Table made from Reid’s 25-year-old farm-grown Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) amongst 30-year-old pruned trees of the same species. Photo: Cormac Hanrahan

TIMBER: If the government gives you money to plant trees, then maybe you won’t be bothered to grow them otherwise. And, if you’re banned from chopping them down, maybe you won’t plant them at all. Not good thinking according to agroforestry guru Rowan Reid, who spoke to The Fifth Estate for this follow up piece to our recent deep dive into timber.

The Australian building and construction industry’s appetite for timber shows no sign of slowing.

The pressure is on the mainstream forestry industry, consisting of native forestry and plantations, to meet this demand sustainably.

Growing Australia’s existing sustainable forestry operations is not the only possible solution. There are also alternative methods for growing and sourcing timber that can help secure the long term future of this country’s timber stock.

Agroforestry, the practice of growing timber on farmland, is one promising candidate. In Victoria, forestry scientist turned farmer Rowan Reid is a long time proponent of agroforestry and author of a book on the subject. 

Reid, who worked in forest science before taking on the family farm, says not much timber is grown, considering the level of demand, and that there’s a huge opportunity to marry agriculture with forestry.

He told The Fifth Estate that the advantage of agroforestry is it yields multiple benefits: reforestation, ecological restoration and increased profits for farmers.

His vision is for all small independent farmers to leverage native forestry as another source of income that also benefits farming operations by providing shade for stock, reducing soil erosion and creating more carbon-intensive, productive soil.

As well as practising agroforestry on his own property, Reid has been working with farmers in Victoria to build a local agroforestry industry.

Ecological benefits

He says that a large scale agroforestry industry can lead to ecologically healthy landscapes.

When each farmer has the opportunity to choose what, where and how much of a species they want to plant, based on the climatic conditions and personal preference, a natural diversity in species occurs on the landscape level.

Sure, all the trees on a single farm might be of the same species. But Reid says it’s the landscape scale that matters to ecological health – the survival of animal species, for example, and the maintenance of natural hydrology.

The same goes for when it’s time to fell trees. Because trees take decades to grow, the clear felling of one paddock of trees among a thousand others that remain standing is unlikely to have serious impact on the health of the landscape as a whole.

“We wanted to encourage you to see trees for your own benefit, – only plant what you can afford, plant the shelter belt, plant when rebuilding the fence.”

The result is more reforested land for ecological health as well as a secure, diverse supply of high-quality native timber for high value uses, such as for buildings and furniture.

Practised at scale, Reid also sees agroforestry reducing or eradicating the need to log established native forests.

Making forestry and farming work together

The other complication is the industrial forestry industry has pursued business models that skew towards mass fibre at low cost. These trees, milled while they are still young and small in diameter for pulp, may be worth as little as $5 each.

Reid believes the more sustainable and profitable way to grow timber on farms is to plant native hardwoods for high value uses, such as making furniture, which requires a bit of pruning and management to ensure quality. These trees, by contrast, can be worth a few hundred dollars each.

Planting trees on farms can be profitable, Reid says, but he warns against the tendency to plant them in steep, unproductive paddocks and forget about them.

The problem with this method is that planting trees in these treacherous sites means the trees can’t be accessed by heavy machinery to be harvested economically.

Reid is now selectively harvesting large-diameter pruned eucalypt logs from a mixed species planting along what was once an eroded creek (1987)

And, as the agroforestry industry matures, we can expect greater innovation around harvesting and management that will only make the enterprise more profitable.

Conservation welfare

Reid believes the government’s approach to get farmers to grow trees – through grants and incentives such as the Landcare program – has inadvertently created an environment where farmers expect to be paid for conservation efforts.

“They won’t spend money on trees. People think it’s something the government gives them money for; they’ll pay for fertiliser but not trees.

Bambra Agroforestry Farm 

“It’s created a welfare on environmental stuff.”

Taking a regulatory approach is also short-sighted, with bans on chopping down natives sending a message to farmers that they shouldn’t plant these trees at all.

“Farmers are acting in a rational way, they think they won’t be able to cut them, that it will be deemed too close to the creek or something.”

So, he says, instead of farmers planting natives that wildlife can live in for 30-odd years farmers choose exotic species or no trees at all.

“We need to make profit a positive word and a tool for conservation like in the energy sector, where wind and solar farms have made a profit.”

The big challenge ahead is a messy forestry legacy

Standing in the way of a diverse agroforestry industry is a legacy forestry industry focused on industrial scale monocultures that rely on government support.

Reid is concerned that softwood plantations will go the way of the failed managed investment scheme pulpwood plantations once government tax subsidies are removed.

He’d really like governments to “get out of the way and stop picking winners” so that farmers and industry can work together to rebuild a more sustainable, diverse agroforestry industry that delivers multiple benefits at once.

There’s room for engineered timber too

Reid believes engineered timber is a fantastic product because it overcomes the strength limitations of fast-growing softwoods. 

He stops short of encouraging more large-scale monoculture pine plantations to meet this demand but can’t see the problem with felling what’s already there to meet the growing demand for engineered timber.

He sees it as a way to transition to other, more sustainable ways of growing trees for timber, helping to lift the collective value of timber and subsequently incentivise farmers to put trees in the ground.

“Anything that develops these markets is good… anything that adds value should feed back into timber growing.

“We should be looking to use more of the resource to keep locking up carbon.”

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