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Trees and bees may become the savior of hilly rural New Zealand…..why?

Because down on the farm, or more precisely, way up on the farm, things aren’t as rosy as the boom in commodity prices would have people believe.

There’s a crisis of sorts happening for much of our hill country – that steep, out the back of beyond land that is no longer economic to farm with animals, and is becoming weed infested and overrun.

Much of this land isn’t suitable for radiata pine forestry either – it’s too steep, and too far away from decent roading, and thus not a goer on that front.

Other tree and forestry types such as eucalyptus and blackwoods might have enough longterm value, and even if they aren’t suitable, the longterm farming of trees for carbon credits is becoming an alternative income source.

There’s also another tree with potential promise – manuka, which even though it is a native has been somewhat regarded as a ‘weed’ until relatively recently.

Taranaki regional councilor Neil Walker describes the tree, “as a truly sustainable crop”.

The and co-ordinator brains behind the Manuka Research Partnership, which was the recipient of a recent MAF Primary Growth Partnership funding deal ($1.7 million in total over seven years, half from both parties), Walker’s keen to see hill country being used in a mosaic of trees.

Manuka, and more particularly its honey, has a growing medical application. Demand for the honey, with its Unique Manuka Factor (rough shorthand for the active ingredient methylglyoxal), has an insatiable demand.

The MRP aims to greatly increase manuka honey production, much of it through improving the understanding of how to grow it.
Even at current production levels, the income from hives could make some of the hill country much more viable.

Walker recently had 85 beehives temporarily set up on his Nukuhau, Taranaki property, which earned $40 a hive and that is just ‘renting’ out the right to a bee keeper. This could represent only 10-15% of the actual value of the honey if the owner of the land was also the processor Walker says.

With the MRP aiming to increase the returns/hectare from honey production, it wouldn’t take too much for a passive income to start being derived from the increasingly rundown hill country blocks.

At the same time, it would be the steeper, less accessible pieces of land that would be just as suitable for planting, leaving the better land for other farming types.

Combining manuka’s honey and carbon credit income generating possibilities, and suddenly hill country farmers could have alternative cash from their farming operations.

‘What you have to consider is that farmers are only being asked to use the steep parts of their properties for this exercise not the easier parts where the bulk of their incomes comes from,’ says Walker.

‘These areas produce little income, are high cost, have erosion problems and detract from farm value. It could be that if everything works out this marginal land could make a profit of 20-50 times more than they are producing now.’

Walker’s anxious to see that older, often dispirited farmers, don’t see their life’s work disappear into weeds and regeneration.
Some hill country properties can’t even sell for $500/ha.

Trees and bees could change all this says Walker.

‘People would have new opportunities for revenue that was more realistic,’ he says. ‘Suddenly the land would become more valuable and those older farmers would have a way to get off their land.’

Walker says there would need to be more study on how to share the profits from manuka honey production — perhaps beyond the per hive payment that beekeepers currently pay to landowners.

But such issues aren’t unsolvable he says.

And, if the MRP fulfills its promise, sorting out an equitable return for the landowners, collectors of honey and marketers of the final product would be a good challenge to have.

For the sake of our hill country, and the opportunity of creating a mosaic of uses for this steep country, there’s a fair bit resting on the success of Walker’s innovative project.