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Farmer threatens to burn native bush in face of new rules and plunging land values

A Maruia farmer is threatening to burn off 80ha of native bush on his property and turn it into pasture in a bid to raise its value and save his farm.

Aaran Bruce and his father, 89-year-old Jim Bruce, who cleared most of the land, starting in 1944. The trees in the background are regenerating beech forest; the original trees were felled 30 years ago for beech chip. Source: Local Democracy Reporting

Lois Williams, Local Democracy Reporter

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 Road, about 15km from Springs Junction.

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

"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. We're 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 has dropped in value by $800,000, according to their latest rate demand from the Buller District Council. The bush block, including 30-year-old regenerating beech forest, would be worth only about $3000 a hectare.

"I couldn't 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."

For more than 70 years the Bruce family had treasured native forest and preserved it, 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, I'll burn it now to save my farm. I've got a valuer coming out this week, and if they don't value it the same as the rest of the farm, I'll have to look at getting rid of most of it, just to get our equity up."

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

"What he's 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, O'Connor said.

"I'm really concerned for Mr Bruce and anyone else in his position - it's not an easy situation he's facing, but wiping out native trees is not the answer."

The MP said he would contact his brother Bede O'Connor, 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 showed a burning tree with fuel stacked around its base, while social media photos appeared 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.