Marginal Land Made Good
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.