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Quiet achiever has 66 million trees

Twelve years ago, New Zealand Carbon Farming was just a concept. Now, it is one of the country’s biggest landowners, and its business model – planting permanent forest – is looking more prescient by the day. Sources: Stuff NZ, Timberbiz

The company was founded in 2010. By late 2019, a Radio NZ investigation looking for the country’s biggest landowners concluded it was New Zealand’s ninth largest landholder, with 28,365 hectares.

If the same survey was taken today, the company would have vaulted up the ranks. It now owns close to 46,000 ha and manages another 44,000 ha on behalf of farmers and other landowners, giving it control of some 90,000 ha. If nothing else had changed since 2019, its land holdings would place it fifth on RNZ’s list, excluding land it manages for others. Yet few people have heard of the company, which has deliberately flown under the radar until recently.

Its business model is intriguing. First, it finds marginal or unprofitable farmland, then buys it or partners with the landowner. Second, it plants a cover crop – usually pine.

The pine trees aren’t for harvest. They’re to supply a carbon-rich nurse crop, allowing native forest to regenerate underneath them. While slow-growing native seedlings take root, the faster-growing pine supplies a speedier and increasingly profitable source of cash from carbon credits.

A cover of pine trees “creates the right environment for indigenous trees to flourish beneath that umbrella and regenerate over time,” says NZCF co-founder and director Matt Walsh.

Why pine? “There’s a lot of it around, so it’s relatively easy to do research on pine trees,” he said. “New Zealand has 100 years of history of growing pine trees, so we know exactly how to grow them and how fast they’ll grow and so that helps reduce the risk. Along the way, they store a lot of carbon… [particularly] over the next 70 years [when] the planet needs the most help.”

The sale of farmland into forestry is deeply unpopular in some rural communities, where people fear loss of farming jobs. Slash or waste material from floods hitting plantation pine is also getting a bad reputation for its environmental impact on East Coast beaches.

Yet Walsh says his company isn’t buying fertile, flat land – it wants the steep or erosion-prone plots, which aren’t producing employment anyway. The trees won’t be clear-felled and, he says, each forest plan is tailored to conditions.

About 80% of the company’s land is in the North Island, mainly in the East Cape and central and southern North Island. There’s some at the top of the South Island and “a couple” of plots in Canterbury.

As for the staff, about half of NZCF’s 28 full-timers work in the field and the other half in its Parnell, Auckland headquarters. Mr Walsh says the company is in the process of hiring another 15 people and contracts another 300 temporary workers during planting season.

Over the last decade, NZCF estimates forests under its management have sucked in more than 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of almost a quarter of the whole country’s annual emissions or taking every car off New Zealand’s roads for a year.

It estimates it has more than 66 million trees to its name, about half of them aged 15 years or older. Among those are established forests the company has purchased (typically ones planted after 1989, meaning they’re eligible for carbon credits in the Emissions Trading Scheme).

But that’s only the start of what Walsh wants to achieve. With the carbon-sucking powers of trees featuring heavily in plans for meeting New Zealand’s draft carbon budgets, this line of business looks certain to grow. Virtually every plausible path to net zero carbon emissions requires a huge uptick in planting.

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