The many positive responses to my previous article (A missed opportunity for the Forestry Peace Agreement: HERE) have encouraged me, and as this seems to be the only forum where I can promote my blackwood cooperative idea, here is an outline:
Blackwood is Australia’s premier appearance-grade timber species bar none. It is native to Australia, with a natural distribution from Far north Queensland to Tasmania and across to South Australia – it has an incredible geographic and ecological range. It has a 200+ year history as a fine furniture timber, and is now used for fine furniture, veneer, flooring, joinery, musical instruments and craft. Sawlogs are currently sourced in Australia from native forest harvesting, almost entirely within Tasmania.
Blackwood has been planted in many countries, with South Africa having a small but very valuable blackwood industry. Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and China are also planting blackwood, with New Zealand making the most progress to date. Blackwood is not the easiest tree to grow in commercial plantations, and learning how to do it successfully has taken time and dedication. Because of its particular site requirements and need for intensive management (at least for the first 10 years), blackwood is not really suited to large scale forestry, but is very suitable for small to medium-sized landholders/farmers.
New Zealand has a dynamic farm forestry group (NZFFA), with a dedicated blackwood growers group (AMIGO). They have developed a successful plantation management regime, and even published a blackwood growers handbook. It is expected to take blackwood plantations 35 – 40 years to reach commercial maturity (a little longer than Pinus radiata plantations), with a final harvest of 250 – 300 cubic metres of sawlog per hectare. The only publically available prices for blackwood sawlogs are from Forestry Tasmania’s Island Specialty Timbers, where selected plain grain native forest blackwood have been selling at auction for $200 - $400 per cubic metre. New Zealand farmers are already getting these prices for poor quality blackwood logs; once logs from well managed plantations become available in a few years time, prices there are expected to increase significantly. So based on IST prices this would equate to $50,000 - $120,000 per hectare revenue at harvest time (minus harvest and transport costs). This is a good return on farmland not being used for cropping or diary.
Investing in forestry such as establishing a blackwood cooperative would be a lot easier if there were proper commercial, competitive markets and transparent pricing for forest products in Australia. Instead the real demand for and market value of blackwood sawlogs remains unknown.
There are only snippets of market information (eg. IST, NZ), which are at least encouraging.
To create a commercially focused, profitable Tasmanian Blackwood Growers Cooperative based on private landowners. The focus will be on growing quality blackwood timber in plantations, but landowners who have native blackwood stands will be encourage to join and manage their blackwood for profitable, sustainable, wood production. Their native blackwood could also contribute towards a blackwood breeding program.
• The Cooperative would be small-scale, high value. An initial target of establishing 100 ha per year of blackwood plantation for a full rotation period of 35 – 40 years, would result in approximately 3,500-4,000 ha of plantation. When harvesting commences in ~35 years time approximately 30,000 cubic metres of blackwood sawlog per year would be produced. This is approx. three times the current annual harvest from native forest, and approx. 10 times the sustainable blackwood supply from native forest. If stumpage is $400/m3 then this would be valued at $12,000,000. That’s my vision anyway.
• To ensure success, the Cooperative would have a strong focus on good site selection, good plantation establishment and management. I’d be looking to provide regular site visits and landowner support to get the trees growing well and properly pruned. Good management in those first 10 years following planting are critical.
• The Cooperative would seek community and industry engagement and support. This is about high value profitable forestry that the community can be proud of.
• All plantation development would be on already cleared land, or plantation sites. No native forest would be cleared.
• The Cooperative would be focused in the north west, but at this early stage I’m prepared to take enquires from the north east and the south also.
• Because of the selective site requirements for growing commercial blackwood, the plantation resource would be widely scattered in small (2 – 10 ha?) plantations. No large, broadscale planting.
• Tree guards and/or fencing would be used to protect trees from browsing and wildlife. No 1080.
• The use of weedicides would be kept to a minimum (spot spraying), and limited to the first 3-4 years following planting. No other pesticides are likely to be needed. Healthy, fast-growing blackwood generally have few pests.
• Getting FSC certification for the Cooperative I think would be a good idea.
• I need lots of interest and support from farmers and landowners who wish to learn how to successfully grow quality blackwood timber in plantations.
• Finance. The Cooperative won’t get very far without money. Because blackwood trees take so long to reach commercial maturity, the Cooperative would not be self-funding for many years. It will need to run on a very lean budget. One option would be to establish a blackwood selection and breeding program to produce improved planting material. This could be then used by the Cooperative, as well as sold to blackwood markets overseas (eg. Chile, NZ) to help generate income in the medium term. However financial support from Government and/or the private sector is needed. The more people who express interest and support in the Cooperative, the more likely this financial support could be found.
• Even if I can get a few landowners/farmers interested, I’d try to get this going by myself as a very last resort.
• If I can get the support and interest of Bill Kelty, the Peace Agreement members, the TFGA and the AFG (Australian Forest Growers) that would be really good.
• I’d appreciate the support of the State government too, but that’s less likely. The Government has traditionally managed the forest industry as a feudal economy - a closed shop of select overlords and sheriffs. If the Government was serious about promoting a diverse, broadly-based, transparent, commercially focused and profitable forest industry then my proposal might have a chance of support.
• The Cooperative would seek to achieve the best financial returns from the investment of its members. As a grower cooperative members will achieve the scale of operations required to access domestic and export markets. The skills required to breed, grow, manage and sell blackwood timber will be developed and shared by all Cooperative members.
Sorry for this being so long. But there you have it. My vision! Now I just need your interest and support. The forest industry is in crisis and in desperate need of new ideas; ideas that will inspire and engage the community; ideas that are commercially focused and profitable. Now is the perfect time to get a blackwood cooperative going. Having 20+ years in the forest industry, and having just spent 4 years getting a PhD in blackwood genetics and wood quality I don’t want it to go to waste. Feel free to contact me if you are interested or want more information.