Words by Richard Rennie
Once seen as the “protein farm” for the United Kingdom with an ample supply of butter, cheese and red meat for the old country, two generations of farmers later, New Zealand is offering a rapidly expanding variety of niche crops and food farming forefathers would not have dreamt of.
Changing consumer tastes, an innovative generation of farmers and shifts in climate all mean several exciting crop and food options are opening up, boosting earnings off quality land from Northland to Bluff.
In Northland, avocados are offering the promise of new job opportunities and higher value land uses as the region experiences significant investment from both corporate and iwi interests into the versatile and popular fruit. With some new plantations as large as 200ha, it is likely Northland will assume most of the crop area from Bay of Plenty by the end of the decade.
A focused effort by the industry to develop beyond the traditional Australian market has been buoyed by the recent entry to China. New Zealand avocados’ bigger size, high quality, health claims and traceability have all helped establish the fruit in non-traditional Asian markets, including Thailand.
Usually considered a fruit found along the equatorial zones, bananas are now also appearing as a crop that can combine well alongside traditional land uses like dairying in Northland.
New Zealand has one of the highest consumption figures per capita of any country in the world, but limited largely to one commercially grown banana variety, the Cavendish.
But a strain of tropical disease threatens this variety’s continuing success, and has turned attention to some less known but hardy varieties capable of growing in Northland’s sub-tropical environment.
Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand chairman Hugh Rose has been a strong advocate for planting more bananas, and the formation of Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand by him in 2017 has grown the profile of the fruit’s potential. He points to the economics of the crop starting to stack up, as Northland rapidly approaches self-sufficiency in the popular fruit.
He says when dairy effluent is used for watering bananas, their ability to capture nitrogen and phosphorus is invaluable, along with providing a supplementary feed option for cattle.
He has built a successful business selling banana stems and Northland now has a thriving farmers market section based on locally grown bananas, retailing for $7 to $8 a kilogram.
Hugh calculates that with 1500 plants a hectare, a good plantation should result in 15 tonne of fruit a year. At $7 a kg retail, the gross returns per hectare approach green kiwifruit.
The success of Gold kiwifruit is now well known after the sector was devastated by the Psa outbreak in 2010, resulting in the replacement of the vulnerable Hort16a variety with the more Psa tolerant Gold3 variety.
However, another upside of the SunGold “goldrush” has been the crop’s ability to grow beyond the traditional kiwifruit growing region of Western Bay of Plenty.
Michael Fox, Zespri’s head of communications said the marketer was encouraged to see significant growth in regions including Northland, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.
“This means not only are we expanding to meet growing consumer demand, but we’re also providing more jobs and opportunities and underpinning investment in those communities.”
While the likes of avocados and kiwifruit have immediate consumer recognition, New Zealand is also developing some niche crops that play a role as ingredients in other food and beverage products.
In Taranaki the climate and soils that have made it so good for growing grass means the region is also proving its potential for growing botanicals, the herbs, roots, flowers and leaves added to drinks, food and cosmetics for scent or flavour.
Anyone who enjoys a good gin will appreciate the distinctive scent of juniper berries, often accompanied by liquorice root and the herb angelica. Gin is legally required to have at least 50% juniper as its main botanical flavouring.
Yet as New Zealand develops a vibrant gin distilling industry, the irony has been the critical botanicals used in them have to be sourced from overseas.
But Massey University researchers are working to identify the genetics of juniper samples submitted from around New Zealand, aiming to identify what it is that may make New Zealand juniper unique.
Taranaki gin company BeGin Distilling who make Juno Gin have been leaders in identifying and using locally grown aromatics, with support from AGMARDT and Massey University and through Venture Taranaki’s Tapuae Roa project.
Distillers are also working on sourcing other botanicals locally, including orris root from Hawke’s Bay and coriander from Wairarapa. Angelica is also well suited to growing in Taranaki’s climate.
So far there has been interest from local Taranaki farmers about the potential of growing juniper, both as a crop and to use as a shelter belt.
The popularity of “ancient grains” like spelt, rye and quinoa has increased in recent years as people seek out wheat alternatives for baking and cooking.
Methven cropping farmers’ Andrew Currie and Gaewynne Hood have cut a path from farm to market with their Canterbury Quinoa brand, commercially producing the Andean superfood.
Once mainly popular with the whole food health market, today the grain is recognised for its high-quality nutritional profile and wide application across numerous dishes, offering a good protein alternative to traditional meat sources.
The ability of the crop to be grown without pesticides or fungicides, and its suitability to higher, drier climates mean it offers another option for arable farmers in suitable areas that they may not have considered before.
Another crop that is offering new options for farmers is hemp, grown both for its fibre and its seed. Changes in the trans-Tasman food standards in 2018 to allow hemp seed products to be legally sold for human consumption heralded this new opportunity.
They meant that in addition to hemp seed oil which has been legal since 2003, solid hemp seed products could also be sold in New Zealand.
Ashburton based Midlands has been growing hemp since the first licences were issued back in 2001, with the Canterbury Plains proving ideal for temperature, climate and soils.
The crop received a higher profile after Fonterra planted a 10ha crop at its Darfield farm, integrating the planting with wastewater irrigation from the company’s nearby factory.
Minimal fertiliser and no need for a post emergent spray resulted in a prolific crop with the grain used in food products including flour and oil.
New Zealand’s food and beverage sector has recently launched “Made with Care”, a campaign to boost NZ’s profile, linking the environment, the people and the produce with key markets.
NZ Trade and Enterprise CEO Peter Chrisp says this country’s food and beverage sector is increasingly being noticed for its cutting-edge innovation.
“There has never been a better time to leverage the positive global sentiment being felt towards New Zealand and to raise the international profile of the New Zealand brand in key markets,” he says.