The continued conversion of hill country farmland to forestry is a trend concerning Robert Carter.

The 50 Shades of Green has led a good informative campaign about the spread of pines onto good hill country farmland, however I too feel compelled to say something before I become relegated to the state of a ‘quaint curiosity’ folks will pay to visit to see how things used to be in the good old days.

I’m referring to the steady and seemingly unstoppable conversion of our hill country breeding farms to hectares of pine trees for carbon sequestration purposes.

Just recently another couple of local farms succumbed.

The carbon investors, buoyed by our government policy, which encourages conversion in this market, are buying properties as they come up for sale.

This government supplies a heavy subsidy to encourage this activity at the expense of sheep and beef farming, and this enables carbon farming enterprises to pay well in excess of what would normally be achievable for conventional farming or beekeeping.

It’s a well articulated issue in the rural media but it seems little is being done about it.

The combined effect of afforestation of hill country as well as the accelerating move away from wool production is giving rural areas a solid kick in the guts from an income perspective.

There has been some talk about protecting class 4 and 5 land type properties from full-on blanket planting, however it appears that planning (if there is any) overlooks the fact that class 6 and 7 farms are the nursery properties for the sheep and beef industry.

Many operators have been able to wean in excess of 150% lambs and 85% calving on these properties, and their loss to carbon forestry will shorten the supply of store lambs and good genuine beef breed calves for finishing.

Justifying wholesale land use change to forestry based on classification units 6 and 7 is a blunt instrument because most hill properties all have a mix of land unit classifications within them.

(You’ve heard the rhetoric from the ministers: “it’s okay as it’s only class 6 and 7 land being converted”.)

Class 6 and 7 farms also contain some class 3 through to 5 areas, allowing both breeding and finishing to occur.

A far better approach would be to plant trees on areas within farms where it is sensible to do so, considering all aspects for farm forestry, species, topography, soil type and depth, extraction/harvest, timber production, and last of all, carbon. This could be achieved through farmer/investor partnerships.

We need to be building balanced landscapes where the right enterprise is in the right place and on each suitable soil type on each farm.

Very soon, under the current regime, our farm will be a quaint green sheep and beef as well as farm forestry (with manuka honey too) oasis in a blanket of pines on one side and the much more natural native cover of the Whanganui River National park on the other.

If I were ever asked about how to describe my big picture thinking I would say that I am a ‘decentralist’, as I believe we should be developing and promoting policy that encourages people away from cities into rural areas.

This could spread the load on housing and build truly resilient communities based around healthy outdoor rural lifestyles.

One huge factor with this is the need to provide employment and to do this, we need to retain the core fundamental resources which can be used to generate economic activity.

Covering previously developed hill country farms (with all the required infrastructure) with pine trees is just plain stupid and even irresponsible given that there are much better ways to reduce atmospheric CO2 across the globe.

In the future, we will look back on this as one of the greatest disasters we have witnessed in rural New Zealand.

There was a previous wave of planting carried out in the 1990s and already those forests are affecting health and communications, as well as decreasing water quality in our rivers and streams.

Most days I spend working on our local rivers and it’s sad to witness the degradation in water quality from sedimentation and debris loading from forest harvest operations.

Health is being affected on quite a few fronts: a rise in respiratory issues from pollen, and the more alarming rise in depression and suicide where people are put under increasing economic pressure.

Communication infrastructure is having to be upgraded and relocated as pines block the line of sight views required for VHF and UHF signals from repeaters and transmitters.

As Jane Smith so rightly points out in her Herald article, the urban majority have been lied to about the reality of carbon farming and the unbalanced Emissions Trading Scheme.

It will need a concerted effort to gain the hearts and minds of policymakers, particularly as it seems that knowledge and science are no longer the arbiters of reality.

It’s hard to determine if the outcomes we are witnessing are those of the ‘unintended consequences’ category or the intended result of a campaign to reduce hill country farming into oblivion as soon as possible.

I note that there is a rise in the number of consultants and experts providing advice and predictions on what should be done, one of them called ‘Fitch’ (a more suitable name would be Weasels) airily states that “less efficient famers will exit once the true costs of accounting for enteric emissions are brought to bear on farms”. (I hate mustelids.)

Oh, so when they exit, so too will the farms, as well as the production, taken over by a monoculture of boring pines.

We have millions being spent on removing wilding pines from unproductive land for protecting landscape values, yet on the other hand we have created an environment where productive land is being bought and planted with very similar species.

Absolutely bonkers in my view.

Key points:

  • I’m not against carbon farming per se, but we could do this on our landscapes within farms in a much more clever manner.
  • We should be putting in strong measures to ensure that communities are not destroyed by policies failing to maintain economic activity that contributes to steady annual cashflow.

I’d love to hear David Parker and Damien O’Connor explain how they would seek to achieve this.