Major breakthrough for Mānuka farming initiative

A ground-breaking milestone could see more New Zealand farmers producing high-grade mānuka honey worth millions to the New Zealand economy.

Scientifically-bred mānuka cultivars planted on a 130 hectare trial site at Tūtira, Hawke’s Bay between 2011 and 2013 have produced their first crop of mānuka honey with an average Unique Mānuka Factor (UMF®) value of 7.  One sample reached medical grade by exceeding UMF® 10.

The Tutira trial site is part of High Performance Mānuka Plantations, a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme jointly funded between Mānuka Research Partnership (NZ) Limited (MRPL) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

“We believe the Tūtira site’s results using scientifically bred mānuka cultivars will be of considerable commercial interest to farmers and other owners of large parcels of land across New Zealand,” said Mānuka Farming New Zealand Chief Executive Stephen Lee.

“From starting out in 2011, our aim was to trial mānuka cultivars at different sites and environments across the country, to see how they grew and if they’d produce medical grade mānuka honey,” said Mr Lee.

“We completed the mānuka honey harvest in December 2017  just at the end of the mānuka flowering season and  achieved a yield of 10.1 kg per hive with an average UMF® value of 7.  This honey met the Ministry for Primary Industries’ scientific definition for monofloral mānuka honey.”

Mr Lee says this result is very encouraging.

“For the first year of production on this site, it is already producing high grade mānuka honey,” he said.

“One sample reached medical grade straight from the hive (minimum UMF® value of 10), while the others have the potential to achieve at least UMF® 10 during storage.

“A second honey harvest was taken a few months after the mānuka finished flowering – this was a multifloral honey. The combined value of the two honey harvests generated approximately $325 per hectare in gross income shared by the landowner and beekeeper.

“The gross income from honey will increase with higher honey yields and quality as the mānuka plantation grows to full maturity,” Mr Lee said.

Massey University research technician Maggie Olsen has been monitoring and managing the performance of the Tūtira site.  She says the Tūtira results prove that the concept of farming mānuka for high-grade honey works when the right cultivars are selected for the site and the site is well managed.

She says it’s also important to have both good apiary practices in place and good collaboration amongst landowners, plantations managers and beekeepers to enhance the performance of sites.

“It’s a proof of concept. We all knew it should work, but this is where it has all come together. We’re really stoked with the results.”

Trial sites in Whanganui, Taranaki, Manawatu, Bay of Plenty and Southland have been part of the evaluation and monitoring programme.

Over the last three years 2.3 million high grade mānuka seedlings from Mānuka Farming New Zealand Ltd. have been established on commercial plantations covering over 2,000 hectares of properties from Northland to Marlborough, and from Taranaki to the East Coast.

Mr Lee says “The characteristics of the sites where these mānuka plantations were established varied, so it was critical they were assessed for the right cultivars, and then designed and prepared to optimise survival, growth, and ultimately honey production.  Mānuka Farming New Zealand is well set up to do this for landowners.”

It’s important to take into account that the land used for mānuka is often environmentally vulnerable, and the efforts and costs in generating income from other land uses is often considerably more.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council Catchment Services Manager Campbell Leckie said the trial results at Tūtira offer a sound solution to erosion on steep hill country land, while at the same time generating a new revenue stream.

“Hill country in northern Hawke’s Bay is highly erodible, which means loss of productive soil and poorer water quality in streams and rivers,” says Mr Leckie.

“The mānuka trial is ground-breaking for us. It takes an issue with the hills around Tūtira significantly affecting the lake, and turns it into a production solution,” adds Mr Leckie.

There are 96 commercial hives on the Tūtira plantation at present, which is still early in its establishment phase. More hives are likely to be added as the plantation matures, adding to the commercial returns.