“Trees are a much better financial deal than sheep and beef.”
Quite a statement, but words that Otorohanga farm forester Malcolm Mackenzie can back it up with his experience of ‘farming’ trees.
Malcolm and Alison Mackenzie have been growing trees on their Otorohanga property for more than 30 years.
In 1980 they purchased 100ha of hill country.
They sold 40ha to an adjoining dairy farm and then set about planting out the rough hill country.
“We were pretty ignorant when we started and our local regional council (then the Waikato Valley Authority), encouraged us to plant Tasmanian Blackwood and even gave us a grant to help.
“I didn’t know any better and we planted four separate blocks totalling about 20 hectares.”
He says the trees were a lot of work pruning over a period of about 15 years in an effort to get clean straight trunks.
Tasmanian Blackwood timber is a high value timber and as it is mostly used for furniture making it needs to be straight and as free from knots as possible.
When mature, it’s a dense, strong timber which is its main asset. It has a lovely ‘look’ which again makes it perfect for high-end furniture.
“The Blackwood don’t naturally grow straight but there are ways to help them. Plant them close or in amongst Manuka which forces the tree to go straight. We didn’t have Manuka so we planted 1100 per ha, which meant we have got some good straight trees,” he says.
Malcolm did nearly all of the annual pruning of the Blackwood and says it wasn’t easy, especially once the trees became more established and the branches grew larger.
The Tasmanian Blackwoods line the side of the road as you approach the Mackenzie house and they blend in well with the farm and nearby bush.
They do not look like a forest crop, more like nice mature shade trees.
About six years ago Malcolm harvested several ‘edge’ Blackwood. He individually felled each tree, dragging them to his timber working area where the trees were milled using a portable saw mill.
The resulting timber was stored and dried for two years before it was sold to a kitchen bench maker in Carterton.
This process has been repeated for five years now with the Carterton man keen to purchase the Blackwood timber when needed.
Another cabinet maker, located in Maungataroto, is also a repeat customer. He also makes beautiful timber benchtops.
Another customer is making food platters from the ‘second grade’ Blackwood timber.
“Daun Kor, a Cambodian refugee, came to New Zealand as a child 30 plus years ago and he makes beautiful food platters for restaurants. He is snowed under with orders. Long may the trend for wood platters last,” says Malcolm.
The price for the high grade Blackwood is $3000 to $4000 per cube and $1500 for the knotty grade. Malcolm produces 6x2, 4x2 and a little one inch timber and quickly acknowledges the scale of the operation is small with only small numbers of trees harvested each year.
But this will change with not only his Blackwood trees coming of age, but also quite a number of other blocks of Blackwood, which were planted in New Zealand about 30 years ago.
Marketing the Blackwood is a challenge, especially if the small quantities Malcolm is producing was to increase substantially but he is steadily making progress.
Most of the Blackwood furniture available in New Zealand comes from overseas so Malcolm is keen to sell his timber to New Zealand furniture makers but he is also looking at the export market as well.
But the main product on Malcolm’s hill country property is radiata pine and this is certainly where the good dollar return comes in. He planted blocks of radiata through the late 1980s and early 1990s and as they matured they have been harvested and sold for a very good return.
A recent 5.2 ha block returned $285,000 when the 27 year-old trees were harvested.
“On this class of hill country that is a far superior return than sheep and beef particularly when you take into account the amount of effort required,” he says.
Pruning is usually done in three operations when the trees are four and seven years old. “I’m keen to continue pruning our pines as the corporate foresters have mostly moved away from pruning leaving the clearwood market to smaller growers.”
With Blackwood he has had to plant, prune, then harvest, mill, and dry the resulting wood before it is ready to market, whereas with his pine wood lots once the trees are the right age and size, all the work is done by a forestry company.
“All it takes is a telephone call. They come, inspect, organise the harvest contractor and market and then we get the money. The log price index for Radiata pine is the best it has been for 20 years.”
Malcolm is president of the Waitomo Farm Forestry Association and along with his Otorohanga property he and Alison are also partners in two Coromandel forests, totalling 280 hectares.
Malcolm believes growing Radiata pine on hill-country farms makes good economic sense.
"Growing trees can give farmers a better return than sheep and beef. I can understand to some degree that most farmers don’t think 25-30 years ahead, but most stay on their farms that long and more. The benefits are well worth the initial investment."
Other benefits are, of course, soil conservation – Radiata can hold up hillsides and stop soil run-off into waterways.
Malcolm says there is a lot of New Zealand hill country which should be under trees instead of pasture, primarily for soil conservation."
Planting trees in hill country and marginal land is surely a win-win situation. A good result for the farm forester and a good result for the land and water.