‘Crisis’ in native plant industry

Tax-payers are funding prison and community nurseries while commercial nurseries go bust.

Those left in the industry are competing for huge tenders in an environment where undercutting is common and delivering to timelines requires “magic”.

Nurseries have gone into receivership, and quality control has slipped to the point where 21,000 plants had to be ripped out after an Australian weed was planted instead of the specified New Zealand native.

“Just when the demand has gone up, the suppliers are going broke. Now that’s a crisis in my opinion."

This comes at a time when two-thirds of a $240 million Provincial Growth Fund boost to the One Billion Trees Programme is earmarked for native tree planting.

“Just when the demand has gone up, the suppliers are going broke. Now that’s a crisis in my opinion. That’s why we organised the workshop,” said landscape architect Di Lucas.

A December workshop discussed the need for an industry code of practice to tackle the current chaos in the market.

Lucas has been a long-time advocate of native planting and her conservation work was recognised in the New Year’s Honour list when she received an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

She’s thrilled there’s a concerted effort to plant more native trees being made by government agencies and councils but has serious concerns about how procurement is being managed.

She was so worried about the situation, she got 20 people into a room during the lead-up to Christmas in the hope to solve some of the issues.

Suggestions discussed included tighter rules around tendering, an accord agreed to by plant buyers, set standards of plant quality, verifiable eco-sourcing of seeds and a workforce strategy.

Government attendees included representatives Ministry for Primary Industry, Department of Conservation and Department of Corrections staff. Growers, ecologists, botanists and landscape architects were also represented.

Despite the range of people in the room Lucas said the conversations were constructive.

“People, whatever side they were on, they recognised a problem. What’s happening is not sustainable.”

A troubled industry

New Zealand Plant Producers Incorporated (NZPPI) chief executive Matt Dolan has spoken in the past about how he hears about a closing or struggling plant nursery every other week.

He said there needs to be better processes for managing projects and purchasing native trees.

“While it is great that native trees are in demand, there are conversations in the native tree industry sector about numerous pipeline issues such as poor lead in times for tendering for contracts, prices expected are too low to be economically viable and eco-sourcing demanded but the effort and care required not understood by large purchasers.”

According to Dolan, who opened the workshop, a fundamental change is urgently needed.

Many of the concerns which have been bubbling among growers were detailed in a document circulated to attendees before the workshop. The document contained frank observations and thoughts from a range of attendees, some made anonymously.

Tenders have become common-place especially for large projects, such as restorations, or roadway planting. Growers say price is a deciding factor in who wins the tender and they’re a race to the bottom for the industry with prices sometimes dropping to between $1 and $2 per plant.

Conditions which help nurseries such as a deposit, or compensation for holding on to plants when projects are delayed are rare. This means any margin on plants can be quickly eroded if a project runs over by a few months.

“[It’s] very common for projects to be delayed and nurseries are left holding the plants at considerable direct cost, and with massive opportunity costs (as these plants take space which can’t be used for new plants),” said one commenter.

Undercutting is another issue within the nursery industry and there were comments about unsuccessful participants lowering their initial bid by up to 30 percent in order to win a tender. One commenter suggested landscape architects could act as a middleperson between clients and growers to stop what they described as a “disturbing business practice” which “big industry bullies” should be called out on.

“With every massively subsidised nursery another commercial one goes under.”

Commercial growers are also under pressure from subsidised and volunteer nurseries.

The Department of Corrections has several prison nurseries which produce hundreds of thousands of plants such as Auckland Council's Million Trees programme. Some in the growing industry claim prisons are the country’s second largest grower of native trees after Kauri Park Nursery.

As one grower pointed out in the workshops pre-reading material: “The social good of prison etc teaching the growing of plants cannot be allowed to impact on the commercial growers, otherwise all that training is wasted as there will be no nurseries in which these trained people can get a job.”

Lucas said she understands there has been hold on expanding Department of Corrections nurseries, which is appreciated by those in the nursery industry.

Community nurseries remain an issue however, said Lucas.

“That is a massive problem at the moment. A lot of feel-good stuff at the moment will fund the little community nurseries. Some of them are being scaled up to huge places for short term projects and that’s undermining commercial businesses.

“With every massively subsidised nursery another commercial one goes under.”

Without industry-wide change, it's likely subsidised nurseries will face the same challenges commercial nurseries are facing when their funding runs out. 

Magic timelines

Part of the issues the industry faces come from tender situations where the person specifying what’s wanted might not understand what it takes to collect seed, propagate a plant and keep it alive until it’s strong enough to thrive without weeding or pest-control.

Very few nurseries can afford to grow “on spec” in the hope they will find a buyer for a plants. Most grow plants when an order has been confirmed.

Eco-sourcing, which means collecting seeds from the same area you plan to plant in, is now a common requirement for restoration work. While it helps maintain genetic variation of plants throughout the country and should ensure species from Northland don’t end up in Kāpiti, it adds time and cost.

Seeds have seasons and can’t be collected all year round. In some cases, if plants are on Department of Conservation land, permits need to be purchased. The time to wait for the seeding season is often not considered by buyers.

One commenter described a tender from a regional council submitted two days before the workshop. It asked for 300,000 eco-sourced plants to be supplied over three years. The first delivery of plants would be due in 2019:

“No one in the industry can work that kind of magic!”

Other projects with similar face-palm timelines were also mentioned, highlighting a disconnect between planning and growers. Many in the industry believe three years in advance planning is needed for some types of planting, and for quicker growing plants, at least 18 months.

Slow next steps

According to the minutes from the December workshop, there were several “take home” topics.

Some included guidelines for procurement conditions and timelines, others related to setting standards for plant quality.

Te Uru Rākau, the forestry arm of the Ministry for Primary Industries, who were represented at the meeting, didn't answer questions about whether they have any concerns about the native plant industry's ability to deliver quality plants for the One Billion Trees programme. In a written response Julie Collins said the work of the agency was to ensure a "demand-led" approach for the industry.

Grants to encourage the planting of the native trees would help grow demand, and a partnership fund is supposed to help nurseries. 

"As part of this, we are currently working with NZPPI on an application to the new One Billion Trees partnership fund which covers workforce and skills, seed collection, plant quality grades, biosecurity and best practice across the industry. Addressing these issues would create a more sustainable, well-managed plan for the industry as it naturally develops. This is a key priority for Te Uru Rakau and we are working through this application now."

Two months on from the workshop, Lucas is yet to see progress and said she would consider calling another meeting to push matters along.

“I need to set a deadline. We’re very frustrated at the situation.”

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