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Multimillion-dollar technology boost for NZ forestry

A multimillion-dollar investment into technology like “smart spades” and robots will make harvesting Tairawhiti’s forestry blocks safer while also tackling skills shortages, says the Eastland Wood Council.

In a move the Government says will transform New Zealand’s forestry industry, Forestry Minister Stuart Nash and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor today announced the Government is backing Precision Silviculture, a $25.5 million, seven-year programme led by Forest Growers Research Limited (FGR).

“The investment is part of the Government’s wider plan to provide economic security to workers and businesses, with higher skilled and high-wage jobs that support a low-emissions economy” said Mr Nash.

“Silviculture is about controlling the composition, structure, growth and quality of a forest. It is essential to manage and create value from our plantation forests. However, it has remained a highly manual and labour-intensive work practice.

“We’re investing $10.2 million from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures) to enable the forestry industry to switch to the latest silviculture technology.

“The programme will focus on developing mechanisation, automation, digital technology and robotics in the silviculture value chain. It will make silviculture work safer, more productive and more attractive to workers. The programme includes re-training workers to match the transition into high-tech jobs.

“It will also enable the forestry workforce to create higher-value products more efficiently.

“Advancements in mechanisation and precision automation will make the recovery of forest waste more financially viable. This will unlock potential to use biomass waste in new manufacturing chains.

That could include biofuels and biodegradable alternatives to plastic products, such as disposable cups and packaging.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the timing was right for this programme.

“A large number of forests planted in the 1990s are due for harvesting in the mid-2020s, so it’s an ideal time for this overhaul,” he said.

“It’s estimated that in total the programme has the potential to deliver $530 million of value to the plantation forestry sector and $190 million worth of innovative technology sales between now and 2035. Other benefits will be an improved pruned log supply for domestic wood processors, and use of the technology in indigenous forest establishment.”

Eastland Wood Council chief executive Philip Hope said the announcement was welcomed.

“The initiative looks to improve the productivity of the planted crop and make silviculture operations safer and more resilient in the face of increasing labour shortages.

“Efforts to improve site productivity, maximise the production of a wood fibre that will suit future market demands and ensure the operations can be completed on time and safely are of lasting benefit to the industry.“

The new technologies being funded include a “smart spade” that identifies exactly where to plant a tree seedling.

Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said the project covered a wide range of technologies.

“It’s not a single eureka discovery which is going to make all this work. It’s combining, for instance, a planter with a sensor and linking it to electronic mapping.

“The map sends a beep signal to the planter that they need to go a couple of metres up or along the slope to put the seedling in. The end result is a much more optimally spaced plantation forest which makes for better growth and easier and safer harvesting.”

Mr Dodson said the growth in mechanical harvesting over the past decade already showed that using machinery resulted in greater productivity and a much safer workplace.