Banking on honey's healing power
If manuka honey is liquid gold, Masterton-based Watson & Son is looking for the mother lode.
"The goal is a bold one. Moving into the international wound-care market, 1000 tonnes [of honey a year] isn't going to cut it - the goal will be 100,000 tonnes," Watson & Son chief executive Warren Peat said.
The company's honey currently retails for $15-$65 a 250g pottle and will fetch much more if, as expected, it is registered as an approved medical product; so 100,000 tonnes quickly takes on bonanza dimensions.
The company has boomed since its establishment in 2004, winning the Deloitte/Unlimited Fast 50 award in 2008 for fastest growing business. Wellington-born Denis Watson owns the operation with his son and apiary manager Dan. They employ 85 staff throughout the North Island, rising to about 115 in high season.
As a member of the New Zealand Manuka Honey Exporters Collective, the anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of the company's manuka honey are rated on a 25-point scale. On-site technicians test for chemical identifiers known as DHA and MGO to prove the honey comes from manuka. The higher the rating, the higher its value.
But as the bees would actually rather get their honey from anything but manuka, whose small flowers and thick, sticky honey are hard work, the only way to guarantee a premium harvest is to "soak" them in manuka-- giving them no option.
They can fly only 2km from their hives, so for the October to March harvest season the firm trucks or even helicopters its 20,000 hives around the North Island to the thickest stands of flowering manuka it can lease.
Then the bees are collected at night and trucked around an annual loop from Northland via East Cape and Wairarapa to Wanganui, Taranaki and the volcanic plateau, with each area having a distinct, six-week flowering period.
Royalty payments in exchange for up to 10-year leases mean farmers of scrubby, marginal land have found themselves on an unexpected goldmine. Maori land in particular is often unsuitable for pastoral use but perfect for manuka honey.
Producers are paid up to 30 per cent of a market-determined "farm gate price", around $30 a kilo for an average honey or $65 to $80 a kilo for a 25+ rating.
Two Wairarapa properties to come on board are Riversdale Station and Kanuka Wilderness Game Estate, and the latter was recently bought by the company.
Watson & Son exports nearly all its honey, mainly to the United Kingdom and China.
The business is solid but subject to the usual "boom or bust" vagaries of primary industry. If the bees are ready and the flowers are blooming but the wind is wrong, losses can be significant.
It is capital-intensive, with Watson & Son sinking $20m just into hives. A challenge is "getting enough software to go with the hardware" as Peat puts it, and as a result Wairarapa's Taratahi Agriculture Training Centre is now producing beekeepers.
In recent years the industry has battled in-fighting around label descriptions of manuka's special qualities, and the exporter's collective has made ground overcoming these.
The Watsons' queen-rearing operation boosts capacity, while a track-and-trace operation registers every hive-site with the Ministry of Primary Industries so the honey can be followed from tree to plate - or bandage.
Results from US human clinical trials of medicinal manuka honey use are expected this spring, which Peat said will be a "watershed" for the firm's wholly owned subsidiary, ManukaMed.
"But it's not all about wealth The company's kaupapa is about healing, and sharing the benefits of this amazing stuff."
$30m: Approximate annual turnover
15-20: Percentage of turnover invested into medical manuka research
500-700 tonnes: Anticipated honey production this year