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There’s plenty of research on why manuka honey’s so useful from a medical and human health point of view.

Equally we understand bees pretty well.

The missing part of the puzzle, ironically, particularly as it is a plant that’s indigenous to New Zealand is how to best grow the native.

But a newly formed consortium, the Manuka Research Partnership (NZ) Ltd., along with well-known honey marketer Comvita Ltd., aims to change that.

It has pooled together $850,000, and has obtained matched funding through MAF’s Primary Growth Partnership for a planned seven year trial to increase the reliability of supply and proportion of medical grade Manuka honey out of New Zealand.

Based on what might initially seem aspirational numbers, the consortium reckons it can produce 16 times the current quantity of manuka honey (and with it the Unique Manuka Factor = active ingredient methylglyoxal) to crack $1 billion a year in sales.

Clearly MAF’s bought the sizzle, and for that the industry and eventually the country may thank Taranaki’s Neil Walker for putting together the sausage.

He’s no stranger to research, and research applications. The recently retired Fonterra employee obtained over 380 Foundation for Research, Science and Technology grants during his 35 years in the dairy industry.

He bought 200ha of hill country land in Nukuhau, Taranaki, a few years ago, looking to use if for a mosaic of uses. The longtime Taranaki regional councilor has already planted 110ha in trees, including for their carbon sequestering and trading component. He has also recently purchased another 40ha at Rangitatau West and will plant 30ha in manuka later this year.

Taihape apiarist Don Tweeddale put 85 of his 17,000 beehives on the Nukuhau property a couple of years ago to take advantage of the manuka stands, and being a polymath, Walker took a great deal of interest in the hives’ performance.

‘A normal beehive produces 35kg of manuka honey during the season,’ he says. ‘We produced a total of 4750kg, averaging 55kg a hive.’

It inspired Walker, along with Wairarapa farmer Dan Riddiford, and Massey University’s Prof Richard Archer to some radical thinking.

‘What if we maximized returns through plantations of manuka we asked ourselves,’ he says? ‘What if we grew the manuka to maximize flowering and increased the length of flowering time?

From this, Walker figured it could be possible to double the amount of active ingredient in the honey, double the yield of honey, double the number of beehives per hectare, and double the number of hectares of manuka stands — hence a 16 fold increase for a market with an insatiable demand. According to Comvita’s Dr Nevin Amos demand is, in economic terms, extremely elastic.

At the same time, the group realised that there is no information about what sites, weather conditions, sunshine and other factors influence manuka growth and production. This is particularly so for manuka’s active ingredient which is very variable around the country.

Hence, the initial concept application to MAF in Dec. 2009, the full (hundreds of pages) business plan in July last year, and recent negotiations and acceptance as the 9th PGP project.

Massey University is to coordinate the research, carrying out a range and scale of field trials, and carrying out climate experiences on campus.

Comvita is looking at producing better cultivars as well.

‘We’re also going to look to develop research tools,’ says Walker. It would be good to know what a manuka plant’s UMF factor could be before planting, and the group wants to have a set of tests that predicts that activity.

‘We’re setting up projects to develop an understanding and discover all sorts of things we don’t yet know anything about,’ says Walker.

Which, all in all is a pretty good place to start, and for a native plant that not so long ago was considered a bit of a weed, a potential well worth exploring.

Given too that this native won’t require fertiliser and is a carbon sequestering crop it promises to be one of most sustainable crops for some of our difficult hill country.

All power to the Manuka Research Partnership. It is a true value added crop.