‘Plant trees and grow money’: Promoting farm forestry in New Zealand in the 1920s

Anton Sveding

In 1924, travellers at railway stations across New Zealand could see a poster with the message ‘“PLANT TREES AND GROW MONEY”’ (see fig. 1). To illustrate the lucrative endeavour of planting trees, the poster detailed that an investment of £10 could be worth up to £500 in 33 years’ time. For further information, the poster encouraged any potential tree-planter to contact ‘the State Forest Service “Tree Man”’ in either Rotorua or Christchurch. This paper examines propaganda employed to encourage tree-planting in the context of a looming timber famine in the 1920s by the New Zealand State Forest Service (SFS).

Figure 1. For a small investment tree-planting could generate a substantial revenue. Poster exhibited at New Zealand railway stations in 1924. Photo by the author. New Zealand National Archives, Posters re Planting, 1924-1927, R17272902.

Four years earlier, in 1920, Leon MacIntosh Ellis. recently appointed Director of Forestry for the newly established SFS, had outlined his forestry policy for the Dominion, primarily designed to prevent a much feared timber famine. Ellis envisioned New Zealand’s timber coming from three sources: the main supply, 60 percent, would come from native forests operated on the principles of sustained-yield management by the SFS; state plantations, also run by the SFS, would generate 10 percent; and the remaining 30 percent would be met by ‘[p]rivate forests and importations’. However, Ellis estimated the amount of imported timber to be ‘negligible’, meaning that forests under private ownership were expected to be New Zealand’s second-largest source of timber.

Ellis based his belief on the possibility of ‘private and semi-public enterprise’ supplying almost a third of New Zealand’s timber supply on two factors. Firstly, it would rely on public interest in forestry. This was, wrote Ellis, evident in the ‘very large and definite investments in private forest plantations’ undertaken by ‘municipalities, County Councils, fruitgrowers’ associations, and agriculturists’. Secondly, he contended that ‘the remarkable sustained performance of exotic trees’ enabled individuals to establish timber plantations and harvest timber within their lifetime due to the trees’ short rotation of 35 years. Because of ‘the extra-ordinarily long growing-season’, Ellis considered New Zealand as an exception to the otherwise widely recognised and orthodox idea amongst foresters ‘that timber-growing is the function of the State’. Indeed, in New Zealand, he claimed, timber-growing was nothing but ‘a sound and remunerative business.’ Though Ellis expected a range of actors to undertake private forestry, given an already apparent interest, he envisioned that farmers would form a significant proportion of those planting trees. In an article in the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, 1921, Ellis highlighted farmers’ importance:

The problem of the development of forest policy in New Zealand is of peculiar interest to the farmers and settlers, for the success or otherwise of a forward policy vitally depends on their interest and participation in growing and harvesting of timber trees.

In order to meet the Dominion’s timber demand, Ellis calculated that private planters would need to plant an aggregate area of 150,000 to 200,000 acres of timber, a considerable number. Yet, just as in his policy proposal, he expressed optimism:

Is it possible to induce the establishment of this big cumulative area within a generation? It is well worth trying for. Keeping continually at it by lecture, demonstration, education, and instruction, supported by reasonably priced planting-stock, expert advice, and the employment of co-operative profit-sharing schemes, should result in the establishment and operation of thousands of small and large plantations throughout the Dominion.

These enactments outlined above tied in well with Ellis’s vision of the SFS as ‘the leader of public thought’ in private tree-planting. Indeed, in his policy proposal, he argued that promoting private forestry ‘should be one of the principal duties of this Service’.

Encouraging farmers to plant trees in New Zealand long pre-dated Ellis’s directorship. In 1916, a few years prior to his arrival, the then Forestry Branch of the Department of Lands and Survey implemented a policy of selling trees to farmers at a low price in order to assist in the establishment of shelter-belts and woodlots. ‘It is not’, the Branch stressed, ‘expected that the planting of trees by farmers … will add to the supply of timber that will be required for building and construction purposes.’ The policy was advertised in farming journals, ‘weekly papers’, and through circulars distributed by ‘County Councils’, generating substantial interest. In 1918 the Branch sold 487,500 trees. Continuous advertisement, the Branch argued, had ‘brought home to farmers the great value of farm plantations for the purpose of shelter, firewood, and farmers’ timber requirements’. As such, at the time Ellis outlined his policy, in 1920, an extensive advertising network as well as explicit interest in tree-planting amongst farmers already existed in New Zealand.

In addition to continuing existing advertising practices, Ellis heavily expanded the tree-planting propaganda. He did this by setting up posters at post offices, publishing booklets, and even introducing tree-planting inspectors, who were tasked with promoting tree-planting to farming communities through lectures and demonstrations, in addition to replying to letters. These efforts had a remarkable impact, substantially furthering the interest in tree-planting: in 1923, the SFS sold 1,485,581 trees and 747lbs (338kg) of seeds.

However, though the number of trees sold increased tremendously, it remained well below the required target if private forests were to provide for close to a third of New Zealand’s timber supply, thus Ellis recognised that the SFS would need to ‘sell at least five to ten million trees per annum’. In order to reach that goal, advertisements in farm journals, post-office posters, bulletins, and lectures would simply not suffice. As such, Ellis wrote to Sir Heaton Rhodes, the Minister for Forestry, asking him to approve of the advertising at railway stations across New Zealand in 1924. Rhodes did; but requested that ‘State’ be added before Forest Service. He also proposed a change regarding the term ‘Tree Man’, to which Edward Phillips-Turner, Secretary of Forestry, explained that the ‘Tree Man’ was essential since it represented no specific person, but was a term ‘used for the special purpose of connecting applications … with this particular advertisement’, thus allowing the SFS to study the poster’s efficiency.

The message of ‘PLANT TREES AND GROW MONEY’ was echoed in the booklets advertised on the poster. In Tree Planting for Profit, whilst calling New Zealand’s demand for timber a ‘problem of a national character’, the SFS simultaneously highlighted the profits that awaited the tree-planter: for example, an acre of 33 year old Pinus radiata could yield £250 to £500. For the more patient planter, an acre of redwood could, after 50 years, yield a revenue of up to £1,500. These estimates, the SFS assured the planter, were ‘fairly conservative’. As such, though a timber famine threatened impending disaster, it also offered the possibility of fortune for the farmer, as one paragraph in the Tree-planter’s guide suggested:

The demands for timber for housebuilding and commercial purposes are increasing by leaps and bounds, and the prospects of supplies of farm timber such as were available in the old days are nil. There is, therefore, a great opportunity before the farming community as a whole to grow their own requirements, and while doing so to grow for sale to others as a profitable side line. In most cases they are in possession of the land and facilities, and the market is at their doors.

With the guaranteed riches that awaited any farmer who planted timber-trees, the SFS compared the timber plantation to ‘an insurance or savings-bank account’. However, the SFS also presented other reasons to establish a plantation, highlighting their ability to eradicate noxious weeds and their value as windbreaks, which provided protection from wind and heat. To demonstrate the effectiveness of timber plantations as shelter, the SFS used photographs and diagrams to illustrate the protection they offered from the elements, as well as photos of happy sheep grazing in the lee of the trees; a perspective which stressed the improvement of the farm rather than the need of timber, echoing previous policies.

In 1925, Ellis remapped his forestry policy as data indicated an imminent exhaustion of native timber species, such as kauri (Agathis australis) and kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides). Instead of relying on native forests for the Dominion’s timber supply, Ellis envisioned state plantations to constitute the primary source of New Zealand’s timber. By 1965, he calculated that half of the country’s timber would come from state plantations. However, private forests remained integral in the new policy, with Ellis expecting ‘[l]ocal body, proprietary, and private plantations’ to supply slightly more than 20 percent of the required timber. Although not as high a percentage as in his initial policy from 1920, private forests would remain New Zealand’s second-largest source of timber.

The same year that Ellis outlined a new vision for New Zealand forestry, in 1925, the SFS discontinued its arrangement with the Railway Department after just under a year, most likely due to financial reasons. Nevertheless, the advertisements seem to have proven effective. Ellis noted with joy that the SFS had sold more than two million trees, writing: ‘The country is solid for forestry and the idea of “Plant Trees and Grow Money. Just how many of those trees were planted by farmers is unclear due to a lack of statistics. The Conservator of Rotorua, responsible for supplying trees and seeds to applicants for the North Island, recorded selling 951,658 trees to farmers in 1925. Whilst farmers made up the greatest proportion of consumers, others, too, applied for trees and seeds; most notably afforestation companies, which, historical geographer Michael Roche argues, saw a timber famine as ‘a wonderful opportunity for profitable investment’. Indeed, SFS propaganda might have targeted farmers, but it also attracted ‘entrepreneurially inclined members of the business community’ who seized upon the opportunity after hearing of the riches offered by tree-planting. Afforestation companies soon overtook farmers as SFS’s biggest consumer in the North Island.

In 1928, Ellis unexpectedly stepped down as Director of Forestry. Commenting on his resignation, one newspaper suggested that it signalled the end of selling trees to farmers. Although Ellis had successfully defended the policy a number of times to politicians, two factors resulted in its eventual cessation. Firstly, continuous political pressure from nurserymen, who claimed that the policy affected their livelihood; and secondly, the Liberal Party forming Government in 1928, who advocated less state presence in areas of private enterprise. Indeed, in 1930, Phillips-Turner, succeeding Director of Forestry, reported that the SFS ‘in accordance with Government policy to engage as little as possible in business competition with private interests’ had ended its sales of trees. Farmers objected to the policy’s termination, pleading the Government to reinstate it, but to no avail.

While the SFS meticulously recorded the number of trees and seeds sold and, to a lesser extent who purchased them, under Ellis’s directorship, the SFS kept no statistics on how many acres each group planted. Indeed, not until 1932 did the SFS provide such statistics, which indicated ‘a total area of approximately 64,000 acres of exotic plantations’ established by ‘farmers and others’. However, the SFS offered a word of caution regarding the validity of the statistics since the data was based on ‘the co-ordination of various returns and the information afforded by the “Statistical Report on the Agricultural and Pastoral Production of the Dominion for 1930-31”’. Moreover, the SFS classified the farm plantations as unsuitable for timber production:

This area, of course, cannot be regarded in its entirety as available for the production of timber for commercial purposes, as its establishment is, in no doubt, largely in the nature of farm shelter-belts and ornamental plots. It, however, indicates the extent to which farmers and others are seized of the important bearing that adequate shelter has on primary production.

As the data revealed, farm forestry never became quite the timber supply Ellis envisioned. While farmers seized upon the opportunity offered by the policy, rather than planting trees to grow money they instead planted trees to improv the farm. Thus, the result of the policy reflected more the aim of previous tree-planting policies targeting farmers. This did not necessarily mean a failure of the policy initiated under Ellis since the SFS had continued to emphasise the benefits of planting trees, but demonstrated that farm arguments for planting trees preceded those of monetary gains, at least amongst farmers.

About the Author

Anton Sveding is a PhD candidate in History at Victoria University of Wellington. His research examines both Governmental and private efforts to foster a public forest consciousness in New Zealand during the interwar period as a response the notion of an impending timber famine. His research interests include environmental history and history of science, in particular botany. Contact: anton.sveding@vuw.ac.nz

Further Reading

M. M. Roche, Forest Policy in New Zealand. An Historical Geography 1840-1919 (Palmerston North, N.Z.: Dunmore Press, 1987).

Paul Star, “Tree Planting in Canterbury, New Zealand, 1850-1910,” Environment and History 14, no. 4 (November 2008): 563-582.

James Beattie and Paul Star, “Global Influences and Local Environments: Forestry and Forest Conservation in New Zealand, 1850s-1925,” British Scholar 3, no. 2 (September 2010): 191-218.

Paul Star, “Thomas Potts and the forest question: Conservation and Development in New Zealand in the 1860s,” International Review of Environmental History, 1, (August 2015): 173-206.


A. N. Perham, Forestry on the Farm. New Zealand State Forest Service. Circular No. 2 (Wellington, N.Z.: Government Printer, 1923).

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, C3, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1920, 1922, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1930, 1932.

Conference New Zealand Nurserymen, 1929-1931, R17277821. New Zealand National Archives.

L. MacIntosh Ellis, “Forestry in New Zealand. The Government policy and private planting,” New Zealand Journal of Agriculture 22, no. 2 (February 1921): 87-89.

Otago Daily Times, “State Forestry,” 28 April, 12.

New Zealand State Forest Service, Farm Shelter. New Zealand State Forest Service. Circular No. 25 (Wellington, N.Z.: Government Printer, 1928).

New Zealand State Forest Service, Tree-planter’s guide: a handbook of information issued by the New Zealand State Forest Service (Wellington, N.Z.: Government Printer, 1924).

Posters re Planting, 1924-1927, R17272902. New Zealand National Archives.

W. T. Morrison & P. M. Page, Tree-Planting for Profit (Wellington, N.Z.: Government Printer, 1922).