Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Gin could be tonic for Taranaki

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Not usually recognised as a diversified food basket, Taranaki’s ability to produce more than high-quality milk and meat is likely to soon take a step up thanks in part to funding from the Provincial Growth Fund.
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The region’s economic development strategy has identified the benign climate, reliable rainfall and rich volcanic soils as playing a key part in helping it diversify its food and crop offerings. The fund has endowed it with $175,000 to identify and prioritise major food-related opportunities.

The funding has been welcomed by Massey University business development manager (Taranaki) Eve Kawana-Brown who has been working for several years with growers and processors in the region to help them identify opportunities and build the critical mass to commercialise them.

“It’s been a pleasure to be working here, based in New Plymouth, and the energy to build food businesses is fizzing but we are still probably behind most other regions.

“We do not have anywhere near as much as you might find in other parts of the country,” she said.

Kawana-Brown attributes that largely to the success Taranaki has enjoyed in the status quo industries of oil, gas and dairying with that success dampening the need to seek alternative income sources.

But the Government’s recent announcement about its somewhat sketchy commitment to continuing fossil fuel extraction has given the province cause to ponder what alternatives are worth exploring.

“At the moment we certainly have manuka honey as the most obvious product to be revealing itself.”

Land agents in the region have reported blocks of land in north Taranaki once regarded as almost waste land being at premium values. Once worth about $1500 a hectare their value now exceeds $4000 a hectare.

Owning land in Taranaki for hive placement can mean honey producers get two shots at summer production, harvesting honey with hives up north before moving them south to Taranaki for the later flowering season.

Botanicals, the herbs, roots, flowers leaves or seeds added to food, drink and cosmetic products are also an emerging area Kawana-Brown believes has considerable potential.

The same climate that made the region famous for its rhododendrons also makes it highly suited to growing botanicals.

“One area showing a lot of promise is juniper berries that are added to gin.

“We have a number of gin manufacturers in New Zealand who want to make theirs a 100% NZ story but who have to import their botanicals, including juniper and traditionally liquorice root and angelica.”

Indications are junipers sourced from central Europe and Scandinavia can grow in Taranaki as a crop. Typically they are harvested in the wild.

Kawana-Brown is working with some gin makers to get the necessary science completed that could pave the way for a future juniper industry. The array of other botanicals used in gin including liquorice, angelica and coriander seeds could all have a place in Taranaki too, with some already being grown in the region.

“For gin makers some of these botanicals are quite expensive and some have to be imported.”

Horticulture NZ data has the Taranaki region bereft of vegetable and fruit crops, classifying a mere 102ha as horticultural activity.

This puts it second to last for horticultural land area, ahead of the West Coast’s paltry 11ha and well behind regions like Hawke’s Bay with 20,000ha and even Waikato with 6600ha.

But Kawana-Brown said it is the lack of critical mass and absence of a crop-growing culture that stymies the region’s potential, rather than any climatic failure.

She believes greater pressure on land in other areas might be the driver for growers to consider Taranaki for expansion.

“Asparagus is one crop we used to grow more of here but which fell away some years ago.

“However, since then global demand has risen and given how expensive land can be it would be good to see some being used for other crops that could sit alongside the grass we grow here.”

At present Taranaki’s economy generates $340 million from food production with 4300 people employed in the sector. 

Accounting for 10% of the national dairy herd, dairying is by far the giant within that production and explains why the region ranks second nationally in GDP per capita in food production, despite the lack of sector variety. 

“But the irony is we don’t have an artisan cheese visitor experience in Taranaki equivalent to many other regions that are less well known for their dairying.”

Kawana-Brown maintains the future strength might come from these diverse, niche botanicals and that could also include tea production, something a colleague of hers is convinced Taranaki could do well.

Work with a Maori organisation is helping to build a catalogue of NZ science relating to native botanicals with potential uses in locally produced foods, with herbs like horopito and kawakawa often popular additives. It is due for release in later this month.

“The fact the region is only a few hours up the road from Massey University’s food production unit is a big advantage for anyone wanting to explore processing options,” Kawana-Brown said.

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