Working with Mother Nature - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 218

Working with Mother Nature by Madelaine Empson

Yotam Kay met his wife Niva at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a leading environmental studies and research institute in the south of Israel. While the two experienced quite separate journeys into the world of permaculture – with Niva passionate about storytelling and environmental and social justice, and Yotam a master gardener who loves growing things and teaching others how to do the same – they now run Pākaraka Permaculture in the beautiful Kauaeranga Valley near Thames. This organic market garden and off-grid farm boasts 215 acres of diverse agro-ecological projects, including 180 acres of regenerating native bush.

Additionally, the husband-and-wife team have co-authored two books together. The number one best-selling nonfiction book in Aotearoa and amongst the top 10 best-selling books of 2021, The Abundant Garden is a practical guide to growing your own regenerative home garden. In The Abundant Kitchen (2023), Yotam and Niva share their wealth of knowledge and experience in making ferments, pickles, preserves, sourdough, koji, cured meat, ginger beer, yoghurt, vinegar, kombucha, and much, much more.

For the 2024 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival, Yotam will join Justine Ross (Meet You At The Main Divide) for a conversation with Helen Lehndorf (A Forager’s Life) about the future of food and agriculture and the planet we want to leave our grandchildren. Come along to Mrs Blackwell’s Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea – The abundant and the beautiful: making good food and fibre that won’t break the planet at Anzac Hall on Sunday the 12th of May at 3pm.

What does your garden at Pākaraka Permaculture look like?

Niva: Our gardens are fairly bigger than your average home garden, because they’re set up for market gardening. We do grow a lot of different crops that are quite diverse, often with more than one crop in a bed.

Yotam: We have our vegetable garden and areas with mixed plantings for biodiversity, and then we’ve got lots of perennials and fruits and nuts. The farm is relatively big. We’ve got about 1000 square meters of vegetable gardening, mostly outdoors. And then we’ve got a chestnut orchard and a pecan orchard and fruit orchards and...

Much more! How did you establish Pākaraka Permaculture and what’s it all about?

N: We came here and joined the farm in 2014. After a year of figuring out what we wanted to do, we marked a garden area of a quarter-acre and fenced it off. It used to be part of a paddock for grazing sheep. We used a method of covering the grass until it died off to get rid of the grass cover. And then we organised our beds, pictured and designed the different plots.

Y: You can either look at it as a really large home vegetable garden, or like a really small farm. We grow quite intensively. From the quarter-acre market garden, we have about 10,000 kilogrammes of produce output a year.

N: We use no-till gardening, so it’s about the living soil – the life in the soil and the soil structure, being part of the ecosystem and being beneficial to the ecosystem, and improving the soil health from year to year. Everything that we’ve done in our design – even the simple way we’ve designed our beds – is about, how can we create the healthiest ecosystems in our garden? And from that, we also get an abundance of produce.

Is factoring in the ecosystem as much for the environment as it is for the quality of the produce?

Y: Yes!

N: It is both. Firstly, we do think that we have a responsibility to care for the land and to care for all life around us. And then, yes, as a second outcome, we actually get a beautiful abundance of nourishing produce as well.

Y: We’ve learned a lot about permaculture and about growing food organically. We wanted to work in different places and see, how can we make this work? How can we grow food in a way that is really aligned with the health of the environment, and also make a livelihood from it? That took quite a few years to develop and that’s something that we’ve been teaching a lot about and sharing – our TED Talk was all about this. It’s been quite a phenomenal journey to learn how we can grow more food with less effort, getting increased yield. We came to this from learning about our food system and about how a big chunk of our food is produced by using a lot of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides. We are producing 10,000 [kgs of] produce without using these things, by growing organically and working with nature, and we wanted to show that that’s possible. We think that growing in organically treated, biologically active soil actually – besides allowing us to have vegetables that are strong and healthy, that don’t need these types of chemical inputs – produces vegetables that are more nourishing.

N: I think another part of it is, when we talk about sustainability, and when we look at maintaining what we have for future generations, it’s about growing in a way that doesn’t strip the life out of the land. That’s really the problem with the big scale models; often they’ll farm an area until it’s unfarmable, basically degrading the land. So, this is about regenerating rather than degrading. All of that we captured in our book The Abundant Garden that came out in 2021.

That was my next question, great segue!

Y: That book was so warmly received that Allen & Unwin have published our second book.

N: The Abundant Kitchen, which covers a different lens of living with nature and doing things in a less industrial way. It’s all about fermentation and preservation.

Y: Taking those things that for the last 20 years we’ve basically been cultivating in our kitchens. We’ve made a book that we’re really proud to share.

N: Anyone that has a garden will sometimes have too much of a thing, so this is also about reducing food waste and using the energy that you put into the garden and capturing it rather than wasting it.

So The Abundant Kitchen is a book that someone who might not necessarily have acres of grounds to work with can use in their own kitchen, their own backyard, their own little apartment veggie garden?

N: Exactly, and they don’t actually need a garden at all.

Y: And for The Abundant Garden, we did write it in a way that would really help people who have a small garden. We think an important part of food resilience and food security is, as much as we can, taking care of the environment – the gardens around people’s homes. Whether they’re two or four or 10 square metres, you can grow a lot from them.

When you grow those beautiful fruit and veggies without chemicals, I bet they’re yummier, right?

Y: [Laughs.] Whenever you grow your own, you always appreciate it so much more. We have received comments from a lot of people that our produce is extremely flavourful. But that’s something that we focus on: choosing the varieties that are flavourful, because we want to grow things that we would want to eat. We also use different horticultural growing techniques to make sure that our quality is the best it can be. I think that’s the power of small growers who can grow a variety of food and sell it locally. Sometimes also just the fact that we harvest things ripe and bring it to customers while it’s fresh. It makes a big difference getting it a day or two after it is picked to enjoy it, whereas people from the supermarket get it quite a few days later.

Will this be your first time at Featherston Booktown?

Y: Yes, it’s our first time. I’m really excited to join the panel, join the events, and share what we’re doing here on the farm and in our kitchen.

Have you been to Wairarapa before?

Y: I have been to Wairarapa, I was invited to do workshops with the school and the local community in maybe 2018 or 2017. Lovely, lovely community. I love the area. The people are so friendly and beautiful. I’m really looking forward to coming back – it will be my first time since the book has been out.

If someone could take away one thing from Mrs. Blackwell’s Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea, what would you want it to be?

Y: You can do it. I really am passionate about people giving it a go and learning from it. It doesn’t have to be perfect to make it work; you need to find how it can relate to you. Celebrate and count your successes rather than your failures.

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