By Dave Wilson
OPINION: The biggest challenge facing farming at present is the response to climate change and the desire to cover huge areas of the country in trees.
While I fully agree some areas are best suited to trees, I don't think current policy settings will encourage the right land to be matched with the right trees.
- Rural communities fear the worst as more farms sold into forestry
- Worker shortage flagged for one billion trees programme
I have personally hunted on a couple on the big stations up for conversion in the Wairarapa and Wairoa and I am not convinced covering the whole of those areas in pine trees is the optimal land use.
I do believe that well implemented, the billion trees scheme could be a massive boon for farming. But that would involve small scale plantings of trees in the worst parts of many farms rather than the wholescale planting of many trees on a few farms.
Although neither a climate or soil scientist I am trained in and have worked in the science area. I can recognise scaremongering when I see it and I am seeing plenty in regards to the climate.
This does not mean I am a climate change denier, but I believe catastrophising is neither honest or helpful. In fact, the history of science and the world in general is jam packed with ill-considered responses to the latest crisis having no effect or even making the problem worse.
I can sit on a hill on my farm looking at a mob of heifers grazing in amongst a landscape scattered with trees I have planted. From my vantage point I could see over 3000 trees I have planted in the past few years. The cattle busily grazing turning a century old pasture into high-quality food with a bi-product of the stuff politicians and senior civil servants talk.
In a process, 65 million years in the making this bi-product along with the roots shed from the grazed grass and dead leaf material are added into the soil creating a vast reserve of carbon. There are millions of tons of additional carbon stored into New Zealand's soil as a result of perineal grazing systems.
Much of this would be released if I was to cultivate the soil to grow crops or soil disturbance resulting from harvesting timber. The estimates of these factors I have seen vary hugely, sometimes by orders of magnitude.
The real impact of changes in land use in soil carbon and overall carbon balances are the sort of fundamental questions that need to be answered accurately to make sensible decisions around actual carbon and economic budgets in New Zealand's unique context.
I can also see the trees I have planted growing year by year. Pine trees on formerly eroded slopes that used to shed sediment and nutrients into the Hokianga, poplars binding the banks of drains together, fodder willow sucking up nutrients from wet areas and natives in eroded steep gullies.
In between the trees, the best most productive land continued to produce food with the worst environmental impacts mitigated by thoughtful use of plantings. This to me is a far more socially and economically sustainable model than endless hectares of pine trees. And if I do say so myself, it looks a hell of a lot better too.
A billion trees planted like this would make farming and New Zealand a better place. Sadly, my trees are planted in such a way that few of them qualify for entry into the much-touted miracle bullet Emission Trading Scheme, and although a large corporate could buy my farm and cover it in pines to offset emissions I can't even use the thousands of trees I have planted to offset the methane my cows are burping.
It seems even more iniquitous when you consider the CO2 from the jet plane passing overhead will last for a thousand years whereas my old breeding cows are doubtlessly today eating some of the same carbon atoms they burped out 10 years ago.
Thoughtful policy could work through a lot of these issues - policy designed to punish not so much.
Dave Wilson is Federated Farmers Northland Meat & Wool Chairperson.