More to honey than money
Manuka is nothing if not adaptable: it grows well on rock faces, in swamps, on dunes and even among Rotorua's hot pools.
But some locations, such as Northland, Waikato and the East Cape, have proven to be much better than others for yielding prized high active manuka honey, commanding a premium in export markets.
For the past four years a consortium of private companies and individuals, bolstered by public money, have been teasing out the factors required to develop the best manuka honey.
Early signs are promising, as high active cultivars planted in different locations have retained their potent properties.
The Manuka Research Partnership (NZ) Ltd., a consortium of Taihape beekepers and lead shareholders Don and Conchita Tweeddale, Comvita, Landcorp, Hawkes Bay Regional Council, Aborex Industries, Nukuhau Carbon Ltd and Maori Trustee Te Tumu Paeroa, has pledged to invest $1.4 million over seven years into the programme. The government, through a Primary Growth Partnership administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries, has promised to invest $1.4m into the project.
The Government, through a Primary Growth Partnership administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries, has promised to invest $1.4m into the project.
It has an ambitious target of increasing the supply of medical- grade manuka honey to lift the value of exports from $75m to $1.2 billion a year by 2028. The Government and private partners have so far spent $400,000 each.
But the plantation project promises more than just a rise in exports. It could be the saviour of thousands of hectares of eroding steep-country farmland.
Manuka could also be planted along riparian strips to revegetate stream sides, again providing a revenue stream to farmers.
Dr Jonathan Stephens, who wrote his PhD thesis on the factors responsible for the varying levels of unique manuka factor (UMFR) in manuka, says the reason some plants are more potent than others relates to genetics and the environment.
"In some parts of the country, like Northland, the variety of manuka (Leptospermum incanum) has a high UMF. But areas there are also virtual monocultures of manuka, so the bees are not sourcing nectar from any other plants. Therefore, the concentration of manuka nectar is very high in the honey," Stephens says.
Now the principal researcher for Comvita, Stephens has been raising special manuka cultivars since 2006, with the intention of creating plantations. The company has planted out 700 hectares in 25 areas nationwide.
While Comvita was independently doing its own research, former dairy industry researcher and Taranaki regional councillor Neil Walker had been thinking along the same lines. He saw the opportunity early on for manuka to be planted on eroding hill country.
"We are talking about the idea of manuka as a crop, not as scattered bits here or there. We're talking about class 6 and 7 land which is basically useless [for farming]," says Walker.
Working with Taihape beekeeper Don Tweeddale a few years ago, Walker was given an object lesson in the potential value of manuka. Through his company Nukuhau Carbon, he had bought 200ha of marginal Taranaki hill country containing some manuka, and got Tweeddale to place some hives on it.
"I bought 200ha of a collapsing sheep farm on which he put 85 beehives, and it produced almost five tonnes of honey. Don gave me $4000 for it, which he said he would be selling for $63,000 but if it had been high active manuka honey he would be selling it for $200,000," Walker said.
Walker felt it was time to approach the Government and scientists to develop a coherent programme, and thus the Manuka Research Partnership started.
Justine Gilliland, who manages the PGP programmes for the Ministry for Primary Industries, says staff are "really excited" about the manuka project, with new players coming on board, including Landcorp and Te Tumu Paeroa.
With farms the length and breadth of the country, Landcorp is able to test the new cultivars to see how they will perform in different environments. They are focusing on riparian plantings in the Wairarapa and Te Anau, and under irrigation in Canterbury.
"There are four main improved varieties which have been selected and bred up. They came from Northland and Waikato, so we're seeing if they exhibit the same characteristics in the Wairarapa, Southland, Canterbury," says Landcorp's general manager for property and environment, Phil McKenzie.
Debbie Birch of Te Tumu Paeroa says the Maori trustee represents 2000 Maori land trusts, owning 100,000ha of land "which is not being put to best use".
Typically the land was in Northland or on the east coast; Birch says it would be ideal for manuka plantations.
Stephens says the trials are showing how the flowering process can be lengthened by using different varieties.
"In the wild, manuka will flower for about six weeks but there are varieties that are early and late flowering, so on a block, instead of doing six weeks, you'll end up with three months of flower. In that way you'll get three times the crop and you can insure against adverse weather," Stephens says.
But he points out that in cooler areas, even though the manuka might flower early, it will be too cold for the bees to work.
"You have to balance the bee behaviour with the site and get the flowering times right. Once the weather is right for the bees, then you want your manuka to flower in succession."
Comvita's plantation manager John Burke says the biggest uptake for the plantations is likely to be marginal, eroding pastoral land of the North Island's east coast, and inland Taranaki, Whanganui and the King Country.
"At present these hills are carrying about four stock units a hectare, which on current returns is $100 to $150 a hectare. But under the worst-case scenario for manuka honey, the predicted returns are more than $200 a hectare," says Burke.
He is reluctant to be drawn on the likely returns in a mid and best-case scenario.
Landowners could expect their first flowering after three years, with full production in six.
The life of a plantation is expected to be 25 years, about the same as radiata pine.
It was not until 2006 that the chemistry of manuka honey was revealed.
German scientists found that the naturally occurring compound methylglyoxal (MGO) is responsible for manuka's anti- bacterial properties.
The team tested more than 80 honeys from around the world, finding that the non-manuka honeys produced at most only 7mg/kg of dietary methylglyoxal, whereas manuka honey with a unique manuka factor (UMF) of 25 contained 761mg/kg of dietary methylglyoxal. No other food items have anywhere near the same amount of MGO as manuka honey. It is present in low concentrations in milk, beer, wine and coffee.
How does it work?
When spread on wounds the honey actually stops bacteria attaching to tissues. Some of these bacteria are common culprits afflicting people: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Group A Streptococci and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
The Dominion Post