Hamish Randle found Whanganui was all he needed and then some when he moved here two years ago from Rotorua.

He found love and a new line of work; all he needs now is some land so he can start planting his own trees.

There's no typical day at the office for Hamish Randle. He works for Richard Thompson, a local forest owner and timber merchant, and on any day might be found collating timber orders at the MacBlack yard in Peat St, pruning at Papaiti Forest or running a portable sawmill on the back corner of an outlying farm.

Hamish has quickly developed an abiding love of wood and he's impressed by the high-value, continuous cover forestry model exemplified by Papaiti Forest.

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Richard and his wife Laurel Stowell began planting their 16 hectares of steep hillside above the river in 1991. They focused on high-value alternative species: Tasmanian blackwood and macrocarpa as the main species, with later plantings of silver wattle, poplar and gum.

The forest is in the Permanent Forest Sink Initiative, meaning it will never be clear-felled. Instead, individual trees or small coupes will be selectively logged and immediately replanted.

Richard realised that they'd reap little reward for their labour and patience if the trees were sold as logs. That's when he bought a portable sawmill and brought in his old friend Ross Greenbank to run it, and set up a timber yard to market the end product himself.

Learning the business

For Hamish, it means an opportunity to learn both ends of the business. (One of his first tasks was pruning up totara, a challenging job because of the sharp needles that work their way inside clothing. "I reckon Richard was thinking if I could stick that out, I might be some use," he says.) He prunes and thins at Papaiti Forest, and helps with felling trees and skidding logs down small tracks to the milling site.

It takes Hamish and Ross just half an hour to set up the Lucas mill, which requires remarkably little space to operate and can be transported by a Hiace van. Once milled into sawn timber, up to 16-inch wide boards, it's usually Hamish who will stack it back at the yard.

"Being involved with the whole process gives me a lot of appreciation for the care that's required at every stage to produce good timber," he says. "We're always trying to optimise the use of each log, to get the highest-value sawn timber from every tree. When we're milling, I can see the impact of pruning, whether it was done at the right time or not.

"The timber is mostly air-dried, so there's a bit involved in stacking it. Some of the timbers we work with are not forgiving the way pine is. Gum is well known for warping, so we have to take a lot of care in the way we dry it. There's no point ruining good timber at that late stage."

Richard says Hamish has been a godsend and praises his energy and attitude. "He thinks ahead and takes ownership. He's absorbed information and skilled-up incredibly quickly, in all aspects of the business; so much so that he ran things while I was overseas recently."

Learning from the elders

Hamish is a member of the Farm Forestry Association and has just returned from field visits in Masterton organised by the Association's Indigenous Forests Section. He's also visited Denis Hocking's farm in Bulls several times, and is full of admiration for the long-term trials of alternative species being run by Denis and others.

Hamish is particularly interested in ground durable gums and the potential for harvesting roundwood. Vineyards and organic farms need alternatives to CCA-treated posts. Selected varieties are already being trialled around the country through the New Zealand Drylands Forestry Initiative, he says. "I'm following it with interest and am keen to plant ground durable species."

Hamish and his partner are looking for a small block near Whanganui where they can replicate the diverse, high-value plantings that Richard and other farm foresters have proven to work.

Hamish has an investor to back him as well as Richard to mentor him but the land is proving hard to find.

"Twenty hectares of bare land rarely comes up for sale - even though there's plenty of hill country around Whanganui that is marginal for grazing and slip-prone and would be better off under permanent forest cover.

"This way of doing things [selective logging and continuous canopy cover] means you only need tracks big enough for a small machine. You don't need to build big roads to give access to logging trucks, or huge skidder sites. You mill onsite and only take out sawn timber. You're never clear-felling with all the risk of erosion and loss of habitat and you're not putting the pressure on rural roads. It's low-impact, it's sustainable and it can create decent, ongoing jobs."

Better than expected

Hamish couldn't have foreseen any of this when he first visited Whanganui in 2014. A bit burnt out after finishing a master's thesis in theoretical laser physics at Auckland University - and wondering what to do next - he'd cycled from Canada to Mexico along the off-road Great Divide trail. He then figured he should see a bit more of his own country and his bike trip around New Zealand brought him through Whanganui.

"I liked it more than I expected - the only thing I'd heard about Whanganui was [former mayor] Michael Laws talking about gang problems and crime," says Hamish. He was happy to return in 2015 for a brief stint volunteering on a permaculture property; an unexpected romance gave him reason to return for good.

"There's a lot to like about Whanganui," he says. "It's a great growing climate and has good people. Land's affordable. And it's not Auckland."■