Monday, February 26, 2024

Mānuka boom and bust stings beekeepers

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At the top end it can fetch $3700 a jar, but ‘gold rush’ has also led to oversupply.
There is an oversupply of mānuka honey and beekeepers are struggling to cover soaring production costs.
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It can sell for more than $3700 a jar at Harrods in London, with the price pushed higher by the kind of superfood branding and celebrity endorsements that turn a simple kitchen staple into a luxury product. 

But in a classic boom and bust tale, there’s also an oversupply of the once-rare mānuka honey, and beekeepers are struggling to cover soaring production costs as exports soften and prices plunge for all but the very best product.

“The beekeepers are hurting a lot,” said Patrick Dawkins, who keeps bees in Marlborough and edits the trade journal Apiarist’s Advocate. “The guys that have been willing to stick it out are really struggling to make it economic and a lot are going out of business.”

It’s a far cry from the boom years, which transformed the humble craft of beekeeping into a brutally competitive industry featuring organised crime syndicates stealing hives and fraudsters selling counterfeit products. 

Demand for mānuka honey, produced only by bees that pollinate mānuka bushes, surged during the pandemic as buyers around the world searched for elixirs to keep them healthy. The high prices it commanded pushed many to try their hand at beekeeping as a side hustle. 

“Every single little plot of land around here had hives on it,” said Maru Hoani, a beekeeper from Hokianga. “A lot of the people weren’t really in it for the love of it, they were just doing it to make quick money.”

The 32-year-old has been involved in apiculture since he was 17, working for a commercial beekeeper before starting his own business. For years, he watched prices for mānuka honey go up and up.

But, after peaking at around $64 a kilogram, prices tumbled to about $13 this season. The income isn’t enough to cover his costs, which include tests to grade the honey, disease control and fees to landowners. Now, Hoani said, he’s on the verge of exiting the industry.

Dark and strong-flavoured, mānuka honey hit the world market in the 1990s. It spread in popularity thanks to celebrity endorsers and its antibacterial properties. Times were so good that in 2015, Brett Hewlett, then chief executive officer of New Zealand stock exchange-listed honey maker Comvita, told Bloomberg News the product was “quite literally liquid gold”.

Then came 2020. The first year of the pandemic saw a huge honey harvest of 27,000 metric tons, 42% above average, as good growing conditions coincided with a peak in the number of beehives. 

Export revenue hit a record for NZ honey products in 2021 at $482 million. But honey’s long shelf life proved to be a weakness, as buyers rarely had to replenish their reserves.

NZ export revenue from honey fell 6% to $295m in the year ended June 30, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

“We’ve had a correction and it has been painful, there is no doubt about that,” said Karin Kos, chief executive of Apiculture NZ. “We’ve obviously got an oversupply of honey around the country. It’s not going to turn around immediately.”

Kos is nonetheless optimistic about the industry’s future. She said NZ’s recently signed fair trade agreement with the UK should boost exports, while a deal with the European Union could help too.

So far, the value of top-quality mānuka honey appears to be holding up even as prices fall at the middle and lower end. The best product was fetching $104 per kilogram in the year to June, up from $78 a year earlier, according to data from the MPI. 

But those numbers can be misleading, Dawkins said. The industry is opaque, with sales happening on a contract-by-contract basis, so it’s tough to know how many producers are getting top dollar for luxury-grade honey.

“There might be only a couple of tons of that in all of New Zealand,” he said. “The real story is about the hundreds of tons of almost-as-good stuff. Those guys aren’t getting anything like those numbers.” 

As a result of the downturn, beekeepers are leaving the industry, with the number of hives now down 20% from the 2019 peak to 730,000. Many of those giving up are newcomers who jumped in when the prices were high.

“They perhaps didn’t have a beekeeping background,” Kos said. “I think there’s a realisation that actually it requires a lot more expertise and knowledge than they have.”

Domestically, the post-covid return of tourists to NZ should help demand, Kos said.

The 230g jars of “rare harvest” honey that sell for $3,755 in London are made by Jim McMillan, founder of the True Honey Co, which specialises in the production of high-grade honey.

McMillan helicopters beehives into remote bushland that is inaccessible by motor vehicles and largely pollution-free. He said demand for his product is holding up. 

“It’s certainly not a cheap exercise or a simple exercise,” McMillan said.

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