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Baxter basics

Seed saviour Kay Baxter founded the Koanga Institute, beloved by Kiwi gardeners for reviving New Zealand’s almost-lost food plants. Francesca Price heads east to meet a 60s chick who is still trying to change the world

Gardening guru, seed saver, guardian of the nation’s food supply … Kay Baxter has been given many labels since she started the Koanga Gardens and Institute from her Northland farm 15 years ago. Then, at the peak of her celebrity, she did a disappearing act. Francesca Price tracks Kay down at her new home on the East Cape and finds her as committed and inspirational as ever

Photographs by
Rebecca Swan

Half an hour out of Opotiki, the last town before the East Cape, the photographer tells me the bad news: “Kay said that if we want to drink coffee we should bring it with us.” It’s too late to turn back; we promised to be there for lunch. Surely I’m not so urban I can’t survive 24 hours without caffeine? Onward, I say.

We wind our way along the empty ocean road, pohutukawa forming a canopy overhead. The long stretches of white sand beach soon give way to rocky bays strewn with driftwood, each harbouring a handful of houses and a marae. This is a very different New Zealand. Ninety-seven percent of this land is owned either by Te Whanau a Apanui or Ngati Porou. As Kay tells me later, “Round here the Maori way is the strongest way of doing things, whereas in the rest of the country it’s the Pakeha way”.

There have been big changes to life here over the past 50 years—the migration to the cities, the loss of industry and local food production—but the East Cape still has its old-fashioned sensibilities. Firewood is collected off the beach, dinner comes from the sea or the bush and people get around on horseback. During the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Whitianga Bay, we pass a dozen locals riding horses, and probably only twice that in cars.

This is where Kay Baxter, founder of the legendary Koanga Gardens and Institute (www.koanga.org.nz, www.koanga.co.nz), has come to live—although she had an entirely different destination in mind 18 months ago, when she and the family sold up the farm in Kaiwaka, Northland.

Last I’d heard, Kay, her partner Bob Corker, their son Taiamai and his girlfriend Franzi were heading for the South Island, a homebuilt campervan and 1,000 seedlings in tow.

The plan had been to start again. After 25 years of building up a nursery, an eco-village and a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in self-sufficiency, Kay and Bob were worn out. They’d spent years campaigning: against GE, commercial agriculture, ludicrous local planning measures.

Next, they wanted to build a new home and community, away from the crowds and the crusades in the remote Pelorus Sounds.

This is a very different New Zealand. Ninety-seven percent of this land is owned either by Te Whanau a Apanui or Ngati Porou. As Kay tells me later, “round here the maori way is the strongest way of doing things, whereas in the rest of the country it’s the pakeha way”

But the plan changed and I have yet to find out why as we turn into the driveway of Kay’s new home—a ramshackle house on loan from the local runanga (the political arm of the iwi). I’m battling with one of the many paddock gates when Kay wanders down to welcome us. Her hair scraped back into her trademark ponytail, she looks tanned and relaxed in her new surroundings. Despite the stony driveway her feet are bare. It’s a decision she made on moving here—never to wear shoes again. At 55, Kay remains the original 60s hippy chick

Reviving the land

Before lunch, we get a tour. It’s harvest time and around the house fruit and vegetables are being hung, dried and bottled. Deep purple amaranth—an alternative grain to wheat or rice—is laid in the sun. A dehydrator buzzing in the corner hides apple rings and fish roe, which will later be turned into taramasalata. Pumpkins, chillies and eggplants are stacked high on work benches, while seeds of every variety are sorted in shallow baskets. From every corner of the small garden, herbs, onions, garlic and salad leaves poke out.
kay's feetfranmonarchcorngirl with watermelonkay with local kidswheelbarrow

Behind the house, Bob and Taiamai are in the throes of building a crib to store the corn for the winter. And behind them, in the distance, is Kay’s reason for being here: four acres of ancient gardens which she has spent the last eight months bringing back to life.

As we sit down to fresh peppermint tea, Kay explains the twists their journey has taken. Several months after leaving Kaiwaka she returned to run a workshop at Koanga Gardens. It was there that she met Donna Takitimu, a Whitianga Bay local, whose dream was to re-establish the gardens here. The East Cape has one of the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the country. Most of the food consumed is bought either from the supermarket or fast food outlets in Opotiki and is neither fresh nor nutritious.

This wasn’t always the case. “The East Cape was so isolated they used to have lots of gardens here,” Kay explains. “They had giant kumara fields and everyone was involved in gardening. Two of the elders who live here were amazing gardeners. But the next generation didn’t do it. They wanted jobs and moved to the cities.”

The runanga invited Kay and her family to live on their land and work with them to develop a sustainable community. Her remit was to give advice on the design and use of the land and teach the local community to grow food again.

So, over the summer of 2007, Kay invited all the families from the marae to plant seeds for the garden. Over 200 varieties of tomatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, eggplants, peppers and potatoes were sown. A constant stream of extended family members, visiting for the summer holidays, ended up working on the land. Every child was given a special patch to plant their own crop of strawberries and melons. “It was a very happy time,” says Kay. “Everybody sang and enjoyed themselves.”

Kay’s belief in the benefits of growing your own food underscores everything she does. She brought up and home-schooled four children while growing the family’s food. Today, she still provides 90 percent of everything they eat. Her cupboards are jam-packed with bottled peaches, fish preserved in whey, toasted cereals; her fridge groans under the weight of a bucket of raw milk and home-made yoghurt and cheeses. She believes that these foods—grown to nourish—have an entirely different impact on the body from food that is mass-produced for profit. In short, they keep it healthy.

Internal economies

Later in the afternoon, we get our chance to explore the gardens. We are joined by eight children from Whitianga and the bay beyond, who are excited to show us the fruits of their summer labours. One of the mums tells me how pleased she is to see the kids enjoying themselves like this.

“It’s good to show our kids how to do this. My girls are excited to be up here in the gardens. Kay has brought them back to life.”

Everyone is encouraged to take corn and potatoes home. Among other things, the corn will be used to make the local delicacy kanga pirau, or fermented porridge. One of the men gives me the recipe: put a sack of corn into a flowing creek, tie it to a tree, leave it until it’s soft and stinks, cook and serve with brown sugar and cream, for breakfast. By the looks on the kids’ faces, I’m not the only one who thinks this sounds truly revolting.

Walking back to the house, Kay tells me how much she’s learned from being down here. “They’re still really connected to the natural rhythms down here, the old ways of hunting and fishing. I’ve learned to harvest traditional wild foods like kamo kamo and puha, the right time of year to catch kawhai so it tastes good, and many other things.

“Some of the stuff has been lost, but there’s still an incredible knowledge and coming to live here has opened that up to me. I feel like I hardly know anything.”

In one of the outhouses she points at the ceiling. There, suspended from the rafters, is a shrivelled-up shark. “Sonny, the manager of the marae, showed me how to make fish oil by washing out the stomach of the shark and then stuffing the liver into it. The liver ferments and eventually oil comes out of the little valve at the end.” We give it a pull and, sure enough, out drips rich, golden fish oil that would no doubt sell for a fortune in an Auckland health food shop. “We’ve got two litres of the stuff there,” says Kay. “It’s got amazing healing properties, so that should keep us going all winter.”

That night we sit down to a meal of venison burritos. The deer was shot by Taiamai in the bush behind the house, the tortillas are made from the corn we’ve just wandered through. Bob pours a glass of home-made honeymead to top it off. It’s delicious, but I wonder how someone living in the city can replicate such wholesome, organic fare.

“You have to decide how you’re going to spend your money—at the doctor or on your food,” says Bob. “If we start investing in fruit trees and gardens rather than flash houses and TV games, we’ll make a difference. If someone respects their car they wouldn’t keep putting junk oil into it, but that’s what we’re doing to our bodies.”

Partly because I am now desperate for a coffee, I am forced to think about this. I eat a fairly healthy diet but still indulge in a variety of substances that undoubtedly give my body a good battering. Being around Kay and Bob makes you realise this is just poor accounting. Money should be spent on nourishing our bodies, not poisoning them—then picking up the bill for having done so.

At Whitianga, however, it’s not finance that’s the key to better food, but community. “There’s an internal economy here,” says Kay. “If someone else has two of anything, they give it to the next person. Every day someone comes knocking at your door with whitebait or mussels or peaches. No one keeps track of it.”

I’m sure Whitianga Bay has its usual run of local squabbles, but something extraordinary is going on here. Two groups of people, both with a vision of a more sustainable community, are making it happen.

Kay and Bob don’t know what their future holds but, for now, the East Cape is where they want to be, passing on knowledge they’ve learned from a lifetime of gardening and learning from local knowledge that has been handed from one generation to the next.

“I’ve come to understand that our ancestors knew a lot of things that we didn’t give them credit for, because they used their intuition,” says Kay.

“They knew how to keep well and be healthy, and that’s not something our culture has figured out yet. The mission for me now is to live that way myself so others can see that the solutions are simple, non-industrial and totally possible for all.”

Seed saviour

The Koanga Institute, of which Kay remains managing director, was founded ten years ago out of Kay’s frustration with what was happening to New Zealand’s food supply. She had been shocked to discover that the only New Zealand seed variety commercially available was Pukekohe Long Keeper onions. The source of all our other food plants was Europe; which in 1986 was under the nuclear cloud left over from the Chernobyl disaster.

Kay knew that there must be thousands of seed varieties in New Zealand; it was just a matter of finding them. Every settler who came here had brought seeds from their old country; in an era before supermarkets, these seeds were numbered among their most precious belongings. Many had been handed down for generations to ensure the most tasty and nutritious varieties survived. But as people moved to the cities and food became more readily available, the seeds were largely forgotten and left to die in abandoned gardens up and down the country.

When Kay settled in Kaiwaka with Bob in the early 80s the only people still growing food were the members of the gardening club—all women in their sixties and seventies. By this time, Kay had already attracted attention because of her rescue missions to the old homesteads of the Kaipara Harbour, where she took graftings from abandoned fruit trees. When she joined the gardening club, one of the women recognised her and immediately handed over some bean seeds. These seeds, once owned by a Dalmatian gum-digger, had been carefully grown out every year for the last 60 years in order to keep them going. Kay realised she had found her pot of gold.

News of Kay’s seed saving soon spread, and elderly men and women from all over New Zealand began sending her their seed collections, desperate for someone who would preserve them when they were gone. From being a shy gardener, Kay was forced into the spotlight. She and the other volunteers at the Institute became the guardians of the heritage seeds of New Zealand, painstakingly growing out 200 new lines every year. Even with the Koanga Institute’s extraordinary efforts, Kay says “only five percent of the food plants that existed in New Zealand 100 years ago remain today”.

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