The Deep South Challenge awards funding to investigate climate-resilient, high-value crops for the whānau of Omaio


The whānau of Omaio in the Bay of Plenty have joined forces with NIWA researchers to explore the viability of climate-resilient, high-value crops for the rohe.

The group has won a $250,000 research grant under the Vision Mātauranga programme of the Deep South National Science Challenge to better understand Omaio’s changing climate and how it might support the community to create a local economy based around a high-value product like kiwi fruit.

Omaio whānau have for many generations been sustained by ancestral lands, forests, rivers and the moana, all of which bear ancestral names. But climate change is already impacting the community, with more frequent storms resulting in increased river and sea bed sedimentation as well as damage to roading and other infrastructure.

A range of future climate change impacts may also affect growing conditions, including increasing temperatures, less rainfall, sea-level rise resulting in salt-water intrusion, and the likelihood of insufficient winter chilling. The availability of water to support crop irrigation will affect the viability of particular crops as well.

Nevertheless, Omaio’s coastal lands of hold some of the most productive soils – the deep, loamy Te Kaha soils – in New Zealand. Chris Karamea Insley, Chair of Te Rau Aroha Trust (which represents Omaio whānau), says, “We have these sheltered hills, we have these highly fertile soils. Scientists have been telling us for a number of years now that our environment creates the best growing climate for high-value crops, like kiwi fruit. Currently,” Chris continues, “these lands are utilised for low-value maize. Maize growers provide no employment for whānau and contribute nothing to growing the local economy.”

Research has already established that shifting from low- to high-value crops like kiwi fruit could generate significant income, create 100 local jobs for whānau and 500 jobs across the wider district. Chris adds, “We’ve formed a relationship with the head of Zespri, who’s been encouraging of us. He’s said to us, ‘I think what you guys are doing is hugely exciting. Get started.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”

Nevertheless, recent extreme weather events and longer, dryer summers mean that the whānau of Omaio need to better understand their future climate, before investing in climate-dependent crops.

This project therefore aims to provide the community of Omaio with the tools and training to monitor essential climate and hydrology data, as well as irrigation management tools, so they can better consider and respond to changing climatic conditions. “Our project,” Chris continues, “will also run individual and group workshops to inform decision making around the use of water both for community purposes and for both commercial applications.”

“This is one of three priority projects identified by the Iwi Leaders Forum. We’re also engaging closely with regional council and large horticultural companies to ensure our project is viable and that our research findings are broadly shared. Our project seeks to integrate the best science and research about climate, climate change and land-use planning, in order to grow a local economy in Omaio that is environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable.”

Vision Mātauranga science projects are built around four research themes: Understanding climate change; exploring adaptation options for Māori communities; assisting Māori businesses to aid decision-making and long-term sustainability; and exploring products, services and systems derived from mātauranga Māori.For more information about the Deep South Challenge and our Vision Mātauranga programme and projects, check out our website: