Opinion: Keeping rural communities diverse and viable is key

It’s a little over-simplistic to simply say “there’s no threat to farming from forestry”.  

In fairness, that’s not even an accurate reflection of the concerns being raised to the government by the farming sector.

A primary concern is the impact expanding forestry will have on rural communities. Keeping in mind that rural communities already feel under-fire and under-threat from a landslide of government regulation bearing down on them.

Over the past few months, farmers have faced reform of freshwater regulations, stock exclusion regulations, the Zero Carbon Bill and methane reduction targets, looming changes on biodiversity protection and the Crown Pastoral Land Act, and a comprehensive review of the Resource Management Act.

The One Billion Trees grants provide tempting financial incentives to instead plant forests. So, in underlining forestry as a threat, farmers are highlighting how the stress from additional regulatory requirements, coupled with incentives to move from farming to forestry, carries risk for their communities. 

We want the government to meet its climate change mitigation objectives, but not at the cost of bums on seats in rural classrooms or gumboots outside the local dairy.  Thriving rural communities are key to the success of not only regional New Zealand, but New Zealand as a whole.

The One Billion Trees target may only see an increase to 2 million hectares of forestry by 2028, but it’s where those trees are planted, and why those trees are planted, that worries farmers.

The Minister notes that the purpose of the One Billion Trees Fund is to help farmers integrate trees onto their properties, to both diversify incomes and improve environmental outcomes.  We support that purpose. But the key word is ‘integrate’, and while there may not be a specific Government policy that encourages high-value pastoral land to be wholly planted in pine trees, that is what a combination of factors risks delivering, intentional or not. 

Forestry investors want land that is easy to plant, maintain and harvest and that inevitably means they want good flat land close to roads, processing facilities, and ports, not the hard to get to, erosion prone backblocks. 

There’s a distinction between the goal of the ‘right tree in the right place, for the right purpose’ and how farmers are seeing it play out. Many farmers and rural professionals are telling us of local sales directly to whole farm conversions, with foreign carbon speculators buying up farms and planting permanent forests for carbon credits.    

Overseas investment in forestry on New Zealand farmland does remains a concern.  While the Minister has noted that in the year to September only 8,800 hectares of farmland was converted to forestry under the new special benefits test, that doesn’t account for applications since that time, or those in the pipeline. 

The $229 million sustainable land use budget package is welcome, but it is often forgotten that this includes $43 million to set up a Climate Change Commission, and $64 million to establish institutions and regulations for freshwater management. 

A better return on investment would come from providing additional, solutions-focussed support, funding and assistance to catchment groups, and for ensuring entities who work directly with farmers and communities, like the Landcare Trust and Queen Elizabeth II Trust (QEII Trust) receive the necessary boost to their funding. 

The Minister has reiterated that the government is committed to working alongside farmers to get more value from what they do. We support that, and encourage greater engagement with our industry moving forward.

If we are to meet New Zealand’s long-term challenges and retain a thriving primary sector, what we need most is for the government to think carefully before its fallback position becomes adding so many barriers to farm, that planting pines becomes the easy answer.


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