Lynda Hallinan: Making a difference, one sustainable lettuce at a time

Practising what they preach: Yotam and Niva Kay, with daughters Lily, 6, and Dina, 3, and dog Luna.
Katie Huisman

Practising what they preach: Yotam and Niva Kay, with daughters Lily, 6, and Dina, 3, and dog Luna.

OPINION: My late Uncle John was a man of the land whose fingers were never far from the soil. As a schoolboy, his prize-winning vegetable patch at Pukekapia Primary in the backblocks of Huntly was famously fecund. His secret? Every day he walked to school with a pocketful of sheep manure.

For most of his adult life, Uncle John tended a large paddock of prime topsoil on the fertile slopes of Pukekohe Hill, a hill that once sported a patchwork quilt of lettuces, longkeeper onions and agria potatoes but now seems to sprout new subdivisions.

Uncle John's garden was a spray-free suburban sanctuary for chooks, fruit trees and bees, with allotments for the neighbours and a roadside stall out the front boasting the best 'Shiny Fardenlosa' green beans in the Franklin region.

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Ill health forced Uncle John to downsize before his death in 2009. He'd turn in his grave to see his garden now, back on the market but carved up into seven sections, another victim of Auckland's rapacious property market and the city's relentless sprawl south.

Is land-grabbing a sign of the times? Do we care more for houses than horticulture? Can small-scale food producers still make a viable living without wrecking the environment? Yes, say Yotam and Niva Kay of Pakaraka Permaculture near Thames.

Yotam and Niva, who met as environmental studies students in Israel, have travelled and worked in sustainable agriculture initiatives, community gardens, eco-villages and permaculture gardens from France to Portugal and Costa Rica. When they came to New Zealand, they found kindred spirits at the Koanga Institute and at Epicurean Supplies in Hawke's Bay before making their home on the Coromandel Peninsula.

The couple's off-grid quarter-acre market garden in the peaceful, bush-clad Kauaeranga Valley yields an astonishing eight tonnes of organic, sustainably produced food each year. "People say you can't feed the world with small-scale farming but actually you can, and we've set out to prove it. We love good food and with bio-intensive practices it's possible to grow beautiful produce and get six times the yield."

Eight tonnes off 1000 square metres? What are they growing? Massive marrows? Whopping watermelons? Giant pumpkins? "People don't believe it's possible," laughs Niva, "but it is. In fact, the pumpkins we choose to grow are the small heirloom acorn squash."

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As well as supplying restaurants and cafes with microgreens and salad greens, they sell their seasonal crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and eggplants at the Thames Market on Saturdays and the Clevedon Village Farmers' Market on Sundays.

It's all sown, grown, picked and packed by hand. They make their own compost, only use organic fertilisers and own neither a tractor nor a rotary hoe, preferring to work their soil the old-fashioned way with double-handled Dutch broad forks and stirrup-shaped hula hoes.

How do they cope with weeds? As well as slicing their throats with Niwashi blades, they use a technique known as stale-bed cultivation. Prior to sowing, the soil is lightly tilled to encourage weed seed germination and, when the first flush of weed seedlings emerges, they're promptly suffocated under a temporary blanket of permeable weed mat. "The heat from the sun kills the weeds and once you lift the weed mat, you can seed your crop." Niva also harvests weeds to sell as wild greens: "I'm actually quite happy when there's puha in my garden."

The Kays aren't afraid of hard work, each putting in at least 60 hours a week. And while they believe the old ways are best, they're also thinking of the future. They've launched a PledgeMe campaign to fundraise for a solar power system to run a new cool room (to keep their produce fresh post-harvest, reducing waste) and power up their electric car. "By charging an electric delivery car, our vegetables will be delivered in the same way that they are grown – with care for the earth, sunshine and love."

Their campaign, Running on Sunshine (see pakarakafarm.co.nz or pldg.me/pakaraka) aims to raise $20,000 by the end of the month. They're halfway there, and they're determined. Being carbon-neutral isn't good enough for this passionate pair; they want to be carbon-negative. "We're not using any fossil fuels, we're not emitting anything, plus we're taking carbon from the air and putting it in the ground with our gardening practices."

"If we can grow a lot of food on a small plot of land with no pollution, we're making the soil better, we're making the air better and we're making the world better," she says.

 - Sunday Star Times

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