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Farm forestry to merge with NZ Forest Owners?

Friday, December 16, 2016, Nick Ledgard's Blog

Should the NZ Farm Forestry Association (NZFFA) merge with the NZ Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) to possibly form the NZ Forest Growers Association? This was the main item on the agenda of the FFA Council meeting held in Wellington recently (Nov 9). The Council is made up of single representatives (Councillors) from every FFA branch and Action Group, and offers the opportunity for members to guide the National Executive in its decision-making. There were 28 Councillors present at the Wellington meeting.

Needless to say, we had some vigorous discussion on this important topic. It has mainly been brought about by the Forest Growers Levy, which has created a large fund for deployment by the forest ‘industry’. A work programme is proposed by a range of levy committees, each addressing a different aspect of forestry (biosecurity, health and safety, fire, transport etc). This programme goes via a ‘servicing’ Secretariat for final approval by the Levy Trust Board. The levy has been in place for 3 years, and has resulted in the Trust being in a robust financial position, with a work programme which continues to grow. The small grower (FFA) is well represented on the Trust and its underlying committees, but Secretariat control largely rests with the FOA.

The main case for a merger between FFA and FOA is one of operational efficiency. At the moment, the levy governance structure involves both bodies in many levels of administration and reporting – which leads to additional costs. The point was also made at the meeting that the Government would be happier liaising with one forestry body – not two.

Even though outsiders might see the FFA as being ‘small fry’ in the forest industry compared to the corporate FOA ‘big boys’, the Levy has greatly increased the FFA’s importance. This is because we represent 12-14,000 small forest growers (SFGs) who own an increasingly large percentage of the mature national forest estate. Even though very few SFGs are FFA members, they pay a levy on all harvested trees, and therefore must have a say in Levy Trust decision-making. The FFA is required to represent these SFGs, thus forming a powerful lobby group. Hence, the interest of the forest owners (FOA) in formalising a closer relationship with the FFA.

Councillors at the Wellington FFA meeting were presented with a ‘position’ paper on a merger and the possible formation of a single Forest Growers Association. As can be imagined, the main fear of those present was that a merger might end up as a ‘sub-merger’ of the FFA, and that we would lose our unique character and identity. The need to safeguard against such a loss was underlined by a reported comment from a key FOA member who attended our last FFA conference in Hokitika. He particularly noted and admired the high level of ‘passion and enthusiasm’ that was so obvious at that event. We take such passion as the ‘norm’, but I (Ed) can assure you that it is not nearly so evident at comparable ‘industry’ gatherings.

The Wellington meeting concluded that it was currently a little premature to make decisions for or against a merger. We felt that first of all there is a need to evolve the Governance structure of the Levy administration, particularly relative to the representation of the FFA at certain levels. To this end, the following motion was approved ‘That the FFA Council recommends that the FFA Executive work with the FOA to improve the structure, governance and equity of Levy administration’. (Bolding by me)

Another important issue addressed at the meeting was the vastly increased administration workload faced by our national Executive – much of it directly related to new responsibilities brought about by the Levy. As nearly all of us are volunteers, the Association just does not have the resources of time and skills to meet these commitments effectively. Amongst the suggestions made for addressing this problem, was the obvious one of proper payment for the services required (maybe via outside consultants). But we just do not have the budget for that, so at this point in time there is no simple solution.

The farm forestry movement has been in existence for 60 years, and there is evidence out there that it is on the decline. Membership is falling, many branches struggle to keep going, and the national Executive is overcommitted. However, the Levy has definitely given the FFA greater power and impetus, together with new opportunities which we must try to embrace. This was endorsed by the Wellington Council meeting, at which the Branches were well represented. But a core question still remains – how do we, at both the Executive and the branch level, rise to meet these new challenges? 

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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