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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Off the Contour #9 - Eco Friendly Farm Forestry

Eco Friendly Farm Forestry
(this article was first published in Earth Garden Magazine in 2000)


Eco Friendly Plantations…. Is that an oxymoron? To many that have observed the recent rise in investor driven “farm forestry” plantations one can only agree that this would certainly be the case. Mention the words “Pine Plantation” or “Blue Gums” and often people quiver with horror. Do they know though that there are other ways of doing things, using principles and techniques that mimic natural systems and are not mere examples of an industrialized, arboreal monoculture. Potentially Eco Friendly Forest Plantations can produce a much more dynamic and diverse result than their industrialized cousins, and have an inherent ecological and economic stability and longevity that simply can’t be matched.


An Eco Friendly Plantation could be defined as:


“A multiple use forest plantation that is an analogue of a native forest, where ecological principles of biological and genetic diversity are utilized throughout and where the end result is a permanent stand of trees and understorey that continues through successive and variable harvest cycles.”


Unfortunately the biggest problem facing those contemplating establishing their own personal forestry plots is time. Time that is takes to develop a planting, to manage it, and most importantly to harvest it. To the economist in us time is interest and the longer it takes to harvest and the more expensive it costs to establish the less “attractive” the investment is. The cultural myopia that many suffer from is in stark contrast to the attitudes that prevail particularly in Northern Europe where ancestral private forests have an intergenerational integer that removes the time element. Not many people in my book beyond their immediate life terms and this is a big issue facing those with the desire but not the time. In most cases though the wait need not necessarily be too long. The first principle to give to Eco friendly plantation forestry would be patience. Although this is with a condition, as sometimes accelerated surprises occur as we patient ones so often encounter. Indeed today there are many ways of accelerating the returns from forestry.


Understanding and identifying the potential number of products that come from a multi-species forest is a good starting point in developing your own Eco Friendly Plantation. Apart from the traditional timber products that come from a forest, a variety of other products can be yielded sustainably as part of a well structured private (and public!) planting. The progressive inclusion of useful and supportive analogue understorey species in the forest over time will contribute largely to the potential amount of over overall production. Native seed production for example – particularly of species endemic to your area is a very positive way of accelerating cash flows from your forest. If however you had only planted your forest to timber species then you will be spending money/time over a long period before any returns come. It is worth remembering that in a good healthy well managed Eco Forest – be it native or plantation that trees as growth forms form only a part, usually only a small part overall of the diversity of species contained with the forest. Its amazing there are so many forests that are being choked by too many trees!!The genesis of the permaculture concept was realized out of this very simple fact, hardly surprising given all that a forest can yield – to humans even more so where the species involved are useful to us.


Eco Friendly Plantation layouts can vary enormously in their forms and complexity. Aesthetically the Eco Friendly Forest has a beauty that only diversity can yield. The more common layout types are the Block Planting and Alley Farming/Timberbelts. Block Plantings are the more popular layout as they overcome vagaries of edge effects and allow a greater critical mass of production from a given area. Also where one has planned the property according to land class, an entire area may be devoted to a block planting e.g. wet drainage depressions. Alley Farming is very popular in Western Australia particularly using fodder shrubs as opposed to timber species. In China the use of intensive Alley Farming comes into its own with the incorporation of high value horticultural crops and aquaculture with belts of highly management timber species. With Alley Farming and Timberbelts the effect of the planting is to obtain shelter effects in conjunction with timber yields and other forest products. Shelter protection yields of around 15 times tree height can be achieved (i.e. trees 10m high will reduce wind velocities over 150m), which in valuable cropping or pasture areas allows for the increases in production together with timber yields. In the Eco Friendly context it is appropriate to again incorporate multiple species into the tree alleys and plant fodder species on the edges to provide some feed to stock as well.

The issue of the method of harvest also strongly features in the ongoing aesthetics. Where we use mixed species/mixed provenance’s harvest dates will vary considerably, as target log sizes will be reached at different times. In a conventional clearfelled forest the emphasis is on removing all stems from a coupe where the target log size has been achieved as a proportional average over the whole coupe. In a industrialized, highly mechanized monocultural plantation this method is likely to be the most efficient method of harvest – the aesthetics of the result though aren’t too flash, nor are the impacts from erosion particularly unless appropriate engineering has been undertaken. In the Eco Friendly Plantation the emphasis is on using selective harvesting – which is where we assess individual stems (sorry trees!!) for potential felling according to their respective size and form characteristics. Following intensive management by judicious pruning and thinning you should have a high proportion of high value trees, which, when harvested and processed on site will give much higher returns per cubic metre than the conventional alternative of clearfell harvesting and post harvest processing off site.


The critical point though with using selective harvesting versus clearfelling is again time and money. It is simpler in an industrialised system to simply remove all stems and send unprocessed logs off to be processed in a factory somewhere – with a bulldozer to cleanup and replacement planting for the same cyclical result. More importantly the return the landholder gets per cubic metre is at the lower end of the bargain – no onsite value adding and a commensurately low return. Radial Milling is the best industrial-scale milling option for gaining viable high value, high recovery timber products out of smaller diameter logs of lower quality. The more favorable alternative for the Eco Friendly Plantation’s owner is to use a local contractor with the appropriate licenses to fell any trees and mill them on site with a portable mill. The milled boards can then be stacked (“sticked out”) in a shed to air dry and then be sold on as a higher value seasoned product for further processing if necessary. Any residues can be used or sold for firewood, posts, sawdust etc. either on the farm or offsite.


Another result of using selective harvesting is that returns are over a longer period and the forest will start to take on a more dynamic and dare I say more interesting state. Coppice management (regrowth from the stump post harvest in some stems) particularly with some Eucalyptus species and the creation of different age classes begins as an issue when thinning the plantation commences. This practice of thinning is a result of establishing the trees in a plantation at a high rate to provide early height and form improvement and also to increase the amount of selection, that is to increase the choice between good form trees and firewood! Competition effects from coppice regrowth is an issue that often results in thinned trees having stem injection to kill and therefore quell any resultant coppice growth. An alternative is to space coppicing species so that their ultimate mature size is provided for, and make allowance for another species that will grow quicker and not coppice. In other words the quicker to harvest species will make way once its harvested for the slower growing coppicing species.


One of the biggest issues we face and get asked is whether or not to use a herbicide and if not what alternatives are there. In some circles this is not a question although some then ask should I use a residual chemical (e.g. Simazine) or knockdown (e.g. Glyphosate) due to a standard of personal and cultural preferences. When we get that far in the conversation the answer is always the same – no residual. Only two of the plantations we have been involved with establishing have been developed with the use of any herbicides. This is not altogether our desire as we have often tried on many occasions to get a spray contractor (s) but have failed for a variety of reasons – leaving us with organic conditions by default. What it has taught us though is the effect that not using chemicals in establishing forests can have and what to sometimes expect and how to get away this more attractive option.


Where possible it is preferable to not use herbicides in the Eco Friendly Plantation’s establishment, although it makes it much easier where you do and their use can get the planting of to a flying start. However you can use cultivation or old fashioned fallow to overcome herbicide use. The practice of fallow is all about the cultivation of weeds as they emerge, to create tilth and to preserve soil moisture by the maintenance of a “cultivated mulch layer” of soil on the surface. Farmers over time have used fallow to effectively cultivate crops and its only relatively recently that they have started to use herbicides in place of it. In summer rainfall areas or on areas where it is too wet to use cultivation to maintain a weed free planting strip or site then other methods such as mulching will need to be used. We have found that the timing of final cultivation and subsequent planting date will influence the initial growth rates and the trees resiliance to the weed growth that follows. Other weed control methods such as the use the hot water spray (e.g. Waipuna System) and Flame weeders could also be used by are untried in a forestry situation to my knowledge.


How do go you about designing, developing and managing a Eco Friendly forest plantation on your property?

One of the first steps I would recommend is becoming part of a farm forestry network (see references for contacts) so that you can go out and see what is happening in your area and develop an idea of how you’ll establish your own plantation. People like yourself have been doing this for a few years now and you’ll be surprised what you can glean from other

+’s self confessions – good and bad. In Victoria there is also the “Growing Trees in Rural Landscapes” course run through DNRE, which is a more structured way of learning more about trees and forestry. Beyond that there is the renowned “Master Tree Growers” course run through the University of Melbourne which is recommended for anyone really serious about learning most of what you need to know to effectively manage a farm forest.


Following this any farm planting, be it of an annual crop or a permanent forest should be the result of a holistic planning process. This ensures that you have considered the overall needs of you and your property and determined what different areas of your property are capable of producing (i.e. Land Capability) – also using permaculture design principles maximize and enhance success prospects, durability and multiple use outcomes.

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