It wasn't far from anyone's lips at the recent East Coast Farming Expo - big money being paid for farms, with Wairoa District getting more than its fair share of forestry because its land is suitable and at the right price.

The trend, from pasture to plantation, is accelerating thanks to trees being eligible for carbon credits.

The credits can be sold in advance for good money, offsetting pollution through the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said farming no longer outpaced forestry in Wairoa.


"Probably eight or nine years ago I thought we had got over this forestry speed hump and farmers were outbidding foresters," he said.

"The Billion Trees [programme] has come along but it's not the issue - it is these carbon credit farms that are going in.

"They are not going through the Billion Trees because you have to give some of your carbon away. So they are planting these forests, never to be harvested."

Forests planted without provisions for harvesting leaves land that may never be worth the effort of replanting or re-pasturing because of the cost of removing the low-value wood and loss of farming infrastructure.

Little said more than 7 per cent of Wairoa farmland has been sold into forestry over the past six months.

If much more goes the same way, he said, it would mean fewer jobs, fewer communities and fewer farmers spending their money in town.

"All around the community where a big chunk of trees have gone in, those communities aren't there," he said.

"Schools have closed. The school is usually the nucleus for your community.


"You keep that up and in 13 years you won't be having an Expo, you'll be sitting amongst trees.

"We might as well turn the light off in 12 years' time.'

There was also the spectre of slash being washed off hills and worsening flood damage.

"It is scaring the hell out of this community.

"I've got to be honest - forestry does not really chuck a lot into Wairoa."

A seminar at the expo by rural accountant Rick Cranswick looked at the wealth to be gained from planting trees.


Cranswick said a hill country farmer in northern Hawke's Bay would have about half the current market value of their farm available to them through carbon credits.

As a result, farms were selling at a premium to foresters, some of them foreign-owned, leading to the '50 Shades of Green' campaign, to preserve farmland.

The farmer who erected the campaign's anti-forestry billboards in Wairoa, Sefton Alexander, said he found Cranswick's seminar interesting.

There were opportunities on East Coast farms "to plant a small block and make some significant money".

For his own farm Alexander said he was of two minds.

"The heart's saying no but the head's saying yeah.


"I think every farm has an area that has potential for a tree.

"It's the right-place, right-tree catchcry. Sadly that hasn't been playing out that well on the East Coast lately."

He said his neighbour's 1600ha farm would soon be blanket-planted in pine trees.

"Half of that would be beautiful farmland."

Little fears increasing forestation could lead to the loss of what is easily Wairoa's biggest single employer, Affco meatworks, which employs up to 400 people at the height of the killing season.

The loss of Affco would be catastrophic for Wairoa but Cranswick reckons more trees could enable more meat production.

"Potentially every farm will have a piece of land that is not as productive as others and they can use that cash to increase production on the rest of the land - increase fertiliser, increase fencing, increase water - to keep that production up and hopefully maintain the level of throughput to those freezing works and keep them open."

He said the price of carbon, long term, would likely increase. But farmers were being slow to take the opportunity presented to them.

"Most people don't believe me when I tell them that much money is available to them."


He said farmers could prevent total forestation of neighbouring farms by buying them, with the returns from their own carbon credits.

"Perhaps instead of a neighbouring farm being bought by a forestry consortium, some of the existing farmers can buy that, use some of the cash that can come out of trees to make that purchase and keep the people on the farms."

Wairoa has one group of savvy farm-owners who have long taken the carbon credit cash, without selling their land.

"There are a number of reasons why Māori tend to be at the forefront of the carbon scheme," company director Taine Randell said.

"One: [they're] big landowners historically so they are compulsorily in the scheme.

"Two: Treaty of Waitangi settlements - a lot of forests came back with carbon credits attached.

"Three: environmentalists.


"And four: because they were thrust into the ETS scheme a decade ago, they've seen the pros, they've seen the cons, and now they've seen the opportunity."

Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor visited the Expo, saying he had several meetings with Wairoa groups to discuss forestry.

He said he was collecting hard data on the rate of Wairoa forestation, and while returning forestland to pasture would be a very difficult task, more forest was not the end of rural New Zealand.

"We've had communities in rural New Zealand changing and shrinking for a very long time.

"We've seen forestation through the 1990s, moves to dairy in the 2000s, fewer shearers, more milkers, more migrants, less New Zealanders, less farmers, more farm managers.

"All of these things have been occurring and change has been a constant. And while I share the concerns, I don't believe this is the end of rural New Zealand."


O'Connor said the Government would take on board farmer concerns over forestation as it reviewed the ETS and climate change obligations over the next five years.

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