The issue of the ‘right tree in the right place’ is a broad subject, farm forester Denis Hocking writes.

am writing this at rather tumultuous times. Export log prices have just fallen rather dramatically and although prices do not seem to have gone as low as several dips in the last seven or eight years, there is always concern about where the bottom might really be. On the other hand Chinese log prices often fall in the middle of the year and the northern hemisphere summer.

I am not really surprised because the Chinese have been paying what I would describe as very generous money for our poorer-quality logs and I have never believed that serving the Chinese log market was a good base for long-term planning. Assuming people are growing plantations to harvest, and I hope that generally they are, then I believe they should aim for a good-quality crop to provide maximum opportunity at harvest rather than relying on China still wanting low-grade logs.

But I have also been tied up recently with another issue impinging on both hesitations in the radiata market and forestry politics – the reality of the “right tree”. I confess to finding that grossly over-used cliché “the right tree in the right place” rather galling as it is so often quoted by people who really don’t want trees of any description.

With some other enthusiasts from the Middle Districts FFA, we decided to have a public display of the timbers from some of these alternative tree options – species that can produce useful timber on a 20 to 40- year rotation.

Knowing too how boys and girls of all ages, seem to find sawmills cutting up logs a fascinating spectacle, we made it a saw-milling field day, with logs from a couple of dozen different species available. We didn’t get through them all, but there was a variety of both timber and sawing characteristics.

There was nothing ground-breaking, nor was it a carefully organised, scientific trial, but there was certainly interest with at least 80 people turning up and generally sticking around for some hours.

Two mills were operating: a Lucas mill with a swing blade, circular saw and a Wood-Mizer band saw. These operate rather differently but with capable operators both do a very good job. Most of the results were as expected.

Among the eucalypts, the E. muelleriana cut beautifully, (“best behaved eucalypt I’ve met,” the saw-miller said), as did E. microcorys but the denser wood was harder cutting. A more uncertain prospect was E. cladocalyx, but it also cut very well despite being a relatively small diameter log from a slightly leaning tree. However some smallish diameter/young E. saligna and E. fastigata, deliberately selected I should add, did demonstrate growth stress issues.

Amongst the cypresses, C. macrocarpa, C. lusitanica and Leyland all cut very well, as expected, but with the C. lusitanica showing the characteristic much-wider sapwood band. The reassuring one was the Ovensii hybrid, which is being promoted and grown quite widely but with little of millable size. It milled beautifully, with only five growth rings of sapwood and more attractive figure than I expected. It had also shown good growth, 53cm dbh after 25 years on a good site. I feel justified in advocating the Ovensii option.

Some other more exotic species, (metaphorically and literally), sawn including black walnut, oak, Himalayan cedar, Cedrus deodara, even paulownia courtesy of a neighbour. They all cut well, though there would be some hurdles for commercial viability.

However, another very relevant option that was well covered by a group from Hawke’s Bay is poplar. The HB gang have been milling poplar for some years and now cannot satisfy customer demand. Uses range from polo and croquet mallets through furniture, panelling, decking (house and truck) to railing and posts. But the skill is in developing and understanding the market while being able to supply the appropriate timber quality.

So the question about the “right tree” can be quite complicated. But a bigger question in my mind is why does a country that can grow so many species of top timber trees so well, still have the most narrowly based forestry industry in the world? We need more “right trees”.