Liquid Gold set to lure farmers

Article published in The Profit – A Hawke’s Bay business magazine

Hawke’s Bay hill country farmers are being asked to consider planting high UMF Mnuka on marginal land, creating for many a much needed alternate revenue stream as well as protecting their farmland and water catchments.

New Zealand Mānuka honey is in high demand throughout the world but its quality has come into question as businesses take advantage of the ‘mānuka’ brand.

Earlier this year a UK study revealed that almost half the mānuka honey sold was fake. Around 2500-3000 tonnes of mānuka honey is produced in New Zealand each year but 6500 tonnes is sold by retailers.

Unquestionably the world is demanding more and more Mānuka honey and at the moment New Zealand can’t keep up with supply.

The High Performance Mānuka Plantations Primary Growth Partnership programme (PGP) between the Mānuka honey industry and Ministry for Primary Industries aims to improve yields, output and value of Mānuka honey and grow exports from $217 million to more than $1 billion by 2028.

By 2026 the programme’s aim is to double the number of hives and production yield

per hectare as well as double the proportion of Mānuka honey capable of sale as a medicinal product and double the land area in Mānuka that is economically accessible for beekeepers.

Mānuka with the highest antibacterial activity of UMF 20+ can earn as much as $150 an export kilogram and potentially double that on retail shelves overseas.

Hawke’s Bay already has a trial plantation of high performance mānuka trees at Tutira as part of a trial stretching across 11 commercial sites and about 470ha of land around the North Island.

The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is a co-investor in MRPL alongside New Zealand’s largest exporter Comvita, Taihape beekeepers Don Tweedale, Landcorp, Aborex Industries, Nukuhau Carbon Ltd and Maori Trustee Te Tumu Paeroa. The science partner is Massey University.

Mānuka Trial Site at Tutira

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council land service manager Campbell Leckie says the council has become a project partner and investor as it looks to protect the region’s hill country landscape and its spill of sediment into water catchments as well as creating a new revenue stream for farmers.

There is about 150,000 hectares of pastoral farming land that is regarded as providing a marginal pastoral return but could be ideal for harvesting Mānuka.

“Large areas of this land could well get a better economic outcome for the farmer and a better environmental outcome because the soil isn’t slipping off the slopes in bad weather.”

From an environmental perspective Campbell says the council has identified farmland where there’s a risk of sediment and phosphorus running into local rivers and waterways.

“You would go and target these areas that you would get the best result from an environmental context. If you have a catchment with a lot of sediment coming down and phosphorus, that would be where you would start having discussions.”

Although MRPL says 20ha of land could be economically developed into mānuka plantings, 30 to 50ha will be more economically viable.

He warns that the commitment doesn’t end in planting mānuka but also ensuring you are creating a healthy environment for bees to flourish and produce high UMF honey.

“What people need to think about when planting mānuka is creating a holistic picture. If you establish a plantation but your bees aren’t healthy, you won’t be able to harvest honey.

“If we want a thriving bee industry based on high UMF honey driving some great outcomes for the region then farmers need to realise that it’s a 12 month programme with a short honey harvest of six to eight weeks.

“You need a place for bees to winter for the rest of the year and you need inter-plantings of the right species in the plantation so bees can forage for protein and things like that, so they are strong enough to harvest honey.”

To motivate farmers to participate, MRPL is aiming to prove there is a sound financial business case for Mānuka plantations on unproductive and marginal land such as hill sidings, which are susceptible to erosion.

Establishment costs are between $2500- $3000 a hectare and the landowner is also eligible for carbon credits of $6 a tonne. The minimum size land area a farmer can plant to make it economically viable is 20ha, which equates to approximately 30 hives.

MRPL is also promoting funding support opportunities as well as a range of resources that will help farmers grow Mānuka. Farmers can also run ewes and lambs in the plantation once the trees become established after 3-4 years, with the plantings providing good shelter for stock.

A range of different Mānuka cultivars are being tested for growth rates, disease resistance, flowering ability and diyhdroxacetone (DHA) level in nectar on the 11 sites.

DHA is the chemical that produces the unique Mānuka factor (UMF) in the honey. UMF contains antioxidants and inflammatory enzymes.

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On the export scene, it’s the UMF value that drives the value of Mānuka in the international market. The higher the dihydroxyacetone in the nectar, the higher the price.

For landowners, they could earn $200-380ha once the plantation has matured.

Neil Walker, through his family-owned company Nukuhau Carbon Ltd is an investor in land producing Mānuka honey and has a real desire to make places like back country Taranaki as prosperous as what has happened with black gold (oil) and white gold (dairy) in Taranaki.

He is also a six-term Taranaki Regional Councillor.

Neil, like the project’s other partners is determined to see the Mānuka Honey industry reach its potential.

“We are trying to get the Mānuka honey industry up $1.2 billion by 2026 and this is still our target. This means about 30,000 hectares of land planted in Mānuka and that’s possible when you think of vast areas of unproductive land, especially in hill country,” he says.

He hopes to see farmers consider Mānuka as a viable option and he pulls no punches when it comes to those who might sit on the fence.

“There are always people who will sit on the fence and be conservative and be starving.

“If they don’t want to do something, nobody can make them, but we’re talking about sides of hills that are class 6 and 7 land and that kind of land is completely useless in the economics of their farm,” Neil says.