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Expanding economic viability of sustainably managed indigenous beech forests and industry

Dean Satchell, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2012.

The workshop late in 2011 held by the School of Forestry at Canterbury University brought together stakeholders from around the country to discuss issues around this emerging industry. The workshop was the culmination of many years of hard work supported by the Sustainable Farming Fund and with farm forestry involvement from conception.

Noble wood

Southern beech is undoubtedly one of the worlds best medium density hardwooods, a noble wood eminently suitable for high quality fine furniture. However, perception is the key to successfully realising the market potential of beech timber. Unfortunately this has not always been favourable.

After government logging of native forest ceased around ten years ago, the opportunity to sustainably produce southern beech from private land as a direct substitute was there for the taking. Product quality issues, particularly in drying, together with a lack of resources to build an industry and brand based on a consistent quality product, left southern beech high and dry with only a minor market share in a highly competitive industry.

Perception played its hand. So do we have another chance to create market demand for this fine product? To capitalise on the opportunity requires resources and investment around high quality processing and brand marketing. This is going to be a challenge and there are currently three major players each in different geographical regions, and each with a vision. These include Lindsay and Dixon in Southland, NZ Sustainable Forest Products in Westland and Forest Holdings in the North Island.

Chest of drawers from black beech

Forest classification

Landcare Research and MAF have put some considerable effort into quantifying the southern beech forest resource. There appears to be up to 350,000 cubic metres a year of sustainable harvest potential available from the privately owned resource, or 75,000 cubic metres of sawn timber and 175,000 cubic metres of energy recovery potential.

This amounts to a total of 166,000 hectares of forest available for sustainable management. Even if only half of this beech forest was under sustainable management it would cover 80,000 hectares and give a sustainable harvest of 200,000 cubic metres a year.

The resource capacity is obviously not an issue. However, there remains unused capacity in existing approvals and the demand for logs and the sawn product is currently low.

Perception is everything

Will southern beech become the status quo premiere high-end joinery, furniture, flooring, outdoor furniture and decking specialty timber in New Zealand? The fragile reputation of beech is a result of perceptions resulting from past failings.

‘Beech timber has a reputation to be unstable, to move, warp and twist, with excessive colour variation and short average board lengths’...‘The timber can’t be dried’....‘The logs can be rotten, and have poor product recoveries’...‘The forest management is unethical’. Could such negative and unjustified perceptions be turned around with appropriate market development measures?

Perception is everything. Beech is an extremely stable product with superior finish and patina. It has superior working properties and appearance. The market should perceive the product as local, sustainable and from well managed forests.

There are those who have seen the light. Interior decorators are now beginning to speak of beech in favourable terms. However, changing people’s attitudes is a slow and arduous process and it takes ten or more years to develop a product. The grade recovery can be low in logs from unmanaged forests. However appropriate attention to grading of logs can ensure sufficient returns to the grower and good sawn grade recoveries for the producer.

Control the quality

Quality control in the production process is important. Incorrectly seasoned timber going into the market place could destroy the fragile reputation of this species, and brand value is only as good as the last performance. Appropriate sawing and seasoning of beech timber along with good grading and quality control will ensure a timber consistently fit for purpose.

The rules-of-thumb for good grade recoveries are sawing in thinner dimensions and proper seasoning. This currently means slow air-drying before a gentle kiln drying schedule to bring the moisture down to a consistent 10 to 12 per cent for the market. Of course, only supply the market with consistent, quality timber and ensuring an adequate and reliable supply.

The market is consumer driven. We need to pay attention to what is in demand and align with what the consumer wants. Flooring with lots of colour variation and a bold feature just may be what the market wants. We should never assume. Give the consumer what they want and when they want it.

Environmental credentials

Third party environmental certification is becoming more important to being able to market and sell timber. FSC accreditation opens opportunities for selling timber by demonstrating both legality and sustainability. Procurement for major buyers takes these factors into account and the Green Building Council awards points for FSC timber in their green rating scheme. FSC certification is seen as essential for marketing southern beech. The main factors to consider are therefore good quality control, certification and reliable supply.

Demand for timbers goes in cycles and is dictated by fashion. Currently there is not much demand for panelling and sarking. There is solid demand for hardwood flooring and blonde timbers. Three out of four timber floors currently being laid are in imported oak.

The furniture industry

There was a 36 per cent decline in employees in the furniture and cabinet-making industry between 2004 and 2009. However, it is still a $1.3 billion dollar industry in New Zealand, and although there has been a big effect from major retail chains such as Harvey Norman and imported furniture, industry diversification has been into kitchens, bathrooms and shop fit-outs. The recent launch of promoting New Zealand made furniture through the quality brand Furniture Maker Master Seal could be an opportunity for improving southern beech’s market share.

A strategy

The fragmentation of industry and lack of cohesive organisation and leadership is clearly an issue. An industry body is required that represents all sectors and links in the value chain, from the grower right through to the manufacturer and even the specifier. Such an organisation could set minimum standards, present itself with a trademarked brand, actively seek out markets and be known among those procuring. A body could also lobby on political issues such as the building code and provide quality information resources for members on everything from marketing and promotion right through to the realities of sustainable forest management.

A very relevant comment at the workshop was that everybody in the industry needs to be on a level playing field. This may not be easy because there will always be conflicting interests. However, that said, there is hope that an industry could be built from a model based on a balance of co-operation and competition, with stakeholders finding agreement and common ground.


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