Following on from our last success story “Not just a walk in the park” which highlighted the lessons learnt and success achieved by Mr and Mrs Dittrich, this edition we are provided another real life example of the trial and tribulations of private forestry.
The following article was kindly written and provided by Mr and Mrs Whitlam. Barung Point is the home of George and Christine Whitlam, a couple who retired from a busy life of development banking in Asia to take it easy, or so they thought.
The property, half of an old dairy farm, is located near Maleny, in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Covering some 100 acres, it encompasses a variety of landforms on the edge of the escarpment overlooking Lake Baroon. Some say that retirement should entail synchronicity. Given the planning, stress and discipline of working life, the thought of waking up each morning to 100 acres of calm green solitude whetted their appetites, and provided the mental crock of gold at the end of the rainbow that kept them going after purchasing the property in 1987 until retirement ten years later.
Small hiccups along the way might, however, have foreshadowed events to come. First, a major drought was followed by intense rain, and large slip scars on the eastern slope greeted their arrival for a holiday. Instead of sipping chardonnay on the verandah they found themselves in lengthy meetings with forestry contractor, Robert Tap.
The meetings resulted in the planting of mixed rainforest species on their eastern slopes. Suddenly their paradise became part lunar landscape, covered with tree seedlings in newspaper-roll weedmats. A few years later, retirement beckoned and a Master Tree Growers’ course set its parameters. The course made it clear that trees were not just for slips: they were an important overall part of rehabilitating/developing the property.
Wherever they looked the potential for trees appeared. There was opportunity for trees to provide windbreak, trees to maintain privacy, trees to stabilize slopes and slow runoff. As the bank balance shrank trees also were used to provide, if not an immediate income, then at least capital appreciation of the property. Already the prospect of languid mornings over coffee and the newspapers was diminishing. It was clear that productive effort to develop and maintain one’s relationship with one’s trees started very early in the morning if anything was to be achieved, particularly during the summer months.
Trees had to be planted, weeds had to be controlled, and pruning had to be initiated. What the Whitlam’s did not fully understand was that rainforestry was more art than science. Paucity of technical and financial data meant that neither the technical nor financial viability of rainforest plantations could be assured. The best trees, of course, are those that produce the most wood of the highest value, in the shortest possible period, at the lowest cost. The problem is to know which ones they are, let alone how to grow and sell them.
A pragmatic-incremental-diversified approach is, therefore, being followed. So far the results have shown some promise. With well over 10,000 trees planted, the old dairy farm has been reshaped to look a little bit like a well-treed country estate. Much has been learnt in the process. Some of it is obvious (e.g. that it is easier to maintain trees on flat land than on steep slopes) and some is less obvious (that canopy closure can be as bad for diameter growth as poor maintenance).
Overall, best results have resulted from combining mechanical mounding with mulching/fertilizing, and weed control. Of course, more deep red soils and a more regular rainfall would also have helped. Small trials of shade-compatible cover crops (pinto peanut and villomix) are growing well.
The major problem for the Whitlams as they grow older is that their ambition to expand exceeds their capacity to produce appearance grade timber. It is increasingly obvious that planting fewer trees each year and perhaps bringing forward silvicultural operations will help reduce escalating costs of thinning and pruning. Some thought, therefore, is being given to planting trees (at one meter apart) in same-species groups of three with the mid-tree of each group at final-crop spacing of seven meters . Early thinning by year four (of two out of each three-tree group) should result in a density far more consistent with the physical constraints of the site and result in faster diameter growth of fewer more evenly spaced trees.
Final-space group planting should also encourage a more energetic hands-on approach to individual tree management, at the heart of getting better returns; and enhance landscape values. Another lesson has been the importance of clearly defining a business strategy and letting that drive planting decisions.
With smallholdings of many different rainforest species it may be difficult sell thinnings for a profit, given the dis-economies of small size. It is one thing to envisage selling clearfall sawlogs into a market for appearance timber products, but it might be another to achieve it for small lots of thinnings from staggered plantings. Focussing on a particular market niche may help, however, instead of just growing mixed species, it may be prudent to diversify into craftwood for which there will be a readier market at a higher price, even for thinnings. Red cedar (toona ciliata) and black walnut (juglans nigra) are but two well-known craftwoods with traditional appeal, selling at premium prices. In the past, growing red cedar as a monoculture crop wasn’t commercially viable, due to the debilitating effect of the tip moth (hypsipyla robusta), which destroys the commercial value of the tree. However, the Whitlams have found that by accelerating height growth through two-metre-high tree guards, valuable butt logs can be grown. (Apparently, tree guards foster growth by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and decreasing transpiration.)
On protected sites at Barung Point, black walnut also seems to grow well, and even better, Andean walnut (juglans neoptropica) as far as growth rates are concerned. Being older foresters, the Whitlams have given considerable thought to forest landscape design.
As they are unlikely to be here when most of the trees are harvested, trees are planted consistent with landscape features to optimize the present capital value of the property. If for some reason the property has to be sold then there should be some reward for the years of hard work. There is little worse for property values than the artificial shapes of woodlots conflicting with rounded landforms and the natural irregularity of vegetation. The role of paths in structuring landscape design and linking forest spaces also cannot be underestimated. Barung Point provides an interesting example of what can be achieved through small-scale forestry on a less than optimum site of exposed ridges and steep slopes.
Apart from providing a rainforest environment in which to live and create potential for future income, there are important landcare outcomes of wider benefit to the community. Trees are now, for example, stabilizing slopes and reducing erosion that was silting/polluting Lake Baroon, a major source of water for coastal communities.