Far North iwi Te Rarawa has made its biggest post-settlement purchase to date by buying more than 200 hectares of market gardens on the outskirts of Kaitaia.
The official handover of Bell's Produce, which employs more than 100 people in peak season, took place at the company's produce store on North Rd yesterday.
Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said it was a ''momentous occasion'' with the iwi working with a local business to provide enormous opportunities for the iwi and the wider Far North.
''This is a very unusual experience for us today. A European whānau has sat down with a Māori iwi and signed a deal like this.'
''It's unusual because history reveals that this is not usually how it happens. Usually we are the labourers in the background, we're not usually the owners. This is the first day of the rest of our lives.''
Piripi said Bell's owners had displayed generosity and humility in their dealings with the iwi.
The purchase would provide work and training opportunities for iwi members and was a great example of how Māori and the rest of the community could work together as one.
Allan Bell, co-owner along with brother Nick and cousins Jeffrey Moore and John Reed, said the family was delighted the iwi had bought the business and would expand it even further.
Bell's Produce grows a wide variety of fruit and vegetables — including kumara, corn, pumpkins, melons, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, silverbeet and ''the best mandarins in the country'' — on 212ha of horticultural land adjoining farmland at Pukepoto already owned by Te Rarawa.
June McCabe, chairwoman of the iwi's asset holding company, Te Waka Pupuri Pūtea, said the purchase followed a robust due diligence and negotiation process.
''We're looking to grow jobs, grow capacity and develop a highly skilled workforce fitting for our region. This acquisition gives us a good 10-year start toward achieving our horticultural aspirations.''
The iwi could amalgamate its adjoining land and use Bell's knowledge and infrastructure to expand production, she said.
Piripi said the decision to purchase was guided by the iwi's Four Pou principle of economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing.
"Commercially it's a sound, sustainable business, socially it will help develop our workforce and expand our horticultural knowledge and capacity. Culturally it strengthens our presence and identity as a significant investor in the rohe, and it's a business that applies environmental good practice," Piripi said.
Allan Bell will stay on as a member of Bell's Produce board of directors.
"I'm not walking away from it and together we'll keep things business as usual, with no disruption to our valued staff, who've been the key factor to our development to date.''
Te Rarawa's Treaty settlement was passed into law in September 2015 along with those of three other Te Hiku tribes, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Ngāi Takoto.
Figures in its latest annual report show Te Rarawa's assets have grown from $39.8 million at settlement to $70.3m as of December 2018.
The Bell's Produce purchase has been partially funded by ANZ and Ngāti Kuri, which plans further collaboration with Te Waka Pupuri Pūtea in horticulture.
The price has not been disclosed but it is understood to easily eclipse Te Rarawa's other purchases such as Whangape Station, an 840ha coastal farm bought in 2014.
They are not the only Northland iwi investing in horticulture — Ngāti Hine has bought five kiwifruit orchards totalling 44ha in the Kerikeri area as it diversifies from forestry.