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Looking back to the future - or forward to the past?

Angus Gordon, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2014.

This article is a pitch to the membership as a forerunner to potential changes in the way that the NZFFA operates in the future. Its sole aim is to get the membership at large thinking about where we have come from and, more importantly, where we are heading so that we can make some real tangible changes to how we operate our organisation.

Looking backwards

Starting back in the 1950s with our founder Neil Barr and friends, our organisation grew steadily so that almost every region of the country had access to a branch. Like many broad churches we had a varied membership. There were leaders, followers and plenty of black sheep in the mix. About the only thing that we did not do was to own buildings to worship in, but with such a wonderful diverse landscape to go and clothe with trees, why would you want to bother with buildings?

Simultaneously there was an acceptance that soil erosion had the potential to strip hill country of its soils and devastate the lowland areas downstream where the hill soils deposited. That realisation brought about the formation of various catchment boards and river control authorities. As a nation of pioneers in what had been a country covered in rain forest, we had been good at cutting trees down but not so at putting them back. We were so good at cutting forests down that it was recognised if we did not plant exotic forests, New Zealand was at risk of running out of merchantable wood.

This new idea of clothing selected parts of the landscape with trees required knowledge, motivation and finance. In its infancy the NZFFA was part of a coalition of the willing, along with local catchment boards and the Forest Service. This was taking place at a time when the knowledge and skills required to establish trees were fairly undeveloped and there was an obvious niche for the NZFFA to occupy. You could argue that we effectively became the information conduit from government organisations to rural New Zealand with respect to tree planting knowledge and information. Along with the more commercial side of our membership has been a large number of members who were tree collectors, botanists and those who just liked to have a landscape with more than grass and fences to look at.

Neill Barr on a farewell walk on his last day at Kaukapakapa

The current position

Where are we now? We had our membership peak in the early 1990s, following the world price spike in logs, with around 4,000 members, but since then there has been a slow but steady decline to approximately 1,800. It is continuing to decline despite an increasing number of people having ownership of exotic forest plantings. You might well ask where this will lead. Have we even got a future? If so, what will it be?

Looking at the current mix of organisations and businesses involved in the tree space, a large chunk of what was our turf has been absorbed into the day-to-day functions of other enterprises. Nurseries now have a large knowledge base to offer, with many having websites which contain an array of knowledge which is free to the user. Other commercial enterprises offer many services such as planting, pruning, harvesting and the eventual sale of the crop. In many ways they have become one-stop-shops for these skills, at a price. This is particularly so if you are growing radiata pine.

With the continued specialisation of our workforce, and especially farming, many of the ‘jack of all trades’ who were once common are becoming less so and are not being replaced as they leave the workforce. Farming businesses tend to be larger, more mechanised and have fewer staff. If a planting scheme is to be undertaken on a farm, then more often than not a contractor is employed and the owner does little more than pay the bill at the end.

The real niche

What is it that we as a group have which is now our real niche? What is our real reason for our existence and what might be potential niches for the future? If there are some, how could we exploit them for the benefit of our members and our organisation? Currently if our members were to sell a stand of trees it is most likely to be radiata pine, a commodity species with a value chain all the way from paddock to port. But, and it is a big but, the seller of the trees is definitely the last in the queue in terms of remuneration. Everyone else has their profit margin built in and if you want to play the commodity game that is your lot, so get over it.

We have a diverse range of other species growing on farms and in the forest. I would suggest that if we want to be anything more than the recipients of commodity market crumbs then this is where our future lies. It is the downstream products of our diverse species which can command far higher prices at the retail level than is currently the case with radiata pine. However, these species must be converted into a form which can command high value and in significant enough volumes to fulfil market expectations.

Unfortunately the value chain required to harvest the dollars from our diverse species are either poorly developed, in their infancy or totally non-existent. Nothing is surer than if we want to bring home more money for our product then we will have to commit to owning the costs associated with adding higher value. Perhaps as a group we hark back to the days of selling truckloads of unprocessed greasy stuff at the gate for a small fortune. The reality is that events such as the Korean wool boom, or the early 1990s wood price spike, only happen once in the average lifetime. Should we hang around waiting for the next bonanza or try to build our own added value system that we have some element of control over?

Structure and values

What are the structures we really value in our organisation? Is it the local branch, the action groups, the organisation as a whole or receiving the Tree Grower? Do we belong purely for social reasons or a whole number of reasons revolving around a passion for trees and social engagement? How important is the conference to the membership, or running the organisation for that matter?

I would suspect that when the organisation first came into being, social involvement and information sharing among tree enthusiasts was a large part of NZFFA’s reason for existence. Back then in post-war New Zealand roads were terrible, mail took a week to get anywhere, and the local branch was probably the main focus for any member. Step forward to 2013 and we have modern communication systems not even dreamed of 30 years ago, our roads are fast, and our cars are reliable. The question must be asked − Is there a need for an organisation such as ours, and if so what is it and in what form?

There will always be a need for people to pool ideas, converse and form allegiances because we are social beasts by nature, but how we do these will inevitably change. In this electronic age, as long as you can connect to the internet, distance is no barrier and geographical location is almost irrelevant. Interestingly, during the last year our first branch without a specific geographical location was formed – Farm Forestry Timbers – with its subject matter across geographic boundaries. Are there going to be others? Is this a logical progression for our organisation to take in the future?

Currently the dropping membership, and especially the lack of young active membership in branches, is putting at risk much of the structural furniture that we are accustomed to. Our coping strategy to date has been for non-functioning branches to be absorbed by better functioning neighbours. However this type of amalgamation can only continue for as long as there are properly functioning branches to do the absorbing and local or regional relevance is being maintained.

Communications and Tree Grower

Our national magazine, the Tree Grower, has evolved from the small black and white editions first published in the 1950s to the colour A4 sized version we see today. The levies that fund it are incorporated into the national subscription to cover the current production costs, but the combination of falling membership and current subscription rates means this account runs at a loss. The executive are aware that many of you are price sensitive in terms of subscription levels, but at the same time it would be unrealistic to think that our organisation will continue to be able to fund the Tree Grower in its current form with a falling membership and the inevitable rises in costs into the future. For many of you this may come as a shock.

One of the problems we have with our magazine, as with our organisation, is that some of the space it used to occupy on its own has now been absorbed by other mediums and other organisations. Initially the Tree Grower was the main means of mass communication between members and branches, especially between the executive and the broader membership. It was the only available mechanism to inform the membership of research results, publications and national issues easily and efficiently.

Now much of the detailed material which was once the preserve of the Tree Grower is held on the NZFFA website or is sent to the members in electronic newsletters, with short reports appearing in the magazine referring the reader to further sources of information. In an electronic sense the website is now our shop window with a large amount of information residing there. With the addition of a membership database there is also a considerable amount of information which can be available in ‘members only’ areas and can be withheld from general viewing at the push of a button.

The retrieval of information from the website is cheap and easy, assuming you have a reliable internet connection. Farm forestry, like it or not, is part of a society in the grip of an electronic transformation.

The younger that a potential member is, the more electronically literate they are, and the less likely they will be to join organisations not as electronically connected as they are. This means many of the pieces of organisational furniture we currently are comfortable with will change or shift as a different and hopefully younger group of people steer the ship.

Conferences, action group weekends and content provision

Every year we have a national conference where the best, brightest, hardest working or politically best connected of every host branch get to show off their work with trees. It is a considerable exercise for the host branch that runs the show with only minimal support from the national body. As an event it is time hungry, with administrative, social and field-day functions all superimposed on each other. Comments from professionals in other organisations admit dismay at the length and content of our conferences.

The farmers and foresters who started the organisation of yester-year were less time-focused and were self-employed. This is definitely not the case today. Generally, the conference programme consists of one- and-a-half to two days of administration and meetings along with two to three days of field trips. For many this means a commitment of five days as well as the associated travel and accommodation costs.

There are some essential administrative functions which need to be carried out, such as an annual general meeting and its associated reporting, awards, special interest group meetings and others. However, for many attendees the conference is more of a tree-lover’s vacation. The one thing that this conference does do is provide a venue for all the main people within the organisation to get together to discuss problems and ideas face-to-face. The problem emerging is that the needs of the holiday-makers and the organisational members who attend are starting to become mutually exclusive.

For the conference to be relevant and viable there has to be some sort of compromise between the wants and expectations of current attendees, and the needs of and direction that the NZFFA and its membership will need to take in the future. With annual attendances of less than 10 per cent of our active membership, it might be tempting to ask just how relevant this annual event is to the greater membership, with seemingly fewer people standing for higher office in the organisation and workloads being shouldered by a diminishing number of volunteers. It may be time to ask how much longer an event like our national conference can remain viable in its current form.

Awards and ceremonies have been part of the furniture of NZFFA for a very long time and a number of changes have occurred over the years. Currently some of our national award categories struggle to get enough nominations, which raises the question of do we as members actually value them? Or are they little more than entertainment value for those who make the annual pilgrimage to the conference?

With the obvious competition to the national conference provided in November by the action groups weekend, is there a need to have any focused genus or science content at the conference? Should an alternative question be posed, why do we actually have two events? Can the conference provide for the needs of all conference attendees simultaneously?

Part of the answer revolves around the evolution of the organisation. It would seem that without a new group of keen and motivated members stepping into the organisational side of the national body, branches and the action groups there will be changes to the format, content and timing of both events. If the future is considered worthy then there must be a change of focus to allow them to grow and evolve. Locking the structure and content in place because that is how we have always done it will result in a less than perfect result.

Adding value

One question that needs to be resolved is how do we offer increased value to our members?

Farm Forestry Timbers is one step in that direction. Perhaps some sort of structure for the radiata growers in our midst to raise the value of their product, or a mechanism to be able to organise cooperative harvesting effectively in the high volume, low margin environment which they trade in. Perhaps access to improved genetics and more reliable planting stock for the diverse species space would be another.

One of the problems we have with much of our commercial planting stock is the almost complete lack of any selection for improved performance for species other than radiata pine and Douglas fir. In the latest government funding round, all non-radiata research effort lost its funding outside of core Scion contingency funding to keep the breeding populations archived in case of a failure in our dominant forest species. The new forest levy may provide a lifeline to the non-radiata portion of the forestry sector. Only time will tell, but there does remain the very real possibility that by mid-2014, radiata pine may well be the only cab on the rank with respect to research.

Self-help may also well be the only course of action available to us if we are really serious about improving the quality of the genetic stock we buy and plant in the non-radiata space. Groups associated with us have gone down the self-help route, such as the Dryland Forest Initiative with durable eucalypts, the NZ Redwood company and NZ Forestry in the Sequoia space, as well as some players in the cypress and Douglas fir spaces.

Selection and breeding programmes are taking place and the question needs to be asked − are we as small boutique forest growers prepared to step up financially and be equal parties at the table? Alternatively, are we going to settle for everyone else’s crumbs yet again? Is this a niche which could be partly occupied by farm forestry for the benefit of its membership and the wider boutique forest growing community? If we were to go down this route then time, resources and money would need to be channelled into an endeavour which may not be appealing to the current broad membership base. The reality is that we need to have some carrots to offer new members, and perhaps access to genetic stock and the information needed to use it could be one of those carrots.

Science provision and technology transfer

Historically, the provision of technology transfer to the NZFFA’s membership has been one of the main reasons for linkages to the NZFFA by government organisations to supply their science findings to the general industry. Pan-industry reporting events such as Future Forests Research workshops are only open to those who pay their membership fees. Under the new levy-funded research structure it is undecided how technology transfer will be managed.

These problems leave us at a crossroads for our conference content. Do we go further down the path of losing science and other academic content and have our conference evolve further into a genteel garden club walk for tree enthusiasts, with what little science content available moved further into our action group weekends? Do we change direction and bring some or all of our technical content back into our national conference, or choose another direction entirely? Perhaps the conferences of the future could be based on a theme, rather than a region, where field-day visits are chosen to display examples of the theme content rather than to showcase the work of an individual. Action group weekends are currently evolving in this way and many similar organisations in pastoral agriculture have a theme-based approach.

We may be able to provide content and timing which suits a younger more professional attendee, over a shorter timespan, and with more focus. Much of the old furniture which the current attendees are comfortable with, or even expect to be part of the mix, may well have to change or disappear. Is this a concept that our current attendees would accept, or should we have concurrent themes running simultaneously? Many other conferences do this to present a large volume of material over the limited amount of time available and satisfy a broad membership. I think that the reality is we have to evolve or perish. There is no point in competing for top spot as a museum piece. There is a number of extinct dinosaur species waiting in the queue for that position.

More questions than answers

This article will have left the reader with more questions than answers, which was its intent. Not all of the potential problems which face the NZFFA have been dealt with here, but the main ones have. In the near future we will explore in more detail some potential options that the NZFFA may adopt.

These options will be available for discussion by branches and the broader membership before the 2014 annual conference for your consideration. In the interim, start talking among yourselves, rattle the cage of your branch chairman and councillor, and perhaps even send a letter to the editor of this magazine. Welcome aboard – hopefully you will all want to come along for the journey.

Angus Gordon is a member of the NZFFA executive. He chairs the Eucalypt Action Group and has been involved in several Sustainable Farming Fund projects including eucalypt species survival trials, the eucalypt GIS mapping and the Trees on Farms projects.

One post

Post from Nick Seymour on August 30, 2014 at 2:44PM

In 1991 at the Whangarei conference the Gisborne East Coast Branch brought forward a suggestion on the make-up of the NZFFA Executive .This suggestion was accepted and is the base of what we have today.

In November this year a special council meeting is being held to discuss the proposed strategy which was introduced at the Blenheim conference earlier in April. I would like to make some suggestions to help the thought processes.

Many councillors are very experienced and have held their branches together over many years. The way I see it is to have an able group helping the Executive in an advisory role, not tied to formality. The brains’ trust would be advisory, exploratory and reactive helping the Executive on problems to be determined –

  • Keep it simple
  • The Executive should be responsible to the council
  • The council should have power to call a special branch council meeting
  • Have two to three North Island councillors, two to three South Island councillors, one as chairman to meet with the President and Executive, one as secretary who reports to branches and their councillors
  • Meet using conference calls, skype and emails to keep costs down

One other important point to consider is the role of the past president. The most experienced person in our association is the NZFFA past president who will have been dealing with problems and concerns for the previous two or three years. We usually put them out to pasture after a year and often some have a lot of work to do back at home.

However, most go back and help their branches but perhaps they could also be interested in helping the proposed new council. We could put that experience in the proposed new council and make a space which could be taken and filled if required.

This is just my outline for discussion before the November councillors meeting. It all needs to be kept simple.

Nick Seymour

Gisborne East Coast Chairman


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