Comvita's unique manuka breeding programme is starting to pay dividends, creating a truly economic and sustainable option for growers on heavy hill country unsuitable for other uses.
Comvita's plantation operations manager Josh Easton told the 2019 MyFarm Investments Symposium that Comvita has invested many years in its breeding programme, work which is ongoing. "We have some of the leading experts in the field, dedicating time and effort to breeding the best possible varieties of manuka for us."
Comvita first embarked on the programme after recognising the availability of wild manuka in New Zealand was limited and naturally diminishes as other plant species emerge around it. Plantations can overcome this problem and can then reliably enable the right supply of honey.
"There are a lot of different varieties of manuka across New Zealand and what the programme has done is bring all those varieties together and put them in different environments. As a result, we have been able to determine which varieties will work best in specific regions.
"What we are after is flower density through improved plant vigour, greater nectar quality and quantity and improved disease resistance. It's all about getting the productive asset up to speed as quickly as possible. Everything is about making sure that when we plant a crop, it will be enduring."
Comvita is targeting class 6, 7 and 8 land - marginal farmland with little use for sheep and beef and where traditional radiata pine forestry can't be placed because of the heavy loading. Big basins that retain bees are ideal, which often have good aspects like sunlight.
One successful plantation has emerged in the Whanganui region, with some hives producing 60kg per hive, compared with others in the area producing 30kg.
Easton says this success comes with challenges which include keeping other beekeepers out and removing other nectar sources.
Wider challenges to the industry's sustainability have already been tackled, with MPI developing a manuka honey definition based on nectar chemicals and a DNA marker from the pollen. New Zealand has also launched a manuka honey appellation society, which is designed to give the protection needed around the word manuka.
Australia's attempts to capitalise on the demand for manuka have been well noted, however Easton suggests the threat is unlikely to be significant. "We have to acknowledge that Australia has the leptospermum genus however beekeepers don't like harvesting it because it is difficult. The environment is really harsh and hot and if you taste Australian manuka honey, it is going to taste burnt, crystallised and is not appealing."
Meanwhile, current market prices and the differential in between wild and plantation UMF suggests manuka plantations will become an increasingly attractive investment.
Easton says wild manuka is about 7-9 UMF, while plantation is around 15 and potentially far in excess of 20. "At the moment 5+ UMF manuka honey wholesales for about, 25k per tonne, 15+ is about $80k per tonne and 20+ between $120 - $150 per tonne. There is obviously massive upside growing for 15+ and above."