For beef farmer Jason Bill, adding forestry to the mix on his 2,200-hectare farm in Northland was about preparing for his family’s future.
In 2023, the Bills started work with New Zealand Carbon Farming (NZCF) on a new forest planting lease, targeting the steep hill country on the farm. In a plan tailored for the Bill family, NZCF has planted selected parts of the farm in trees to sequester carbon, paying the family an agreed lease over 16 years.
Jason Bill says the decision to incorporate the forest farm model was sparked by a review of the business he and wife Penni undertook to consider the farm’s future.
“We had a review of our business and identified three challenges,” says Jason. “There’s an old saying that farmers are asset rich and cash poor. And we were finding there wasn’t enough cash dropping out the bottom.”
“The second one was operational,” says Jason. “It’s just pretty much myself and Penni and we employ another couple. We’re all getting older, and we weren’t sure that this was exactly what we were wanting to be doing in 10 years’ time, working long hours.”
“The third one was environmental. There’s a lot of constraints that are coming at us from government and also with the weather – we’ve been getting longer dry patches and then a lot of rain at once and we’d noticed on our steep hill country we’re getting more and more erosion. So that was a concern to us.”
Jason says the family didn’t want to sell the land, so it was important to find a solution that addressed these challenges while keeping control of the farm.
“We approached Ken Edge first from New Zealand Carbon Farming and got on really well with them,” says Jason. “We found them really personable – we’ve found that with the whole company – and we were able to negotiate a deal with them whereby we selected the poorer country out of our farm for planting
“We liked the fact they’re a Kiwi owned business and they’re a successful business. And we found them very flexible. We had lots and lots of discussions with them until we finally settled on the deal that we did.”
Jason says the approach addressed all three concerns they had for the future of the farm.
“From a profit point of view, we’ve been able to sell capital stock that was running on that country and use that money to retire debt. And the lease return that we are getting from New Zealand carbon is around three times higher than what we can make out of beef cattle off that country – and that was running a pretty sharp beef operation.”
“So that was a real no-brainer for us. We’re able to release that cash for us to use and we are getting a much better income than what we were from the operation of it.”
“We’re obviously not having to farm that country so we can just take things a bit easier, and we can spend more time with family and on other investments and put more time into the better country.”
“And from an environmental point of view, it meant that we’ve now got forest on that steep country. So that just feels right for us.”
Working with NZCF has also given the Bills greater confidence in their decision.
“There is that real personal touch and at the end of the day you do business with people,” says Jason. “We feel business is about relationships and right from the outset we just built a really strong relationship.”
Jason says he feels the strength of that relationship has been reflected in the quality of the work carried out on his farm.
“All the tracking work that they put in beforehand – I think we’ve had two diggers here for a month or a month and a half doing our tracks – we’ve never had such good tracks on the farm.”
“Then they’ve got the pest control guys coming up two or three nights a week with infrared gear and shooting the hares and the goats and everything else. We definitely feel that they’ve gone above and beyond everything we agreed on.”
Jason recognises there’s a good deal of interest in the issue of land use within the rural sector.
“I get a lot of interest and, and people asking us about it and going away and thinking about it. But I haven’t had anything negative,” says Jason.
“I really do believe in this forest farm model. I think it’s the way of the future. We are looking at replicating it on other farms and I think of a 60:40 mix being ideal – like maybe 40% in pine and 60% in pastoral farming.
“To be able to go onto any farm and take out the worst 40% of it, you end up with just a stunning farm.”
Jason says the forest farm model is providing his family and business with the best of both worlds.
“It’s about diversifying our farming income. When we did our review of our business, we had all our eggs in one basket. We were all beef cattle and as much as I enjoyed that, we just identified that we needed to spread things around a bit.”
“So now we’ve got the lease income and then we’ve got the trees growing and we’ve got our cattle income and now we’ve got dairy as well. A fair chunk of that income is passive. So, we don’t have the pressure of being responsible for thousands and thousands of beef cattle now. We actually have it spread around and that makes it better.”