Forest Nurseries – a Postscript

Mike Leonard (bio)

By mid-1992, the "mega" land and natural resource management Department in Victoria had been in existence for some eight years, and had undergone its third name change, becoming known as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. 

Victoria’s publicly-owned plant nurseries, which had been incorporated into the original "mega" agency had, in 1986, and as part of a strategy to improve nursery marketing and operational cost effectiveness, commenced trading corporately under the "Vicflora" name. A nursery Board of Management had been established at the same time, but it had apparently ceased meeting in 1989.

In the years that the nurseries had been part of CFL/DCE/CNR several separate reviews of their operation had been undertaken. In mid-late 1991, the then Director of the Department’s Regional Management Division conducted what was described at the time as being the "definitive nursery review" which, among other things, was to set the business’ charter for several subsequent years at least.

At the time the Vicflora business, with an annual plant production of around 10 million units, was being described as the largest plant nursery organisation operating in the country, and about 60% of Vicflora’s production was being used by CNR in public land programs.

In early 1992 I became involved in assisting with the implementation of the recently completed ‘definitive review’. I was fortunate to work closely with a full-time project officer, who had previously been employed by Victoria’s peak, private sector nursery association. The information set out below relates to that time, and in particular, to a Vicflora draft Business Plan that was circulated within CNR in March 1993.

The 1991 Nursery Review

This review had identified a need to restore Vicflora to "good corporate health", following several years of organisational uncertainty. The review had concluded that, " ... to adequately deliver its key programs in forestry, land protection and extension services CNR must control the quantity, quality, genetic integrity, and cost of plants ... " and that " … there (were) not private sector nurseries currently operating that provide alternative supplies to meet the full range of (Departmental) requirements … "

The Review had foreshadowed a consolidation of facilities at technologically-advanced and efficient sites which would involve:

  • The closure of softwood nurseries at Benalla and Trentham.
  • The closure of the Morwell River hardwood nursery, the Creswick extension nursery, and the Seawinds (Mornington Peninsula) coastal species nursery.
  • The closure of several sales centres.
  • The consolidation of pine production nurseries at Gelliondale and Rennick, and hardwood production at Won Wron.
  • The consolidation of extension’nurseries to Wail and Macedon.
  • The consolidation of Vicflora plant sales centres to Creswick, Benalla, Wail, Macedon and Mildura.

Subsequent to the review, CNR had decided to trial raising open-rooted eucalypts at Benalla, over a 2–3-year period, and not to proceed with the closure of the small, but innovative dry-land Mildura nursery.

Nursery Review Implementation

The April 1993 Draft Business Plan summarised the then situation as " ... CNR having consolidated its production nurseries as follows:

  • Softwoods – Gelliondale (near Yarram) and Rennick (near Mt Gambier).
  • Hardwoods – Won Wron (in the South Gippsland Hills)."

These production nurseries were primarily involved in growing plants to support Departmental programs, consistent with the Timber Industry Strategy, involving softwood plantations, hardwood reforestation, hardwood plantations, and plantation share-farming.

The Department’s extension nurseries were being consolidated primarily at Wail and Macedon. These two nurseries were involved in supporting programs related to salinity and  soil conservation (including Landcare, and the National Soil Conservation Program), flora and fauna protection,  wetland management, agro-forestry, coastal and river management,  native species re-establishment, National Estate projects, the ‘Greening Australia’ initiative and plants for school and community group programs.

In addition to Wail and Macedon, CNR operated a specialised "dry country" nursery at Mildura, and was trialling the production of open-rooted eucalypts at Benalla. The Department now operated plant sales centres at Creswick, Benalla, Wail, Macedon and Mildura. 

The Business Plan also listed the following initiatives/actions:

  • A lift in the corporate profile of the individual nurseries, their managers, and a move to greater individual nursery autonomy in relation to marketing and financial matters.
  • The establishment of a State-based Nursery Managers Forum.
  • Advancement toward a goal, using workplace specialisation1, and technological innovation, to achieve a 6% real rate of return.2
  • In early 1992 Tom Niblock (then Nursery Manager at Yarram; and subsequently Manager of the NSWFC Nursery Business Unit) produced a major report detailing future mechanisation possibilities, and several initiatives were being pursued.
  • The extension sites assuming key roles in the development of direct-seeding techniques, the establishment of seed-banks, and the provision of advice, training and facilities to Landcare groups.
  • Technical enhancements including the development and installation of a computer management system that was compatible with bar-coding and commercial accounting.
  • The nurseries jointly funding a consultancy to develop an enterprise marketing strategy using a Perth-based consultant with related international credentials. That report, delivered in 1992, drew attention to Vicflora’s " … excellent reputation for high quality young trees in Victoria … ", and recommended the appointment of an enterprise Marketing Officer to be located at Macedon.
  • The introduction of licensed Vicflora retailers at prime locations not currently serviced by Vicflora.
  • Detailed plans for upgrading existing retail outlets.
  • The production of target market literature.
  • Retail training for Vicflora sales staff.

In 1991/92 the total nursery production was about 10 million seedlings, with the contribution (million seedlings) of each nursery being:

Benalla - 1.4
Creswick - 0.2
Gelliondale - 4.5
Macedon - 0.5
Mildura - 0.3
Rennick - 0.9
Wail - 0.6
Won Wron - 1.6.

On Saturday, the 3rd of October 1992 the Labor government was defeated by the Liberal-National Coalition. The incoming government had campaigned on, among other things, the need for comprehensive economic and structural reform in Victoria. Consistent with the wishes of the new government, CNR established an Activities Review and, along with a number of other areas of the Department, Vicflora was yet again to be reviewed.

Early in its term the Government announced its intention to corporatise the State’s timber plantations and, subsequently, it was announced that Gelliondale, Rennick, and Won Wron nurseries would move to the new Plantation Corporation when it came into existence on 1 July 1993.

In the following months, the Government announced it had decided to divest itself of the Vicflora business, and to put viable components on the market. 3

1 Vicflora staffing was listed at around 70 ‘full-time’ equivalents.
2 In 1990/91 total nursery revenue was listed as being $2.4M; comprising $0.9M from external sales, and $1.5M from internal sales. With total expenditure listed as $2.8M, expenditure that was described as including a significant component of ‘advice’ provision, well beyond the industry norm. In 1991/92 plant production expenditure approximately equalled revenue of $2.6M.
3 At the time it was understood that market advice was to the effect that most Victorian private nurseries were family-run businesses and, as such, the size and scale of the FCV/CNR nurseries, may be a disincentive to possible purchasers.

As at May 2021 Gelliondale Nursery is understood to continue to thrive, as part of the Hancock’s Victorian Plantations business, Wail is operating as the Dalki Garringa Native Nursery, the Creswick Nursery, which for a period was operated by a Ballarat-based community group, has now largely been abandoned, and the post-Ash Wednesday Macedon Nursery appears to have vanished, although a Garden Centre is based nearby. The fate of the other former nurseries is not known but, as with other matters on this website, readers with related information are urged to Contact the Editor.