I’m a forester. Actually I’m a forest scientist but the distinction won’t mean much to many readers. If it helps, think of the difference between a fisherman and a marine scientist. As an academic I study trees and forests and explore their ecology and management options. But, I am also a farmer who plants trees for soil conservation, shelter and biodiversity, and cuts them down for timber. I also make my own furniture from trees I planted.
Furniture made from eucalypt timber harvested from the creek planting on Bambra Agroforestry Farm.
My family own the Bambra Agroforestry Farm. I purchased the property in 1987 to explore and encourage the integration of trees into the agricultural landscape for conservation, supporting agriculture, improving aesthetics and generating profit. In essence, I wanted to make forestry – the active management of trees and forests – attractive to the farming community. Everyone knows planting trees for timber is a long term risky business, and most find large monoculture plantations and public native forest logging ugly. I tend to agree. But there is another way; an approach to forestry that is driven by the aspirations of the farming community.
Take our creek for example. In 1987 it was an bare, eroded drain, bleeding sediment and nutrients downstream into the Barwon River. We planted a mix of indigenous and native trees, mostly eucalypts but also Blackwood and other native timbers. Over the years I worked the trees, pruning the best trees to improve their timber value and thinning others to give the best more space. This work reduced the time it takes to grow large diameter sawlogs and we have been harvesting eucalypts from the creek for more than ten years. The timber has been mostly used for furniture and for renovating our house. We did send 10 logs to China to be veneered and they were sold for office panelling in the new ATO office in Dandenong. In effect, we’ve been making or saving money from selectively harvesting a forest we planted that continues to provide soil conservation, biodoiversity and agricultural values. It’s a win-win-win-win!
Chilean visitors inspect the creek planting in 2015. Note the eucalypt stump and the 2-year-old Australian Red Cedar Rowan planted to replace it.
Instead of replacing the harvested trees with more eucalypts I am now enriching our riparian forest with shade tolerant native cabinet timbers from New South Wales such as Australian Red Cedar and Silky Oak. Because of climate change I include the interstate rainforest species because they are actually more drought tolerant than our Otway Blackwood and Myrtle Beech. Over time, all the eucalypts will be removed and I’ll be left with a high-value sub-tropical/temperate rainforest that provides erosion control, biodiversity, shelter, fire protection and cabinet timbers. We are already starting to harvest some of the planted Blackwood and it continues to regenerate naturally.
Black Walnut (1987) and Hybrid Poplar (1987) for timber
Forests, whether planted or natural, are dynamic systems. In our degraded farming landscape just planting trees and “letting nature take its course” will not necessarily result in a forest that is good for biodiversity or land protection. In fact, I believe that harvesting timber from our creek planting has enhanced wildlife habitat, soil conservation and water quality. I purposely fell some trees into the creek and leave the head to provide large wood debris for biodiversity and slow stream flows. Harvesting also provides light for the understorey and removes excess nutrients from the buffer strip.
Hybrid Poplar (1987), Black Walnut (1987) and Australian Red Cedar (2006-) parkland on the Bambra Agroforestry Farm
Across the rest of our farm we are growing many other specialty timbers including many other native timbers and even exotics such as Oaks, Black Walnuts, Poplars and Coast Redwoods. The deciduous trees provide fire protection for the house and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how the native wildlife use our exotic trees for shelter. The Southern BooBook Owl, for example, sleeps in the dense canopies of our Coast Redwoods in Winter and the Oaks in summer, then patrols the farm at night providing natural pest control. By grazing between the widely spaced trees we are able to generate a small income and reduce the fire risk. It’s more like a parkland than a plantation. I have a small sawmill and dry the timber for sale. We also sell seeds and cuttings to other farmers. But, most of our farm income comes from running tours; since 1987 I have shown more than 10,000 visitors around the farm.
In 1993 a small group of us set up the Otway Agroforestry Network. We are a Landcare group that now has over 200 members spread from the Bellarine Peninsula to Warrnambool. Our approach is very different to most government funded groups. For a start, we don’t provide money for trees or fences. Instead our members receive a farm visit to help them explore their options and access to mentors for ongoing guidance. We also run field days and training courses including the Australian Master TreeGrower course that I developed when working at the University of Melbourne. We do get funding from government and philanthropic organisations which we use to pay more than 30 local landholders who help deliver the programs. No one works full time for the network. Take a look at www.oan.org.au.
Sawing a eucalypt log harvested from the creek
Sawing a eucalypt log harvested from the creek
Farmers and professionals from around Australia and the world are coming to the Otways to see and learn from what we do. There have been more than 100 Master TreeGrower courses delivered around Australia since 1996 and many landholder groups are now using our mentoring techniques to engage and support their own farmers. In 2013 a group of Otway tree growers paid their own way to help me deliver a course in Uganda. Since then there have been more 4 more courses in Africa, more than ten in Indonesia and one in East Timor.
Rowan harvesting another eucalypt log from what was once a bare eroded creek.
“I grew that” Eucalypt timber from the creek in the ATO Office in Dandenong
A well-known American forester and ecologist once said that growing trees is like writing a history on the landscape. Agroforestry is about farmers establishing and managing trees for the reasons that are important to them. There is no right species or right way to grow trees; every farm, and every family, is different so it follows that the trees they plant and how they are managed will also be different. You may have noticed the landscape changing. We are all just trying to explore new ways of growing trees on our farms. Some ideas will work and we’re always learning from each other. We have no idea where this will take us but I am excited because this is landscape change that is driven by our community, for our community.
What story will write on your landscape, with trees?
Rowan was an academic at The University of Melbourne for more than 20 years, developed the Eureka Award winning Australian Master TreeGrower Program, founded (with others) the Otway Agroforestry Network and continues to work with famers around the world. But most importantly he is also a tree grower on his Bambra Agroforestry Farm in the eastern Otways.
Rowan’s website: www.agroforestry.net.au
Mobile: 0409609939 Email: email@example.com
Otway Agroforestry Network: www.oan.org.au