The eucalyptus plantations dotting the Free State landscape might soon be a thing of the past, after many were declared invasive aliens. But this legislation has opened up a business opportunity for Graeme Morrison and his partner Martin Jooste in Bothaville. Annelie Coleman recently visited their sawmill and furniture manufacturing business in town.
“The economic realities of South Africa forced us to become innovative,” says Graeme Morrison, co-proprietor of a eucalyptus sawmill in Bothaville in the Free State. “When eucalyptus trees were declared an invasive alien species, Martin Jooste and I saw the harvesting of these large plantations as an opportunity not to be missed.
Not only is the raw material readily available, it provides timber of exceptional quality.”
It all started about seven years ago when he was approached by a local café owner to supply him with firewood. “I realised the economic opportunities of this large and readily available resource,” explains Graeme. “There are many plantations on farms in the Free State, and we could keep going for years on only the plantations within a 50km radius of Bothaville. This is a win-win situation for both the landowners and for us.”
“We remove the timber, but are also responsible for the total eradication of the plantation as required by law. The stumps are treated with the pesticide Confront, as recommended by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, to prohibit regrowth.”
Most landowners are keen to have the trees removed. “But,” says Graeme, “We sometimes experience some resistance on farms where plantations were previously harvested for pulpwood and mining timber. Farmers in our area seem to have had a raw deal from some unscrupulous operators in the past. Many logs were simply left to rot as the pulp guys would fell the trees and only use the top end. Fences were damaged and livestock stolen. It’s a matter of principle for us that landowners be treated with respect. They are, after all, a valuable partner in our business.”
After the removal of logs for the sawmill, the rest of the trees are cut into manageable pieces for the farmer’s own use – mostly firewood. Fences that were damaged are also repaired. Prices vary from plantation to plantation, but on average, farmers earn between R35/t and R45/t for their timber, says Graeme.
Benefits of invasive alien tree removal
The main advantage of removing the eucalyptus trees is that water flow is restored. And eucalyptus trees are gluttons – a tree of 600mm in diameter will draw and evaporate up to 600â„“ of water a day. The trees can also extract water from a water table up to 30m deep and some plantations have hundreds of trees. Recently, after the removal of a single row of 600mm-thick trees for 300m between two blocks of maize, the previously unproductive land in the cleared strip proceeded to yield between 5t/ha and 7t/ha after clearing.
A tree cut down on the same farm was left at an 45º angle, and an empty container placed under the stump. After 30 minutes 20â„“ of water had collected. Graeme says when transporting freshly cut logs it’s not uncommon for water to stream out of the side of the trucks.
Diversifying into furniture
Harvesting costs amount to as much as R3 000/m³, while the total clearing cost can be as high as R80 000/ha. This includes all the expenses for the clearing of the site like labour, pesticides and equipment. “These high costs would have made a reasonable profit unlikely and we soon realised that we needed to add value to our business,” Graeme says. As eucalyptus is an excellent hardwood, the partners branched out into furniture and pallet manufacturing.
The three species of eucalyptus found in the Bothaville area are red river bark (E. camaldulensis), yellow box (E. melliodora) and black ironbark (E. sideroxylon). E. camaldulensis is the predominant species. The wood is comparable in density to teak and is used extensively for mining timber and sleepers. Once dried to the right moisture content, E. camaldulensis is an excellent hardwood for furniture. But, explains Graeme, it’s not easy to work with and they’ve had to invest in industrial woodworking equipment.
“E. melliodora is not common around here and the timber is highly soughtafter. It’s extremely hard, but has a beautiful colour. Martin calls it Free State Yellowwood.”
Black ironbark lives up to its name and is a real devil to fell, says Graeme. This is because the resin collects sand in the windy season. As the tree grows over the years, the resin gets encased and solidifies, often resulting in wood that’s 100mm thick. When the tree is cut into with a chainsaw, sparks quite literally fly.
Black ironbark timber is much more stable than the others and is less prone to cracking and twisting than E. camaldulensis.
Eucalyptus wood is commonly referred to as saligna, but this is not scientifically correct, says Graeme. “Eucalyptus saligna is a species on its own, while Eucalyptus grandis is also known as saligna. These species are much softer than the eucalypts found in the Free State. You can drive a screw into true saligna with ease, but a pilot hole must be drilled into E. camaldulensis. An industrial-size pneumatic nail gun doesn’t even go through a 25mm E. camaldulensis plank.”
Environmentally friendly manufacturing
The partners strive to manufacture their products in an environmentally friendly way. Timber is naturally air-dried to the required moisture content before the best planks are selected for the furniture factory. The air-drying can take up to eight months for a 25mm plank, but Graeme and Martin let nature take its course rather than drying the planks artificially. The initial process is delayed with plastic sheeting to ensure the even drying out of the planks and to prevent cracking. First-grade planks are used for furniture manufacturing, while the second-grade planks are used for fencing and pallets for the fertiliser industry.
“Being the wholesaler, we don’t realise the prices for our timber as retailers do, so we use as much as possible in our furniture factory,” Graeme explains. They manufacture indoor, outdoor and patio furniture in two ranges – Urban and Rustic. Only the best planks are selected for the Urban range (bedroom, lounge and patio furniture). Urban pieces are finished in either low-maintenance varnishing or a wax-based oil for outdoor use.
The Rustic range is produced from dry-cut timber. These pieces have a lot of character and are similar to the well-known sleeper furniture. Graeme says the range has been well received and indications are that there’s a move away from imported tropical hardwood products because of the possible ecological threats their use could pose.
He and Martin are always looking for new avenues to pursue. They’re currently investigating the possibility of manufacturing solid hardwood doors.
Contact Graeme Morrison on 071 417 7006. |fw
Acts regulating invasive plants
To protect the unique biomes and veld types in South Africa, the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act No 43 of 1983 stipulates that landowners are legally responsible for the control of invasive alien plants on their properties. The 242 alien species listed as declared weeds and invaders have been divided into three categories:
• Category 1 plants are prohibited and must be controlled.
• Category 2 plants (commercially used plants) may be grown in demarcated areas, providing there’s a permit and that steps are taken to prevent their spread (seven eucalyptus species).
• Category 3 plants (ornamentally used plants) may no longer be planted, but existing plants may remain, as long as all reasonable steps are taken to prevent their spread. They are prohibited within the floodline of watercourses and wetlands.
There’s no consensus amongst botanists about the exact number of species and varieties existing under the genus eucalyptus. The general consensus is that there are about 445 distinct forms, excluding a number of natural and artificial hybrids. According to literature, 126 species or sub-species are known to have been introduced in Southern Africa over time.
Of the 126 species, seven are invasive and included in the Act, all Category 2:
• Red river gum (E. camaldulensis)
• Sugar gum (E. cladocalyx)
• Karie (E. diversicolor)
• Saligna gum (E. grandis)
• Spider gum (E. lehmannii)
• Grey ironbark (E. paniculata)
• Black ironbark (E. sideroxylon)
The Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act No. 36 of 1947 regulates all herbicides for the control of plants. The Wildlife Conflict Prevention Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust addresses the correct use of environmentally compatible herbicides for effective vegetation management.
Source: Arnaud le Roux, Endangered Wildlife Trust coordinator: Wildlife Conflict Prevention Group.