Book Review: Heartwood by Rowan Reid

Regular readers will know that I love trees. On the Rock Farm we have planted trees for bio-diversity, stock shelter and visual amenity. The Rock Farm also has an amazing history, with ancient eucalypts that I am confident pre-date modern settlement, giant Elm trees from early settlers, and 50 year old tree shelter belts that define some of our paddocks. It is an eclectic mix of trees, of various ages, native and exotic species with different purposes and they all bring their own story and value to the Rock Farm.

Jo and I have talked about removing all stock from the Rock Farm, and creating a plantation of trees. Our harsh climate, irregular rainfall and topography mean we will never grow commercial grain crops on the Rock Farm. But we can grow grass and we can grow trees. Near neighbours have plantations of radiata pine and other neighbours have planted thousands of native trees under forestry conditions. Some plantations are for production, meaning at some time in the future the trees will be harvested. Other plantations aim for conservation, where trees are to be saved. And it has always seemed to me that each approach is mutually exclusive of the other.

This dichotomy has always puzzled me, and many people have taken opposite sides in the production versus conservation debate. Sadly the entrenched sides have often confronted each other with violence, neither side open to seeking an alternative model that meets both their needs.

Rowan Reid has also puzzled over this dichotomy. A forest scientist, his book presents a third way of growing trees. Trees that can be for conservation and for profit. And his story is not based on some theoretical analysis, it is based on his own lived experience on his farm Bambra in the Otway Ranges. His story is fascinating.

I must admit I was a little intimidated by Heartwood when I opened my Christmas present from my wife. At first glance, I thought this would be a technical Silviculture text book with each chapter on how to grow a different species of plantation timber. It is not. Reid winds a thoughtful, indeed beautiful easy to read narrative through each chapter. It is as much an autobiography as it is a journey into the language of trees and timber.

What Reid shows in this book is that there is a place for “new forests that are not primarily commercial but make good business sense,. They don’t look like conservation, yet improve diversity and reduce land degradation., They are not compromises…. They are elegant solutions, appropriate for each owner, their place and the time, which provide a balance of conservation, aesthetics and profit.

Each chapter investigates a particular species. Reid doesn’t just examine the living tree and its characteristics, such as its ability to stabilise eroded slopes or gullies, or provide winter fodder for stock. Reid also takes the reader into some of the techniques to grow straight tall trees, how to prune the branches and then into the mills, the market and in many cases through to the end user. We see examples of furniture and panelling made from timber that Reid planted at Bambra after he purchased the property in 1987, since grown, harvested, milled and then sold..

The end of each chapter explains the scientific or forestry terms used in the preceding chapter. We are gently introduced to terms such as Geotropic or Phototropic, meaning does a tree grow against gravity or does it direct its growth towards sunlight. Also milling terms such as quartersawn timber or backsawn timber and what this means for shrinkage and expected twisting or warping on boards. You don’t need to delve into these couple of pages if you don’t want to – but they have increased my vocabulary and has allowed me to have confidence that if we are to trial an agroforestry or silviculture paddock, we should be able to produce timber of real value.

Reid reminds us that sixty percent of the Australian landmass is managed by farmers. The primary reason we have lost so many native species in recent times, and have declining soil and water health is not logging for timber but clearing for agriculture. Reid saw an opportunity to develop his blend of agroforestry and decided his calling was to be a forester among farmers. As such, Reid opens his farm to visitors and has established a “Master Tree Grower’s Course”.

Many commercial foresters say my example is too complicated, too expensive and lacking the efficiencies of scale and uniformity that they strive for in their own plantation models. Many of those working in the conservation sector view any form of timber harvesting from Landcare plantings as an anathema and my attempts to mix the two, abhorrent. But the farmers who visit, it’s just common-sense to manage waterways on farms for both conservation and profit.


One of the local farmers who gets it is John, who runs Woodvale near Yass. His enterprise is based on a sheep and forestry operation. I met John several years ago – he introduced us to Wiltipoll Sheep and commenced our journey down the regenerative agriculture path. I joined our local regenerative land managers network a couple of weeks ago to revisit John’s place and look more closely at his forestry operation – planted on the ridges around his property. It can be done – and done locally. John’s trees are now 25 years old, and are looking magnificent, You can follow Woodvale’s story here:

Reid is justifiably proud of his trees, which he sees as a gift to future generations. Whilst many of the trees he has planted have been harvested and many more will be harvested in his own lifetime, there are also those slower growing trees such as Black Walnut that won’t. “The reward I seek – what motivates me – is how our children’s children might think of the person who planted them“. I would argue that perhaps Reid’s greatest legacy is the seed he has planted in the minds of thousands of farmers around the world, who in turn have planted millions of trees. This is a great book for anyone who owns some land and wants a balanced outcome that both improves the soil and water quality, that also makes a return on the initial investment whilst allowing for livestock production.

The best part is you can meet Rowan and tour his magnificent property Bambra during a 2.5 hour ‘lecture in the paddock’. It is going to be on my calendar as soon as I can make it. More information and dates can be found here:


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