Top ranked risks faced by small scale tree farmers

February 15, 2021

Small scale growers offload their under-age timber at a depot in Zululand, KZN.

It’s that time of year when we set new challenges for the year ahead. Except this year is different. We have the benefit of 2020 hindsight and everything we learned from the challenges of last year. We enter 2021 in this decade of continued disruption (Covid-19, climate change, digital transformation and advances in artificial intelligence changing the future of work). Below are some of the risks that I think small scale tree farmers should consider in 2021.
By Justin Nyakudanga

Typical small-scale plantation in a tribal authority area, KZN.

Small scale tree growers are predominately located in Traditional Authority areas in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and the Limpopo provinces in South Africa. Small scale tree growers farm holding constitutes about 5% of South Africa’s 1,2 million hectares of commercial tree plantations. Farm size vary between 0,5 – 100 hectares in extent. I asked two community forestry development experts their outlook for small scale growers in 2021; that is, Hugo Pienaar a Timber Procurement Manager at Sappi Khulisa and Steve Germishuizen who is the General Manager at South Africa Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS). Here are their insights:

1. Join grower associations
As always small scale tree growers should protect their plots from dodgy timber merchants. These unscrupulous merchants take advantage of small scale farmers with no knowledge of market prices, trends and timber specifications and orders required monthly. Disseminating such market information is possible if growers have a basic smart phone which can receive messages and graphic content. There is power in numbers, therefore belonging to a grower association is vital as information is shared and members receive support in their dealings with input suppliers and markets.

Small-scale growers learn about the specs for delivering harvested timber at a mill in Richards Bay, during a field day hosted by NCT Forestry.

2. Use of professional contractors
Unlike in the 80s and 90s when small scale growers used to perform own planting and harvesting operations, now due to old age growers now outsource almost all plantation activities to small scale local silviculture and harvesting contractors in the rural economy. Young adults in rural areas look down on forestry work as having a low social status due to it being physically demanding and the exposure to weather elements. Rural forestry contractors businesses are micro by nature and employ between 2 – 9 employees and do not have big overheads compared to their peers on large scale plantations. The work contracts are short term lasting between two days to a month depending on the work volume; that is hectares to be planted and tonnage to be harvested. Therefore it is imperative that small scale growers employ professional contractors who are better informed on both silviculture and harvesting quality standards. This will ensure better tree growth and less timber wastage at clear-felling.

Fire is the enemy of all tree farmers, big and small. Uncontrolled fire will destroy a plantation or small woodlot in minutes.

3. Re-plant woodlots
Where possible growers must replant and stop continuous coppicing or the use of stump shoots to re-establish the rural plantations. Observations of small gum tree farmers in Zululand and parts of the South Coast of KZN show that there is a trend among many growers to clear-fell juvenile timber at 4 years and re-establish the woodlot via shoots (also called coppice) from the stump. This process, harvesting that is, is repeated several times and the coppice is not well managed leading eventually to reduction in timber yield over successive rotations.

Replanting is also a challenge amongst wattle growers at Ozwathini and Nodwengu rural areas near Greytown in KZN. If they replant quality seedlings they often have problems with browsing and weed control and then don’t reap the rewards. This discourages them from future engagement with timber. Re-establishment using natural regeneration is often more feasible in these areas, but they still need the skills and training to do it well.

Cattle can cause a lot of damage in a newly planted compartment as they trample and browse the saplings, but in a mature plantation like this one they cause minimal damage and actually contribute to fire prevention by reducing the volume of vegetation between the trees, thus reducing the fuel load, and thus reducing the fire risk.

4. Re-invest in the business
Many forestry extension foresters lament the lack of business wise approach to tree farming among rural tree farmers. Rural farmers tend to spend all the revenue earned from timber sales from their woodlots on household needs and don’t leave enough funds for re-establishment and maintenance of the woodlot. Hence the absence of cashflows results in critical operations such as weeding or coppice reduction being neglected resulting in a poor stand and very low mean annual increment.

5. Forestry governance and legal compliance
The biggest barrier to the certification of timber growers in Traditional Authority areas is the non-compliance with legal and institutional matters. This includes the following:
• Labour Laws: The Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act are the principle acts of concern.
• Water-use licenses under the National Water Act.

Hauling timber in a tribal area, southern KZN. Timber provides growers on communal land with an important supplementary income.

Generally the small scale timber areas are too small to employ a full time labour force. The majority of the farmers employ small teams (2-9 people) directly from the local community. Most employment is occasional, and in many cases very few people for a few days in a year. There are no written employment contracts in the vast majority of cases. It is likely that workers would be employed by several different growers in an area but unlikely that they would be getting paid the minimum wage, ordinary leave days, sick leave, maternity leave or have any pension benefits. Growers or local contractors do not provide their workers with PPE or training with respect to first aid and safety in general. Very few rural small scale growers have water use licenses. Non compliance with these laws makes certification for most of them impossible, thereby disconnecting the growers with international timber markets in some cases. On the other hand compliance with the labour laws would push up the production costs substantially, probably resulting in them dropping out of timber production.

Ripline cut in a natural grassland in Ozwathini prior to unauthorised planting of wattle. Legal authorisation is required (water use licence and planting permit) before establishing even a small plantation.

6. Take Covid very seriously
Small scale timber farmers and their families are advised to take the Coronavirus seriously as it is a killer disease. The tendency in rural areas is to take a laid back approach when it comes to compliance on precautionary measures against the Covid-19 virus which includes the wearing of face masks, hand sanitizing, opening vehicle/taxi windows when travelling and the lack of social distancing.

Related article: ‘Survival’ the key for small-scale growers

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