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Rights: The Royal Society, TVNZ 7 in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation  
Published 9 January 2012 Referencing Hub media
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Pine plantations in the King Country are proving to be a perfect growing environment for the highly prized medicinal herb ginseng. Taumarunui Māori trust Maraeroa C is growing ginseng in its commercial pine forests.

Forest-grown ginseng fetches higher prices than the more intensive higher-density field-grown ginseng common in North America, Korea and China. It also has a longer growing time of 8–10 years that makes the canopy of a maturing pine forest an ideal shade structure. And the feedback for Maraeroa C ginseng from distributors in China – the world’s biggest market for ginseng – is positive.

Maraeroa C Chief Executive Glen Katu believes the herb could be New Zealand’s next big export crop. Ginseng grown here is of high quality, with pharmaceutical-grade levels of the active ingredient, ginsengoside. Ginsengoside is thought to be an immune system booster. Researchers at Waikato University have also found that, because UV light levels are high in New Zealand, plants, including ginseng, tend to produce unusually high levels of defensive antioxidants. These antioxidants may help combat degenerative illnesses in people. These two features provide Maraeroa C ginseng with competitive advantages in the export market.

With support from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, Maraeroa C is having light transmittance and soil testing done to determine the best planting sites. Their plan is to plant 500 hectares of ginseng within the next 5 years. It looks like the herb, previously known as an exclusively northern hemisphere plant, could have a serious new rival in this King Country crop.

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Transcript

VOICEOVER:
One’s from California and is infamous for killing off its neighbours… the other’s from Korea and has a 3000-year-old reputation in healthcare.

Now they’re getting together in the King Country.

VOICEOVER:
Glen Katu has something he wants to share. Ginseng grown in his Iwi owned land could be New Zealand’s next big export crop. Maraeroa C has invited members of other Iwi trusts and corporations to check out the prospect for themselves.

GLEN KATU:
The more that were revealed you could see that they were, their interest level went up.

VOICEOVER:
Until now Maraeroa C have made their money from pine trees, but with harvest up to 30 years apart, planting a new crop half way the pine’s growth cycle could be a good earner.

GLEN KATU:
To grow one kilo of wild Ginseng in our forest we would utilize between 8 and 9 square meters. That would return us between $1-4000 NZ a kilo.

DANIEL BENEFIELD:
So the trees can be between 12 and 15 years ideally. The trees will be at the right age to provide the right amount of shade for the plants, and it also allows you to get a crop of Ginseng before you actually have to harvest the trees. So your 1st harvest of Ginseng would be after about 6 years.

GLEN TALKING IN THE FOREST:
It’s good enough to take a crop to market.

VOICEOVER:
Ginseng is valued in the quality of its active ingredients, ginsenocide, believed to be an immune system booster. Levels of ginsenocide vary hugely depending on species, location and growing time before harvest. So far results for Maraeroa C have been encouraging.

GLEN KATU:
So they test in China for our Ginseng, we’re very excited about because it did show the level of ginsengocide or active ingredient in our Ginseng was of pharmaceutical grade which is what the market that we’re aiming at.

VOICEOVER:
Now research underway at Waikato University is indicating another plus for kiwi Ginseng. Because of our relatively clean air, ultra violet or UV light levels are high in New Zealand. To protect themselves from burning, plants including Ginseng may produce unusually high levels of defensive anti oxidants. Anti oxidants that may help combat degenerative diseases in people.

GLEN KATU:
It provided us with the point of difference that we’ve been searching for for our Ginseng. To give us some benefit over and above Ginseng grown in other countries, so we’re quite excited about that.

DANIEL BENEFIELD:
Not much action above ground this time of year, we should be able to find something here.

GLEN KATU:
I think you’re the mad scientist here. (Laughter)

VOICEOVER:
With support from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, Maraeroa C will have light transmittance and soil tests done to determine the best conditions to plant in.

Already they’re planning to turn production up a gear.

DANIEL BENEFIELD:
It took us about 2 weeks to plant 2 hectares by hand, and about 2 days with a seed drill.

VOICEOVER:
Maraeroa C hope to plant up to 500 hectares of Ginseng under pine over the next 5 years…with some help.

GLEN KATU:
We shared the idea of a cooperative for Gineseng growers, they were very receptive to it because they could see the benefits in marketing product together and learning how to grow it as a collective. Sharing information and generally it was widely accepted that it was a good idea.

We believe that Ginseng could be a new export crop that could benefit all New Zealanders. (Laughter)

Acknowledgements:
This is part of the Innovation Stories series produced in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation, it featured on TVNZ 7 during the Spotlight on Science + Innovation month in August 2011.