Forestry and farming unite for everyone’s benefit!

As demand for wood continues to rise, the establishment of new forest plantations in Australia appears unlikely to generate the quantities of timber required. Thankfully, recent research out of Tasmania suggests another industry — agriculture — can offer solutions.

Researchers have been working with farmers to identify and quantify the benefits of integrating trees into their land, and educating them on the many rewards, financial and otherwise, that trees can offer.

Dr Daniel Mendham is a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Land and Water, which led the research. He said the need to expand Australia’s forest resource is broadly accepted.

“Farmers tend to understand that trees are good for their farms to some degree, but up-front costs often present a barrier, as do the logistics involved with the planting process,” Mendham explained. “For that reason, we knew robust evidence was needed to back up the benefits.”

Through their work, the researchers aimed to increase the number of trees on Australian farms and develop configurations that would increase profitability for farmers. The idea is that this work will lead to a natural ‘scaling up’ and limit the need for direct government investment in planting trees.

The team set out to consult with farmers and develop an understanding of their motivations around tree planting, and the barriers to adopting agroforestry.

It was discovered that farmers can generally be divided into three distinct groups — those who see trees as vital and essential to the farm, regardless of cost or economic return; those who see trees as a valuable part of the farming enterprise, and would be willing to plant more trees if the economics stand up; and those who do not see trees as being valuable enough to justify the associated costs and logistics. 

The largest group of farmers were found to be those that are willing to be convinced trees could pay their way, which clearly bodes well for agroforestry’s future.

The team also conducted a review of agroforestry options, to better understand the biophysical and economic benefits of bringing forestry and farming together under a single balance sheet. This approach meant the impacts of different configurations could be explored and modelling clearly demonstrated that well-targeted agroforestry systems had a higher return than agriculture or tree planting alone.

This work was strengthened by a number of experiments conducted across four key trial sites, in the northern and southern midlands of Tasmania. One of these experiments was designed to develop a better understanding of the benefits of trees as shelter, and their impact on wind speed, evaporation and pasture productivity.

At one study site, a belt of pine trees 15m tall was found to effectively shelter more than half of a 25 ha paddock. In the sheltered half, wind speed was reduced by between 15 and 25 per cent, evaporation by 15 per cent, and pasture productivity increased by almost one third.

The project has already resulted in a number of publicly available resources, including two CSIRO reports, three conference presentations, six fact sheets and five published papers, with more on the way. In addition, the team has contributed to at least seven field days with farmers.

“We have found that support for trees amongst farmers is high, with a wide range of benefits being recognised, including shelter, biodiversity, improved aesthetics, direct economic benefits, restoration and more,” Mendham said.

“This project has demonstrated there are substantial gains to be made for farming enterprises that adopt trees as part of productive and profitable agroforestry systems.

“The traditional way of considering forestry investment, which focuses solely on the timber’s value at harvest, only captures a small fraction of the benefits that trees provide,” Mendham said.

Engaging with farmers through this work has led to a substantial increase in knowledge and awareness around the multiple benefits offered by agroforestry systems, and their prospective dollar values. This knowledge allows farmers to better account for the costs involved when considering the adoption, planning and implementation of planting trees on their land.

“More work needs to be done to fully embed trees as a mainstream element of farming enterprises, including large scale demonstrations of productive and profitable agroforestry systems, and working with more farmers and farm influencers to demonstrate and quantify the benefits that trees can offer,” Mendham said.

“Trees on farms should never be viewed as a ‘waste’ of land or as taking up unnecessary space for the 20 or 30 years between planting and harvest. We wanted to open the eyes of farmers to the stream of tangible financial and other benefits, which with the correct approach can be enjoyed almost from the day they’re planted.”

Darren Davis is the Chief Operating Officer at Forico, an industry partner and the largest private forest manager in Tasmania. He said for Forico, improved acceptance of agroforestry amongst farmers can only be a good thing.

“Trees on farms unfortunately have quite a chequered past. So how do you go about rebuilding confidence in the benefits if that has been lost amongst farmers?” Davis asked.

“The beauty of this research is that it confirms to landowners that their entire enterprise benefits when the right tree species are planted in the right location. The knowledge collected through this project will therefore support farmers in making strategic decisions that will directly impact profitability.”

Stephen Clarke is a Senior Private Forest Advisor at Private Forests Tasmania, another of the 12 industry partners involved in the project. He said the organisation is already using the case study outcomes from the project in the real world.

“The case studies really are the gift that keeps on giving, by assisting us in communicating with farmers about the indisputable benefits of integrating trees into their farming systems,” Clarke said.

“We know that for agroforestry to have the desired effect in Australia, farmers are going to need flexibility to be able to decide for themselves how trees are integrated onto their land, and the case studies provide various roadmaps to help them do that.”

In conclusion, Dr Mendham said as a direct result of this work, several farmers have already expressed their interest in planting more trees.

“In an ideal world I would like to see a future where trees are growing on 10 per cent of all Australian farmland and, as a result, those farm enterprises enjoy increased profitability and resilience,” Mendham said.

This project was part of the Rural R&D for Profit Program and was managed by FWPA. The research team acknowledges the contribution of industry partners CSIRO, the University of Tasmania, Private Forests Tasmania, Greening Australia, Dairy Australia, AgriFutures Australia and Forico, as well as the landholders and farmers with whom they worked.

You can view the full project report by clicking here.

Listen in — New business models to inspire investment in trees on farms

In addition to the work outlined above, a recent episode of FWPA’s WoodChat podcast series focused on another project which involved the development of new business models for planting trees on farms. The models promise mutual financial, social and environmental benefits for the timber industry, rural landowners and investors.

The models were designed in collaboration with industry and rural landowners, after analysing landowner needs and their past experiences with tree investment. They consider the positive impacts of trees on carbon cycles, biodiversity and water.

Listeners will hear from Professor Rodney Keenan —

Chair of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne — who led the research.

Listen on SoundCloud and iTunes.