Farm forestry works wonders in the long run

Farm foresters Jane and Peter Evans, who farm Alpine Farm, in the Pareora Gorge, are this year's winners of the New Zealand Landcare Trust innovation in sustainable farm forestry award. Photo by Ruth Grundy
Farm foresters Jane and Peter Evans, who farm Alpine Farm, in the Pareora Gorge, are this year's winners of the New Zealand Landcare Trust innovation in sustainable farm forestry award. Photo by Ruth Grundy

Peter Evans laughs and says wryly, ''Farm foresters are a hardened bunch''.

They face ''a lot of disappointment'' and stories of perseverance are legendary.

A fourth generation farm forester, he speaks from experience.

He and wife, Jane, farm Alpine Farm in the Pareora Gorge. It is a 1050ha traditional sheep and beef farm with nearly 100ha in forestry, made up of 80ha of pine, 6ha of macrocarpa and a further 10ha of mixed species.

The couple have invested more than $300,000 in forestry since the 1990s.

This year, they were acknowledged not just for their own work but for the diligence of the Evans family who, since 1875, have nurtured and earned their living from their land.

The New Zealand Farm Forestry Association this year presented the couple with the New Zealand Landcare Trust innovation in sustainable farm forestry award at its conference in Marlborough.

''We were thrilled, not just for us, for the family,'' Mrs Evans said.

Her husband was pragmatic.

''We bought a lot of land infested with gorse and we chose to do something with it.''

Six kilometres of the Pareora River winds through the property and lies at the heart of the home farm and its management.

But its swimming holes, rocky features and shrublands also draw hundreds each year who want to while away the hours swimming, picnicking, camping and exploring.

Today, almost all the river is fenced off from stock and edged with plants designed to absorb run-off and provide habitat for native birds and insects.

Springs and wetlands are being protected and planted with naturally occurring trees and shrubs.

The family was one of the first farming families to use willow plantings to control flows and some of those earliest plantings, made about 100 years ago, remain.

They were early adopters of the practice of using poplars for controlling erosion.

Ecological specialists like the Timaru District Council's environmental consultant Mike Harding and lizard advocate and conservationist Hermann Franks have praised the way the various ecosystems are sustained by the environmentally sensitive nature of development.

Mr Evans' great-grandfather, Welsh farm labourer Benjamin Hudson Evans, bought the ''wee bit of no-mans land'' between the Elworthy and Rhodes estates shortly after arriving in New Zealand.

His wife, Elizabeth Allot, a keen gardener from a Canterbury market gardening family, named it for its aspect and isolation.

Some of the original garden, various trees and an oak planted in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee remain.

Mr Evans said his hard-working and frugal great-grandfather was able to buy farms for his children as well as fund three visits back to Wales in his lifetime.

His son and Mr Evans' grandfather Benjamin Edward Evans took over in 1912 and farmed through some of the most difficult times in New Zealand's rural history. In 1915 he added the Mt Misery block to the farm.

That same year his son, Peter's father, Wynne, was born.

The century, which had begun with wars and the Depression, turned to years of progress and innovation - tractors replaced horses, scientists discovered new ways to boost production - and the agrichemical era had begun.

''He [Wynne] was a great tree planter,'' Mrs Evans said.

''He would plant them anywhere, his sister would say. If there was space in the rose bed there would be a tree popped in,'' she said.

Mr Evans said his father was more of a ''tree planter'' while he planted plantations.

Wynne Evans began work on the farm at 14, initially using horses to break in the land.

But the purchase of a tractor brought with it new opportunities and allowed him to take advantage of the boom in red clover seed sales.

Peter Evans took over the farm in the early 1980s.

Shortly after taking on full responsibility in 1989, the couple bought Mt Horrible and its gorse problem.

A farm forestry field day in Cheviot opened their eyes to the potential of pines.

Not only would a pine plantation take over and control gorse but it would provide a future income stream.

They have been quick to adopt further new practices.

They adopted rotational grazing, were one of the first in the area to use direct drilling as a way to conserve soil, and work continues to develop the farm's irrigation infrastructure.

''We've been able to do our thing, buying land and developing that,'' Mr Evans said.

There was certain pride in knowing that was ''your bit of work''.

He is convinced of the value of tree crops on hill country.

He estimated a return of $1000 a ha a year ''and that just goes on''.

Studies had shown the figures stacked up financially against other land uses, he said.

''Not in good quality flat land but I do think for hill country it's a good use of the land.''

The market did fluctuate but they could choose when to harvest,''We could cut some down at 25 [years old] but would like to wait till 30.

''If we have to wait until 35, so be it.''

There were challenges. It could be difficult to establish plantings while contending with hares and wallabies, drought and storms and, ultimately, you had to be able to harvest the wood efficiently and economically.

Initially, it appeared the Emissions Trading Scheme would be a boon for farm foresters; instead, the ever-changing rules had proved to be yet another challenge, he said.

Looking to the future, the couple want to plant more Douglas fir, macrocarpa, cypress and redwoods.

There was an issue with the timber treatments needed for radiata pine, plus it did not pay to ''have all your eggs in one basket'' in case of a biosecurity incursion.

''You do change ... we are learning too,'' Jane said.

As members of the Farm Forestry Association, they have the chance to visit properties in various parts of the country, to swap information, to learn what works for others and to return with the confidence to try new things on their own property.

Wynne Evans was a member of the organisation formed in 1957 and Peter and Jane Evans joined in the early 1990s.

Peter Evans is South Canterbury branch chairman.

While their children Richard (26), a lawyer, John (23), a mechanical engineer, and Lucy (20), a student at Victoria University, were unlikely to want to go farming ''in the traditional sense'', they loved the place and had a ''great sense of belonging'', Mrs Evans said.

Between them they had the skills - managerial and in governance - to take on ownership ''in ways that we can't imagine'', she said.

-by Ruth Grundy