David Davidson of KwaMbonambi has been selected as NCT’s Tree Farmer of the Year for 2016, in the category of farms managed on private land.
David manages Zenith Estate on behalf of the Davidson family cc and has been involved in the business since 1995. Zenith Estate is 385ha in extent with 320ha planted to timber. The remainder of the farm consists of orchards (macadamias, lichis, citrus), open areas and infrastructure.
David has been recognized for exceptional silviculture practices, effective weed control, harvesting operations and firefighting capacities’ on Zenith Estate, which are compliant with all aspects of sustainable plantation management, and minimising impacts on the environment.
Open areas on the farm consist mainly of riparian zones with grasses and patches of indigenous bush that includes a hectare of yellowwood trees (Podocarpus falcatus).
The NCT Forestry technical team noted that David has effectively managed the impacts of a prolonged drought as well as insect pests in the area by changing his clone selections to more pest and drought resistant varieties.
This, as well as excellent silviculture and efficient harvesting, has ensured that the business remained sustainable under challenging conditions.
The Davidson family has owned the farm for close on 100 years. It was originally acquired by David’s grandfather, Bill Davidson, in 1917, but was managed in those early days by his great grandfather when Bill went to fight in the First World War.
The farm has remained in the Davidson family ever since, and David’s father, Billy Davidson, is still actively involved in the business.
In the early days the farm was run as a sugar cane farm with some timber and cattle. Over the years enterprises have been tried such as tung oil, cotton and dairy farming. Now it is predominantly timber and macadamias.
Eucalyptus trees were first planted on the farm around 1920 to provide poles for fencing and building, and to dry out the swampy ground to combat malaria.
Zenith Estates has been a member of NCT for 36 years.
Key to the success of the timber business is species selection. The area has been hard hit by Leptocybe invasa, so David is phasing out the G x C and planting Corymbia henryi (large-leaved spotted gum), which is more tolerant and is showing excellent growth. He is planting the C. henryi closer at a spacing of 2,1 x 2,4 m to allow for the inevitable loss of some ‘runts’ and to assist in the weed control as C.henryi has a small diameter crown.
He is also experimenting with three hectares of pure E. urophylla from a third generation seed selection on the farm.
Destructans leaf blight is becoming a problem, especially on the G x U clones in the more moist areas.
As a result of these problems he says he’s moving away from planting clones and going back to seedlings.
Two years of drought has taken its toll and productivity is down, but recent rains have provided positive signs that the rain is coming back.
David is currently harvesting around 6 000 tons of timber a year, down from 9 000 tons in previous, wetter years. The dry conditions have also had an impact on de-barking productivity. He says that workers who were de-barking around 40 trees a day each can only manage around 23 trees a day in the dry conditions.
All silviculture and harvesting operations are performed by Zenith Estate staff. Trees are felled manually with chainsaws and loaded in-field by a Bell logger onto a tractor and trailer, which hauls the timber straight to the NCT woodchip mill in Richards Bay. This means there is no short-haul, and the timber is handled just once. The distance to the mill is around 24 kms.
Most of David’s labour force comes from the tribal area that borders one side of the farm. He maintains good relations with his neighbours and allows people to collect firewood after clear felling.
There is a bit of theft of trees which are cut down for use as building poles, but this is kept to a minimum as there is a constant management and staff presence on the farm. He says the timber thieves appear to target the G x U’s and avoid the C. henryi, perhaps because the timber is too dense and hard, so it is heavy to carry and doesn’t take nails easily.
Zenith Estate has been spared major fires in recent years. David removes every 11th row of trees in every compartment. This is harrowed and serves as an effective fire break and provides easy access for fire trucks. David says it keeps fires “narrow” so they are easier to extinguish and do minimal damage.
Two years ago a fire was started by arsonists on the neighbouring farm during a strong, hot, north easterly wind and it spread onto Zenith Estate, burning two hectares of trees.
“Somebody started the fire, but people from the tribal area helped us put it out and saved the day, so it pays to maintain good relations with neighbours,” commented David.
David has also hosted field days for small-scale timber farmers affiliated to NCT, giving advice on species selection and effective silviculture methods.
Zenith Estate has 60 ha under macadamia trees, which are planted mainly around the homestead. David says macadamia’s are a good fit with forestry, because it’s a low volume, high value crop and he can use the same staff and equipment to work on both operations, thus ensuring they are kept busy all year round.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, August 2016