Mar­ginal Land Made Good

North & South - - Environment -

IN THE 1960S, it was called scrub. Whole hill­sides and gul­lies full of mānuka ( Lep­tosper­mum sco­par­ium/ tea tree) would be rolled over by ’doz­ers and dig­gers, then piled into heaps and burned. This made way for more sheep and cat­tle to be grazed, and con­trib­uted to­wards New Zealand hav­ing the largest sheep-per- capita ra­tio in the world.

Nowa­days, many of those mar­ginal hill­sides and gul­lies are los­ing their frag­ile grass cover and slip­ping away, ex­pos­ing scars on the land­scape and spilling ex­posed soil into water­ways. A wor­ry­ing num­ber of hill farms have land like this: scruffy hills criss­crossed with an­i­mal tracks and slips, and gul­lies choked with bogs and weeds.

Smart farm­ers, though, are rein­tro­duc­ing that scruffy old scrub, and not only for the gold­mine that is the mānuka honey in­dus­try. A re­cent study, led by the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, found that mānuka and kānuka re­duce ni­trate leach­ing, as well as phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment run- off, which would oth­er­wise con­tam­i­nate water­ways.

Paen­garoa-based honey pro­ducer Comvita has gone a step fur­ther, grow­ing mānuka to heal the land, while turn­ing out a high- end prod­uct. Colin Baskin, Comvita’s chief sup­ply chain of­fi­cer, has been do­ing his home­work. The com­pany has iden­ti­fied ar­eas that show po­ten­tial for mānuka plan­ta­tion de­vel­op­ment and aims to have 20,000ha planted by 2022.

Pre­mium stock is vi­tal, and the com­pany is de­vel­op­ing cul­ti­vars that have good flow­er­ing po­ten­tial, a long flow­er­ing pe­riod and prefer­ably a lower, bushier pro­file. With the dis­cov­ery of myr­tle rust in New Zealand last year, har­di­ness and re­sis­tance to in­fec­tion are also be­ing fac­tored in. Cur­rently, more than a mil­lion seedlings are soak­ing up the Bay of Plenty sun­shine, with plans to have a to­tal of three mil­lion planted by the end of this year.

Baskin says Comvita is in­vest­ing now to catch mānuka honey’s growth wave: “Glob­ally, honey pro­duc­tion is di­min­ish­ing. This is largely due to weather events – floods, fires and heat ex­tremes – and de­for­esta­tion. Other coun­tries are rip­ping out the for­est bees rely on and re­plant­ing in bio­fuel stock.”

New Zealand pro­duced 19,885 tonnes of honey in the 2015/2016 sea­son. Weather-wise, it wasn’t a great year for bees. The hot, dry weather go­ing into the 2017/18 sea­son looked promis­ing, but a se­quence of weather events led to a patchy re­turn. Some ar­eas had good honey flow, oth­ers were hit hard by heavy rain.

A prof­itable ra­tio for honey pro­duc­tion is ap­prox­i­mately 1.5 hives per hectare, pro­duc­ing close to 50kg of honey in a good sea­son. Mānuka honey varies in price from $20$200 per kg, de­pend­ing on the level of an­tibac­te­rial ac­tiv­ity. Com­pare that to the price of com­mon pas­ture honey at around $10 per kg.

The trick to en­sur­ing a good pro­duc­tion flow is clear ac­cess to the hives for the bee­keep­ers, but also plac­ing the hives near where the bees will col­lect their nec­tar and pollen – and that’s where plan­ta­tion plant­ing comes in. An ideal sit­u­a­tion is to pro­vide ac­cess via well-formed tracks to flat ar­eas where the hives can eas­ily be worked, and then plant the sur­round­ing hill­sides and gul­lies within the bees’ flight range, which is around 5km in di­am­e­ter. Renowned for their in­ge­nu­ity and en­ergy-sav­ing tricks, bees like to fly ver­ti­cally up­hill empty and fly back down full.

Test sites are spring­ing up around the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay, and early re­sults are promis­ing. Comvita of­fers joint ven­tures with farm­ers who want to get in­volved, where the cost of ac­cess gen­er­a­tion is shared, the farmer pro­vides the land, and the com­pany pro­vides the plant stock and pro­duc­tion. Prof­its are split between the two par­ties.

John Burke used to work as a prod­uct man­ager for Comvita. Now, he’s in­volved in the im­prove­ment of two beef and sheep sta­tions on the hilly es­carp­ment over­look­ing the Tau­ranga Har­bour. His pride and joy is a graz­ing unit named Pukekauri, which has been in the fam­ily since the 1980s. As we drive over the farm, his plea­sure in what’s been achieved there bub­bles over.

“We re­tired that piece 10 years ago,” he says, point­ing to an area where the pre­vi­ous owner ran beef cat­tle. “Now look at it!” The patch of na­tive for­est rings with bird­song. Tūī flit around the edges, fight­ing over flax flow­ers. Ker­erū swoop and dip in pairs across the val­ley.

We drive across a low dam that

has a fenced- off wet­land up­stream. Wild­fowl burst into the air. A pūkeko charges down the track ahead of us. The wa­ter run­ning through the out­lets is clear and clean, with wa­ter­cress grow­ing at its fringes. “Look at the colour of the wa­ter. Three years ago, this was a use­less FRAP, and now…”

FRAPS, Burke ex­plains, are farm runoff ag­gre­ga­tion points – the boggy bits you find in gul­lies and flat ar­eas at the base of hills. They’re hotspots for wa­ter­way pol­lu­tion, pool­ing E.coli, phos­pho­rous and ni­trates. FRAPS can make up to 10% of a farm’s area and are un­likely to be mak­ing a pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the busi­ness.

“In my view, re­tir­ing them – re­leas­ing the ar­eas from pro­duc­tion and re­plant­ing – is more im­por­tant than ri­par­ian fenc­ing, in terms of re­duc­ing farm wa­ter pol­lu­tion; they should be deemed an en­vi­ron­men­tal pri­or­ity,” he says. “Pre­vent­ing con­tam­i­nated wa­ter en­ter­ing a wa­ter­way is the key. Once pol­luted wa­ter has en­tered a drain or stream, it’s too late. Plant­ing wet­lands – na­ture’s kid­neys – to slow and fil­ter the wa­ter is a great way to re­duce farm wa­ter pol­lu­tion and im­prove farm pro­duc­tion.”

Not only does Pukekauri look lovely, the bal­ance sheet is also show­ing re­sults: the farm is in the top 20% of prof­itable units in the area.

John’s son, James, is work­ing a leased graz­ing unit close by. He and the farm’s own­ers, the Hick­sons, are work­ing with Comvita to de­velop trial plots of mānuka in non­pro­duc­tive ar­eas of the farm. Tracks have been carved into the land­scape to al­low easy ac­cess to the hives.

Stand­ing on a plateau over­look­ing the farm, you can see how it will all work. First, plant­ing non-prof­itable ar­eas of suit­able farms in mānuka, then in­tro­duc­ing bee­hives to in­crease prof­itabil­ity and soil health; tak­ing care of ex­ist­ing na­tive for­est blocks; fenc­ing off frag­ile ar­eas to al­low re­gen­er­a­tion; cre­at­ing wet­lands as sumps that clean and fil­ter wa­ter and runoff; choos­ing stock breeds that have a re­duced im­pact on the land and man­ag­ing them to op­ti­mal growth and po­ten­tial be­fore they start mak­ing a dam­ag­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact from their size and ex­cre­tions.

All of this can have a down­stream ef­fect on our water­ways and wa­ter re­serves – and sub­se­quently the health of the seas sur­round­ing us. Fish stocks will im­prove, and the crew of the Coastal Rover will keep sup­ply­ing a good sus­tain­able catch. The bees will be happy. It’s all good Kiwi com­mon sense, some­thing we’re good at. It’s just high time we did more.

John Burke be­lieves re­tir­ing some farm­land from pro­duc­tion should be an en­vi­ron­men­tal pri­or­ity.

James Burke, with a trial plot of manuka be­hind him on a non-pro­duc­tive area of the farm where bee­hives will be in­tro­duced to in­crease prof­itabil­ity and soil health.

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