There’s ancient buried ‘treasure’ on this farm

Graham Smith, a committed convert to the benefits of agro-forestry, never expected to harvest timber from both above and below the ground.

“I got a digger in to excavate some gravel from a paddock and the machine uncovered large ancient logs,” says Graham, who milks 78 cows and grows 500 paulownias, 300 kauri, 400 Mexican cyprus and 3500 pines on a 37ha property near Kihikihi.

The buried trees, including rimu, matai and totara, were flattened 1800 years ago when the Taupo volcano produced Earth’s most violent eruption in the past 5000 years. Graham, a natural story teller, has researched the event and describes what would have happened.

“The volcano sent 23 cubic kilometres of ash straight up to around 40 kilometres and then it came back down again, travelling sideways at around 500 kilometres an hour, levelling everything in its path. All the logs under this paddock are lying in the same direction – where they were flattened by the blast.”

That eruption left another legacy on the Smith farm, a ‘loaf-shaped’ outcrop with 30-metre cliffs (ideal for the sport of abseiling) and several tomo, topped by a plateau of grazing land with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

The logs beneath the farm could be close to 2000 years old and the ones extracted so far have proved suitable for milling. “I plan to use ground-penetrating x-ray equipment to find out where others are.”

100-tree hectare

However, Graham’s main focus is on much younger timber from the paulownia trees he grows in and around his paddocks, in some places at a density of 100 trees to the hectare.

“That’s a lot of trees and many farmers say I’m nuts because they think the trees will shade the pasture too much and take nutrients from the soil. That’s not the case.”

Paulownia are fast-growing and to achieve high-quality, straight timber free of knots require regular pruning. Well-pruned trees create moving shade throughout the day, providing respite for cows from sun and stopping pasture from drying out.

Rather than robbing the ground of nutrients, paulownia trees, with roots which extend up to 25 metres away from the trunk, mine nutrients from deeper in the soil than pasture can. “Paulownia take out about 75 per cent of the nitrogen in the soil, significantly reducing nitrogen leaching.”

They use that nitrogen and other nutrients to grow rapidly, and mature trees produce around 100kg of leaf a year. “I get mobbed when I’m pruning because the cows love the leaves and stems so much.”

Many mistakes

It’s not just cows which appreciate the trees. Paulownia produce masses of violet-coloured flowers from September to October which attract hundreds of bees and dozens of tui.

Today Graham is a recognised authority on agro-forestry but he’s learned what he knows the hard way. “I should have joined the Farm Forestry Association years ago. I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes.”

However, agro-forestry differs from farm forestry in that trees are planted in often highly-fertile soils, alongside crops or in Graham’s case, pasture where animals graze. In farm forestry, trees grow in plantations, usually on less productive land.

It was necessity which got Graham into growing trees after he bought the farm in the early 1988. “There were problems with erosion, and the regional council encouraged me to create a whole farm plan to control it. They assisted with advice and provided trees for me to plant, on the condition that I fenced off all waterways. Fortunately the farm has springs which I tapped and gravity-fed the water to paddocks.”

Pines and cyprus were planted on the steeper parts of the farm and after 21 years Graham harvested the pines when the price for timber was high, replanting the areas in young trees again.

Light, strong timber

“I might be lucky enough to see another harvest of pines but I know I’ll see many from the paulownia.” That’s because the trees, a native of China, can be harvested at 10-15 years. The extremely light but strong timber is in demand for boat-building, construction of surf boards, butts for competition guns, racing waka ama, fishing lures, picture frames, furniture and as feature timber for building interiors.

Graham bought the first seedling trees from a company which promised to purchase all the timber he could grow – but went out of business. Another deal to buy the timber also went bad, so Graham set about marketing the wood himself. Now he has a core of loyal customers and a website which attracts international and national interest.

“I fell the trees myself and have a portable mill come in to process them.” Graham sorts the timber according to quality and customer demands, and stacks it to dry on the farm.

Replacement trees, grown from root cuttings, are nurtured until ready to plant out in the paddocks where they are protected by out-rigger electric fences. “I lose some pasture but the grasses between the trees provide a seed bank for my paddocks,” says Graham who hasn’t renewed any pasture on the farm – instead under sowing when required.

Combined income

Graham’s wife Tess has her own gardening business, employing six staff, so, as he has done from the beginning, Graham runs the farm on his own, including milking the herd of kiwi-cross cows, which produce 30,000kgMS/year.

The combined income from milk and paulownia trees, (assuming 100 trees ha with a 15-year cycle), calculated on an annual basis equals around $10,000 per hectare.

He also has a ‘pest control team’ – ducks and turkeys, which roam the farm, hoovering up slugs, snails, grass grubs and other unwanted insects. The ducks also produce eggs which Graham sells at $7 a dozen. The gobblers are occasionally shot for their breast meat. “Anything else is too tough.”

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and Graham reckons if he hadn’t been in a tight financial situation when his first wife left him he probably wouldn’t have looked for an alternative form of income.

Re-mortgage farm

“I had to re-mortgage the farm, despite being just about debt-free. The banks wouldn’t lend to me because they reckoned the farm was uneconomic. It was Don Fraser of Fraser Farm Finance who got me the money I needed and enabled me to stay on the farm.”

Don was impressed at what Graham had already achieved environmentally on the land, and with his willingness to work hard, live frugally and innovate.

“I remember he had plans to build accommodation so fishers could come to catch trout in the pristine Mangatutu Stream, which runs through the property,” says Don.

That accommodation is now a reality and Graham and Tess welcome a steady stream of guests keen to fish, experience farming life and listen to Graham’s stories of the valley’s ancient and more recent history.

Graham encourages other farms to consider agro-forestry for both environmental and economic reasons. “However, it’s vital to select the right trees for your area. Paulownia grow well here, but are not suitable for windy locations. But there are hundreds of trees to choose from.”


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