PEOPLE who spent decades trying to eradicate manuka from their farms are now planting it for the profitable manuka honey trade.
When Venture Taranaki held a national conference on the manuka industry on Wednesday it expected 100 people. But the price of a kilo of manuka honey has risen to $17.70 and there's a gold rush going on.
The Hawera conference drew in more than 340 people. In more evidence of the gold rush, trucks carrying beehives are all through the district and there were two jobs for beekeepers offered in Saturday's Wanganui Chronicle.
Those at the conference included the mayors of Rangitikei and South Taranaki, the chairwoman of the Federation of Maori Authorities and many landowners and beekeepers.
From the Whanganui region there were representatives of the Nga Rauru, Whanganui and Ngati Apa tribes, and people from local businesses Settlers Honey, Kai Iwi Honey and Waterfall Mountain Honey.
Massey University staff have trial manuka plantations near Maxwell and in the Waitotara, Ahuahu and Ruatiti valleys. There will be a manuka planting field day near Hawera on March 2.
A plantation would cost $2500 a hectare to establish and, with honey production added to money earned by storing carbon, make $400 to $800 a year. Manuka tolerates poor and erosion-prone land where sheep and beef farming only earns $162 a hectare, Allan McPherson of Manuka Farming New Zealand said.
The native tree is a suitable next crop for land cleared from exotic forestry. It could help control erosion, though a Conservation Department spokeswoman said planting high-yielding manuka from other areas would muddy local gene pools and honeybees could push out native pollinators. At the conference people marvelled at the change in attitude to a plant once regarded as scrub.
Tiaki Hunia, the deputy Maori trustee, said he spent his whole childhood cutting it down.
"I spent summers putting a match to manuka," Taranaki Federated Farmers president Bronwyn Muir said. Now she says honey can help with Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy's desire to double agricultural exports by 2016.
People are going up in small planes to spot good land to buy and put hives on.
There are stories of big areas of manuka-covered land, previously regarded as low value, selling for high prices. But she and others said greed was creeping into the business. She's hearing about hive theft and farmers throwing beekeepers off their land or feeling ripped off by the returns they get.
Several speakers knew of established beekeepers "crying down the phone" because the area their bees used to forage has been overrun by new entrants. There were 1200 new beekeepers registered in the last year.
Others were worried the manuka bubble might burst - through honey adulterated with sugar getting a bad reputation with overseas buyers, or through competition from the Australian manuka industry. Researchers are trying to define what makes manuka honey special. Manuka honey has no proven health effects when eaten, but trials show its antibacterial properties can heal stubborn wounds.
James Annabell, of Egmont Honey which exports to Asia, said Asian people aren't looking for evidence of health effects.
"People use these medicines because they feel better and they know it works."
He said there was still a huge market for manuka honey and lots of opportunity for people who did things right.
-The manuka planting field day is at 837 Ingahape Rd, 16km inland from Hawera on March 2. It starts at noon. To register, ring Mr Annabell on 021 088 20967 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.