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Meet the couple pioneering permaculture farming in the heart of Thames

Photo credit: Erin Cave

Meet the couple pioneering permaculture farming in the heart of Thames

In an interview with Monique Hemmingson from her book Wild Kinship: Conversations with Conscious Entrepreneurs we hear from Niva and Yotam Kay, founders of Pakaraka Permaculture about their journey of building a regenerative agricultural farm from the ground up. 

Meet the couple pioneering permaculture farming in the heart of Thames

How did your past contribute to Pakaraka Permaculture?

Yotam: We met in 2006 during our environmental and peace leadership studies in Israel. Since then, we’ve been travelling and working in communities around the world on organic farms and studying permaculture.

We came to New Zealand seven years ago and are raising our two young girls within this lifestyle, which gives us a lot of pride.

 

How did the farm come to be?

Niva: After our studies, we both decided the food system was really broken and that learning how to grow food regeneratively is probably one of the most important things we can do, as it affects the whole population.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding and conflict within this industry where people think you need to grow large crops with a lot of land, but in our studies we focus on producing more food, of better quality, in more efficient ways – where huge land mass isn’t required.

Yotam: We wanted to take the challenge to see how much food we could grow sustainably on a small plot and see how we could make a livelihood from that. We wanted to prove a point in a way – that it can be done – and actually, it has to be done.

Photo credit: Erin Cave

The size of your garden plays a large part in what you offer, can you explain why?

Yotam: We started this journey not really knowing how much we could accomplish, and now we know – anyone who’s willing to put the effort in can do this.

For three years in a row now we’ve grown eight tonnes of produce on a quarter-acre, mainly over the course of seven to eight months of the year, with sales of close to $100,000.

We could produce a little bit more with this space if we wanted to but now our focus is more on sharing our many years of learning and experience with other people so they can do it too.

We want to see more and more gardens set up to feed communities properly. People can make a living and feed themselves in abundance off of a quarter-acre, and that’s amazing compared to the hectares and hectares of chemicals and machinery people usually farm from.

It can be done without fungicides, pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilisers.

We grow about twenty-five different commercial crops this way. Anything that’s cheap is so because someone else has paid the price.

 

How have you seen the food industry change in recent years?

Yotam: Food is undervalued, it used to be that fifty percent of your salary went into food, whereas now – because food prices have come down, along with the quality – it’s only around ten to fifteen percent of people’s income.

The reason food prices have dropped so much in the last century is because of chemical and petroleum agriculture, which doesn’t portray the true price of growing food.

Niva: No one pays for Mother Earth, or even accounts for that cost. People think that organic food is expensive, but it’s actually more simply the price of real food.

Anything that’s cheap is so because someone else has paid the price. In agriculture, it’s often the farmers and our soils, our rivers, our air.

Photo credit: Erin Cave

How does production on the farm aid environmental sustainability?

Yotam: We’ve always made living consciously, ethically, organically and with less, our priority in life. Everything we source personally and professionally is ethical.

We’ll always choose things that are strong, have a longer life and can be recycled or composted after use, which isn’t only environmentally sustainable but also a viable business model. People need to become more aware and be thinking about their choices and the long term.

It’s largely about where your priorities lie – we don’t go out for dinner every week, buy coffees every day or go shopping for new things all the time.

Nothing in life is singular, not even the soil ecology. Everything grows and blooms together.

Niva: We also sell pretty much everything we grow, there’s not often a lot that doesn’t sell or get eaten at home. When we do have leftovers, we donate them to the Women’s Refuge.

We also work with soil testing companies to bring the nutritional value of our vegetables up. Our soil is really nutritional now because we’ve used tonnes of organic high-grade compost, layer upon layer, and we make sure we’re continuing to feed those organisms, so they continue to grow.

Most soil nowadays is completely depleted and has little to no nutritional value to pass onto the food that’s grown in it. That’s a real problem.

 

Are there any standout hardships you’ve come across?

Yotam: We started this with a really limited budget of just $8000. We bought a few tools and worked full-time.

We had to invest back into the business for the first few years before we could see profit, so it’s possible, but we recommend people start with a bigger budget if they can so they can reap the benefits of profit sooner and have the critical infrastructure in place so they already know how they’re going to achieve their production goals.

This is a highly skilled field to be working in, but no different from other skilled professions that people usually put time and money into learning. Anyone who puts the effort in can master it.

Photo credit: Erin Cave

What have been some key learning experiences?

Yotam: We learnt by making mistakes a lot of the time. Even though we have a background in this field and a lot of work experience, there was no one around that was doing what we were doing, so at the time it felt like we were forging our own path, which was difficult.

Niva: Our site isn’t the perfect space. It’s not north facing, it’s sloping, and we miss three hours of sunshine each day because of the surrounding forest.

We had to learn which months we could grow, as our gardens get heavily shaded in winter, which we had to slow down and which crops would work with our section, things like that.

But this is part of the point – if we can do this here, on this site, then people can achieve it everywhere.

 

Tell us about the rest of the farm?

Yotam: We own the rest of the farm with our neighbours which is 215 acres, including 180 acres of bush. We have sheep, chickens and cattle of all ages living together.

We have a food forest with orchards, herbs, flowers, various fruit trees and timber. Our olive orchard has 100 trees which yields 500 litres of olive oil per season, and our chestnut orchard currently yields about two tonnes of nuts each year.

Vegetable garden production isn’t all we want to do – we’re hoping to grow these other areas of trade, but bigger trees and orchards take a lot longer to grow.

 

You live off the grid here – can you tell us more about that?

Niva: We have five kilowatts of solar panels that we live off, which runs things like our cool room, bread maker, electric car and general household.

If we have extra sunlight hours, we use that for our hot water cylinder, and we collect our water from the surrounding mountains.

We built a solar cooker (an insulated box that gets to between 80-140 degrees on sunny days) and we use this as a slow cooker outside to make things like rice, chicken, fish, roasts, soups or stews and potatoes.

We feed food scraps to our bio-gas digester, which turns scraps into gas and traps it in a big bag that’s connected to our stove top. We get our milk, meat and eggs from our cows, sheep and chickens.

 

What, in your words, is the importance of community?

Niva: Community is very important – “together we stand, divided we fall”. Resilience is about community.

So much of our contemporary lifestyle is about isolation, to the point where people forget great desire from within us to have that community and those relationships back.

For us, seeing our regular customers and their faces each week at the markets, and how much they appreciate our work, makes it all worth doing – rather than feeling like we’re a cog in the system. People in our community are so thankful for what we offer.

We feel we’re doing something meaningful. All that we do, our energy and relationship with the garden, is transported over to those people at the markets, who then go and put those carrots in their children’s lunch boxes.

I think that production line holds a lot of power and positivity, both mentally and physically.

We also have an incredible community of smallscale organic market gardeners (locally, nationally and internationally), which is a huge support.

We share ideas, products, equipment, mulch or just progressions and concerns. And that’s only the beginning – community runs much deeper than that.

Nothing in life is singular, not even the soil ecology. Everything grows and blooms together.

Photo credit: Erin Cave

Where do you sell your produce?

We have a great relationship with twelve wholesale restaurants and local stores here and in Auckland – many we’ve worked with from the very beginning.

We also sell fifty percent of our produce at our local farmers’ market, and the rest just an hour away in South Auckland.

 

How is education implemented into your work?

Niva: We have market gardening workshops here on site where we teach people how to set up their own gardens.

We want to develop the farm into a living model of agriculture and permaculture, so people can come to stay and have hands-on learning. We also have an online platform of courses for people further away to access, too.

We want to share our learnings because the more people who are growing food this way the better, be it in business or just personally in their own backyard.

 

What, in your words, does permaculture mean?

Yotam: Permaculture is a design system to create habitats. It’s about supporting and being a part of natural rhythms.

People think it’s only about growing, but it’s about design as a whole, working with nature to make systems in everything – events, architecture, education. It’s about a circular, abundant lifestyle.

I consider my vegetable garden and its ecosystem my art.

Niva: What’s special about it is its core ethics: earth care, people care and fair share. Anything designed within permaculture has to embody these ethics.

It’s systematic practices that help, rather than hinder, one another.

Photo credit: Erin Cave

If money was no object, what would you do differently?

Yotam: We’d love to create a campus here on site for people to come and stay for our education programme. We aim to do this anyway, but it’ll be a much longer process for us to save for it first.

In the world of environmental sustainability, what’s an innovative company you’d recommend?

Niva: Thunderpants. We love what they do, their products and the way they collaborate with ethical initiatives.

 

Where do you hope to be five years from now?

Niva: I think it depends on the state of the world in five years. Each season is becoming more and more challenging. Five years from now, everyone’s going to see and understand that we can’t go on as we have been.

 

Extract from Wild Kinship: Conversations with Conscious Entrepreneurs by Monique Hemmingson, Beatnik Publishing, RRP $60.00, www.beatnikbooks.co

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