The humble honey bee is contributing to a quiet land use revolution in some of the country’s more remote farming regions, bringing options and opportunities for farmers and rural communities.
The growth in the Manuka honey industry has been phenomenal, surging by 45% last year to total $281 million in exports, making New Zealand the third largest exporter by value after China and Argentina, despite being only the 16th on a volume basis, as Manuka honey’s health benefits give it a touch of gold.
The Manuka honey bonanza has also bought a value boost to income streams for farms that only a few years ago were limited to sheep, beef and possibly forestry. And for farmers choosing to retire or exit the industry, Manuka honey has provided a valuable lift in equity levels by lifting farm values.
Bayleys rural agent Mark Monckton of Taranaki said the surge of interest in Manuka had bought the focus firmly back on opportunities within some of his regions more remote farming businesses.
“The districts around Taranaki and Wanganui, areas like the Waitotara Valley and Inland Stratford have experienced a real surge in interest in properties. We are seeing some large players in the industry including Settlers Honey, Comvita, and Tweeddale now holding a lot of country there.”
He said the interest was now reflected in the premiums desirable Manuka friendly properties were fetching, with land prices doubling for some properties.
“Those properties that may have typically have been worth about $1500 a hectare have gone for $3500 a hectare, and that is a lift experienced only in the last couple of years, it has come quickly.”
His region held strong appeal to industry investors seeking Manuka that was later flowering than its northern counterparts.
“It means beekeepers can move hives in after being up north earlier in the summer, as a result they effectively get two harvests of Manuka within the one season.”
Demand for properties with Manuka stands and the ability to grow more usually has companies seeking properties that encompass an entire geographic area, such as a river valley.
The inability to control where bees go means a greater defined catchment for a set number of hives ensures a higher concentration of Manuka in the catchment of the hives.
“It is always preferable to lock up the entire area, rather than have for example just half a valley with a neighbour opposite you. But what we are also seeing is once one block is secured, the companies will be interested in buying up adjoining properties to grow their single catchment area.
“Over 100ha is a relatively secure area worth looking at.”
But for farmers who are not selling up he is also seeing some opportunities developing for them to share in the returns from honey hive owners placing hives on their farm.
“Per hive and payment based on yield are options evolving.”
However with the surge in the industry, properties with Manuka stands are becoming increasingly hard to find, and more farmers are considering planting Manuka specifically for honey production.
Global natural health products company Comvita is looking to partner with landowners with more than 40ha of suitable land to plant with improved Manuka seedlings. Comvita plans to plant over 2,000ha of Manuka per year in order to meet the increasing domestic and international demand for the honey and related bee products.
Comvita Chief Supply Chain Officer, Colin Baskin, said Comvita advises and assists landowners develop Manuka plantations on their land, using high-performance Manuka seedlings developed and proven through a decade of biological optimisation and agronomic trials, often in conjunction with Manuka Research Partnership Ltd.
Once grown, these plantations are used to host Comvita’s Kiwi Bee hives to produce and yield high quality bee products.
Long-time beekeeper and Apiculture NZ board member John Hartnell confirmed the surge in land values on some of the country’s tougher farming properties.
However he also cautioned a need for “calm heads”, rather than risk the sector falling prey to speculative over confidence.
“There are risks in the sector to consider. This includes over-reliance upon a Manuka monoculture. Manuka is not the first choice for bees, its pollen is too small for them to harvest, so they can only get nectar from it, but a hive requires 25kg a year of pollen to function.”
He encouraged farmers to work with programmes like the Trees for Bees initiative, where varieties of plantings were recommended, including native trees and flaxes on properties alongside Manuka.
Farmers not selling up but keen to have a share of Manuka income could consider shared income agreements. He had clients getting up to 30% of income generated from hives on their property.
“But you have to remember you may carry 100% of the risk, including years when the Manuka may not flower. You also have to meet Health and Safety regulations, access requirements, it’s not just an agreement where you get handed a cheque for doing nothing but provide the land.”
Bayleys New Zealand country manager Simon Anderson said the enquiry for blocks growing, or capable of growing Manuka was encouraging.
“The opportunity for a Manuka income stream has provided a valuable income opportunity, not only for existing farmers who want to go down that road, but also for industry investors – Manuka has done a lot to maintain values and equity in tougher country, giving farming families options.”