An eco-farmer's passion for improving vegetables, jobs, soil quality and community ties is so strong it once made him jump off a plane.
Wairarapa Eco Farm, run by Greytown ecological farming pioneers Frank van Steensel and Josje Neerincx, is the country's first and only substantial example of a new type of farming with more than 20,000 practitioners in North America - community supported agriculture (CSA).
The farm won two out of 10 categories and came second in another at the Association of Biological Farmers inaugural awards this month, and next month it will compete for the association's supreme award.
In a "CSA" operation, consumers and producers are equal stakeholders: members pay upfront for a diverse, ever-changing season or year's worth of produce, accepting whatever the land provides via a weekly food bag.
Ninety per cent of the Wairarapa farm's 120 members live in Wellington and get their bags couriered; the farm's 10 workers get a share of the harvest, and members can also work for some or all of their share. Membership is growing but will be capped at 200 to protect the soil quality at the 12-hectare former orchard just north of Masterton.
The awards are fitting recognition for the Dutch-born couple's 20 years of research and work into improving the quality not only of New Zealanders' produce, but also of their relationship with the land.
The pair returned from the Netherlands last week after their first holiday in four years, and van Steensel admits it's a passion that dominates his life. "I was going to go [on holiday] two years ago but I couldn't leave the garden. I sat on the plane and then I just jumped out and came back here - I couldn't leave."
After studying tropical agriculture, the pair emigrated to New Zealand to develop their hands-on farming expertise. Postgraduate study at Massey in soil science and rural agriculture led them to Wairarapa and now they aim to "walk their talk" about international agriculture's "downward spiral" through the industrialised application of fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides.
Van Steensel said the recent awards were really for the farm's members.
"The people who buy [the produce] don't realise how important they are because they allow us to produce food quality, to not cut corners, and to provide environmental care."
VARIETY THE SPICE OF LIFE
For sports stadium assistant manager Kane Harris, community supported agriculture is a triple win.
He gets to escape the office for four hours every Tuesday to "get my hands in the earth"; his 14-month-old daughter gets to nibble quirky-looking, flavour-packed organic carrots; and his wife carves a significant chunk off the weekly grocery bill.
Harris moved to Carterton from Tauranga four months ago and, realising his new home's yard was too small to continue his lifelong gardening habit, found Wairarapa Eco Farm on the internet. Flexi-time at Masterton's Genesis Energy Recreation Centre means he can put in a morning's picking, processing and packing of fruit and vegetables each week in exchange for the family food bag.
"It's fantastic, not just for the veggie box but also for my mental health - you're not just stuck in an office all day."
The best part was getting to try a constantly changing variety of unusual, healthy and tasty vegetables, and being able to look at his plate each night and say: "I might have picked that."
IN THE BAG
Sample small vege bag ($16.25), April 1.2kg Agria potatoes 600g jumbo carrots 2 bulbs garlic 2 short cucumbers 2 broccoli
Sample large bag ($32.50). 1.5kg Agria potatoes 600g jumbo carrots 2 bulbs garlic 1 short cucumber 2 pak choy 100g snow peas 1 cos lettuce 1 pumpkin 200g cavalo nero kale 250g baby chard
- The Dominion Post
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