Peter van Essen is a one-man operation, planting and pruning trees and dealing with pests on properties at Hopelands near Woodville in New Zealand.
Together, his plantations make up 57 hectares and he has managed them on a part-time basis.
“That’s the only way I could afford to buy them. They were covered in gorse when I bought them in 1999,” said van Essen.
He brought the property in July that year, so he had only a short window for planting in the winter, but managed to get two hectares in.
“Now, I have a bit more time, but the initial years were a bit tough. I could only plant in my spare time,” he said.
The results are impressive – tall trees, mainly eucalyptus varieties and cypresses.
“I am trying not to grow pines. I have got some, but I mostly use them for shelter or in sites that are too hard for other species,” he said.
“I have mostly cypresses – Cupressus lusitanica, C macrocarpa and four main species of eucalypts (gums) Eucalyptus fastigiata, E fraxinoides, E regnans and E globoidea.”
Van Essen has 12 species of eucalyptus and three species of accacias.
“I am interested in growing different species, because they have different types of timber and I am a woodworker as well,” he said. “I like seeing different species growing, other than just pine, and I can’t compete with the big pine growers, so why try?”
A Middle Districts Farm Forestry Association group with about 20 members, visits to look at his alternative species and there is a free-flow of information, with members making suggestions about what might grow best on a windy, north-facing slope.
They look intently at a cut cypress stump to ascertain the soft and hard wood.
Van Essen said that he intends to mill his alternative species – eucalypts, accacias and cypresses – for high-grade timber use.
“Internal panelling, lining, flooring and furniture-making – that sort of thing. The problem in New Zealand is that there is a fairly small, limited market. And it needs more work to establish the continuity of supply, a network of smaller growers,” he said.
Connecting farmers with buyers is Dean Satchell, a Farm Forestry Association executive member and specialty timber grower, has set up a website to link farm foresters with buyers.
It has been running for five months and has 300 listings. He has heard of farmers receiving calls from sawmillers and people wanting to build houses. However, he admits the specialty timber market is a shambles. One problem is the lack of millers who know how to handle it, although that is simple to solve.
“The really hard problem is shifting good volumes of timber. There are a lot of well-tended stands of trees around and the pale timber is in vogue at the moment. You would think we wouldn’t have trouble finding a market for them,” said Satchell.
“But the hardwood used in New Zealand homes is imported – mainly kwila and United States white oak. It’s crazy. All our New Zealand hardwood is in trees waiting to be used.
“You couldn’t tell the difference between the American oak and eucalyptus if you looked at a floor.”
He doesn’t blame builders or architects.
“They take what they can get and there isn’t a local supplier,” he said.
“At the same time, the American Hardwood Export Council has done a massive marketing campaign and virtually controls the market.”
“We missed the boat, I suppose. We don’t have an industry behind us. As far as the forestry industry is concerned, there is really only one species of timber in New Zealand – radiata pine,” said Satchell.
He is convinced New Zealand hardwood can compete with the imports on quality and price.
“It’s just a matter of lifting our profile. The website [nzffa.org.nz] is a start. It provides the links so we can find each other.”