A ground-breaking milestone could see more Hawke's Bay farmers producing high-grade manuka honey worth millions to the New Zealand economy.
Scientifically bred manuka cultivars planted on a 130ha trial site at Tutira, Hawke's Bay, between 2011 and 2013 have produced their first crop of manuka honey with an average Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) value of 7. One sample reached medical grade by exceeding 10.
The Tutira trial site is part of High Performance Manuka Plantations, a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme jointly funded between Manuka Research Partnership (NZ) Limited (MRPL) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
"We believe the Tutira site's results using scientifically bred manuka cultivars will be of considerable commercial interest to farmers and other owners of large parcels of land across New Zealand," said Manuka Farming New Zealand chief executive Stephen Lee.
"From starting out in 2011, our aim was to trial manuka cultivars at different sites and environments across the country, to see how they grew and if they'd produce medical grade manuka honey," Lee said.
"We completed the manuka honey harvest in December 2017 just at the end of the manuka flowering season and achieved a yield of 10.1kg per hive with an average UMF value of 7. This honey met the Ministry for Primary Industries' scientific definition for monofloral manuka honey."
Lee said this result is very encouraging.
"For the first year of production on this site, it is already producing high grade manuka honey," he said.
"One sample reached medical grade straight from the hive (minimum UMF value of 10), while the others have the potential to achieve at least UMF® 10 during storage.
"A second honey harvest was taken a few months after the manuka finished flowering — this was a multifloral honey. The combined value of the two honey harvests generated approximately $325 per hectare in gross income shared by the landowner and beekeeper.
"The gross income from honey will increase with higher honey yields and quality as the manuka plantation grows to full maturity," Lee said.
Massey University research technician Maggie Olsen has been monitoring and managing the performance of the Tutira site. She said the Tutira results prove the concept of farming manuka for high-grade honey works when the right cultivars are selected for the site and it is well managed.
She said it's also important to have good apiary practices in place and good collaboration among landowners, plantations managers and beekeepers to enhance the performance of sites.
Trial sites in Whanganui, Taranaki, Manawatu, Bay of Plenty and Southland have been part of the evaluation and monitoring programme.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council catchment services manager Campbell Leckie said the trial results at Tutira offer a sound solution to erosion on steep hill country land, while at the same time generating a new revenue stream.
"Hill country in northern Hawke's Bay is highly erodible, which means loss of productive soil and poorer water quality in streams and rivers," Leckie said.
There are 96 commercial hives on the Tutira plantation, which is still early in its establishment phase.