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Published: 2013-07-26 00:00:00

New Zealanders need to re-think their ‘love affair’ with pastoral farmland if we are to lift the country’s environmental and economic performance, a Waikato Regional Council committee heard yesterday.

Future Forests Research chief executive Russell Dale told the land and water sub-committee that policy and public opinion needed to change to get better value out of millions of hectares of badly-used and under-performing land.

In Waikato, approximately 150,000 hectares of pastoral land is erosion-prone and better suited to a long term forestry use. 

The committee heard that changing the use of this marginal land from pastoral farming to forestry would help improve water quality, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, improve returns to farmers and enhance biodiversity.

However, public opinion and policy shifts would need to happen.

“New Zealanders value farmland, not forestry,” Mr Dale said.

“Some New Zealanders still hold tightly to the notion that our pastoral enterprise must remain inviolate and that pastorally-dominated landscapes are our past backbone and remain our future.

“So, erosion on pastoral land is seen as simple bad luck, while erosion on a forestry block is the fault of forestry and a forestry problem.”

There needed to be an increase in the level of public understanding of the environmental and economic benefits of one land use over another.

There also needed to be clear incentivises to encourage the best use of land.

“People accept 1.5 per cent return on pastoral land, yet demand an 8 per cent per annum return on a similar investment in forestry.

“Farmers are prepared to accept a low return in exchange for the lifestyle and the fact that they make their money when they retire and sell their farm.

“There is an underlying structural problem with farmland values as New Zealand’s tax system encourages farmers to accept low returns in exchange for tax-free capital gains.”

In addition to providing a direct return from wood products, forests also provide enhanced biodiversity, protection from soil erosion, mitigation of flooding and improved water quality compared with similar landscapes in pasture.

The challenge is to recognise and value these ecosystem services that protect and support the economy and our quality of life.