Monthly Archives: August 2013

Happy tree-growing farmers

In travelling around and talking to Tasmanian farmers and others about growing blackwood I’m often faced with the statement (or some variation of it) – “but they take so long to grow!”

I’m certainly not saying that time and money are not essential issues in investment; but good money can still be made on investments up to around 40 years. And this is without considering the many other benefits in growing trees on farms.

Amongst the blackwoods

So how do farmers get past this initial resistance to investing in trees and including trees in their farming business?

As a passionate forester I’m always inspired by the stories from New Zealand where many farmers have taken to growing trees as part of their farming business. Twenty years ago the New Zealand Government (which was then the major player in the forest industry) decided that politics and forestry didn’t mix, and if the forest industry was to succeed and thrive then it was time for the Government to exit the industry. So the Government shut down the public native forest industry and sold off the large public plantation and sawmilling assets. It was a controversial decision that was opposed at the time by the industry and the forestry profession, but the Government still went ahead. Today the forest industry is a thriving cornerstone of the NZ economy, and the farmers are the beneficiaries of that brave decision 20 years ago. I only wish Tasmanian farmers were in the same situation.

The organisation that represents New Zealand farm foresters is the NZ Farm Forestry Association. Their website has a vast array of information and ideas. One is this collection of farm case studies that showcase 15 farmers and their experiences with growing trees. They are all well worth reading. Some of the stories include farmers growing blackwood.

These stories demonstrate that farmers can overcome their reluctance to long-term investment of trees. Where the opportunity allows, a series of forestry investments over time can eventually make a major ongoing contribution to farm income. Some of the case studies include harvesting and the financial returns that have been achieved. Perhaps the best example is “Hockings, Bulls, Wanganui” the sixth on the list that includes a table showing the significant contribution of forestry to farm income over an 18 year period. Very impressive! Indeed I have read of NZ farmers who over time have converted their entire properties to forestry and become 100% tree farmers. They have discovered that farming trees is both enjoyable and profitable.

And because blackwood is high-value, smaller investments are still viable and profitable, compared to hardwood pulpwood or radiata pine where scale of investment is more important.

I hope you find these stories inspirational and educational.

Blackwood – the yet-to-be sustainable tonewood

Blackwood also is sourced from forests that are responsibly managed, making it a sustainable wood for guitar making.”


This is a quote I recently found in a newsletter published by a major guitar maker.

Regular readers of this blog will understand that “responsible” and “sustainable” are not words I would use to describe blackwood management and production in Tasmania. Not yet anyway.

Not that blackwood is in danger of becoming extinct as a species. Far from it. But in the next 2-3 years it will become commercially extinct; that is the wood volumes available for harvesting will drop to levels that only allow a craft industry to persist. But the forest industry is not yet prepared to admit this disaster, and is currently heading in the opposite direction required to fix the problem.

Nor am I implying deception on the part of the guitar maker. It is easy to be swayed by the official forest industry information into thinking that all is well. But you don’t need to scratch hard to begin finding problems.

Most blackwood timber comes from the harvesting of public native forests that have been the subject of increasingly bitter community conflict over the past 30 years. These forests are managed by the Government forest agency Forestry Tasmania. Blackwood is also a common tree on farmland across northern Tasmania, and while there is a small amount of blackwood timber harvested from private land most farmers do not regard their blackwood as having any commercial value. The forest industry here has traditionally been a Government dominated closed shop so most farmers know not to bother growing trees for wood production.

But the only possibility for restoring responsible, sustainable blackwood supply back to commercial levels is from private land. And the blackwood industry (including guitar makers) needs to understand, appreciate and openly support this.

In three recent blogs I discussed in detail the numerous issues that the blackwood industry currently faces around the public blackwood resource and State forest policy, some of which directly hinder the development of the private blackwood industry. These include:

  • Long term overcutting of the resource;
  • Poor resource management;
  • Major decline in supply in the next 2-3 years;
  • Failed new resource initiatives;
  • Non-profit taxpayer-subsidised business model;
  • Anti-competitive sales and pricing processes;
  • Lack of market competition and transparency.

Meanwhile the blackwood industry sits quietly on it’s hands and says nothing, hoping that a fairy godmother will soon arrive and fix this ungodly mess. Certainly no farmer or anyone else will invest in blackwood under these conditions.

Tasmanian blackwood could be a sustainable tonewood supplying international markets. It is a recognised premium tonewood. It is fast growing. The establishment of a plantation program could see a selection and breeding strategy commenced to grow the best possible blackwood for the tonewood market. But not yet. Under current policy and practice Tasmanian blackwood timber production is anything but responsible and sustainable.

More reading about tonewood markets

Here’s a couple of articles I found recently that feature around the troubled issue of international tonewoods.

The first is a recent article from National Geographic (April 2013) on the fate of mahogany in Peru titled “Mahogany’s Last Stand” – not a happy story.

The second is from a website called Impact Forestry – Smart Forest Investment. The articles about the tonewood market are interesting, especially his idea of creating an “international tonewood reserve & plantation” to ensure future tonewood supplies.

A Tasmanian Blackwood Growers Cooperative would fit very well into that kind of model.