Editorial: Gold in the meadows

Last updated 11:39 30/01/2013

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OPINION: Back in the 1990s, when Southland's economy was pretty much comatose and resisting all attempts at resuscitation, local councils and business interests created Crops for Southland and poured significant amounts of ratepayer money into it as they sought new ways to extract riches from the province's best assets: land and climate.

Dairying was still in its infancy and not going anywhere because of limited processing capacity at the Edendale milk plant, sheep farming was heading through another prolonged downward cycle and international commodity prices for beef and grain were not much better.

One bright light, though, was thought by some to provide an answer: a white-flowering plant native to North America nicknamed "white gold" because of its snow-like appearance and the lucrative oil it produced that is used in machinery and cosmetics.

So the first plantings of meadowfoam were undertaken and, after a bit of trial and error, the rich Southland soils and temperate climate were found to be an excellent seedbed - The Southland Times published more than one image of hectares of the bright flowers alongside reports of Crops for Southland officers celebrating the success.

Unfortunately, everyone involved seemed to have overlooked one crucial question: who would want to buy this amazing oil extract? Sadly, the answer was not many.

Meadowfoam delivered as promised and it is used in minute quantities in expensive cosmetics. Very expensive cosmetics. But also in very small amounts.

Facialist Margaret Hema, the Wellington woman behind the skincare brand HEMA, has been using Southland meadowfoam oil extract for years and has become seriously wealthy doing so, blending her secret recipes of lavender grown in Te Horo, certified organic avocado oil, kiwifruit seed, flax and meadowfoam into lotions that are now mainstays in exclusive boutiques in cities around the world.

In London, actress Liv Tyler is reported to be a regular buyer and the whole lotion range has been given a glowing commendation by Tatler magazine, which rated the products an unprecedented 10 out of 10. If only those products used more meadowfoam, or weren't quite so exclusive - a new HEMA lotion launched last March, Extrait Face and Neck Oil, sells at $130 per 60-millilitre bottle.

Now, almost two decades after those first hopeful plantings, a new market has opened up. Auckland-based Pacifica Skincare has begun selling its body care products in Japan and says meadowfoam oil extract is the key point of difference with its competitors.

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It discovered the seed oil about five years ago, it says, while developing a range for passengers flying with Air New Zealand, and found it helped preserve products, helped prevent the lotions from evaporating off the user's skin, and gave them a longer shelf life.

So, a new market, a new buyer - is this, finally, the beginning of the riches promised so long ago? Unfortunately, no, or at least not any time soon.

Agronomist and Meadowfoam Growers Association secretary Bill Risk still has a plentiful supply of harvested seed on his Makarewa farm and says growers currently do not have any crops in the ground. "We're tai-hoing [slowing down] till this market out there develops."

All good things take time.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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