Peanut Trials

May 2021

Peanut trials in Kaipara run by Plant and Food Research and Picot Productions.

Kaipara’s economy is based on its primary industries, particularly dairy, forestry and horticulture and it is widely acknowledged the region is capable of producing more for the benefit of this part of the country. Plant and Food Research has a scoping project underway in the region to determine the feasibility of growing peanuts commercially. New Zealand imported $58 million worth of nuts in 2019, a large proportion of that being peanuts. Researchers believe that, in time, most of the domestic demand for peanuts can be met with locally grown product.


What started as a chance conversation between two old mates who had studied together at Lincoln University has morphed into a scoping project now underway in Northland to determine the feasibility of growing peanuts commercially. The university friends are today Plant and Food Research’s science business manager, Declan Graham, and the General Manager of Pic’s Peanut Butter, Stuart MacIntosh. They are keen for a win-win that they might well celebrate with a peanut butter sandwich.


For the New Zealand Crown Research Institute Plant and Food Research (PFR), the win is about bringing knowledge from other peanut growing countries and applying it to Northland to show where peanuts will grow the best and which are the best, most viable cultivars. 


For Pic’s, as a born and bred New Zealand brand, being able to source Kiwi grown and harvested peanuts for the production of its hallmark peanut butters would further strengthen the company’s provenance story. The $91,320 project is led by Picot Productions, with MPI contributing more than $59,000 through its Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund. Research expertise is being provided by Plant & Food Research.


Both Pic’s and PFR are also inspired by the opportunity to help bring about a win for Northland through the growing and production of a new food crop, and thereby the creation of new jobs for the region’s people and increased income for the owners of under-utilised land. “Local production of peanuts also provides the opportunity for new locally produced processed foods,” says Declan. “The cultivars we have selected are Spanish peanuts, the type most widely used in confectionary, snacks, and peanut butter. Spanish peanuts have smaller kernels with reddish-brown skins, and high oil content, which makes them ideal for the crushing market.”


A further plus is that peanuts, as part of a crop/pasture renewal rotation, provide environmental benefits as a restorative break crop. “Peanuts can break pest and disease cycles and deliver yield increases for follow-on crops in the rotation,” he says. “Like most other legumes, peanuts harbour symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. This capacity to fix nitrogen means peanuts require less nitrogen-containing fertiliser while also improving soil fertility.” Declan adds that in South Africa peanuts have been shown to improve the yield of follow-on maize and other grain crops by up to 20 percent. 


Peanut roots (like all legume roots) are infected by soil organisms called rhizobia which form nodules that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and enhance the growth of the plant. As part of understanding the agronomic requirements of peanut growing more fully, PFR is working with Landcare scientists to identify appropriate rhizobia to inoculate the peanuts before planting. “We have sequenced the most likely candidates in Landcare’s collection of rhizobia but unfortunately they didn’t find anything that matches the known strains most commonly used on peanuts globally,” says Declan. “We are interested to see if any nodules develop naturally on plants in the trial sites so that for future assessments we can culture this strain to inoculate seeds.  If we cannot identify a local rhizobia we can work with EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) to bring the right strains in from overseas.” 


An analysis PFR undertook for the Kaipara Kai Hub (a Provincial Growth Fund programme working with existing and new food producers in the district) revealed the region offered a number of areas suitable for growing peanuts, in particular the Pouto Peninsula that forms the northern arm of Kaipara Harbour. Working with the chair of Vegetable NZ, Andre de Bruin, PFR identified three locations with differing soil types, but similar climatic conditions, to host the scoping project’s growing trials. One is a dairy farm owned by Allister and Maree McCahon south of Te Kopuru on Poutu Peninsula. Another is on land owned by Te Roroa Trust about 45 minutes north in the Omamari district. The third is heavier land at Ruawai belonging to kumara grower Warwick Simpson. Four Spanish cultivars were planted at each site and are now being evaluated to determine which is best suited for each location. 


PFR’s cropping systems and environment technician, Josh van der Weyden, is hands-on at both sites and says the viability evaluation measures production of each cultivar, pest and disease issues – including the ubiquitous weeds that any grower must deal to – and whether there are fertiliser requirements. “Almost all of the kumara we buy in New Zealand is grown in the Kaipara district, and a new leguminous cash crop like peanuts – which has soil restorative characteristics – would be highly complementary,” he says.


Based on initial assessments, which are now being finalised following harvest, PFR anticipates undertaking a larger scaled-up project where selected cultivars will be assessed by additional growers as part of their crop rotations. This project would link closely with local iwi to build Maori landowner engagement and support, and, pending approvals, is currently scheduled to start in December 2021 and run through to April 2022.


Declan says in this second project PFR would aim to provide high quality data on costs and returns associated with peanut cultivation. “We would also ascertain employment opportunities and returns associated with large scale production (500-1000ha) in the Northland region.” He says peanut production in New Zealand is ‘beyond business as usual’ as there is currently no commercial cultivation of the crop with the result that all peanuts are imported – around $58 million worth of nuts were imported in 2019, a large proportion being peanuts. “We strongly believe that in time, with the right cultivars grown in all the right places, plus the use of precision planting and harvesting machinery, most of the domestic demand for peanuts can be met with locally grown product.”


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021