Proseed is the largest forest seed producer in Australasia with customers from Australia and New Zealand to Spain, USA, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The company, which is owned by Ngāi Tahu Forest Estates, operates a specialist orchard, along with seed production and extraction facilities on a 160-hectare property at Amberley, in North Canterbury. The company produces around 1,500-2,000 kilograms of seed per year and is a significant employer in the Amberley community.
Originally established by the NZ Forest Service in 1966, Proseed was developed into a separate business by the NZ Forestry Corporation in 1987. It was then purchased by Ngāi Tahu in 2001. It is managed by a permanent staff of six, which grows to include around 80 seasonal workers during the peak pollination period, which usually runs from the beginning of June to the end of October
Proseed markets seed to a customer base of forest companies and nurseries principally in New Zealand and Australia. The nucleus of the business is the Amberley clonal seed orchard with around 150,000 trees (ramets) predominantly made up of Pinus Radiata (90%), Douglas fir and macrocarpa, with a number of eucalypt species. In addition, Proseed sells a myriad of other tree species, as well a range of native trees and grasses.
The key radiata products are open pollinated and control pollinated radiata pine seed from 60 ha of open pollinated orchard and 50 ha of controlled pollinated orchard. In order to manage the production processes, meticulous computer records are kept of the pollination process and every tree in the nursery has a unique clonal identity and recorded in a central database.
In the open pollinated orchards, pollination of the radiata flowers is by the wind and from a genetic viewpoint, the product can be more variable. In the controlled pollination orchard the flowers are bagged before they emerge and staff go through the orchard ‘puffing’ selected pollen into the bags.
“By doing this we can manufacture seed with the characteristics our customers want,” says Proseed General Manager, Shaf van Ballekom.
“At the same time, it’s important to note that when we say ‘genetically-improved,’ we’re talking about a selective breeding process, not genetic engineering.”
As controlled pollination is occurring in the orchards, staff are also collecting the pollen-laden catkins from selected clones for future pollination. The pollen is extracted, bottled and dried before being stored in the freezer for the next year’s pollination.
A key part of the production process is access to the latest breeding material and research. Proseed is a member of all major New Zealand tree-breeding programmes including the Radiata Pine Breeding Company, the Specialty Wood Programme (non-durable eucalypts, cypresses and Douglas fir) and the NZ Dryland Forestry Initiative (durable eucalypts).
Proseed has been a member of the New Zealand Radiata Pine Breeding Programme since 1987. This programme aims to improve timber quality, disease resistance and growth rates in radiata pine. As new selections are made by New Zealand tree breeders, Proseed is able to bring these into its orchards ensuring the continual improvement through breeding is passed onto customers.
Proseed is continually looking for new opportunities and products. While radiata pine will always be the major forest species, opportunities exist to develop niche products to meet changing demand and difficult environments. At the moment it is actively developing seed for hybrid pines and durable eucalypts.
“Hybrid pines are likely to play an increasingly important role in New Zealand’s commercial forestry industry, particularly for the cold, dry southern regions of the country. To that end, we’ve been involved in field trials of Pinus radiata x P. attenuata with Scion since the late 1990s. Those trials show that the now mid-rotation hybrids are tolerant of cold, dry conditions and that they have good resistance to snow damage” says Shaf.
The other major opportunity is growing naturally durable eucalypts on dry land, providing an alternative to imported hardwoods and treated pine. The company is a founding member of the New Zealand Drylands Initiative, which began a programme of testing and breeding durable eucalypt species in the early 2000s and now has 160,000 trees in trials throughout New Zealand.
“In conjunction with the University of Canterbury and other partners, we are breeding a suite of eucalypts which will provide posts and poles for New Zealand vineyards. The advantage is they won’t need to be treated and are much stronger than treated radiata posts.”
For Shaf van Ballekom, Proseed is an exciting business to be a part of and one with a very bright future.
“Forestry is currently the third largest exporter in New Zealand and we’re set up to provide seed to the forestry industry as product demand grows,” he says.
“There are a number of species with huge potential and we’d like to see major plantings of some of them in New Zealand.
“Everything we do here though – from our drying facilities to our extraction plants and packaging facilities – is about product improvement and giving our customers confidence in both our products and our business.”
Like all land-based industries, there are potential problems.
“Plant disease is always a potential issue. The whole industry has to continually guard against disease incursions. Increasingly climate change will also be an issue, particularly drought along the eastern parts of the country.”
Looking ahead, Shaf believes one of the key challenges for his industry is time.
“For us it is about keeping up with the pace of change, looking for solutions to problems and finding ways to reduce the time it takes to come up with these solutions. We are always keen to speed up the delivery of improved seed to our customers.”