The locals reckon William de Lautour could have made an extra $2 million when he sold his Wairoa farm. He won't say, but the local mayor says he deserves a medal for turning down big money from forestry developers, for a lesser offer that will keep the land in beef and sheep. Blair Voorend reports.
Big forestry is moving in to land around Wairoa.
It's a move being pushed by Shane Jones and the Government's Billion Trees goal.
But it's hugely controversial. A new study is now suggesting the spread of forestry onto farmland could cost Wairoa up to 700 jobs.
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The small town's mayor Craig Little says it could be even more than that. He claims forestry could turn Wairoa into a "ghost town".
In this politicised environment, a Wairoa farm owner William de Lautour made the decision of his life.
The now former owner of Kokohu Station decided to sell his farm. He lives down the line now, in Central Hawke's Bay.
The offers came in, several of them.
Most higher offers wanted to turn the 1400ha farm from a sheep (6500 ewes) and beef (400 head) unit, to a huge swathe of forestry.
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De Lautour turned them down. Local rumours suggests he could have pocketed another $2 million. He won't say, other than it was less than $2 million, but it was a "significant" amount he rejected.
De Lautour went with a lower offer from a young local farmer, who had promised to keep farming sheep and beef.
Farms of this size don't sell cheap.
Bayleys Rural Specialist Simon Bousfield said sheep and beef farms in the Wairoa hill country have been averaging between $8000 and $10,000 per hectare over the past year.
That puts Kokohu Station's average price around $11m to $15m.
Although it would have been nice to have "a few extra zeros on the cheque", selling it to someone that was going to do what was best for the land was the right thing, De Lautour said.
"We've had a lot of support for the decision we made but it wasn't something we are seeking praise for, it's just the right thing for the land and the region," he said.
De Lautour and his wife moved to Central Hawke's Bay eight years ago. With a new life beckoning in CHB, Kokohu Station was no longer his main priority.
But he still loves the land.
"Our decision was more based around our history with our property because I sort of inherited it how it was 30 years ago.
"I felt I didn't have the right to change that, but look to try and keep the land as farm land.
"Although we did get a fair price, it was important to us that the land was used along the lines of how it is now, and the people taking it over are a young farming family and believe they will do what's best for it," he said.
Little told Hawke's Bay Today that De Lautour deserved a medal for what he did.
THE FORESTRY BACKLASH
Increased tree planting has drawn criticism nationwide, as pastoral land goes into forestry, aided by what some see as overseas investment rules that favour the forestry industry.
Forestry Minister Shane Jones said this week the Government was looking at investment patterns in forestry.
"We are monitoring the transactions that are going through the Overseas Investment Office because an allegation was made that we had incentivised investment in forestry, which would lead to whole farm conversions," he said.
"What we are seeing, predominantly, is forestry interests trading with each other," Jones said.
"It's an area from the Wairarapa to Wairoa - certainly an area that we are watching carefully - but we have not seen anything profligate in terms of mountains of foreign capital pouring in to that area," Jones said.
Forestry is also facing opposition from the farmer-funded Beef and Lamb New Zealand, which said large-scale conversion of sheep and beef farms to forestry would have a significant negative impact on rural New Zealand.
A Beef and Lamb NZ-commissioned study of Wairoa showed forestry provided fewer jobs than sheep and beef farms.
In Wairoa, 8486 hectares of sheep and beef farmland has, or is in the process of being, converted to forestry, Beef and Lamb said.
Beef and Lamb asked consultancy BakerAg to compare the economic and employment effects of the conversion of sheep and beef farms into forestry.
De Lautour said his farm was an important part of the region and the local economy. But he feels that if the land was converted to forestry that would change.
"If later down the line it wasn't needed for forestry it would take decades to get it anywhere near the land is now."
BakerAg's report said if all the sheep and beef farms in Wairoa were converted to forestry, Wairoa would have a net loss of nearly 700 local jobs and net $23.5 million less spent in the local economy compared to blanket forestry - excluding harvest year.
"This report illustrates the huge risks of unintended consequences from poorly designed policy and emissions targets, which will incentivise a high level of afforestation and result in a devastating impact on rural communities," Beef and Lamb said in a statement.
"The net result is that it's a real possibility that many districts like Wairoa across the country could see all their sheep and beef farms converted into forestry with disastrous consequences for the local community."
WAIROA MAYOR FEARS FOR HIS TOWN
Little said the way things are going, the town is heading for "disaster".
"If it keeps going like that, there will be no farmland left in Wairoa with in the next 11 to 12 years which is scary for us, and if it does get to that point we might as well shut the town doors because this place will turn into a ghost town."
He also said the numbers proposed in the report don't show the true impact for the region.
"The numbers in the latest Beef and Lamb report don't show how bad it really is," Little said.
"Just in the last nine to 10 months we have seen over 10,000 hectares sold in Wairoa and they predict that around 700 people would go unemployed but it will be much higher when you look at every aspect from farmers, meat workers, local contractors, fencers, they will all be affected."
Little says the town isn't against forestry, it's the fact laws have allowed widespread growth of forestry from companies and it is leading to the fracture of the region's strong farming industry.
"There needs to be tighter restrictions on this and you can't blame the farmers because some of the guys that sell it are retiring and have no family who want to take it on and the best offers are coming from buyers are those in the forestry industry."
Little said if the Government wanted to improve emissions it needed to work with farmers instead of letting forestry expand at such a rate.
"Most of these farmers in Wairoa are already doing a lot for conservation and the environment and the growth of forestry is going to destroy a lot of that work done in the process."