Farm forester and sheep and beef farmer Denis Hocking sees no threat to good farm land in the Government’s tree-planting schemes.

I have been surprised and disappointed by the vehemence of Trevor Cook’ condemnation of the Government’s enthusiasm for more trees in his recent columns, especially in the latest, January column where he also discusses the problems of handling erratic weather – climate change?

I am disappointed because I have learnt a lot from Trevor’s columns over the years, and I don’t think some of his recent efforts are worthy contributions.

The underlying assumption seems to be that sheep and beef farming is a more worthy undertaking and should be protected against inroads from forestry. So here are some of my arguments for forestry from a practising farm forester and sheep and beef farmer:

The assumption that farming is more worthy because it produces food, which is more important than wood, is common, but questionable.

Consider the words of former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Morgan Williams – “NZ’s role is pleasuring the palates of the prosperous”, not feeding the hungry hordes. Wood is an important commodity, which the world wants and we can produce very efficiently. Compare it with wool – with strong demand.

Forest products earn twice the export revenue per hectare of sheep and beef farming on generally poorer land. From the economy’s perspective and Trevor’s “day-to-day exports”, it scores well.

The corporate model is not the only, nor my preferred, way of expanding forestry.

Integrating it with other land uses in a land use capability approach is to me socially, environmentally and commercially preferable. Adding a relatively simple skill set to a portion of our rural farm staff could help retain them, not drive them away.

Contrary to Trevor’s claims I see no evidence of a rush to carbon farming especially on “good farm land”. January’s real estate section reports an unexpectedly sluggish market for “the high number of quality sheep and beef properties on the market”.

Forestry doesn’t need good land, at least radiata pine doesn’t though cypresses are more demanding. Highly fertile land generally produces inferior form and wood properties with radiata, but there are also limits with wet sites and shallow soils over hard basements. If there are access and harvesting issues you need scale.

Grazing is available from age two or three, but make sure it is in the autumn/winter and not spring. I have even put weaned breeding cows into nine-month-old seedlings in some tough autumns without any disastrous results. It was cheaper than outside grazing.

Forestry, generally, has a much smaller environmental footprint than pastoral farming, especially regarding water quality, soil erosion and carbon emissions. Which isn’t to say things can’t turn to custard; they can and sometimes do but rural NZ seems to be more forgiving of the extreme erosion often seen on pastoral land.

The billion tree plan seems to include post-harvest replants and a rather vague preference for natives. This means fewer than half a million new hectares are needed which is less than 10% of the 5 million hectares currently in sheep and beef. Or less than 7% if we include the “tussock and danthonia” high country land. Would this be a momentous change?

I doubt the billion trees will get planted inside the decade because the infrastructure and especially labour force is not in place. In addition, some, even many, of the 1990s investment forests may not be replanted after harvest if a new generation of investors fails to surface and as these are post-1989 forests they can be deforested without penalty if no carbon has been claimed. The Productivity Commission’s suggested 2 million ha of new forest will be more challenging.

So contrary to Trevor I believe there are real opportunities for sheep and beef farmers in this enthusiasm for forestry.

It is up to existing landowners to grab

and control the opportunities. I just continue to wonder why more of us haven’t done it already.