A group of Victorian landholders are bringing new ideas to old plantations, and driving the rise of sugar gum as a fine timber.

Story By Mark Muller

A cold June wind buffets the rolling plains of “Titanga” near Lismore in Victoria’s Western Districts. This is nothing unusual – it can be a cold and windy place. It is also an excellent place for wool-growing and, tangentially, tree growing.
It was in an effort to protect prized sheep from the prevailing winds and to provide much-needed timber for burning, building and fencing that Titanga’s original owner Alexander Buchanan, his neighbour John Lang Currie and manager William Drinnan set about trialling direct-seeding blue gums in the mid 1870s. Their efforts proved successful through the next decade and attracted the attention of government botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. He encouraged them to trial other species of gum. Among those he recommended was the South Australian sugar gum. Such was the vigour and strength of the sugar gum that Currie, who had bought Titanga following Buchanan’s premature death, ensured that it was included as the major species in all subsequent plantings. Through the years 1887 to 1905 some 200 hectares of plantation gums were sown on his land. Others took Currie’s lead and plantations of sugar gum are nowadays a hallmark of the region.
Currie’s great-great-grandson Andrew Lang looks out over one such plantation on Titanga, which he and his brother Chris now own, and smiles. For Andrew, his forebear’s experimentation and foresight provided the genesis of new business opportunities in the form of milling the sugar gum for saw logs. Andrew is now chairman of SMARTimbers (Sustainably Managed Australian Regional Timbers), a forestry co-operative that is working to raise sugar gum from its status as a windbreak and firewood species to a premium timber ideally suited to decking, cladding, veneer, flooring and other building uses. The co-operative was formed in 2002 and has generated in excess of $130,000 gross annually in the past two years, paid to the timber owners who utilise SMARTimbers, after commission is taken out by the co-op. Clients range from private builders and homeowners to universities placing orders for $15,000-plus of decking.
“Sugar gum is strong, dense, durable and good to mill,” Andrew says. “It has proved itself as a hardy species well suited to this area and is a sustainable and existing asset that we can harvest and utilise.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008