A Northland peanut trial has peanut butter manufacturer Pic's Peanut Butter looking at the potential for sourcing its products locally and building a peanut factory in the area.
The project aims to check the feasibility
of growing peanuts commercially in Northland, with backing from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), supported locally by Farmlands Dargaville and the Kaipara Kai Hub.
The $91,000 project is led by Picot Productions, and MPI is contributing more than $59,000 through its Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund. Research expertise is being provided by Plant & Food Research.
Three locations are being used for the trial – Ruawai on a kumara farm, Te Kopuru near Dargaville and near Kai Iwi Lakes.
Picot Productions owner and founder Pic Picot said the trial plots are growing well so far and peanuts are forming under the soil.
"We are really excited and I'll be looking forward to coming up and celebrating the harvest in late summer."
The company imports peanuts from Australia, Nicaragua, Brazil as well as some from Argentina and Zambia.
The Covid-19 lockdown and supply chain issues have been "a nightmare".
"We lost production on one day when we couldn't get any supplies into the country but the staff have been moving heaven and earth to keep the nut stocks flowing so that doesn't happen again,'' he said.
Picot said having a local supply of peanuts would be fantastic.
"We currently use 3000 tonnes of peanuts a year and spend between $5 million and $10 million a year overseas. It would be great to be able to spend that money in Northland."
He said in addition to that annual investment, a factory would need to be set up in the area to enable processing close to the site.
"When peanuts are harvested, the plant is turned upside down and the nuts are usually left to dry outside in Australia. However, we can't risk them getting wet with Northland's changeable climate so it may be that this process is done inside the factory."
Picot said in a happy accident, a local farmer had bought some harvesting machinery online which turned out to be a peanut harvester instead of what they had wanted.
"That's really cool as we had been wondering how we were going to harvest the nuts."
Picot said as a new crop to New Zealand, so far it didn't appear to attract a lot of pests which raised the possibility of growing the crops organically.
Peanut plants are a legume related to peas and grow to about 400mm high. The plants are annuals.
Picot said an earlier trial under glass in Napier had failed when the plants all died when the Covid-19 lockdown had stopped access for staff. The peanut seeds had been sourced from Zambia.
"However, the Northland trial plots are much more promising as it would be best to be able to grow the peanuts outdoors."
Four varieties of Spanish Hi Oleic peanuts, which have smaller kernels and reddish-brown skins, have been chosen for the trial.
Project manager Declan Graham, who is business manager – science at Plant & Food Research, said these varieties were identified as the most appropriate cultivar for Northland conditions and for the needs of Pic's Peanut Butter.
"This type of peanut is most widely used in confectionery and snacks, as well as peanut butter production," said Graham. "Their high oil content makes them ideal for crushing."
The trial peanuts were planted in late October and are expected to be ready for harvest in late February or March.
"A soil temperature of around 18C is ideal, so the window for getting the peanuts in the ground and harvesting them is small."
Graham said the team did not expect the project to be plain sailing.
"They'll need to deal with aspects like weed control and pests. But of course, the proof will be in the tasting."
MPI investment programmes director Steve Penno said MPI was excited to be involved in a project that could lead to a new industry in New Zealand and help boost the local Northland economy.
"This project fits perfectly with our goal of funding projects that will make a positive and lasting difference."