Category Archives: Plantations

Heartwood: The art and science of growing trees for conservation and profit


Fellow forester Rowan Reid recently wrote this book which has been getting a lot of media coverage. I thought I’d write a review.

Rowan is passionate about trees and farm forestry. And like me he’s pretty critical of the policies and practices of State and Federal Governments and the forest industry. As such Heartwood says very little about past and current industry and Government policies and practices to thwart or encourage farm forestry.

In one respect I can see why he has avoided discussing the current Government, industry and market context. Rowan obviously wants to keep the book positive. The problem is when it comes time to sell your cherished sawlogs you have to deal with that context, and it’s often not a positive experience.

One of the first things I do with a new book is look at the contents page to get an overview of the books structure.

Here’s the Contents page from Heartwood:


With Heartwood that didn’t work. I quickly discovered there was content not shown in the Contents page. So I’ve made a list of the other Contents:

Quartersawn, backwsawn and shrinkage 34
The components of a tree trunk 52
Basic tree felling 53
How to grow tall trees 70
How much space does a tree need to grow? 88
Geotropic and phototropic growth in trees 108
Attracting wildlife to your farm 124
Measuring moisture content and wood density 144
Wood density and tree age 145
Reaction wood: tension wood and compression wood 162
Hardwood sawing patterns for a horizontal bandsaw 178
Tree foliage for supplementary fodder 200
Pruning trees for sawlogs 220
Durability of timber 240
Growing shitake mushrooms on logs 258
Shelterbelt design 276
How to plant a tree 294

Heartwood contains a wealth of information and knowledge about trees and farm forestry written in a personal and engaging style. Rowan’s view of farm forestry extends beyond commercial wood production (although that is clearly his main focus, as you can see from the other Contents page). His vision is to reintegrate trees back into the rural landscape to achieve multiple benefits.

If you want a head start in how to grow these trees this is a good place to begin.

The question remains – what are the commercial risks associated with planting these species? After all, the book’s title does include the word PROFIT!

And here’s where I start to have problems with the book.

How do we start a conversation in Australia about profitable tree growing?

Certainly Governments and the forest industry take great efforts in avoiding discussing profitable tree growing. To them it is anathema. Such discussion would inevitably put the spotlight on the failings of public native forestry, and they are at pains to avoid that.

Heartwood avoids any serious discussion about end uses, markets, costs and prices, so it’s hard to see where the profits come from. There’s also no discussion about laws and regulations pertaining to farm forestry. Rowan’s desire to avoid the current “context” and remain positive starts to feel awkward.

Some of the species in the book are quality appearance-grade timber species. In theory they are high value. Appearance grade timbers in Australia have historically either been imported or have come from public native forests. With public native forestry in Australia traditionally run as a community service rather than a business, proper commercial markets for quality timber have never developed.

One example of weak/non-existent markets is the steady stream of phone calls I get from people who have stashes of Australian Red Cedar timber hidden in back sheds for decades. They now want to sell, but can’t find buyers. At the time these sheds full of Red Cedar were seen as a guaranteed investment. But after 100 years the market for Red Cedar has moved on leaving these “stranded assets”.

And yet there are people today planting and growing Red Cedar hoping to revive this long dormant market. Will they succeed?

Heartwood is full of optimism and hope. The forest industry has a long history of unrealised optimism.

Most of the appearance grade species in Heartwood would be destined for the furniture, flooring and cabinetry markets (office and shop fit-outs, etc.); or for the export market. The Australian furniture industry is well aware that it faces a looming timber supply crisis as evident in this recent media article:

But the furniture industry has no plans to address this crisis besides appeals to Governments. The furniture industry could be supporting and encouraging private tree growers, but so far there is no evidence of this.

Rowan has been working hard for decades promoting farm forestry in Australia but governments, industry, markets and farmer groups have pretty much ignored his efforts.

Heartwood will fundamentally change the way people think about the future of forestry and in doing so it will encourage more landholders to grow more trees for the benefit of their land and all that depend on it.

I’m not sure that statement is true because most of the change/reform that is needed has to happen in the marketplace and with Government policy as much as with landowners.

I see no indication that the marketplace or Governments understand what reform is needed to realise Rowan’s dream; his Third Wave!

By all means get yourself a copy of Heartwood. It is an enjoyable read.

The book is as relevant to furniture and cabinet makers as it is to farmers/landowners. Maybe a few policy makers and forest industry leaders could learn a thing or two.

Thanks Rowan!


Farmers and forestry


Yet another recently discovered private blackwood plantation.

It’s a common mantra in the forest industry in Australia that Australian farmers are reluctant to plant trees as a commercial crop.

For many years I believed this mantra and attributed it to the lack of support from the forest industry, markets and governments. Many government and industry reports have made similar findings.

The fact that the forest industry believes that transparent competitive markets, log prices and a level playing field are irrelevant to its future, doesn’t help.

However I recently had a revelation that undermines this mantra.

Driving around southern Tasmania I am always discovering new blackwood plantations on private farmland, and it suddenly dawned on me – Tasmanian farmers want to grow commercial blackwood, the evidence is everywhere!

I know of dozens of private blackwood plantations in southern Tasmania alone. In northern Tasmania there must be hundreds.

Virtually all of these plantations are small and have failed.

They have failed for a range of reasons:

  • Poor site selection;
  • Poor establishment;
  • Lack of timely management and commitment;
  • Stock and wildlife damage;

But I believe the major reason for the failure of these hundreds of private plantations is the lack of support and engagement (and demonstrably commercial behaviour) by the forest industry and the State government.

The government agency Private Forests Tasmania offers extension services to Tasmanian farmers, but clearly, after 45 years, this isn’t enough.

Private Forests Tasmania by itself cannot provide enough support, encouragement and motivation to turn this demonstrable passion for commercial blackwood into a success story.

And especially right now we have State government policy deliberately undermining any hopes of private commercial blackwood growers with the anti-commercial Special Timbers Management Plan:

Tasmanian farmers clearly demonstrate a passion for growing commercial blackwood, even within the context of decades of toxic, destructive forest politics and policy.

If only we could turn this passion into a success story.

New Zealand Tree Growers Enjoying Good Times


New Zealand has one of the world’s most successful forest industries.

And right now they are riding the tide of strong demand and high prices.

New Zealand farmers will be raking in the money.

Forest owners are enjoying the most sustained, stable and highest prices for logs ever recorded.

It’s mostly about China and export markets.

Log export markets are absolutely vital to the New Zealand forest industry.


Because the New Zealand forest industry is ALL about profitable private tree growers. Local New Zealand sawmillers have to survive in a very competitive market. This keeps them focused, efficient and hardworking. That’s business!

And for that the forest industry makes a huge contribution to the New Zealand economy.

Why can’t Tasmania have a forest industry like New Zealand?

Standing Tall?


What can you say about Tasmania farmers trying to grow trees for profit in what must be one of the most hostile marketplaces in the world for growing trees.

Why hostile? Tasmania is equivalent to the forest industry Middle East – a political/commercial/social war zone for the past 35 years with no peace in sight.

Are they deluded? Are they brave? Are they profitable?

They are certainly dedicated and passionate.

These farmers need to be wearing full body armour.

The ABC rural program Landline recently did a segment of farm forestry in Tasmania.

As demand for timber outstrips local supply, the CSIRO is encouraging Tasmanian farmers and private landowners to join the agroforestry sector.

Even that one promotion sentence by the ABC is enough to make me despair.

Here’s a news story the ABC did about the Landline feature:

It’s not a story I find very encouraging. In fact if I was a farmer reading this I’d be having a quiet laugh over my coffee.

As a forester I’ve been reading stories like these for the past 40 years whilst watching the forest industry march to oblivion. It’s the same old story, which hasn’t changed in 40 years. Obviously the story doesn’t work. Why?

One of the problems for these farmers is that they have no power in the political, social or commercial marketplace. They have no voice. No one represents their interests.

Notionally the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) is supposed to represent the interests of farm forestry, but they do nothing. Why? Because doing something means standing up to the politicians and a sycophantic industry.

The TFGA can’t even create a farm forestry vision for the future. Not a single policy.

So farmers like Graham and Roger are in No Man’s Land, caught between warring parties.

The ONLY basis for a successful forest industry is profitable tree growers, with minimal political and community conflict.

Tasmania is a very long way from that objective.

Two Great Videos from New Zealand

As many people know the New Zealand forest industry is fully commercial and very successful; perhaps the most successful forest industry in the world.

It is a major contributor to the NZ economy both from local processing and log export. The industry is still largely based on Radiata pine, but that is slowly changing.

The New Zealand Farm Forestry Association (NZFFA) helps to ensure that New Zealand farmers have a strong voice in the forest industry.

They also have a strong focus on extension and support to the farming community.

These two videos are great examples of that focus.

The first video focuses on the economics and commercial returns to growers from forestry investment. These are real examples from real farmers making good money growing trees.

Returns from Harvesting

The second video shows examples of farmers who have grown, milled and used their own timber. Towards the end of this video is blackwood grower and miller Paul Millen talking about farm-grown and milled blackwood.

Using Timber from Trees on Farms

Two inspiring videos for existing or prospective farm tree growers.

Other videos that are worth watching can be found here:

It’s a shame we don’t have anything like this from Australia/Tasmania!

Gippsland Blackwood Plantation Management Workshop


These are notes from a recent workshop:

On Sunday afternoon 22nd April the Gippsland Agroforestry Network (GAN) held a blackwood workshop. The aim was to look at the options of managing a blackwood plantation and put some theory into practice.

In 2011 about a hectare of blackwood was planted on an alluvial creek flat as part of a stream front revegetation project. The blackwoods were planted as tubes at a spacing of  2m x 2m. The intention was to encourage straight vertical growth of the young trees and to restrict their propensity to fork and branch. The trees are now in the order of 6m tall and ranging from 8 to 15 cm diameter at breast height (1.3m).

The field day discussed the New Zealand view that the only way to control the blackwoods  enthusiasm to fork and branch was to continually (annually) form prune and to remove any side branches from the central stem if they were more than 2cm in diameter. Viewing the trees, it was considered that this was probably the best option as despite being form pruned in 2014 (as 3yo stems)  and lift pruned to 2m in 2015, there was considerable forking and co-dominant stems that had emerged since. The conclusion was that form pruning should have been carried out as an annual activity (at least) over the past 3 years.

I hope the field day discussed the New Zealand 3 principles of good blackwood management.

So what is the first of the three principles?

  1. Good site selection.

Was there any discussion about the planting site in terms of rainfall, soils and wind exposure? Without good site selection the chances of success are very limited.

What is the second principle?

2. Good establishment.

The trees were tube stock planted at 2×2 m spacing.

What was the site preparation?

What was the weed control?

Was any fertiliser added?

Was any browsing protection/control used?

And finally what is the third principle?

3. Good management.

We know the trees were form pruned in 2014 and lift pruned in 2015.

New Zealanders talk about annual browsing control, weed control and pruning.

Was weed control used in the first few years?

Every blackwood field day/workshop should focus on the New Zealand 3 Principles.

The need to thin the plantation was also discussed. Clearly, the trees were competing given the close planting and a number had died. Small lower branches above the 2m lift prune were largely dead, significant leaf fall had occurred and the ground beneath the trees was totally bare.  Misshapen trees were identified for culling and there was debate as to the best way to remove them. Stem injection was considered but rejected due to the risk of flashback. It was decided that cutting at ground level was the best option with the wallaby population taking care of the regrowth.  There was also discussion as to the extent of the thinning. Removing all the identified trees (about 60%) would remove much of the vertical stimulus and probably encourage further forking .  As a result, it was agreed that about half the identified trees would be removed this winter and the rest in 12 months. It was noted that this would also reduce the amount of debri on the ground at the one time. The proposed thinning would reduce the density from the current 2000 stems / ha to about 1400 with the second half of the thinning reducing this to about 800.

Lift pruning was then carried out on the selected trees to about 4m and further form pruning was undertaken.

It would be interesting to see what his plantation looks like after some thinning and pruning.

Judging by the photos there would appear to be an opportunity to rescue this plantation.

Thanks to David for passing these notes on.


Hoop pine


The recent discussion about Bunya pine and the tonewood market led me to wonder about Queensland Hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii)

Hoop pine is the only premium plantation timber species currently harvested in Australia. Some 500 ha are harvested each year. It is not known how much wood is produced from this harvest.

As such Hoop pine provides the only example in Australia of what a future plantation blackwood market might look like; with the one exception that if I was around I would be trumpeting the blackwood market dynamics as much as possible. Market transparency is vital!

Here’s a Hoop pine fact sheet from the Queensland government:

(Curious how these forest fact sheets never talk about economics or log prices, as if investing in trees has nothing to do with money!)

The 44,500 ha of Hoop pine plantations were established by the Queensland Government but were sold when the Government decided to privatise the forest plantation resource in 2010, and are now owned by the one company,  Hancock Timber Resource Group, with the plantations managed by HQPlantations.

So far as I’m aware the forest industry is not seeking to encourage the expansion of the Hoop pine plantation resource. Given that the Hoop pine owners pay no local Government rates, expansion of this resource by competing landowners will be difficult.

No one will ever know how much the market is paying for Hoop pine logs. It’s difficult enough to find Hoop pine timber retail prices. Timber merchants positively hate advertising their prices. So the economics of plantation Hoop pine as an investment are unknown and that’s the way the forest industry likes it.

If you spend a lot of time searching on the internet you may find the following economic study of plantation hoop pine investment:

Herbohn, J.L. 2006, ‘Potential financial returns from Hoop Pine and an assessment of the likely impacts of various support measures on landholder willingness to plant’, in Harrison, S.R. and Herbohn, J.L (ed.), Proceedings of Sustainable Forest Industry Development in Tropical North Queensland; Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management, Rainforest CRC, Cairns.

Herbohn 2006

The study uses a stumpage of just $70 per cubic metre for a 45-50 year-old plantation grown premium wood product!!

That would certainly kill any landholder willingness to plant!

All a 2012 Queensland Government report on the State forest industry could say about Hoop pine was these 60 words:

Araucaria (hoop pine) plantations consist largely of plantings of hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), with smaller areas of bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii). However, araucaria log timber is relatively costly to produce because of high management and harvesting inputs, largely as a result of the steep sites on which it has been established and high pruning costs. Crop rotation lengths are also very long at around 40 to 50 years.

State of Queensland (2012) Queensland forest and timber industry situation analysis.

It doesn’t sound encouraging does it?

Nevertheless I managed to track down one Hoop pine retail price list:


It’s a curious price list in terms of the limited sizes available and the prices. High prices for small cuts but not for big cuts. Wide boards (140mm) are cheaper, with thicker wide boards (31mm) being cheaper than thin boards (12mm). The prices on the range of 42mm wide boards (8, 19, 31 and 42 mm) provides for some curious deliberation.

What is clear is that these represent premium prices (~$9,000 per cubic metre) for premium plantation timber. Compare these prices with the $2,500 per cubic metre for dressed premium grade Radiata pine from Bunnings Hardware:

It would certainly be interesting to know the details of the business model the Hoop pine plantation owner uses to maximise returns to the company. Just exactly how profitable are these plantations to the owner? This price list gives us few clues.

If any readers have Hoop pine growing I’d love to hear your stories. Send us a comment.