Carbon farming 'a waste of land', driving rural residents away - farmers

There are warnings that New Zealand's goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 is destroying rural communities.

Productive sheep and beef east coast farmland is being blanketed in pine trees that may never be harvested in a mission called 'carbon farming', where trees are grown for carbon credits, not for sale.

The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) makes carbon farming a financial windfall for landowners - often making it more lucrative than farming stock or milling the trees for export.

And east coasters fear an impending forestry boom will turn more of its communities into ghost towns.

Aaron Jones and his friends have lived in Tokomaru Bay their whole lives, but the farms they used to work on are now planted in pine trees. It's caused a lot of rural residents to move out of the area.

"You look at a lot of people who have moved away… Everyone has gone away to work, because there's no work here," he told Newshub.

The banks are long gone from the town, along with the post shop and the farm supply store. The local school is only just hanging on - and so are the last of the locals. 

"It shouldn't have been planted, it's a waste of land."

An hour-long drive up a forestry-lined road and there's a glimpse of what all of this land once looked like. Puketoro Station is the sole survivor of sheep and beef farming in the area. 

Its boundary line is a constant reminder of the temptations of pine. So far six of its surrounding stations have sold into blanket forestry - something Puketoro's owners Leigh and Tennant McNeil vow never to do. 

"As far as we're concerned, it'll never end up in pine trees," Leigh told Newshub.

Seventeen people are directly employed by Puketoro. Those jobs would be lost overnight if it was planted into pine.

While forestry is job-rich during the harvest, there's no harvest if you're only farming carbon. 

"If we keep planting pine and pine and pine, we won't have communities and farmland in New Zealand," Leigh said.

New Zealand has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, and now the ETS has turned carbon into a currency. If someone plants a tree, they earn 'credits' for the carbon dioxide it soaks up. They can then sell that credit to a company which is having to offset its emissions.

The price of a credit is reaching record highs, so there is little incentive to chop the trees down.

Gisborne district councillor Kerry Worsnop is concerned about the ETS.

"The problem is while we're sticking this sticky plaster of the emissions wound, we run the risk of poisoning our economy, our environment, or communities. No one wins from this, nobody at all," she told Newshub.

She's seen the effects before. In the mid-90s under a National government, New Zealand had its biggest forestry boom. Planting pine was pinpointed as a solution for erosion.

But the boom took out stations like Ihungia, with thousands of hectares of productive farmland planted in pine.

"You won't walk up a country road in New Zealand at the moment where that is not on the mind of hill country farmers. The writing's on the wall," she said.

The Government's current ETS keeps her up at night. 

"The ETS settings already make it more profitable for me to farm my farm in pine trees and claim the carbon credits, than to produce what I produce, employ the people I employ."

Of the 8.5 million hectares of sheep and beef farmland in New Zealand, less than 1 percent was converted into forestry in 2019. 

But Beef + Lamb NZ says the rate of conversion in the last year is 13-times greater than the average of the past five years. And modelling by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment estimates that around 60 percent - or 5.4 million hectares - of sheep and beef farmland will need to be converted into forestry to meet the carbon-neutral target.

Forestry Minister Shane Jones believes that's an exaggeration.

"I have no interest whatsoever in shrinking by 55 percent the amount of land that Kiwis are farming for sheep and beef purposes. But there are some gross mistruths and they're designed, I think, to spread fear in our rural communities," he told Newshub.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is preparing advice on whether limits should be placed where and how much exotic forestry is allowed. But Jones says it's up to the public to agitate for limits to be applied.

"We have no agenda to pass legislation prohibiting carbon farming, but I fully accept it'll be quite a big issue in our rural communities this election."

At Puketoro Station, sheep and beef exist in harmony alongside two million pines planted in high erosion areas. Leigh and Tennant think Jones has the right idea.

"It's the perfect example of how you can have the right tree, right place," Leigh said.

But they want the Government to not just acknowledge that blanket pine on productive farmland is the wrong tree in the wrong place - they want it restricted.