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Survey of the needs of small-scale forest owners for information and decision support

Graham West and Dean Satchell, New Zealand Tree Grower May 2017.

New Zealand has approximately 14,000 small-scale forest owners – those who own less than 1,000 hectares. Apart from the 1,900 or so NZFFA members who are included, this large group has little or no involvement with traditional information sources such as Tree Grower, field days, conferences, and research and development workshops. This group also represents about 25 per cent of the plantation forest area and control approximately 90 per cent of the pending  rapid increase in wood availability of approximately 10 million cubic metres a year known as the ‘wall of wood’ comprising much of the afforestation boom of the mid-1990's. The group is also about to encounter the forest levy at harvest time and vote on the continuation of the scheme in 2019.

This large group of small-scale owners is likely to influence the general public’s perception of forestry as a private investment. It will therefore affect the aspiration for an expanded planting programme to achieve the economic and environmental aims espoused by central and local government.

A working group formed by NZFFA, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the School of Forestry, NZX Agri, private consultants and Scion has been active in collating information and developing action to achieve greater involvement of small-scale owners. In November 2015 the working group developed a survey to find out what the information needs of this group were, what they needed and what information channels worked best.

The survey was sent out to 3,000 small-scale owners by email and 364 responded in the following month. This article reports the results of that survey.

The first question in the survey asked what type of investor they were. The results in the table show the biggest group were farmers, next were foresters, and then lifestylers. Surprisingly, 64 per cent did not call themselves farmers but could be farmers who chose ‘family business’ or ‘partnership’ as a response. Respondents could nominate several categories in their answers. Each table shows the percentage in each category of the total responses given.

Types of investors in small forest
Investor type Per cent
Farmer 35.7
Forester 25.5
Lifestyle 18.8
Family business 15.8
Partnership 13.6
Private company 11.6
Individual investor 8.9
Joint venture 6.9
Trust 5.5
Trustee company 4.4
Other 2.2
Council 0.6
Maori incorporation 0.3

The next question asked about the purpose of the forest investment. The results in the table below show that investment diversification was a key reason for forestry investment. This was well ahead of best land use and superannuation.

Purpose of forest investment
Type Per cent
Investment diversification 54.6
Best land use 43.5
Superannuation 37.3
Environmental protection 25.9
Aesthetics 17.8
Legacy or farm succession 17.0
Recreation and lifestyle 16.4
Other 6.4
Understorey crops and wildlife 5.6

The next question asked was about the size of the plantation. The results show that most woodlots were in the 11 to 40 hectare size class, next was zero to 10 hectares, followed by 41 to 100 hectares.

Woodlot size
Size in hectares Per cent
0 to 10 28.0
11 to 40 39.3
41 to 100 14.7
101 to 500 13.9
501 to 1000 1.9
Other 2.2

Before asking about information needs, we next asked if they thought they had all the information required to manage their forests. Surprisingly, 54 per cent said yes and therefore did not need to fill in the rest of the questionnaire. In hindsight, this was a mistake but we did ask why they said yes. In reply, 79 per cent said they were already sufficiently informed, and 13 per cent said they do not personally manage the forest investment so do not require information.

For the 166 respondents who had answered that they did not have all the information they needed, we next asked − What are your information needs? The next table shows that information on harvesting, markets and marketing are the main areas of need. Maximising forest growth and tending are in the mid range, with species and site selection, environmental compliance and land use planning least selected. Again, multiple options could be chosen.

Information needs
Need Per cent
Harvesting options and issues 62.0
Links to reputable wood buyers and harvesting contractors 57.8
Market information and price trends 54.2
Methods of marketing woodlots 51.2
Getting harvest ready 50.0
Links to harvesting and marketing advisors 45.2
Maximising forest growth and income 44.0
Trading of carbon 42.8
General forest management 39.2
Establishment and re-establishment of plantations 37.3
Roading requirements and costs 37.3
Tending - pruning and thinning 36.1
Species and site selection 30.1
Environmental compliance 30.1
Strategic land use planning 17.5

Next, we asked about information channels and how this information best provided. Results in the table on the next page show their preferences and each information channel was rated by its perceived usefulness. If we combine the ‘very useful’ and ‘useful’ categories we see a clear preference for workshops, seminars, web pages and field days. Web learning and journal articles are also favoured. Surprisingly, rural newspapers and brochures are some of the least preferred of the options suggested. Marae visits are probably low because of the ethnicity of the survey population.

Rating Rural newspapers Brochures Science reports Popular journal articles Consultants Web e-learning resource Video Field days Workshops and seminars Marae visits Website pages
Very useful 4.4% 5.4% 11.4% 10.5% 11.6% 19.3% 10.1% 21.4% 24.8% 3.1% 27.7%
Useful 24.7% 27.0% 34.2% 41.2% 36.3% 37.9% 29.0% 41.6% 39.9% 5.5% 36.8%
Average usefulness 22.8% 27.7% 29.5% 27.5% 21.9% 20.0% 28.3% 16.9% 17.0% 11.8% 25.2%
Slightly useful 26.6% 27.7% 20.1% 14.4% 21.2% 13.1% 19.6% 11.7% 13.1% 26.8% 6.5%
Not useful 21.5% 12.2% 4.7% 6.5% 8.9% 9.7% 13.0% 8.4% 5.2% 52.8% 3.9%
Very useful and useful 29.1% 32.4% 45.6% 51.7% 47.9% 57.2% 39.1% 63.0% 64.7% 8.6% 64.5%

Preferred information channels

Our next set of questions considered computer based decision support.There have been several over the years and we wanted to know if they were still considered useful. The response to the question − Do you think software tools to be useful? was 79 per cent yes. This clearly indicates that small-scale forest owners have found a need for software tools.

We next asked what computer-based analysis tools would they like. Results show that those to assist with assessing woodlot value and time to harvest were in the top five. Land use options were mid-range, with scheduling, tending and soils analysis least preferred.

Value of software tool Per cent
Assess your woodlot for area and volume 70.2
When to sell my woodlot 67.2
Assess your woodlot's current value 65.6
Log price forecasts 64.1
Estimate roading and harvesting costs 60.3
Profitability of land use options − decision support 38.2
Historic log price trends 36.6
Record system suitable for forest certification 33.6
Schedule your tending operations 29.0
Soil nutrient analysis for growth projections 23.7
Other 8.4

Conclusions and discussion

The main conclusions from this survey were that small-scale forest owners cannot be characterised easily, with the majority not calling themselves farmers. There is a range of reasons given for investing in small forests but the major identified diversification indicating they had other investments as well. Generally, small-scale forest owners can be characterised as having plantations which are often less than 40 hectares and have invested for a variety of reasons which are different from corporates. In other words, diversification, best land use and superannuation.

Their major information interests are strongly focused on harvesting and marketing and not so much around growing and tending. This may be due to the type of person prepared to respond to the questionnaire − due to harvest − and may fit with the demographic that these people own 90 per cent of the imminent ‘wall of wood’.

Generally, they like to get information via the web, and showed interest in e-learning from web tutorials and the like, but also favour human interaction to get information from field days and seminars. Most thought software tools were useful. These two results show the small-scale forest owners are quite computer literate and progressive. The methods they prefer are again related to the harvesting and marketing stage of their forest investment and perhaps, because they did not strongly favour information from consultants, would like to be able to evaluate options themselves.

Further analysis is planned to explore the interconnections between respondent type and the answers given with more formal publication and review. In addition, there were about 100 comments made in addition to answering the questions, this requires further condensing and reporting.

This survey has been invaluable in terms of giving insights to the somewhat large group of anonymous forest investors. We recommend the survey be re-run and an attempt to get a larger group of respondents who are not self-selecting to provide validation and new insights.

We thank all the small-scale forest owners who took the time to respond to this survey. Their opinions are important and may be influential in the future of the forest industry.

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