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Exploring the benefits of native tree planting – Latest RaboTalk podcast with Restore Native founder Adam Thompson

‘What are the benefits of planting native trees on “marginal land” not suitable for farming?, ‘how can farmers plan for, and protect, their native planting investments?’ and ‘what are the costs?’ These are some the questions posed to Restore Native founder Adam Thompson on the latest edition of the RaboTalk Growing Our Future podcast, released earlier today.

Introducing the new podcast, titled Planting the Seed, show host Rabobank Sustainability Manager Katie Rodwell said Mr Thompson was well-equipped to answer these questions having planted one million native trees in his Restore Native nursery last year and on-selling the seedlings to roughly 200 farmers looking to undertake planting projects across the North Island. Mr Thompson launched Te Miro-based Restore Native in 2018 and, in recognition of his work over recent years, was awarded the 2023 Primary Industries New Zealand Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship and Conservation) award in July.

On the podcast, Mr Thompson told Mrs Rodwell the process of identifying what was ‘marginal land’ on farm would look different for individual farm owners.

Restore Native founder Adam Thompson

“On our farm, we started off with a blank slate because the farm was quite run down, we had to put new tracks, new fencing, new water into it, so it was like ‘where can we drive a tractor, where can we apply fertiliser and crop in those areas that are highly productive?’, and the things on the margin of those we’d ask if they were still suitable for grazing, and if not, we’d look to retire those into natives,” he said.

“But I also think farmers know their own land really well, and there’ll be farmers listening to this going ‘I can see in my mind that steep face that every time I have animals there it is muddy and there’s sediment rolling off it, and if it was retired, that would be a really good environmental outcome’.”

In terms of a farm owners’ decision to plant natives on this land, Mr Thompson said, this should ultimately be driven by what’s important to them.

“It’s very easy to look at that ‘marginal farmland’ and go ‘hey, the carbon price is there and we’ve got a mechanism to make a whole lot of money, so let’s just plant it in pine trees’. And if making a financial return out of the ‘marginal land’ is what you want to do then, that’s probably the best thing to do,” he said.

“But, if your focus is also on making your farm beautiful and leaving a legacy for your family, you might want to consider targeting areas for native planting, and for some people that will be all over their farm and other people might go ‘hey I’ll do production forestry out the back, but in these more visible areas I want to have something that I’m proud of for my kids to pass onto the next generation’.”

Mr Thompson said planting natives also brought with it a number of environmental benefits, many of which he’d seen on his own farm.

“Biodiversity is a big one. We can look after those things that are uniquely New Zealand by cultivating those species and bringing the life back into the area, and really invigorating the land. And then you’ve got the benefits like clean water and clean air,” he said.

“Those are the really tangible things that you will see on farm, and you will see birds coming back, which is awesome.”

Planning essential

For farmers and growers considering planting natives, Mr Thompson said, proper planning was essential to protect their investment.

“It’s the old ‘proper planning prevents poor performance’. It’s about identifying the areas, you want to do this, it’s going ‘where are we going to put our fences?’, ‘how are we going to approach our planting here?’, ‘what do we want it to look like long term?’. ‘And to achieve that, what do we need to do?’,” he said.

“So it’s site prep, it’s clearing weeds and stuff out of that area. If you’ve got a rough face that might have gorse and blackberry and privet and these other things on it, they’re easier to control when it’s in pasture. You can spray those things and cut them and it’s simple, but it’s very hard to control those things after you put native trees in as the same things that kill those things kill the trees. So that bit of prep is essential.

“Planting the right density and getting the right trees per hectare in is also essential. A lot of people will cut corners on costs by trying to spread trees out and not understanding that native trees, they need their mates, and they need to be reasonably close together to create that ecosystem, that canopy.

“Generally in the North Island and most areas that are reasonably productive, that first season is all you really need to get that tree through and then it will go. For the harder areas, you need a couple of seasons of not having those trees overgrown, release spraying and using tree guards and even fertilisers to promote them along a bit. But every area is different, and that’s where it becomes important to get that local advice.”

Expert help

Asked by Mrs Rodwell about the availability of native seedlings and the right local support, Mr Thompson said this differed from region to region.

“In parts of the North Island, there’s an oversupply (of seedlings), but I think in parts of the South Island there’s a major undersupply, and it’s to do with those trees being so much harder to grow and the different types of species that they need to establish down there,” he said.

In terms of local help, Mr Thompson said starting with your local council was a good idea if other specialist support wasn’t available.

“If you don’t have an Adam Thompson or someone similar in your area, then local and regional councils are usually really good. Most of them will have catchment management officers who will be able to come out and give you some advice. They’ve got trained ecologists, they can also help with funding support, and a lot of councils will.”

What are the costs?

Mr Thompson said the cost of establishing natives wasn’t as high as many farmers envisaged.

“In terms of costs, we’ve done some here on the West Coast and in the Waikato at quite wide spacings and we’re establishing that for like seven or eight thousand dollars a hectare into basically manuka, kanuka and totara. And it will grow,” he said.

“Our pretty standard offering, you know you plant about one and a half metre spacings, up to two meters in some areas, a dozen different species to provide a good bush mix, and, in the Waikato, including supply of the plant, a pre-spray, planting and some post-plant care, it’s around about $20,000 a hectare. So it’s probably three times the cost of establishing pine trees.”

Mr Thompson said the current challenging environment for farmers had led to a number putting native tree planting on hold at the present time.

“The amount of cancelled orders we’ve had this year is almost the same as the amount of orders we’ve had,” he said.

“People want to spend the money, but if it’s not there, you need to feed your animals. But there is no doubt those people are going to do that (plant natives) as it’s part of their 10-year plan or a 20-year plan.”

Income from natives

While acknowledging pine trees were significantly more profitable, Mr Thompson said carbon credits could be claimed for native trees, and further credits where possible if the government proceeds with the biodiversity credit system it is currently exploring.

“Carbon is the way you make money out of trees. If you’re going to plant pine trees, it’s 20 odd thousand tonnes a hectare you can claim in carbon, and for natives they say six and a half tonnes, if you’re using the look up tables for the ETS,” he said.

“The good thing now is that policy makers have realised that they’ve given natives a bit of raw deal, and this is where this biodiversity credit comes in and it’s possible there’s going to be more that natives are rewarded for, because if we started rewarding water and soil quality and biodiversity as well as carbon, well, all of a sudden, natives would be delivering just so much for our country.”

The RaboTalk Growing our Future Podcast features informed opinions and healthy discussion on the future of farming and how primary producers can adapt farm strategies and systems to ensure they thrive in a fast-changing world. New episodes are released fortnightly and are accessible via the Rabobank website and all major podcast apps.


Rabobank New Zealand is a part of the global Rabobank Group, the world’s leading specialist in food and agribusiness banking. Rabobank has more than 120 years’ experience providing customised banking and finance solutions to businesses involved in all aspects of food and agribusiness. Rabobank is structured as a cooperative and operates in 40 countries, servicing the needs of about 10 million clients worldwide through a network of close to 1000 offices and branches. Rabobank New Zealand is one of the country's leading agricultural lenders and a significant provider of business and corporate banking and financial services to the New Zealand food and agribusiness sector. The bank has 32 offices throughout New Zealand.

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David Johnston
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Rabobank New Zealand
Phone: 04 819 2711 or 027 477 8153
Email: david.johnston@rabobank.com

Denise Shaw
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Rabobank Australia & New Zealand 
Phone: +612 8115 2744 or +61 2 439 603 525 
Email: denise.shaw@rabobank.com