Monthly Archives: December 2013

Blackwood Industry Award

A quick good news story to finish the year.

I’m awarding Bob MacMillan, owner of Tasmanian Tonewoods, a special award for dedication and commitment to the blackwood industry above and beyond the call of normal business.

http://tasmaniantonewoods.com/latest-news/salvaging-old-growth-standing-dead-blackwood

Check out these photos from his website of some private property blackwood salvage. An old dead stump and a half dead tree. Now that’s what I call dedication!

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I hope the farmer and Bob make some decent money out of those butt logs.

But it does show what is possible. There are thousands of blackwoods on farms around Tasmania just like these. Most of them end up as firewood or else just piled up and burnt. Farmers don’t appreciate their value. But they are ideal for the international tonewood market.

And hopefully they can help generate interest in the farming community about growing commercial blackwood for the future.

I’m sure Bob would like to hear from more farmers with blackwood to salvage (see his website for contact details), and I’d like to hear from farmers interested in growing more commercial blackwood.

Congratulations Bob!

Seasons Greetings

Well another year comes to a close. It’s time to wish everyone a happy and safe festive season, and a bright and prosperous new year; and to reflect on the year past and the year ahead.

2013 saw the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement Act passed through the State Parliament but with no funding support for the blackwood growers cooperative. But the TFA provides little comfort for anyone including the forest industry.

2013 also saw the sad passing in March of New Zealand blackwood scientist and advocate Ian Nicholas following a brief illness. He will be missed. But Ian managed to leave one final fantastic legacy for blackwood growers in the online video “Blackwood in New Zealand”. For existing blackwood growers or farmers wanting to find out about growing commercial blackwood this is a brilliant resource. Thankyou Ian!

2013 also saw the record-breaking prices for blackwood logs at Island Specialty Timbers tenders. Firstly at the August tender where a record price of $2,750 per cubic metre was set. This was followed by the October tender where the record was reset at $2,900 per cubic metre. Extraordinary results and indicative of what the market is prepared to pay for premium blackwood.

2014 promises to be yet another turbulent destructive year for the forest industry in Tasmania, with the State election in March looking to undermine the TFA and reignite political and community tensions. 2014 also promises progress with FSC Certification for Forestry Tasmania, to cement in place a failed business model for the forest industry and taxpayer support for years to come. It will also see progress perhaps on the public special timbers resource and even more politics and stupidity. Oh what fun!

In 12 months time the forest industry in Tasmania will be in even greater crisis than it is already. That is a very easy prediction to make.

Despite the lack of official support for the blackwood coop, modest progress continues. There continues to be a steady stream of enquiries from farmers/landowners and others. It comes as no surprise to me that more enquiries come from the mainland than Tasmania. Whenever anyone in Tasmania thinks of trees or forestry they immediately think of politics, conflict and failed MIS schemes. Mainlanders happily do not suffer from this affliction.

Progress was made during the year with a small but growing number of successful blackwood plantations. Their stories can be read here. Highlights include the successful first thinning at the Carrabin plantation, and the discovery and visit to the Robertson plantation in NSW. These plantations demonstrate the potential for commercial blackwood as a farm investment. Yes there is still much to learn, and there will be failures and disappointments as we continue to discover where and how we can and can’t grow commercial blackwood. But the number of successes will increase and the failures decrease as our knowledge and understanding continues to grow.

New Zealand blackwood farmers move gradually towards their first significant harvests in the next few years, with many of them actively coordinating to build markets, processes and infrastructure.  By 2020 New Zealand will be producing more blackwood timber than Australia. I can only hope that their success will attract interest from Tasmanian farmers.

Looking back 2013 has been a big year. 2014 promises to be another big year full of forestry chaos and hopefully progress with the blackwood coop. It would certainly help me to find a benevolent sponsor or a business model that provided me with some income. In the mean time I will soldier on.

Thanks to everyone for your support this year. See you in 2014.

Fears of Timber Shortage

The Mercury 18/12/2013

Apologies for continuing the political stuff, but as I say forestry is politics here in Tasmania. The two are unfortunately inseparable, and the damage continues.

Amongst the many news stories on forestry in today’s newspaper was this one about special timbers (of which blackwood is the predominant species).

The Mercury181213s

It’s just the same predictable rhetoric, scare mongering and posturing that surrounds so much of the so called forestry “debate” in Tasmania.

Will there be a specialty timbers supply shortage in Tasmania in the near future?

Absolutely!

Does either the specialty timbers industry or the Government have a long-term, viable solution to this problem (that has been coming for decades)?

No!

Is it possible to sustainably harvest specialty timbers from our public native forests?

A very common question, and at the most basic elementary level the answer is yes (trees do grow and can theoretically be harvested). But as soon as you try and move to the next point of logic you quickly become overwhelmed by the technical, commercial, political and social challenges. Even with all the goodwill and trust in the world it would be a difficult task. But there is very little trust and goodwill in Tasmania. So the chances of this happening successfully are exactly zero! Impossible!! To try this would set Tasmania up for yet another forestry train wreck. Haven’t we had enough of those already?

Is either the specialty timbers industry or the Government interested in supporting a farmer-based blackwood growers cooperative, to build and grow the industry on a fully commercial basis?

No! Not yet at least.

And the Government is “working as hard as possible to provide solutions for the special species sector.”

I don’t think so!

So the iconic Tasmanian special timbers industry continues on its merry way towards it’s own private mini train wreck, to emulate the magnificent train wreck that has befallen the greater forest industry here in Tasmania.

For readers from outside Tasmania this must appear like some weird Hollywood script. Welcome to Tasmania folks!

Forestry Tasmania’s challenges

Being part of the forest industry in Tasmania is tough at the best of times with all the bad media, the politics, conflict, ideology, mismanagement, etc. I usually try and keep the politics off the website; politics is mostly bad for business.

But in Tasmania forestry is politics, which is its biggest problem.

So this commentary by economist/accountant and social commentator John Lawrence has my complete support, and says what needs to be said about the mismanagement and poor governance of Forestry Tasmania. Recommended reading:

http://www.tasfintalk.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/forestry-tasmanias-challenges.html

One of the major weaknesses (and there are many) of the Tas Forestry Agreement is that it continues to enshrined Forestry Tasmania as the cornerstone of the industry. And as Mr Lawrence clearly demonstrates, Forestry Tasmania is a dead, defunct, insolvent entity with no future. While it remains the cornerstone, the forest industry will continue its long, slow, painful decline.

FT SR 201213

My own response to reading the latest FT Annual Report was akin to reading a death notice in the newspaper. The Report reflects an organisation completely off track, detached from any commercial reality and devoid of vision and purpose. Forestry Tasmania has dozens of performance criteria but not one single commercial performance criteria. That’s right – NONE!! The word “productivity” only appears in the Annual Report in relation to trees growing wood – productive forests. The word “productivity” as a measure of commercial performance is completely foreign to FT.

I shudder to think they may soon have FSC Certification. What a complete joke that will be.

It is perfectly clear that the politicians and FT management fail to understand that forestry is a commercial, profit-driven business at all levels of the industry including public and private tree growers. Given that most wood now grown and sold in Australia comes from private growers the continuing failure of FT is deeply significant. FT is like an infected wound that impacts on the whole industry. Politics and mismanagement only serve to create uncertainty and discourage investment. It certainly makes getting a commercial blackwood growers cooperative established that much harder.

Australia’s largest blackwood plantation!

It’s in New South Wales! And it’s quite a story…

I’m happy to be corrected on this claim. Forestry Tasmania established a very large blackwood plantation resource 20+ years ago, but I understand these have all since failed. So this ~25 hectare plantation in Robertson, NSW must now rate as the country’s largest planting.

But let’s go back to the beginning…

Blackwood is one of the most wide ranging tree species in Australia with a natural distribution from southern Tasmania, to the Atherton tableland in far north Queensland and across into South Australia. Heading up the east coast blackwood is increasingly confined to the cooler high altitude locations along the Great Dividing Range. But blackwood as a commercial species has been confined to Victoria and Tasmania.

So it came as a surprise when I was contacted earlier this year about a blackwood plantation on the southern Tablelands of NSW. The town of Robertson sits at an altitude of 750m on the eastern edge of the southern Tablelands with a mean annual rainfall of 1600mm and a climate not unlike parts of Tasmania, but with a summer rainfall bias. The district is renowned for its rich red basalt soils. The original native forest was more closely related to that found in the mountains of central Victoria 500 km to the south, with blackwood a common tree. Remnants of warm temperate rainforest known as the Yarrawa Brush occur in the district.

Photos of the plantation showed some challenges but also plenty of potential. Survival and growth seemed to be pretty good, but as is commonly the case, pruning had not been timely or maintained, and thinning was obviously needed. The owner had made a very significant investment and I was curious to find out more. I offered my help.  Seven months later came the reply and last week I spent 2 days visiting Robertson.

Stunning!

My first experience with blackwood when I arrived, apart from seeing plenty of roadside and paddock trees driving into Robertson, was walking into the owners house and seeing an absolutely stunning timber floor. I didn’t recognise the timber so I took a guess and asked the owner if the floor was forest red gum.

“No!” He replied. “That’s local blackwood milled from the property”.

I was speechless!

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Stunning “Robertson Red” blackwood floor.

This looked nothing like the blackwood floors I have previously seen. The uniform rich mahogany red-brown timber, with a distinctive grain, was unique to my experience. Part of the explanation for the uniform colour was that all the timber for this very large floor came from just 2 trees! But these two trees had identical timber colour. I have seen this mahogany red-brown colour in Tasmanian blackwood but it is not common, with Tasmanian blackwood mostly having a lighter golden-brown colour.

The next 24 hours showed me that this red-brown colour is the common colour of the local Robertson blackwood. I made sure that the owner understood how unique and precious this local feature was, which needs to be preserved and managed for the future. Research has shown that blackwood wood colour is strongly genetically controlled, so in my opinion this “Robertson Red” blackwood has commercial potential.

The owner and the property

The owner Andy Kennard has a passion for timber and growing trees which he inherited from his father, despite the family having no farming or forestry background. This property is the family’s third attempt at tree farming. He bought the property 18 years ago with the objective of growing quality timber and cattle. Most of the planting occurred around 10-13 years ago. To date the focus has been on a range of eucalypts and blackwood. The property also includes remnants of native eucalypt forest and warm temperate rainforest. The rainforest includes blackwood and other timber species such as northern sassafras and coachwood. The remnant native forest is now managed for conservation values with the occasional wind thrown tree milled for timber.

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A hillside of native Robertson blackwood. The pale flowers belong to native Coachwood trees.

None of the people employed on the property have any forestry background or training so the tree-planting investment has been a big learning exercise. A point had been reached however where they didn’t know how to proceed or what to do next. And like many tree growers the thought of cutting down those precious trees was stalling any objective decision making. Beware the emotional attachment!

The Blackwood

The blackwood plantings are spread around the property in various paddocks on sites ranging from exposed ridge-top to sheltered lower slope and gully locations. The planting occurred between 2000 and 2003. All the plantings are on red basalt soils, with growth and performance varying widely even in the one paddock. A range of seedlots were used sourced from Tasmania, Victoria and NSW. No local Robertson blackwood seed was used. In a few areas eucalypt nurse crops were tried but these were a failure, due to the general poor growth of eucalypts on the property.

In the pure blackwood plantings initial stocking was 1100-1200 trees per hectare. In most locations survival was >95%. None of the blackwood paddocks have been fertilised under the current ownership. Early weed control is not known.

Early protection of the blackwood from domestic and wild animal browsers was a major issue. Standard farm fences proved sufficient to keep cattle out. But the wallaby, kangaroo and very active wombat populations have all been challenges requiring significant investment in fencing. Small amounts of ongoing deer damage is also apparent.

No thinning of the blackwood has yet occurred. Pruning has generally been OK but needed to be more timely and systematic. Most trees are pruned to at least 3 metres with pruning to six metres on the best sites. Given the lack of expertise and knowledge and the very large area to manage, the results have been very good. Cattle are grazed beneath the blackwood.

Results: poor to exceptional!

On the best sites blackwood growth and form is excellent, with 13 year old trees having diameters (dbh) ranging from 25-35 cm and heights of 12-16 metres. Some of the pruning on these trees has not been timely but nevertheless they are exceptional. At age 13 years these trees are half way to full commercial size!

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Exceptional blackwood growth and form (30 cm dbh in 13 years).

In one paddock the trees have good uniform growth and form but a serious wattle grub attack followed by the inevitable cockatoo assault a few years ago has left at least 80% of the trees worthless. The owner now needs to assess what can be salvaged from this paddock. The cause of the wattle grub attack is unknown. Wattle grub is relatively rare in the other blackwood plantings. The trees look healthy and are growing well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that wattle grubs attack when trees are stressed or are getting old. So was it genetics or soils? Or was it just natural random chance?

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A vast expanse of wattle grub affected blackwood, otherwise it looks pretty good.

On the ridge-top locations growth and form varies from ok to poor. Blackwoods hate growing in exposed windy positions where height and diameter growth and stem form become compromised. Robertson is on a high exposed plateau subject to strong winds. The property has some useful windbreaks but some of the high blackwood plantings are fully exposed the winds. Shelterbelts are needed to help improve the growth and form of these blackwood.

Despite the soils being derived from red basalt there are very obviously major soil issues for the blackwoods. This may be due to Ph, nutritional or soil structural issues or a combination of these. The owner is now organising soil testing across a range of sites both good and bad to see if the soil issues can be identified.

Records of the blackwood plantings are also in need to better management. Are the differences in blackwood performance due in part to genetics (seed source)?

Alternative Species

The owner has established a small arboretum where a range of local and other native tree species are being tested. Stand out performers for me were coachwood (Ceratopetalum apetalum), northern sassafras (Doryphora sassafras), silky oak (Grevillea robusta), red cedar (Toona ciliata), hoop (Araucaria cunninghamii) and Wollemi pines (Wollemia nobilis).

I’ve only ever seen coachwood and northern sassafras in native forest situations where they can be very impressive trees and certainly have a reputation for producing premium timber. So to see them planted in the open and growing very well was encouraging. These two species would be well worth considering on a small, specialised farm forestry basis. Silky oak, Red cedar and Hoop pine are more commonly seen in parks and gardens where their issues and potential are more commonly appreciated. Again at Robertson good growth can obviously be achieved given the right sites and treatment, when grown on a small scale.

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10 year-old planted Coachwood. Not bad at all!

And finally Wollemi pine at 4 metres in 4 years shows that even this unique tree has potential for producing softwood of equivalent quality to Hoop pine, but with much easier pruning.

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Wollemi Pine – 4 metres in 4 years!

With all of these species commercial rotations of 40-45 years might be possible if early performance is any indication, but with prices around $5,000+ per cubic metre for reasonable logs, these are still good investments.

And finally a word about eucalypts. For such a lush rich environment I saw very few outstanding eucalypts at Robertson. Amongst the species planted by the owner none seemed to be doing very well. I’m no eucalypt specialist but I can only put this down to soil problems.

Future

When these blackwoods were planted only New Zealand farmers and scientists were having any success growing commercial plantation blackwood. So for a novice enthusiast NSW landowner to plant 25 hectares was a brave venture. Despite this the results are certainly encouraging.

An action plan has now been drafted to get the blackwood management back on track. A thinning program has been sketched out, starting with the better performing stands. The scale of the thinning operation requires a mechanical approach, so research is needed to find an appropriate solution. Clearwood pruning will continue where it is still possible. Soil sampling and analysis will help identify what remediation is possible for some of the stands. Shelterbelts will be planted for the ridge top sites. An assessment of the wattle grub affected stand will determine what can be salvaged. Given that 82% of the trees need to be thinned anyway to get the stand down to 200 trees per hectare, there might still be something worth saving. Seed from the local Robertson blackwood will be collected for preservation and possible future planting. There was much discussion and a lot learnt by everyone involved including me.

So will Robertson NSW become a major centre for growing commercial blackwood?

No!

The land base is too small. Suitable areas are within about 5-10 km of the Illawarra escapement due to the terrain and steep rainfall gradient. But if enough landowners were interested there may be the potential for ~500 hectares of blackwood plantation. This could sustainably produce about 5000 cubic metres per year of premium blackwood sawlog. As a potential land use in this semi-rural landscape it is a relatively low-maintenance, high-value option. Close proximity to Sydney, and the Port of Newcastle and export markets, suggests that markets won’t be a problem.

There are still issues to be resolved including soil issues and determining the best genetics to plant, but hopefully growing Robertson blackwood should eventually be a profitable investment.

The visit to the Robertson blackwood plantation was definitely inspiring. Robertson clearly has blackwood growing potential. How the owner proceeds will determine whether that potential is realised and the challenges met. I’m looking forward to assisting and following progress here over the coming years.

Thanks to Andy and the crew for a great trip.

Insects, habitat, dead trees and blackwoods

Here is a post from a grower that may interest some readers:

As well as intentionally planted trees, our area in the Strzeleckis has a lot of blackwood growing as paddock trees, in  roadside verges and so on.

I was clearing out some thistles and blackberries from the verge yesterday. Within about 20 metres along the side of the road I noticed 3 wild bee colonies. These were all Apis mellifera or European honeybee. Although not a native these insects do sterling work in pollination.

All 3 colonies were in hollows in blackwoods. One was in the upper section of a dead blackwood that had fallen over years ago, another was only a few metres away in a hollow of a half-dead blackwood and another was in the remaining trunk segment of a blackwood that had died a while ago and lost its crown and any side branches.

Interesting that all three bee colonies were using blackwood hollows. Some agroforestry commentators suggest leaving an occasional dead tree (if a stem dies or perhaps killed as part of thinning) to form a stag for habitat.

Hi David,
It’s an interesting story, if a bit marginal to what I’m trying to achieve.
Some random responses:
What other trees around where you were have hollows? I suspect mainly blackwoods.
Also blackwoods, once they die, quickly start to rot out, so they are a natural and ready source of hollows, if only short lived before the tree falls and rots entirely.
But I definitely take your point. Leaving dead trees AND logs is important for insect habitat. We humans are too quick to tidy up and leave the forest/road verge looking like a park, rather than a forest with all its litter and chaos – and insects.
What about in a blackwood plantation?
Trees randomly die and fall over. Should we leave a few as habitat? Or will this just build up insect populations that then attack living trees? I don’t know the answer. I suspect that insects that inhabit dead trees are different to those that attack living trees. Perhaps those that live in dead trees are predators of insects that attack living trees. Ultimately the answer will vary depending upon the inclinations of each land owner. Some will give some favour to habitat while others will go for maximum tidiness and “hygiene”.
Thanks for the story.
Cheers,
Gordon

November 2013 IST blackwood tender results

The November Island Specialty Timbers (IST) tender results provided some mixed results for blackwood. There were three blackwood logs up for tender; two small and one medium size log; all plain grain with some negative quality issues.

Only the smallest log (3.5m length 0.71 m3 volume) sold, but it achieved the very good price of $500 per cubic metre despite the small size and quality issues.

The very good price for a pretty ordinary log is the good news.

The uncertainty comes from the lack of demand for the other two larger blackwood logs. These logs together with a feature-grain eucalypt log were the only logs unsold from the parcel of 22 lots.

As I said. It was a mixed result.