Can New Zealand grow peanuts suitable for peanut butter?
To find out, eight peanut varieties are currently being trialled in Northland and one looks particularly promising...
A text of GPS coordinates leads Country Life to a paddock of peanuts in the Far North. It can't be spotted from the road.
"It's by design," laughs Greg Hall from Northland’s economic development agency Northland Inc. "It stops people ripping off our peanuts."
This half-hectare block is one of five planted in Northland to see if there's potential for peanuts to be grown commercially in the region.
Two of the planting sites are near Awanui and three are in Kaipara.
The trial comes on the back of a project two years ago in which Nelson-based peanut butter manufacturer Pic's wanted to know whether it would be feasible to make peanut butter from home-grown peanuts.
Currently Pic's imports peanuts from Australia and Brazil.
So far, the trial - which is funded by MPI, Pics and Northland Inc - is looking good, Greg says.
Peanuts seem to love the free-draining, sandy, loamy soils and warm temperatures of the North Island's west coast.
They need about 600 millimetres of rain in their 110-day growing season, he says.
"Based on what we are doing here, there's definitely an industry here. We import well over 20,000 tonnes of peanuts so for Pic's alone that equates to about 430 hectares of peanuts."
Eight cultivars, selected for their high oil content, are being grown with technical advice from Plant and Food Research.
"We were quite lucky for this year we got eight advanced breeding lines out of India that hadn't been released publically so that's a real coup for New Zealand."
Some varieties produce hundreds of tiny peanuts in short, stubby shells. Others are less prolific but produce larger peanuts that are two per shell.
One peanut cultivar is growing particularly well across all five sites, Greg says.
"People think they grow on trees. They are a legume so they grow under the ground and are good nitrogen fixers as well so they put nitrogen back into the soil."
He says that could make planting a hectare of peanuts a good option for farmers and should mean they will need to apply less fertiliser on that piece of land.
A scratch test of the peanuts shows they're not quite ready for harvest.
Greg says it's looking like they will be ready to be dug up and inverted in mid-April.
"Then they will dry in the sun or wind for three to seven days, then there's a thresher that comes and shakes the peanuts off and we bin them and take them to a drier to dry down to 10 percent moisture."
Pic's will then make trial batches of peanut butter from the NZ-grown peanuts to see which varieties fare best.
It'd be great if peanut farming could become a thriving export industry for Northland, Greg says.
The two-year trial, which is costing almost $1 million, continues next year.