24 May 2024

A collaboration between bioeconomy expert Sandra Velarde and illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Jonathan Burgess.

Kyle Wills is not afraid of planting trees on his beef and deer farm.

Kyle is a farm advisor from Central Otago. In the winter of 2022 and 2023 he planted over 7,000 trees in two different areas of his own farm. One area was unimproved native pasture and the other was a very exposed developed paddock that was not performing.

He has planted a variety of trees such as oaks, eucalyptus, alders, poplar, tagasaste, mulberry, pears, apples, apricots and plum trees.

These trees will be increasingly important on Kyle’s farm. The number of hotter days in summer in the next 20-70 years is expected to double in Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Cows without shade or shelter on site may suffer heat stress, and this affects the amount of milk that they produce. Winter days may become wetter as well, and it can get pretty windy out there on the plains.

Farmers care for their animals, and as the weather becomes more extreme, they will need more protection. Trees give them this protection. This is just one of the numerous benefits of planting trees on farmland, which is called agroforestry.

An inspiration for other farmers, and an easy way to get started

One day, a nearby farmer saw what Kyle was doing with the trees in his farm. She asked Kyle to design a similar system for her. She is concerned with future potential reductions of water to irrigate her sheep and beef farm and a lack of shelter for her livestock. Combined with low rainfall, poor soil water holding capacity, and exposure to winds and hot summers, this farmer liked the idea of planting some trees to improve the farm microclimate, and add other benefits such as creating feed for grazing animals and income from carbon sequestration.

As temperatures rise, summers become hotter, winters wetter, and water permits may become uncertain, trees may be a way to build resilience on farms.

If you’ve ever driven through or flown over the South Island, you might have noticed vivid green circles amongst the fields. These are irrigation circles, created by centre pivot irrigators – hulking metal spans that spray water across the fields as they trundle around in a circle.

The dry corners created by this approach to farming are an easy place to start with planting trees. If you put them all together, there are about 35,000 hectares of these corners in Canterbury, ripe for tree planting.

An animation of trees growing in dryland corners and sending shade across irrigated fields.

Word gets around

In his work as a farm advisor, Kyle spent a lot of time talking to farmers from Claxby Farms and Ngāi Tahu in Canterbury about planting trees on their farms. He has spent hours visiting and listening to farmers’ key concerns, values and farming objectives. Then he started looking for the trees that could grow on each farm to fulfil their different objectives.

Both farms cared about short term profitability but their long-term biodiversity goals are different. On their Hamua farm, Ngāi Tahu were willing to accept higher costs for establishment, utilising more fencing to create a space where native species could germinate if conditions allowed. Additionally, there were native species in the planting mix and the plan is to replace exotic trees with natives as they mature over time. This way, they would achieve their long term biodiversity aspiration, increasing the mana of te taiao.

Indigenous trees are natural magnets for native biodiversity. They behave as islands for indigenous flora and fauna. As pollinators and seed eating birds visit the trees for food, shelter or nesting places, indigenous trees encourage native afforestation. Two native species were selected for the agroforestry system on this farm: kōwhai and ribbonwood.

A happy cow in the shade of a tree.

Kyle and the farmers tested some ideas face to face and on screen maps, with different layouts, tree species and shading rates. The farmers were full of questions:

  • How will pasture production be affected if I put in trees in dryland corners?
  • Which trees will create food for the animals or not cause any problems?
  • Will I be able to get income from the trees without harvesting them?
  • How much carbon will the trees sequester?

Together, they designed an agroforestry system that is both good for the environment and potentially profitable. Trees on the dry corners of irrigated dairy farms can reduce nutrient leaching, sequester carbon and keep the cows happy by providing food, shade and shelter.

A new era of agroforestry

In Aotearoa, past agroforestry experiences have not been positive. Previous approaches to planting trees on farms have been mainly based around pine trees for timber. This system was not designed with the farmer in mind, and was a little bit unimaginative.

These days we focus on farmers, and respond to their values and needs. We get out on to farms, talk to people, and listen intentionally to their needs. For someone like me, who has worked in agroforestry for decades, this is how the magic happens.

Putting trees back on farms is an exciting opportunity to create a resilient rural landscape for the future.


Thank you to my colleague and farm advisor Kyle Wills for showing me how to get out of the books and make the magic happen, and to Cheryl Palm, one of my early agroforestry mentors whose legacy will live on with all the young scientists she trained. – Sandra

Sandra Velarde works on bioeconomy innovation and alternative forestry at WSP and is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini.
Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.