Thinking about Tree Crops – where to from here?


Akaroa by Maureen McCann

When looking to the future, the poorest point of reference is often the present.  We may not know where we will end up, but one thing is almost certain – it will be different than today.  So where to look?  What tarot card and tea leaves, oracles and innards, give the best of readings? Or are we best to look at trends and background drivers; those of the past and those that are emergent.

For a start, rightly or wrongly, when asked to put some thoughts together on the future of tree crops in New Zealand, I ignored the present and went back to the past.  I have in front of me a facsimile edition of John Evelyn’s (1620 – 1706) Silva: a Discourse of Forest Trees. It is a hefty tome, and apart from its ungainly size, is difficult to read until you get your head around the esses (s) that look like effs (f).

A discourse on forest trees we might think has as its focus that apparently perennial favourite product from the tree – its wood.  And that is where we’d be wrong.  From the days before the early Norman kings, who gazetted the “New” Forest, back beyond the Roman poet Virgil, forest trees have had many functions, and timber was but one. Variety is everywhere; uses vary, sites vary, preferences vary.  Virgil writes in the VII Eclogue:

For Bacchus, vines; for Hercules, poplar,

For Venus, myrtle; for Apollo, his bays:

Phyllis loves hazels – so long as she loves them,

Bay-tree nor myrtle shall get more praise.

Ash queens it in the woods, and stone-pine in gardens

By streams the poplar, on heights the fir-tree.

Contrast that range to the forests from which we produce today; pine, ubiquitous pine, with a single purpose of wood, ubiquitous wood.

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Evelyn, writing not long after the Stuart Restoration in 1660, does talk of timber with page after page on the qualities of each species, and its silviculture.  But like Virgil, Evelyn is also concerned for all the values and meanings of forest lands and trees; from acorn mast to maple liquor, from mulberry berries to the appetite of silk worms, from the many virtues of Juniper berries to orchard fruits, various oils to fungi, even to the qualities of fruit blossoms and herbs.  Evelyn, unlike the classical writers, doesn’t talk so much about the nymphs and other tree people.  Section after section records “Its qualities and uses in physics and otherwise” (or “Its qualities and ufes in phyfics and otherwife” if you prefer).


Perhaps the most famous section of Silva is Evelyn’s discourses on apples; more particularly their use in the important manufacture of cider. The recipes are, apparently, excellent, and one might judge that Evelyn was a little obsessed with a draft he thought left that elixir of hops in the dark.  He waxes:

Innumerable are the Virtues of Cider, as of Apples alone, which being eaten raw, relax the Belly,

especially the sweet, aid Concoction, depress Vapours; being roasted or coddled,

are excellent in hot Distempers, resist Melancholy, Spleen, Pleurisy, Strangury, and being sweetened with Sugar,

abate inveterate colds.  These are the common effects even of raw Apples;

but Cider performs it all, and much more, as more active and pure.  In a word, we pronounce it for the

most wholesome Drink of Europe, as specifically sovereign against Scorbute, the Stone, Spleen and what not.

You’re convinced, I’m sure. Moving back in time from Evelyn, the age of kings saw forests as the producers of green produce (Vert) and game (Venison).  A forester was both game keeper and verderer; charged with ensuring sufficient quality and quantity for the hunt, for the uses of woods ranging from ships to cart wheels and charcoal for the forge, and feed through hazel, mast, mushrooms, and winter staples like sweet chestnut.  Few communities could survive without the values created by a local forest. This was an age when transport and trade distances were so much shorter than today.  The substitutes of wood by energy-intensive metals and concrete had yet to appear, as had the substitution by mass-produced industrial agriculture from distant lands – our colonial trade revolution – for those local forest food crops once essential.  That is the picture in Europe from the height of the colonial days up until the industrial trends of the post World War II world; a move from local diversity to international commodity.

Why did we change? Well, in this country perhaps we have not moved from the more diverse and varied to the less varied. If anything, we in New Zealand have moved the other way.  Remember the bulk baking drawer-bins in our mothers’ kitchens in the 1960s; one for sugar, one for flour, bought in bulk, both white.  New Zealand was part of what the food sociologists refer to as the ‘first food regime’, ever extending colonial lands producing mutton, butter, cheddar, and strong wool for the motherland.  We never had the sophistication of local food production to the extent it had developed over the centuries in Europe.  We’ve all heard the stories of olive oil sold over the chemists’ counters.

Europe was also affected by the substitution of the diverse local for the bulk international commodity. The cheapness of mass production would have been part of the shift.  A recent documentary on food systems, “We feed the world”, made the point that a tonne of road grit has a higher value than a tonne of wheat.  People have in the recent past wished for ever cheaper food, a loaf of bread for $3.50 instead of $4.00, and never mind either the quality, or the ‘value’ of knowing from whence it came, and whose hands were involved.  Once a commodity producer is in a buyer’s market asking for ever cheaper product, the farmer or forester is forced to increase ‘economic efficiency’ by increasing scale, or narrowing and concentrating their product lines, or by reducing the social and environmental standards of their production. There be dragons.

But the times they are a-changing, in New Zealand as well as Europe.  Quality, Choice, and Local may not have completely shifted the tables on Quantity, Commodity standard and Distant, but it at least is not longer a choice of one.  We now sup our fair trade coffee while eating pesto on ciabatta bread with Palma ham and kalamata olives. And there are those who are more concerned with the quality and experience than the cost.  In the past it would have been strong Choysa tea and a sausage roll without the onion.  In Europe the move has been from the past world of Virgil and John Evelyn – local and diverse – to being one of the major markets for global food commodity, and now back to diversity.  We are trending that way with them, but without the history to which we can hark back.

So what does this all mean for the future of tree crops?  Nothing if not an optimistic ride on the back of positive trend toward greater discernment and taste experience, with forest greens, nuts, fruits and fungi part of the mix. It also represents a growing appreciation of the sources of our food; that there is more meaning there than just the cheapest calorific value.  The taste of a high country herb-eating meat is discernable from ryegrass-fed lamb. People will pay for the difference and the experience, as they will for organics, the fastest growing food group in European supermarkets.

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It is notable that in the course of less than a decade, the local food restaurants in Central Otago have significantly increased their demand for local thyme-fed rabbit, pheasant, local wines, choice cheeses, nuts, and processed condiments.  The local dining experience has become part of the tourist sector, in Central Otago, the West Coast, Nelson, Marlborough, from the Wairarapa to Gisborne, Bay of Plenty to Auckland.  That experience has also become very much part of the weekly life of local people, backed up by farmers’ markets.

The trend to discernment and taste experience is complemented by two other wider issues. The first relates to growing concerns for energy inputs and chemicals; particular as they affect freight and the debateable energy-efficiency of high-input commodity production. Vandana Shiva, the Indian food system critic, strongly argues that we are not so much eating these cheap commodities as we are eating oil: oil in transport, oil in the chemicals and fertilisers applied, oil in the manufacture and use of machinery that have substituted for methods more sensitive to the land.  Once these broader challenges are factored in to the system, these types of commodities may not be as ‘efficient’ and competitive as they may at first appear.

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The second issue relates to the realisation that the ‘terroir’ of land – the special properties of topography, climate, soil and even tradition and culture that underlie practice, which are all required to produce the best – requires us to place a fine sieve on the land. It is ‘terroir’ that confers not just quality but also tradition and meaning to the exceptional wines of parts of France.  The Grand Cru wines are the antithesis of commodity.  The more production-focused species of ryegrass, Romney marsh and radiata pine may be relatively insensitive to site, but quality and the development of a mystique around fine food is anything but insensitive to either biophysical site, or local community.  The scales of these emerging food sites to which tree crops belong may be measurable in parts of hectares, rather than hundreds of hectares.

So what is our future? Arguably more opportunities than threats.  The trends in consumer preferences from price to quality are positive.  The characteristics of tree crops suiting relatively small scales are positive.  The emerging issues represent more of a threat to commodity producers, more especially to those that use high energy inputs to produce low value products.  What is a threat to them is another opportunity to the value producer.  Trees have that wonderful characteristic of not requiring high inputs, and some trees and woodlands can produce high value products.

Although we may lack a history of the diversity that Virgil and Evelyn knew, with that combination of high value and low energy input we can make our own.

Chris Perley

An edited version of this article was published in TreeCropper, journal of the New Zealand Tree Crops Assn, May 2007

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2 Responses to Thinking about Tree Crops – where to from here?

  1. Cheyne, Christine says:

    Hi Chris
    Thanks for this. Just wondered how many Tukituki voters and how to get the word out further. Have you tried to do a Talking point to balance the offerings in Hawkes Bay today? I have had some running correspondence with the editor about the need for balance after the March 14 column by Craig Foss.

    Hope all is well with you and I look forward to having a chance to have coffee (or bottle of pinot noir!) again soon!


  2. Justin Drinnan says:

    Read your blog yesterday and today I found this article while I was researching timber for tool handles thought it was another good example. If only enough people had listened 25 years ago or perhaps 130 yrs ago Or did anyone out there in kiwiland establish a hickory planting with a view to coppice? I’d love to know how they went.

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