15 years, but there are few established markets for these timbers.

The association is currently lobbying architects, builders and building industry standards authorities to persuade them to accept alternative timbers for house and framing construction.

The association is also seeking changes by Inland Revenue in tax laws relating to the sale of forests.

While forest sellers pay tax on the sale price of a forest, purchasers can't claim tax on the forest until they harvest the trees, which the association believes downgrades the price investors are prepared to pay for established forests.

 - Stuff

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