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Post: Reflecting on 75 years – The past, present and future of the ICFR

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REFLECTION 

The Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) began life in 1947 as the Wattle Research Institute (WRI), only changing name in 1984 to the ICFR with a mandate increased to cover the entire commercial forestry sector in South Africa. Over 75 years the institute has delivered a succession of research outputs that have been key to the growth and continued success of the forestry and forestry products sector in South Africa. 

One might ask what does reaching 75 years mean to the ICFR?  It is certainly an achievement and places the institute as one of the longest operating plantation forestry research organisations in the world.  Perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity to reflect on what has underpinned this success.  With only one name change (accompanying one of the more significant changes in scope) the institute has provided research support to a procession of industry associations having distinct and different needs; SAWGU, SAMTA, SATGA, FOA and FSA are among the most significant.  Indeed, the ICFR acronym has outlived that of most of this procession of funders.  Similarly, a changing mix of individual forestry companies have at different times provided direct funding to the ICFR   The ICFR has also enjoyed State funding from different sources for much of the 75 years although always at a subsidiary level to that provided by the private sector. 

This anniversary is an opportunity to ponder what has been achieved, why this has been possible over such an extended period and what it might tell us about the future for the ICFR. 

RESEARCH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE ICFR OVER THE PAST 75 YEARS 

Development of modern silviculture practice for black wattle 

Through the 1950s and 1960s the focus of the institute was on wattle and allowed the silviculture practice of this crop to transform from regeneration based on spacing of trees resulting from germination of the soil seed store created by the previous crop, to planting of seedlings raised from improved orchard sources and tended using intensive weed control, fertilizer  and protection from soil-borne pests.  The WRI was also a global pioneer in forest tree breeding in developing improved black wattle trees used to establish seed orchards to supply nurseries in South Africa.  These achievements allowed the institute to extend these successes to other tree species. 

Meeting the needs of an expanding eucalypt plantation resource 

The declining global market for wattle tannin resulted in some significant changes in research priorities for the institute from the 1970s.  Whilst wattle remained important, with a gradual shift in emphasis from bark to woodchip markets, the need for alternative timber crops to replace wattle became important.  This led to the pioneering development of new principles of establishment and regeneration practice for eucalypt.  Appropriate levels of site preparation, control of competing vegetation and fertilizer application to ensure the rapid early growth and resultant high yield from short rotation eucalypt crops were determined.  These were adopted by the sector and facilitated the rapid expansion of eucalypt plantation area in the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa.  They also guided the early development of eucalypt plantations around the world.  Notably, regeneration of eucalypt by coppice around the world is still founded on research from the ICFR. 

The expansion of eucalypt plantation area in South Africa also required the identification and development of reliable seed sources for new cold tolerant eucalypt species planting options for summer rainfall regions.  The ICFR took the leading role in this work and today is custodian of a key genetic resource created in South Africa through this work. 

Meeting the needs of an established finite plantation resource 

By the end of the last century, expansion of forest plantation’s in South Africa was at an end due to concerns over catchment water yields and competing land use options.  The challenges for the new century were to sustain production of successive rotations from a finite land base whilst being confronted with increasing numbers of pest and disease threats and the uncertainty of climate change.  Alignment to these changing priorities involved significant restructure and reorganization by the ICFR.   

The need for tree improvement with eucalypt and wattle continues but with an emphasis now on support to the increasing use of clonal forestry with both genera.  Eucalypt hybrid crosses and elite wattle families from the ICFR are the source of potential ‘candidate’ clones for evaluation to meet the specific needs of non-integrated tree farmers.  The ICFR seed orchards also remain an important source for improved eucalypt and wattle seedlings available in South Africa. 

Sustainable production requires additional and better integrated pest management practices, measures to mitigate climate change impacts, and improved understanding of soil productivity requirements under multiple rotations.  The ICFR contributes specialist skills and expertise to these various challenges.  The ICFR is a source of expertise in tree improvement, spatial technologies and analytical laboratory methods.  Notably, there is increased collaboration between research centres supporting forest management and expertise in these areas at the ICFR contribute to a range of collaborate research initiatives supported by the forestry sector. 

RESPONDING TO CHANGING RESEARCH NEEDS A KEY SUCCESS FACTOR 

The continued existence of the ICFR over 75 years is a result of continuous adaption to the changing needs of the commercial forestry sector in South Africa.  Plantation area in South Africa doubled from 1947 to 2022.  Wattle contributed 43% of planted area in 1947 falling to 7% today whilst eucalypt area grew from 22% to 44% over the period.  Markets for production from plantations also underwent progressive change.  The main markets in 1947 were wattle bark and eucalypt mining timber.  Whilst these remain important today, pulpwood markets have emerged to become the largest, supplying domestic pulp mills and woodchip export demand.  The development of pulp mills and sawmilling increased the plantation area of larger integrated grower-processor companies.  Despite this, non-integrated commercial timber farmers remain a key component of the sector.  In addition, there is an important emerging smaller scale timber grower community offering income to rural homesteads.   

The purpose and management needs of commercial plantations in South Africa have undergone many significant changes over 75 years and the ICFR has made major changes over that period to remain relevant to the evolving needs of the sector.  Indeed, continuous change is perhaps a key reason for the continued success of the ICFR.  The research capacity offered by the ICFR has varied over time.  Research capacity in various aspects of silviculture, forest protection, forest economics and forest engineering have all been available from the ICFR when needed.  Perhaps a common thread has been the applied research focus regardless of discipline and the ability to restructure to meet changing needs. 

PONDERING THE FUTURE FOR THE ICFR 

Where will the ICFR be in the future?  The ICFR has been able to shape its research capacity to meet the needs of the commercial forestry sector.  One can expect this ability to change to continue.  How the ICFR will look into the future will depend on how the forestry sector continues to evolve.  The need to address sustainability challenges can be expected to persist into the immediate future.  Pest and disease issues will continue to threaten the sector and climate change impacts are real and increasing.  But other factors will be important.  Equally important will be the changing market for roundwood produced and the make-up and participation in ownership of the plantation resource.  Global trends will be important. 

Wood is a renewable resource well suited to developing the circular economy needed to reduce carbon footprints.  Engineered wood products, such as cross-laminated timber, will play a larger role in the built environment.  A decline in global paper pulp demand will be partially balanced by growth in demand for wood derived chemical feedstocks such as dissolving pulp.  These dynamics can be expected to alter the existing market structure for roundwood and will shift research priorities for the sector. 

Land ownership is a key social issue in South Africa.  Land restitution and restructuring policies can be expected to broaden and fragment plantation ownership, making non-integrated timber farmers more important.  They are already responsible for perhaps 25% of plantations in South Africa.  Indeed globally, land tenure and plantation ownership are an increasingly important issue.  Serving many smaller growers with appropriate research will be important. 

Economic growth in Africa is driving renewed interest in plantation wood supply primarily to meet growth in domestic demand rather than global commodity markets.  The development of wood plantations in Africa faces all the challenges confronting the more mature South African commercial forestry sector.  For the ICFR this is an opportunity to collaborate with others in Africa to deliver relevant applied research. 

To conclude, it is clear the plantation forestry sector will undergo further major changes as it has done throughout its existence.  The future of the ICFR will be inextricably linked to responding to associated new research needs.  The world is becoming more complex and collaboration in future research endeavours will be ever more important.  Based on a 75-year track record the ICFR can continue to succeed into the future.  Precisely what that future will look like is difficult to forecast.  One certain thing is that it will involve further response to changing needs in the forestry sector.

 

Written By: Andrew Morris
Source: Forestry South Africa

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  • Those who grow alone, die alone: why transformation is strategic for the MTO Group
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  • Sabie Poles
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  • Saw Specialists
  • SAWPA
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