Monthly Archives: August 2012

Quilliam plantation


This is the second of two property reports from my recent trip north. This property is on the swampy flats near Smithton.

The soils are saturated for much of the year and there is little in the way of shelter.

If it was a greenfield site I would have advised caution in planting blackwood for wood production. The exposure to strong winds and the high water table present challenges in growing any trees, let alone tall, straight ones.

The property includes two block planting of almost pure blackwood at 3 metre spacing (1,111 trees per hectare) totalling about 1.5 ha, plus a considerable length of shelterbelt/drainside planting that includes a single row of blackwood at 3 metre spacing. The trees are up to 5 years of age. Protection from stock and wallabies was provided by electric fences and the common, soft-plastic tree guards shown in the picture. Obviously there can’t be too many wallabies about.

Despite the exposure and the rampant grass growth, the blackwoods are showing surprisingly good growth and form, particularly in the block plantings. My first response was “what would these trees look like with some weed control and pruning?” Weed control is certainly a problem when there is free-flowing water over the ground for at least half the year. So a single weed control in summer is needed once the ground has dried out, to get these trees growing quickly. The faster the growth the better the form.

Some of the trees are obviously no longer suitable for keeping due to lack of timely pruning, but there are still plenty of suitable trees from which to select the final crop, given that about 80% of the trees will need to be thinned to waste in the next 10 years.

The owner is unsure how to do the pruning, so I will be going back in a few weeks to help select the final crop trees and get them into shape with Mr. Quilliam’s help (and a new pair of gumboots!!).

Given the high water table and the exposure to strong winds there is a real risk of windthrow and crown breakage at this site. Planting at the higher stocking will help reduce that risk as the trees will quickly reach crown closure and help support each other. The trick will then be to gradually thin the trees at regular intervals, to retain near-full crown cover, while also allowing the trees to grow at the maximum possible rate. Leaving the windward row of blackwood trees unthinned and unpruned will also help provide protection and stability for the block plantings.

The combination of early crown closure, annual pruning and regular thinning should result in trees of excellent growth and form.

What then of the single-row blackwood plantings along the drains? I only saw a small section of these but I suspect tree form will not be so good. Given that part of the objective is for farm shelter, the best management may be to just prune and weed those trees that have the best form, and leave the rest to become big and branchy.  Hopefully the unpruned shelter trees will help support the pruned trees in strong winds.

This blackwood planting was a great surprise. It was great that it is still young enough to be brought under good management. Also great that it demonstrates that even on wet exposed sites blackwood can grow very well. There are certainly challenges and risks ahead with windthrow and crown wind damage, but these are currently balanced by the positives of good growth and form.

I will give an update once the next pruning is completed. Stay tuned.

Lambert plantation

This is the first of two property reports from my recent trip north. This is a large mixed farm at Sunnyside. Most of the property is on red basalt soils with reasonable rainfall. Ideal conditions for growing blackwood? Well the situation turned out to be much more complex.

Like many properties the farm contains damp areas, gullies, steep slopes, and rocky knobs that don’t fit with current farm activities. Some of these sites were on a neighbouring property that was bought 3 years ago, having been planted to plantations of pine, Eucalyptus nitens and blackwood. It is obviously very good country for growing pine and nitens, but the blackwood story was more mixed.

There are 4 block plantings of 15 year-old pure blackwood. Until acquired by the current owner, none of these had received any thinning or pruning. Three of these plantings are on a stony ridge top with shallow soils. The result is that these blackwoods are all short, of poor form, and in the worst case have dead tops and are infested with wattle grub (a clear indication the trees have been under drought stress). These three areas are now providing useful stock shelter but have no commercial wood production potential.

The fourth blackwood planting was something of a surprise and shows that the property does have the potential to grow good plantation blackwood. Although planted on an exposed ridge top this site obviously has deep soils that have allowed the blackwood to thrive. Six rows of pure blackwood have been planted at approx. 3 metre spacing between a pine planting on the south side, and a nitens planting on the north side, all are 15 years old. Both the pine and nitens plantings have provided protection for the blackwood from winds on this high ridge. The nitens planting on the north side has also provided shading that has encouraged the blackwood to grow tall and straight. If this blackwood planting had been properly managed at an early age with pruning and thinning it would now be a great example of a successful blackwood plantation. As it is the blackwoods are 15-18 m tall with an average stem diameter of approx. 15 cm, but with most trees having some large branches in the lower stem. The owner is currently slowly thinning this stand to concentrate growth on the better trees.


The farm also contains an interesting range of remnant-native and planted blackwood, including a magnificent remnant pure blackwood stand on a very steep rocky south-facing slope. The growth and form of this native and planted blackwood varied enormously. Some were small and stunted, while others showed great growth potential. South facing slopes and wet gullies did not always have the best blackwood. Soil type and depth were obvious facts affecting growth. The owner also mentioned soil pH. Apparently much of the farm has very acidic soils with pH below 6.0. At this soil acidity many legumes, and presumably blackwood included, show reduced growth and vigour. Agronomists generally recommend neutral to slightly acidic soils (pH 6.0 – 7.0) for best legume growth. I’m not aware of any research where the affects of soil pH on the growth of blackwood or other Acacias has been done, so there is an opportunity for some practical research here.

I definitely found this farm to be a learning experience with the unexpected growth behaviours, and the obvious failures of blackwood planted on the wrong sites and the lack of timely management. But these were countered by the unexpected successes of ridgetop blackwood using shade and shelter. This farm shows plenty of potential for growing good plantation blackwood, but with issues of soil acidity and depth that need to be understood and managed. Where they are an option, lower slopes are preferred for blackwood plantations, rather than upper slopes and ridgetops. This farm still has plenty of areas that are underutilised and could be considered for blackwood plantation. Past experiences and mistakes can be used to help guide future successes.


From Liability to Opportunity


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?

August trip to the north

I had another successful and enjoyable trip around the north west last week, visiting farmers/landowners and attending the Australian Forest Grower (Tas branch) AGM and annual dinner.
I will post a few property reports here in the next few days with experiences and insights learnt from a couple of farms I visited, including a few surprises.
The AFG AGM and dinner gave me some exposure to the private farm forestry community. It seems to me that many in the industry are still in a state of denial, still hoping that the old days will come back; or hoping that having someone to blame will somehow solve the problems of the industry. There was a big turnout at the annual dinner in Launceston with three very interesting presentations, but the elephant in the room was deliberately ignored.
I will soon be posting an update on a very important opportunity that will shortly be knocking on Tasmanias door, that directly affects the future of blackwood and the Blackwood Growers Coop proposal. So stay tuned!

Forestry talks: no one wants to be first to walk

This article in The Australian newspaper today paints a bleak picture for an IGA agreement being successfully negotiated.

It seems after two years of negotiations the parties just can’t get there; and no IGA = no blackwood growers cooperative.

My advice would be to call in a professional facilitator. When everyone around the table has an agenda it is difficult for new ideas and new approaches to be heard. That is where a professional facilitator comes in very handy. They are experts at freeing up discussion and challenging fixed positions, which is exactly what the IGA parties need.

More than likely after 2 years they are all physically and mentally exhausted, and absolutely dread the idea of more discussions. That’s how they looked on the TV the other night – like zombies. It is time for a radical change of approach. Hop on a bus guys and take a field trip – go and walk in the forests together and go visit a sawmill. Go and visit Lifestyle Furniture in Salamanca and talk to the owner. Then you might get some new ideas.

I tend to agree with Jonathon West who predicted that the failure to reach an agreement would see both the destruction of the remaining old-growth forests AND the destruction of what remains of the forest industry. And the damage and division inflicted upon the Tasmanian community would have no resolution. The anger will linger for decades and likely be transferred to a new context.

As Tasmanians we need to demonstrate some maturity and ability to resolve our own problems. Otherwise our future will look very bleak indeed.

Coop Update:

I continue to get 2-3 enquiries per week from farmers and landowners interested in being part of a blackwood growers cooperative. This is very encouraging. I only wish some of this positive energy and enthusiasm for the future could be transferred to the IGA members.