From Liability to Opportunity

Taylor_mini_gs_blackwood_2012

A Taylor Mini GS Blackwood guitar.

Tasmania is sitting on a fantastic business opportunity that few people know about, but this opportunity remains unrealised because it involves the forest industry, and while the forest industry remains highly politicised the opportunity is stillborn.

I have written previously about the potential of the tonewood market to change the future of the blackwood industry. Gibson, Fender, Martin and Taylor are the four major guitar makers in the USA. To date two of these makers have used Tasmanian blackwood in their guitars for limited production models. These are major instrument-making companies with big international profiles.

Traditional tonewood supplies are becoming increasing scarce and major guitar makers are scrambling to find certified, sustainable supplies of quality tonewoods. Tasmania is sitting on a small goldmine and doesn’t know it.

Robert MacMillan of Tasmanian Tonewoods tells me that two of these US makers are sending teams to Tasmania in the next few months to try and negotiate supply contracts particularly for blackwood timber. But the last thing these companies want is to become entangled in forest politics. Like all good companies they know that any bad publicity can quickly destroy company reputation and profits. In addition to avoiding political intrigue these companies would also prefer to source their timber from certified suppliers. Robert also informed me that for the past 5 years he has refused business with a third major US maker because he cannot guarantee the supply of blackwood.

This is just plain stupidity and reflects the poor state of public forest policy and management in Tasmania.

While we are talking relatively small volume, high value markets, the potential demand is more than enough to make a significant difference to the growing and selling of blackwood in Tasmania.

Is Tasmania up to the challenge?

These companies are well aware of the sovereign risk associated with the current major source of blackwood timber from public native forests. Even if the IGA is successfully negotiated and legislation passed through State parliament, the risk may be reduced but it will always be present. That is the nature of politics and the management of public assets. The future supply of blackwood timber from public native forests is also bound to the commercial viability of the greater native forest industry, for which there is still considerable uncertainty.

Robert is keen to access more blackwood and other tonewoods from private land to help supply these major US customers.

There is a very large existing native blackwood resource on private land in Tasmania, which currently has little or no commercial value. Much of it is of poor form, and much is still too small to be harvested. But some of this resource has the potential to supply the international tonewood market. Logs as short as 1.2 metres in length can be sawn for tonewood. Realising the commercial value of this private resource will require resolving a number of issues. A major issue will be how to wrap this existing private blackwood resource into a forest certification scheme. A Blackwood Growers Cooperative would provide a possible solution to this problem, with ongoing management and plantation establishment to provide a sustainable resource.

As New Zealand farmers have discovered blackwood is an ideal farm forestry species. It is the only Tasmanian native tree that is currently known to be profitably grown in plantations to produce high quality timber. And as I am discovering in my travels around the State, many farms have land ideally suited to growing blackwood. In addition the forest industry needs to break away from its dependence on the public native forest resource, and broaden and strengthen its support base. Put these two factors together and you have the basis for a Blackwood Growers Cooperative.

Tasmania could become the proud home of one of the worlds few certified and sustainable high-quality tonewoods, providing income for Tasmanian farmers and a range of associated businesses. The blackwood industry could become a high-value niche industry to join our truffle, wasabi, saffron and wine industries. I’m getting plenty of interest from the Tasmanian rural community; international buyers are coming; now can our politicians look to the future of the forest industry?

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