Project Manuka to create a new future for men

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AND OVER THERE...: The first planting of manuka got under way outside Kaikohe last week, possibly with much more to come. PICTURE/DEBBIE BEADLE
AND OVER THERE...: The first planting of manuka got under way outside Kaikohe last week, possibly with much more to come. PICTURE/DEBBIE BEADLE

Generations of Far North farmers have seen manuka as little more than a weed, albeit one that has some uses, not least as firewood.

But all that might be about to change.

The 30ha of trees that will be planted outside Kaikohe over the next 16 weeks are unlikely to fall victim to an axe. They will produce but the benefits have already begun to accrue.

Eleven local men who have never held a full-time job before began planting the manuka on Tuesday last week as part of a pilot project aimed at improving their futures and the future of the Mid North by rebooting the local economy.

Project Manuka is a joint venture between the government and Northland College, which owns around 450ha of land, gifted many years ago for educational use. The college runs a dairy farm and a small forestry block, and is now nurturing manuka.

The planters, all long-term WINZ clients, had already completed an eight-week forestry skills course under tutor Jack Johnson, who had them in the classroom, in the gym and up on the hills of the college farm, all 11 passing their Level 2 NCEA Certificate in Forestry.

Passing drug tests and learning punctuality were also important.i

Mr Johnson said their opportunity would be a life-changing one, for them and their families. They all seemed happy and had formed a strong bond with one another and their tutor. One of the 11 even left south Auckland to be part of the project, saying he wanted to do something legitimate, something to be proud of.

Project Manuka is led by Ben Dalton, from the Ministry for Primary Industries, who is expecting the scheme to lead to much bigger things.

"There is 86,000ha of undeveloped Maori land in Northland, and 82 per cent of it is fertile, usable land," he said.

"We have a huge resource of unemployed people who would relish the chance to escape poverty and improve their families' lives, given the proper training and incentives. They are good people, most of whom just haven't been given the chance.

"Training them will save the taxpayer in the long run. I see a bright future. I believe it is a worthwhile investment."

Proceeds from the manuka plantation will go to the college.

The project was part of the government's Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan released earlier this year, which identified 58 actions for stimulating Northland's economy.

"Mnuka honey production has been identified as a growing industry in Northland. That means there will be more jobs available, and skilled workers will be in demand," Mr Dalton said.

"Solid training, combined with solid experience on the job, means these workers will be ready when new jobs open up.

"We want local primary industries to be able to employ skilled locals."

The project not only provided immediate work opportunities, but would also give Northland College students the chance to study apiculture through Lincoln University, and gain practical experience on-site, giving them an upper hand for future employment, he said.

- Northland Age

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