Only the fittest are going to survive

Henry the chicken is an escape artist, whose bad behaviour won't be tolerated by Jodi Roebuck
Henry the chicken is an escape artist, whose bad behaviour won't be tolerated by Jodi Roebuck

Only the best performers and the well-behaved survive on Jodi Roebuck's farmlet and seed haven in Taranaki.

That rule applies to chickens, sheep and plants.

Partner Tanya Mercer and their daughters, Isabella,7, and Rata May, 4, are safe - and so are visitors.

Jodi is ruthless when it comes to natural selection, but this has come from tough lessons learnt.

Let's take the coloured sheep that live in a fenced-off area on the two-hectare property at Omata. This area can't be dug because a gas pipeline was laid through it in 1975, so it's perfect for grazing livestock.

First off, the family got some pet sheep, but these mums wouldn't feed their lambs, so the humans helped out. "That was a disaster," Jodi says. "We basically killed them with love. We overfed them. That's really common, we were told."

Then the "save the best and eat the rest" motto came into play. "We ate the mothers. If they don't mother, they don't get to stay," he says. In five years of having the sheep, the animals have become excellent performers. In the past two years, each ewe has given birth to two lambs a year and all feed their offspring. "I won't intervene anymore."

Jodi is enjoying having the sheep. "Even though we eat them in the end, I love them to bits."

These days, the badly behaved end up in the freezer.

Already doomed are one that jumps the electric fence and another who is hard on the trees.

Don't think for a minute that Jodi is a hard-core carnivore. He had been a vegetarian for 13 years and only started to eat meat again four years ago after seeing what wild animals were doing to vegetation in the Richmond Range in the South Island. "I thought, 'someone has to knock this back'," he says.

The 38-year-old also makes tough choices when saving seeds, his main driver for developing the gardens on the property.

He says anybody can do it. "Seed saving can be anything from a pot on a balcony to large- scale selection," he says.

On his property, he has big plans, including seed research in his closed-system garden. The latter means all the compost and fertiliser used on the garden comes from the garden - nothing is brought in from the outside.

Using the principles of "grow biointensive", learnt first-hand from American researcher, teacher and method developer John Jeavons in north California, the Taranaki man only grows food plants for seeds.

This takes time.

"You can grow a lettuce to eat in two months, but to grow it from seed, it takes six to eight months."

Selection is a big part of Jodi's job and he advises home gardeners to do the same.

"If you sow your own seed in a tray and pick out the good ones [to plant], you are selecting for the future and for different characteristics."

People can select seeds for vigour of growth, size, uniformity and staggered harvesting, length of season, disease resistance and storage.

When you store root crops, like potatoes and carrots, over the winter it's important to weed out those that didn't survive and choose the keepers to use for seeding. "That's natural selection," Jodi says.

He does the same for pumpkins.

You can even do taste tests on carrots and beetroot by pulling them out of the ground, nibbling the ends and replanting the sweetest.

Yes, they will keep growing.

Also, if you want bigger carrots, eat the small ones and keep the larger ones for seeds. You get the picture.

Jodi says he's not a food grower, but a seed grower. However, the byproducts of doing this are edibles, even if they are seconds. It's here that Jodi admits that lately, because he has spent so much time breaking in the land for mini-farming, he has been getting most of his vegetables from his mother's garden.

She was his first gardening teacher, who taught him the skills of propagating.

He has also learnt from experts in their fields.

In 2000 and 2001, Jodi worked with Kay Baxter at Koanga Gardens in Kaiwaka and in 2003, had a scholarship with John Jeavons. "I'm the only person in the South Pacific who has studied with him," he says.

Jodi is heading back to northern California in July next year to more studying with Jeavons, so he can continue training others Down Under. Already, he has had three interns from other parts of the world - men from Ecuador and Germany and a woman from Ecuador, who have gone back to their homes to spread the word.

Jodi has a three-day workshop coming up on the Hurford Rd property at Labour Weekend and has plans to further develop his seed-growing business with help from keen interns, who need to be there for a whole season.

In the meantime, the Taranaki man has backed off a little from growing seeds because of family, farming and part-time landscaping commitments.

Instead, he has been concentrating on growing soil..

When the pipeline went in, the top soil on his valley property was pushed into a gully, leaving sandstone clay.

He has been fixing that with plants.

There is no bare land in his garden beds - they are covered with greenery, including oats, grains and legumes.

"It's living ground cover," he says. Not only do these plants protect the soil, they make rich food to feed the earth.

Once they are grown to maturity, Jodi pulls them out to make rich compost that will go back into the land.

"We are growing our compost in the garden rather than importing it."

Even the animal dung is kept out of this garden.

Before planting, Jodi double digs the soil so plant roots can go deep and stay there when the greens are harvested.

These form rich humus for further planting.

"If I didn't have these plants in the ground, it would be choked with weeds come spring."

Oats help concentrate calcium in the soil and also give a carbon crop.

Jodi says there's nothing new in what he's doing and says that most of the people he knows who garden this way and who are saving seeds are elderly. A great deal of his literature comes from or is based on systems from pre- 1890.

Despite looking to the past, Jodi doesn't feel that way about seeds. Yes, he is happy to develop and grow heirloom seeds, but he's not sure that seed banks are the way to go. "They are more like seed morgues, than seed banks," he says.

He prefers to look forward.

The Facts

1. The top 10 most commonly grown grains in the world are: Corn, rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, oats, rye and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).

2. The fastest way to produce fertile, sweet-smelling compost is to maintain a ratio of about 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25-30:1. If there is excess carbon, decomposition slows down. If there is too much nitrogen you will end up with a stinky pile.

3. When planting crops, choose those that are high in calories to help prepare for being self-sustainable. High-calorie crops that grow well in New Zealandare: potatoes, kumara, Maori potatoes, quinoa and amaranth.

4. When growing ground covers for mulch, make sure you rotate the beds from season to season. Mono-cropping will eventually lead to a depletion of nutrients.

5. When starting a vegetable garden, do your reading first and start out small. From there, you will be able to produce more and more vegetables each year, especially with living ground covers and home-grown compost.

Taranaki Daily News