Geoff and Gill Brann - Te Puke

June 2008
Geoff and Gill Brann planted their first trees on their 242ha farm, Roydon Downs, near Te Puke for soil conservation reasons but over the 45 years they have been on the property have become increasingly enthusiastic farm foresters. In the 1990s, timber provided their main income but today the market is depressed and the couple is concentrating on growing, rather than milling, trees.

When Geoff Brann put his name down in the draw for a ballot block in 1963, he was head shepherd on the 2000 hectare Lands & Survey run being subdivided. With advice from the manager, he put in for a block which didnt look very appealing from the road but which included some deceptively good country. He was successful in the ballot, and have never regretted it.

Around 60% of the 242ha property is planted in commercial forestry species with the remainder grazed by dairy stock.

In Geoff and Gill Branns first year on their 242ha farm, over 2540mm of rain in a year did dreadful damage to the volcanic ash country, which had been broken in from tall kanuka and manuka scrub by hard grazing with sheep and cattle. While the hoof and tooth clearance was successful, it also made the extremely light soils vulnerable to being washed away by rain and blown away by wind.

Soils from the Branns property ended up on dairy land further down the valley, and Government suggested that they take some of the land back off them and plant it in trees. Geoff and Gill suggested that they instead be given the trees to plant, and stay on the land.

The pines and poplars provided grew quickly in the Bay of Plenty climate, encouraging the Branns to plant more blocks of trees in suitable spots, mostly along a stream, running through the farm.

Seedlings were purchased from the nursery at the Rotorua-based Forest Research Institute (FRI, now SCION). Often theyd find that thrown into their bundle of pines were other species such as redwoods or blackwoods, triggering a lifelong interest in alternative species.

Today, the only hills that havent been planted are around the house, because we dont want to be living in the middle of a forest.

The Branns grow 90ha of radiata pine, with blocks ranging in size from 2ha-8ha. Because the family (including two sons and a daughter) helped with the planting, thinning and pruning, blocks were kept at a scale that could be easily managed.

Eight blocks of pines (15ha) have now been harvested, with a consultant employed to measure the trees pre-harvest to estimate wood volumes, check out markets and oversee logging and timber sales.

Employing a consultant has been extremely worthwhile, especially in the complex marketing of wood, says Geoff. One tree can be cut into five different log-types which go to five different mills.

The Branns say theyve been lucky with their Bay of Plenty location, with plenty of mills competing for their timber and the Port of Tauranga, just a 20 minute drive away.

The heyday of the forestry venture was the 1990s, when sheep and beef incomes werent too flash but timber was worth big money. From 1992 2000, trees were their main source of income, bringing in $34,000-$450,000/ha; over 25 years, a net average of $1600/ha.annum.

It was good money, but the trees were all fully tended with excellent road access, Geoff points out.

No trees have been cut down for four or five years, although some are 31-years old, because the timber price is so low. Nowadays theyd be lucky to make $20,000/ha net of freight, shipping and harvesting costs, which have all increased as log prices fall.

Despite the timber market now being depressed, the Branns continue to prune and thin their trees in the firm belief that this will pay off, long-term. Geoff sees silviculture as critical, saying this is where many farm foresters fall down. It was very easy to plant a tree but it was the hard work, of pruning and thinning, which would assure a market.

With the Branns having lost some of the energy of their younger years and the next generation having left home, contractors are now employed to re-plant and also high-prune.

Thirty hectares of the Branns 16-year-old trees now belong to their three children, who pay an annual lease for the land.

Cypress is the number two species on the Branns property, with up to 15ha planted over the last 10 years; primarily Cupressus lusitanica (which can be very variable, potentially inter-breeding with macrocarpa) and Cup. ovensii (a newer variety, grown from cuttings so more dependable). The oldest of the Branns cypresses were planted 26 years ago. None have been commercially milled but a few have been harvested for use in the couples house, as sarking and paneling, for example.

Lusitanica blow over easily, so must be planted in sheltered, fertile valley sites, Geoffs discovered. Ovensii however, stand more wind.

Redwoods are the Branns number three species, with their oldest trees 36 years-old with a one metre diameter. About five to six hectares of river flats have been planted in the species.

FRI measurements have confirmed that that the Branns are some of the fastest growing redwoods in New Zealand, due to the fertile river soils, sheltered sites and reliable rainfall that the species thrives on.

In the last few years theres been a groundswell of interest in redwoods, with an American company planting vast areas in New Zealand. A lot of effort is now going into breeding redwoods with a lot of heartwood and not so much sapwood, says Geoff.

Eucalpyts are another species the Branns have experimented with, starting with Eucalyptus saligna which Geoff found was beautiful, but prone to bugs. More recently, he has tried pilurlaris (frost-tender) and globoidea. All are potential timber trees, with hard, stable timber used in the floors of large gymnasiums and Te Papa museum in Wellington.

A major problem with eucalypts in the Bay of Plenty is their susceptibility to bugs. Severe defoliation can stretch out rotations from 20-30 years to perhaps never.

Blackwoods have also been planted, and are again very site selective.

A major influence for the Branns has been the interest from scientists from the Rotorua-based Forest Research Institute in their plantings. Projects they have been involved with included agro-forestry; the growing of widely spaced trees for timber while grazing livestock beneath. The concept was very fashionable in the 1960s and 70s, until when trees reached age 12 - it was realised that wide spacing between the trees encouraged the growth of extremely large branches, above pruning height. Not only did these severely reduce the value of timber, but also when the trees reached 15-16 years, closed the canopy and suppressed grass growth.

Trees need other trees to push them up, otherwise theyll grow out, Geoff explains.

While scientists have walked away from this experiment, the Branns have been left with agroforestry blocks where cattle still graze today.

Geoff and Gill were some of the first holders of a licence to farm deer in New Zealand. The industry was very good to them, with exceptionally high prices paid for their live animals in the 1970s and 80s when people were stocking up farms. A single fawn was worth around $3000 and velvet fetched its weight in gold. These returns funded an extension of the treegrowing programme, from awkward corners to whole paddocks and sidings being fenced and planted.

Eventually, the deer were dropped because they caused so much damage to the light pumice soils.

For the last 15 years, dairy stock have been grazed, with 400-500 dairy cows overwintered each year. When the cows leave, the flat paddocks are shut up for silage and hay sold off the property.

For the first time, this year the Branns have handed over the entire livestock side of the business to neighbour, Richard Fowler, who simply pays a lease for use of the land.

Income-wise, the Branns say theyve been lucky to catch the highs of deer-farming, forestry and now dairy support.

Investing in forestry is always problematic, it is so long-term, theyve found. People are keen to plant trees in boom times but by the time they are ready to harvest, it could be a different story. For this reason banks and accountants tend not to like trees.

The solution is for farmers to plant just small areas at a time, so as not to stretch money or time resources. Over the years, these would build up to a significant resource, they suggest.

In the 1990s, Geoff helped put together four partnerships which developed forest holdings in the local area.

In 2003, the Branns were winners of the Ballance Farm Environment Supreme Award for the Bay of Plenty.

The couple sees their greatest achievement on the land as the protection of streams and waterways and the healing of eroding areas. Its hard to believe that when they first settled the farm, there was hardly a tree in the ground, they recall.

When we first came here, old-timers would ask why we were stuffing up a perfectly good paddock by planting trees, Geoff recalls. Now, the whole valley was dotted with woodlots and small forests.

Geoff explains that he and Gill were never looking for the last blade of grass. The beauty of their surroundings were as important to them as earning a healthy income; two goals which have proved to be compatible.

An attractive stream runs through the farm and 15 hectares of mostly riparian area has been conserved and planted in natives, as well as alternative exotic species like redwoods and blackwoods.

There are four huts on the farm, all accessible by road, where local families are encouraged to bring their children for safe swimming and forest walks. Up to 4000 visitors come to the farm each year, but the recreational side of the enterprise is non-profit with the nightly fee for a hut just $25.

Pest control on the property is overseen by Gill, who culls rats and possums, partly to encourage the tremendous birdlife on the property ranging from pheasants to tui.

We have noticed a big increase, especially in the 5-10 years we have been poisoning and trapping pests.

Only kill traps are used, so if the Branns dont return in the next day or two animals wont suffer. In the past 50 or 60 possums could be shot in a night, but now youd only get eight or nine on a good night.