Farms, Trees and Climate Change

A recent op shop purchase of John Fenton’s The Untrained Environmentalist (Allen & Unwin, 2010) reminded me of how important trees are both to farms and helping solve the climate emergency. Fenton started with a treeless farm near Hamilton in the Western District and a lifetime later had transformed it into a wonderland with a network of windbreaks, farm forestry and a block of restored native vegetation.

Fenton championed what he called Farm Stewardship which called for payments to farmers (and private landholders) for protecting natural habitat in bush blocks and for assistance with farm forestry. This reminded me of a climate change meeting in Bairnsdale some years ago when a farmer outlined the financial difficulties he had in keeping a substantial bush block from which he received no income.

This blog has frequently repeated the call to phase out logging of native forests as quickly as possible. But this is of no use whatsoever to tackling global warming if we immediately replace that timber from an overseas source – Indonesian rainforests for example. So farm forestry should be encouraged with as much government assistance as possible preferably planting native species but also including exotics like pinus radiata. And one can only lament that this was not done thirty years ago when many scientists, including the CSIRO*, were already pointing out the immensity of the problem of human caused warming. Thus we need to look at timber substitutes, reused timber, as well as farm forestry and phasing out timber as a fuel in towns.

My late brother-in-law Jim Lane was one of those farmers who had the foresight and could afford to experiment with farm forestry. At his Buckleys Hill, Fish Creek property in South Gippsland he planted 13.2 hectares (32 acres) of various native species between 1999 and 2002. Some have been more successful than others. The 6.3 Ha of Southern Mahogany (Eucalyptus botryoides) has been form and lift pruned, thinned twice, and as of December 2018 looking pretty good. They are due for harvest in 2027 as sawlogs. The remainder including Blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon) are due for harvesting over the following 8 years. The exception has been the block of spotted gums (Corymbia maculata) which are suitable only as firewood.

The only farmers who can afford to have their land non-productive for 30 years are either those relatively financially independent like Jim Lane or the rare exceptions like John Fenton who succeed with determination and perseverance. But what is required is a substantial number of farms to convert suitable parts of their farms to forestry with every assistance including selection of suitable species, silviculture advice and financial support. Fenton’s ‘farm stewardship’ is a good idea that should be implemented as soon as possible. Without extra financial assistance any significant farm forestry will remain in the doldrums.

*see Pearman, G.I. (ed) Greenhouse: planning for climate change, CSIRO Publ. 1988.