26 Jan 2021

Could peanuts be Northland's next big crop?

From Checkpoint, 5:41 pm on 26 January 2021

It might be peanuts for now, but coffee, pineapples and tropical jackfruit could all be part of Northland's future food basket.  

The Ministry of Primary Industries has teamed up with the makers of Pic's Peanut Butter to trial growing peanuts in three spots near Ruawai, Dargaville and the Kai Iwi Lakes district, with MPI investing almost $60,000 in the project.  

Pic's imports its nuts, but that could change if the feasibility study shows commercial peanut crops are viable up North. The test crops went into the ground in October.  

Declan Graham from Plant and Food Research is managing the trial. He told Checkpoint why Northland could be peanut paradise. 

"They've got to have around 18C to germinate - soil temperature - and that's quite high for New Zealand. So we've identified that the Pohue area around Kaipara, and there'll be parts further north that would have an 18C soil temperature in about October, November. 

"It's a 20-week crop, you've got to get them out of the ground by March or April. So we want to maintain that right the way through. And there wouldn't be many places in the country that would be able to produce temperatures like that for the soil." 

Sunny areas like Gisborne or Nelson are a possibility, he said, but the early season soil temperatures are not high enough.  

The test crops in Northland are off to a good start, Graham said.  

"I was up there last week and the peanuts have flowered, and when they flower they throw a little peg down onto the ground, and the peanuts forms on the bottom of it.  

"It's quite interesting because a lot of people think that peanuts might come from trees or bushes or whatever but to see them growing under the ground, it's quite something. It's the first time I saw it so I was quite pleased." 

He said while it is kumara country, peanuts could be a benefit to the soil in the area.  

"Kumara do tend to grow on slightly heavier land. We are looking at lighter land like sand country, but there are kumara grown on sand country. The great thing about peanuts is that they're a restorative crop, so they put nitrogen back into the soil.  

"Internationally they are very often used as part of a rotation in between crops that are quite hungry. So I would say kumara growers would probably see it as a benefit."  

New Zealanders generally love peanut butter, and with several peanut butter makers operating locally there should be plenty of demand, Graham said.  

"We're working closely with Pic, they see this as quite a good opportunity. As far as labour goes I would say it's probably like any of these arable crops - wheat, barley, peas.  

"It's a large scale crop that would require infrastructure to manage. It requires contractors, it needs farmers.  

"For a lot of people it could even be instead of pasture. So rather than just going from one crop to another it could actually be about pastoral farmers going into peanuts as well." 

There are possibilities for other crops in the warmer north too, he said.  

"I know that there are pineapples grown around Whangarei Heads. I haven't been there but I've been told they're doing pretty well.  

"There are folk who are growing coffee, and I've heard there are people talking maybe up to 100ha of coffee in the North.  

"At Plant and Food Research we've got dragon fruit growing at our Kerikeri site. We've been involved in breeding dragon fruit and Vietnam so it's really good to be able to bring dragon fruit-growing expertise back to New Zealand.  

"We import a lot of table grapes, and there's a market opportunity. Table grows are grown in the north already." 

As the climate changes it's an opportunity to understand what new crops might be favoured in warmer conditions, which could not easily be grown in New Zealand before, Graham said.  

"Of course that always comes with other issues like rainfall events. So it's all a bit of a look and see at the moment, but the way we've approached it at Plant and Food is we've undertaken some projects to look at what the opportunities are around the topographical, geographical, soils, whether or not a plant is actually suited.  

"We've identified a number of crops in a few locations in particular but we're obviously doing more work. We've done Taranaki recently, we've done the Kaipara district, we're talking about doing areas further north. It's of interest to district councils to understand what else might grow in their areas. 

"I think the untapped market in the first instance is homegrown product… It could be some time to get an export industry established. When you look at the avocado industry initially it was just a local market and now of course it's a big industry.  

"I think it's probably initially a bit boutique. And it's probably a bit of pride to think that you're eating or drinking something that's been locally grown. Most people feel a bit better about eating local and supporting their local farmers."