There are increasing incentives from central and local government for hill farms to be planted into trees.
The push for reduced sediment loads in our rivers by Hawke's Bay Regional Council; the Billion Trees project and the Productivity Commission's report calling for 2 million ha of pasture land to be planted will all result in large incentives for planting farmland.
If this is done sensibly then we can play our part in reducing NZ's carbon emissions and increase our water quality, while maintaining present employment opportunities. This outcome would require a big expansion of the existing erosion planting scheme that has been run for many years by the Catchment Board and latterly by HBRC.
Pioneering work by HBRC local office in planting individual native trees, such as kowhai, and maintaining productive pastures underneath could allow us to tap into money from the Billion Trees project.
However, what is most likely is a repeat of the sale and planting of whole farms we saw in the 1990s.
'It is well recognised that planting forestry to offset emissions is a temporary measure.'
There are always quite a few farms on the market. The average age of farmers is now 58, so even more will be on the market in the next few years. The incentives will mean that buyers planning to plant into trees will be able to outbid pastoral farmers on hill farms as they come on the market.
After the events of Tolaga Bay and new environmental standards for production forestry, only the least erosion prone land will be planted into forestry for harvest.
We have seen the start of this trend with the recent sale of Waihua Station, a Wairoa farm with less than average erosion risk, to forestry. In the Wairarapa Hadleigh Station, with a third cultivatable land, has sold to production forestry.
In Wairoa during the 1990s three-quarters of forestry workers were from out of town, resulting in a 30 per cent reduction in employment per 1000ha when farmland was planted.
Today the drop in employment would be much bigger, as I am unaware of any resident logging crews, and changing silviculture practices see much less pruning than in the past. Nationally the proportion of whole log export has increased from 17 per cent in 1990 to 54 per cent in 2016.
More remote or erosion prone land will go into plantings that will earn the owners revenue from the sale of carbon credits. This will become increasingly popular.
The discussion documents put out by the Zero Carbon Bill talks of increasing the price of CO2 to $300 or even $700 per tonne. These carbon only plantings will produce very little employment except during the year of planting.
When the forest has reached its peak biomass, it will no longer produce carbon credit income either. The owner will be left with the cost of maintaining this forest (fire protection, pest management, rates, etc) but no income. Will the owners of this land then abandon it, leaving the ratepayer to foot the bill?
Manuka honey plantations do offer job opportunities, however there is a danger that incentives will lead to overproduction and collapse of the industry.
The schemes being promoted by central government have two aims. Firstly to offset emissions by the rest of the economy, mainly transport. Secondly to reduce methane production by reducing sheep and beef numbers.
The Productivity Commission recognises that the main contributor to agricultural warming is the dairy industry (sheep and beef farming are responsible for slightly less warming today than in 1990 and is on track to produce only 77 per cent by 2050.)
However, the commission goes on to say that it will be too difficult to get dairy farmers to convert to horticulture.
So their solution is to plant up sheep and beef land instead.
It is well recognised that planting forestry to offset emissions is a temporary measure. However, while the respite from breaching NZ's obligations is temporary, the change of land use is permanent.
Once committed to forestry this land can never be used for any other purpose; the destruction of farming infrastructure (fences, yards, buildings, etc) over the life cycle of forestry, combined with the huge cost of redeveloping the land into pasture, would mean that little, if any, hill country would ever be converted from plantation forestry to farming.
On top of this the ETS requires this land to be maintained permanently under forestry. The result for rural NZ hill communities will be disastrous. Depopulation, loss of services, and ageing resident populations will all snowball to destroy local communities.
Due to our high rainfall and soft rocks a big slice of the 2 million ha of land to be targeted for conversion to trees will be sourced locally (Wairoa and east coast to the north), Wanganui and Taumaranui will also be big areas.
Our councils need to act now with regulation to limit mass planting except on the very worst erosion land that cannot be stabilised by space planting. Otherwise in 30 years these areas will have no hill farms; no local meat processing; no service industries. Not enough population to support a secondary school in our local towns.
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David Read is from Waiau Station in Wairoa.