Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) is without question Australia’s premium appearance-grade timber species. It has been this way for over 100 years, with virtually all of the timber now coming from Tasmania. Almost all blackwood timber being harvested in Tasmania comes from public native forests that have been the subject of increasingly bitter community conflict over many decades.
The forest industry in Tasmania has been in free-fall since the GFC, with the industry now in absolute chaos. A change of State government in March 2014 has seen State forest policy turned on its head. The destruction of what remains of the hardwood sawmilling industry now seems inevitable. This will include the cessation of blackwood harvesting from public native forest. The recently released blackwood resource review by Forestry Tasmania shows that this was inevitable anyway due to decades of overcutting and mismanagement.
Also in 2010 the State government forest agency Forestry Tasmania, which manages public native forest harvesting, declared it’s blackwood and other special timber operations to be non-commercial, non-profit, and subject to a significant direct taxpayer subsidy. This has two important consequences:
1) blackwood timber from public native forest now comes at the expense of essential public services such as hospitals, schools, police and roads; and
2) subsidised public forest blackwood effectively prevents existing and future private blackwood growers from making a decent profit on their resource, and hence severely handicaps trying to get a growers cooperative established.
Getting a blackwood growers cooperative established growing Australia’s premium timber species should be the easiest job in the forest industry, but there still remain many significant challenges.
My name is Gordon Bradbury. I’m a forester. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years. In 2010 I completed a PhD at UTas investigating blackwood genetics and wood quality. But by then the forest industry was in crisis and I was out of work. Then in 2011 New Zealand blackwood expert Ian Nicholas visited Tasmania and inspired me with the idea of forming a Tasmanian blackwood growers cooperative. After all, New Zealand farmers have been successfully growing blackwood in plantations for the past 30 years. Ian Nicholas thought that Tasmania had great potential to develop and expand its blackwood industry with farm-grown blackwood.
My original focus in 2011 was a cooperative based on encouraging farmers to follow their New Zealand peers and grow plantation blackwood. The focus has now broadened to include developing the commercial potential of the existing private blackwood resource.
There is a lot of blackwood on private land in Tasmania (remnant bush, planted trees, windbreaks, wildings, etc.). All of it is unmanaged and generally poor form not suitable for timber production. But there is a steady low level of harvest from private land. And with the recent return to Tasmania of the large American guitar makers (Fender, Taylor, and hopefully soon Martin and Gibson) looking for long-term supplies of quality blackwood tonewood, the opportunity to utilise the existing resource has improved dramatically. The demand for and greater focus on the existing resource will (hopefully) put the spotlight on the commercial potential of farm-grown blackwood, which may then flow through to greater interest in growing more in plantations.
For the cooperative to have any hope of success:
- the market needs to demand farm-grown Tasmanian blackwood; and
- be prepared to pay a price that encourages farmers to want to grow more; and
- the market needs much greater transparency and media exposure to help build positive sentiment and support.
In 2011 my vision was to help farmers plant a total of 100 ha of blackwood plantation per year for a full 35 year rotation period. This would create a resource of 3,500 ha which would then produce approximately 30,000 cubic metres per year of premium blackwood sawlog to supply domestic and international markets. This scale and value of harvest would then allow the coop to be self funding.
If you are a farmer or landowner interested in i) realising the commercial potential of your existing blackwood, or ii) growing commercial blackwood in plantations please contact me. See the Contact page for details.
Until we get some transparent commercial momentum and support behind the coop proposal, I’m prepared to offer my services to farmers for free or a donation to help cover my costs. I believe blackwood has a great commercial future, it may just take some time and effort to get going, given the forest industry context in which I have to work.
I’m after support and interest for this proposal from just about anyone, but especially from the rural community, industry and Government.
I’m passionate about blackwood and its potential to become an iconic profitable Tasmanian industry just like the wasabi, truffles, saffron, poppies, etc..
Here are just a few reasons:
- Tasmania is the home of blackwood, Australia’s premier appearance-grade timber species;
- Blackwood is a fast-growing, high value, high quality product well suited to the small-scale Tasmanian economy;
- There is a substantial existing, unmanaged farm blackwood resource (remnant bush, shelterbelts, aesthetic plantings, wildings) which can be better managed to realise its commercial value;
- Plantation blackwood is perfectly suited to small-scale farm production. Many Tasmanian farms have corners, steep slopes and other neglected areas that are very suitable for growing blackwood;
- Most blackwood timber currently available comes from the harvesting of State forest. The native forest industry based around the public forest resource has been in decline for many years, and continues to be the centre of controversy. Future supplies of blackwood from the public resource are therefore in doubt;
- The existing public blackwood resource is static and cannot expand to meet growing worldwide demand for quality appearance-grade timbers;
Why a cooperative?
- All the usual benefits that a cooperative brings (scale, efficiency, influence, shared knowledge, shared resources, community, etc.), but in this case very few farmers know how to grow commercial blackwood. I can help teach Tasmanian farmers how to grow commercial blackwood;
- Blackwood is not a “plant and forget” tree, nor is it a broad-acre species. Growing commercial plantation blackwood requires careful site selection, good establishment and dedicated management for the first 10 years. A coop will provide the dedicated focus needed to create success;
- A coop will provide the scale required to gain efficiencies in establishment, management, harvesting and sales. This will translate in greater profitability for growers;
- A cooperative will become self-funding when there is enough blackwood volume and value leaving farm gates. This will only occur with more blackwood timber being grown in plantations. The existing private blackwood resource is unlikely to provide either the volume or value.
- A cooperative will provide the best means to achieving FSC certification for Tasmanian farm-grown blackwood, allowing better access to export markets;
- Blackwood timber from native forests is notoriously variable in its quality. The best is brilliant, the worst is rubbish, the average is very acceptable to most markets. Research has shown that this variability is mostly due to genetic variation, with environment also playing a lesser role. Blackwood plantations will initially be established using unimproved seed sources. A cooperative is the only way that a blackwood selection and breeding program will ever be established to achieve improved quality and consistency in plantation blackwood timber.