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Co-op move for non-manuka honey

Changes to how manuka honey is defined threaten to drive some East Coast beekeepers out of business. Andrew Ashton learns how getting organised and working together — just like bees — could create new markets and ensure the long-term survival of these beekeepers.

Faced with plummeting prices for non-manuka honey, a dozen Gisborne beekeepers have joined a national effort to establish a New Zealand honey co-operative.

Organiser Bruce Clow, of Auckland, said 12 beekeeping enterprises in Gisborne and the East Cape, some of which were close to going out of business, had joined the effort to establish a new honey producers co-operative which aimed to ensure better prices for non-manuka honey producers.

“Gisborne is a good centre for us. Altogether we have about 280 bee-keeping enterprises nationwide.

“This particular group is small to medium enterprises (that are) not big enough to be able to spend the money necessary to develop their own export brands and export it effectively.”

Mr Clow said the idea of creating a co-operative was intended to address a fundamental problem in the industry that had been hidden when overall honey prices were rising, dragged up by the super profits that were being made in manuka honey.

“Ordinary honey prices went up in tandem but non-manuka honey as a brand was pretty much ignored. Now, with the manuka definitions MPI have placed on manuka honey, blending of manuka honey has stopped.

“So, suddenly there is this huge volume of non-manuka honey that doesn’t have a home — it hasn’t been marketed overseas. So, basically, we have beekeepers who haven’t been able to sell their honey last year and haven’t been able to sell it this year, and are in serious danger of just going out of business.”

Acting together in a co-operative meant members would know the price their honey would sell for.

“At the moment, they have no idea what the price will be at the end of the season or whether they can even sell their honey, because they are totally at the whim of private honey buyers.”

By coming together and combining production capacity, members would be able to use a central organisation to brand their product and export it.

“So, they can do what they do best, which is look after their bees and collect honey, and let the co-op hire professionals and make use of government services like NZ Trade and Enterprise to brand and export their honey — and add value to it in the process.”

Mr Clow said the project was still in a research phase, which involved building an umbrella brand along with regional brands.

“Each of those regional brands will have a story. There are some fantastic and unique honey varieties in New Zealand that have a great story to tell overseas.

“New Zealand is fantastically placed to provide that very high-value niche product — Zespri does it, the wine industry does it and in the honey business, New Zealand is the only country in the world where we do not allow honey imports.”

That meant there was no possibility that New Zealand honey could be adulterated or crossed with other honey.

The use of antibiotics in hives to treat for the American Foul Brood disease was also not permitted in New Zealand.

MPI regulations that required individual resource management plans also meant it was clear to see where honey was made.

“So, we are uniquely placed to send this product overseas and people will know it is genuine, 100 percent bee-made honey, in a world market that is awash with adulterated and counterfeit products, mainly emanating from China.”

Mr Clow said at the moment the co-operative had the productive capacity of over 110,000 hives.

“That’s almost four times the productive capacity of Comvita . . . obviously there will be a honey value difference (compared with Comvita), but I’m estimating with that number of hives we would have a seasonal productive capacity of about 2000 to 3000 tonnes or more.”

At $10 a kilogram, that could give the co-operative a potential export revenue of between $20m to $30m a year.

Mr Clow said it was hoped the co-operative could be up and running officially within six to 12 months, and the fact beekeepers had taken part in these meetings meant some members were already seeing better prices.

“Just the fact that we are going through this exercise has been positive for most of these beekeeping businesses. We hope positive results will continue and people will see the long-term need and benefits of a co-op. People realise there is a need for smaller beekeepers to be organised and working together.”

NEW BUZZ: Bruce Clow is trying to start a national co-operative for non-manuka honey producers. Picture supplied