Farmer threatens to burn forest over new biodiversity rules, diving land values

A Maruia farmer is threatening to burn off 80 hectares of native bush on his property and turn it into pasture in a bid to raise its value and save his farm.
The land is likely to be classed as a significant natural area (SNA) under new biodiversity rules, in regional and district plans.

Aaran Bruce and his wife live on a 220ha block their family has owned since the 1940s on West Bank Rd, about 15 kilometres from Springs Junction on the West Coast.

The couple is under pressure from their bank to sell the farm after running into financial strife and sold their dairy herd last year.

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We borrowed too much $2 million to develop the land and have a once-a-day milking dairy farm with a decent shed and fix the old house up, Bruce said.

Then came the infamous $3.90 a kilo dairy industry payout of 2016 and two droughts in a row.

We never recovered from that. Were leasing the farm out now just to pay the interest bill, and building ourselves a bit of a hut up in the bush to live in. But the bank still wants the farm sold.

To make matters worse, the farm had dropped in value by $800,000, according to their latest rate demand from the Buller District Council.

I couldnt believe it when I saw that. Why would a beautiful piece of land like this go down in value? Farmland is worth $15,000 to $18,000 a hectare around here.

Lois Williams/Local Democracy Reporter
The Bruce farm in the Maruia valley.

But the bush block, including 30-year-old regenerating beech forest, was worth only about $3000 a hectare.

For more than 70 years the Bruce family had preserved the native forest, but was now facing the prospect that it would be classed as an SNA, Bruce said.

That would make it all but impossible for them to ever clear the trees.

If I have to, Ill burn it now to save my farm. Ive got a valuer coming out this week, and if they dont value it the same as the rest of the farm, Ill have to look at getting rid of most of it, just to get our equity up.

West Coast-Tasman MP and Agriculture Minister Damien OConnor said that tactic could well have the opposite effect.

What hes proposing will not help him with the valuation of his farm, I can tell you that. I would hope he sees sense destroying native vegetation could actually lower the value even further.

Landowners all over New Zealand were busy planting native forest to improve farms and waterways, OConnor said.

Im really concerned for Mr Bruce and anyone else in his position its not an easy situation hes facing, but wiping out native trees is not the answer.

West Coast sphagnum moss farmer Bruce Truman says his land became worthless overnight when it was designated a wetland. (Video first published in November 2019)

The MP said he would contact his brother Bede OConnor, who was on the West Coast Rural Support Trust, to see if there was anything it could do to help the situation.

There is also the farm debt mediation process that the Government passed into law 2019; that could be a possible option.

A YouTube video posted by Bruce shows a burning tree with fuel stacked around its base, while social media photos appear to show smoke rising from native forest.

Bruce said the burnoff in that case was a controlled one and permitted.

West Coast regional councillor Debra Magner, who is also a farmer, said many West Coast farm finances had been under serious stress from years of low payouts even before 2017, and land values had stagnated accordingly.

The better payouts in recent years will have helped pay the bills and the lower interest rates help, but a lot of banks are still trying to trim their rural loan books, and some farmers are still under a lot of pressure.

There had been few farm sales on which to base new valuations and the failure of land values to recover had not helped the situation, Magner said.


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