From anonymity to local

From anonymity to local

As more people feel the need to slow down and connect with the world around them, organic and local food choices have become increasingly important. Loulou Callister-Baker sat down with an organic farmer to work out how her lifestyle could influence the Dunedin student community’s food choices.

“on 10 April I was sentenced to nine months’ home detention for destroying the old Lost Resort lodge on Kaikoura Island. A fair but expensive price to pay for stopping a fishing competition that should not have proceeded,” begins the letter to the editor (titled “From Will”) in the 643rd issue of The Barrier Bulletin. Great Barrier Island, a half-hour plane flight from Auckland, is undoubtedly a place filled with quirks. But among all the eccentricities are handfuls of inspiring stories about people who have set up lives and businesses despite the myriad of obstacles that living on an island presents.

Caity Endt, standing amongst a cluster of potted plants and enthusiastic gardeners, offers her hand to me after I introduce myself. Her husband, Gerald Endt, stands at a picnic bench on the veranda behind her. Caity – about to answer my first question – suddenly looks over her shoulder and, noticing the small line of people clutching various plants or baskets of fruits, excuses herself to briefly aid Gerald with transactions. She then returns, with a smile, and we sit at the end of the cluttered picnic bench to discuss the organic garden called “Okiwi Passion” that she and her husband run on Great Barrier Island.

In July this year, Caity and Gerald will have been living on Great Barrier Island for seven years but Gerald’s family have had land out on the island since the early ‘80s. Before making the significant decision to move out and establish a life on an island, Caity spent her time in different cities throughout New Zealand, teaching gardening at a Rudolf Steiner School in Wellington and in Titirangi. However, when the couple heard that Gerald’s parents were subdividing their land on Great Barrier, the two kicked into action and bought the main block with the vision of creating and sustaining their own organic market garden. And, to this day, apart from missing family and the easy access to resources of community education, Caity doesn’t really miss the city, which she describes as a “very anonymous place” with an “abundance of consumer pressure around you at all times.”

Caity and Gerald’s land is situated on the edge of the Whangapoua estuary. When they first moved there it already had several benefits, including bamboo shelter belts, incredible soil and a banana plantation. However, maintaining and adding to the land was physically trying, and daily the couple must continue their chores, with anything requiring electricity dependant on solar energy and generators as there is no central power system on the island. “On top of all this,” Caity adds, “Gerald, who has kidney disease and is a dialysis patient, has to dialyse for five hours every two days. His machine is set up in our bedroom. Altogether, with the time it takes to set up the machine and clean up afterwards, it takes six and a half to seven hours … but he really makes use of the time then by doing Internet work, answering emails, ordering supplies, balancing accounts.”

In this respect, Caity is thankful for the helping hands of “wwoofers” to lighten their workload. When I realised she wasn’t talking about dogs, I asked her to explain. In New Zealand, a WWOOFer is part of WWOOF (which either stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms). While the practice is worldwide, there is no central organisation or base. The New Zealand branch, which began in the 1970s, aims to promote “awareness of ecological farming practices by providing volunteers with the opportunity to live and learn on organic properties.” Different organic farms set up profiles on the WWOOF website and look through volunteer applications, accepting those who seem appropriate. Volunteers, from around the world, then arrive at the farm – and with the promise of food and lodgings – work for usually six hours a day with two days off (although these terms vary from farm to farm). Sometimes volunteers will stay for several weeks; others will stay for years. While the work could seem physically strenuous, farms part of WWOOF are located throughout the world – in India, Korea, Ireland, Spain – and provide an interesting way to travel while simultaneously supporting the organic movement.

For Caity and Gerald in summer, harvesting begins at six in the morning before breakfast while it’s still cool. Caity breaks down the day, “Wwoofers harvest zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes, and strawberries, Gerald does the capsicums and aubergines, bananas and cherimoya, and I harvest the lettuce and mesclun for the cafes. We have breakfast around eight, then start the bread for baking at 11 am. Next, wwoofers put veggies away in chiller boxes with reusable ice packs (we don’t have a walk-in chiller due to power requirements), water the nurseries, take care of weeding or clipping up tomato plants, chip bamboo or mulch rows of veggies, irrigate or lay out irrigation. We usually break off at 11 because it’s too hot outside to work. We then do inside tasks such as accounts. Gerald maintains all the machinery, he may make some deionised water for sale for solar power batteries, the laundry gets washed while there’s plenty of solar power and then we have a good lunch with our homemade bread and preserves, free range eggs plus fresh goodies from the garden. Later in the afternoon woofers take care of the chickens, collect the eggs and we do any planting then so the seedlings will have the night to settle in. In the evening we cook a good meal for ourselves and the four wooofers. Usually the wwoofers help out with prep, and do the dishes after dinner. Gerald and I plan each day the night before, and plan out the week each Sunday so that everything flows …”

On Wednesday, the island’s mail bus picks up Okiwi Passion vegetable boxes, “up to 24” at a time, and distribute them to the bus stops located around the island for those who have ordered them. Invoices are included in the packages, with a business model that relies on trust. Wednesdays are also the barge days for Port Fitzroy, so they may have to go over to collect freight in the afternoon. Then, at a weekly Saturday “farmers’” market, Okiwi Passion sells most of their garden’s produce to locals and visitors. “We are usually up at the crack of dawn packing our ute to the hilt to fit everything in!”

Great Barrier’s subtropical climate allows for a range of interesting plants, including three varieties of bananas, Tahitian raspberries, eight varieties of a “very smooth avocado-like fruit” called casimiroa (or white sapote), several varieties of cherimoya, and Butea palm (also known as jelly palm). Among their produce is an interesting selection of South American fruits and palm trees, which Gerald’s parents brought over to the island in the ‘70s and ‘80s when there were less regulations on these things (in fact Gerald’s parent worked with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in developing some of these crops, such as the tamarillo and feijoa).

Whenever they have a surplus of vegetables or fruit at the end of a busy period, an innovative New Zealand organisation counters this issue. Ooooby, which is short for “out of our own back yards,” both supports gardeners like Caity and Gerald and gives them another access point to the organic market – a better option in a world where large scale industrial food companies continuously force small scale farms of artisan foods out of the market and thereby create fractures in the community. Ooooby, as one founder states, “began as an idea in response to the overwhelming evidence that our modern industrial food systems are causing more damage than they are worth.” The Ooooby business model is social - it’s “like an online farmers’ market” or an “online local food buyers’ club.” This idea of “social business,” first defined by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, still seeks to generate profit in order to expand but the model also centres around the ethical concept of a “non-loss, non-dividend company” who aims to address a social objective within “today’s highly regulated marketplace.”

Ooooby sources local food, packages it, and then supplies it to an ordering customer’s door. Beginning with the aim to make local food as affordable and efficient as that produced by large-scale food industries, Ooooby reinvests all profits made into “developing local food production, whilst ensuring that all participants in the supply chain are rewarded fairly for their contribution.” While approximately 80 per cent of costs can go into the supply chain alone for international suppliers, Ooooby avoids this, with the ultimate aim to pay their farmers 50 per cent of the total retail value for the supply and delivery of produce to the “Ooooby hub.”

While Ooooby is still almost solely based in Auckland (with a growing base in Sydney), there exist similar (or increasingly similar) options in Dunedin. The obvious start is the Otago Farmers Market held every Saturday at the railway station. The stalls at this market (which opens at 8am and closes at 12:30pm) offer a range of local and organic food options. Another alternative, although not necessarily viable for student budgets, is the Taste Nature organic food store on 131 High Street. Taste Nature, which began in founder Jim O’Gorman’s garage in 1992, is part of the local organic food network, which means that it sources “fresh produce and products from as close to home as possible.” In this way the store complements the local organic producers who sell at the Farmers’ Market.

However, with the Dunedin student market directly in mind, the new start-up MeatMail may be the most viable option for students. MeatMail, set up by two past University of Otago students, is “on a mission to shorten the distance between farm gate and your plate.” Using a “subscription model delivery service,” MeatMail relies on the power of group buying to purchase produce direct from the farm on a recurring basis and deliver it straight to the door (in their adorable MeatMail vans). While their goal of serving “90 per cent of New Zealand’s main urban areas by the end of 2014” might seem overly ambitious, it is local. Their fruit and vegetable boxes are hand selected, packed and delivered by independent local growers and greengrocer partners across the country, although the contents of these boxes vary depending on what is in season. Their beef and lamb come from Silver Fern Farms, chicken from Ingham, and products like their sausages and bacon are made “fresh” at their butchery.

Local food deliveries aren’t the only way to incorporate business with a harmonious attitude to food and land. Food co-ops, if you have the time, are another way to achieve “connection.” Simply put, a food co-op is a food distribution outlet typically organised as a consumer cooperative, which means that, while appearing similar to a normal grocery, decisions involving the production and distribution of its food are made by its members.” In New Zealand, most general co-ops are producer co-ops, with approximately half the full members of the New Zealand Cooperatives Association being agriculturally based – Fonterra Cooperative Group is a prime example of this. There remain few consumer cooperatives in New Zealand, with most being simple “buying clubs.” Despite this, with both a social and environmental conscience, food co-ops can be rewarding and can display a higher degree of social responsibility than their corporate analogues as profits from the co-op can be returned to the community through educational initiatives and member-approved community developments. Many co-ops will specialise in organic and locally grown foods, and, because members pay in to the cooperative to maintain it, products are often sold at a discount.

Out on the island, Caity and Gerald are part of their own organic co-op, which they set up last July and now have ten active members with more people wanting to join. “The purpose” of their co-op, Caity tells me, “is to enable members to have access to organic dry goods at a reasonable cost. We buy all our goods at wholesale cost, and then they are palletised before being sent on the barge to Great Barrier, which greatly reduces the freight costs. We currently order everything from Ceres to keep things simple. The co-op has to place a minimum monthly order of $500 in order to have an account. Members of the co-op share out responsibilities and tasks, such as general communication with members, organising the online spreadsheet ordering system we have (through Google+), contacting members for out of stock items or making up shortfalls, placing the monthly order with Ceres, collecting the consignment from the barge and delivering to our shed, then splitting the orders for each member. Then each member is billed and they pay directly into the co-op account, which then is direct debited to pay the Visa bill. We had a few teething problems but it is pretty smooth now. It now means that some families are using the co-op as their main food spend each month and our online supermarket shops are drastically reduced.”

In a Dunedin context, Caity believes this method would be “a great way to keep living costs down for students, but you have to be realistic about the time commitment involved, make sure your members are reliable and will pay on time and resist the temptation to buy luxuries just because you get them at such a reduced cost.”

But, when it comes down to it, maintaining your own small garden can be the most satisfying process. “The best thing to grow if you have limited space is greens like lettuce, pak choi, mizuna (red and green) and herbs,” Caity advises me. “These greens are so much better really fresh, they’re also so good for you and don’t take that much space. Next on my list would be to grow beetroot or even carrots. If you don’t have a garden you can grow them in pots or containers you have recycled – just make sure they have drainage holes in the bottom. Put the pots on terraces or porches in the sunniest spot you have; at a pinch, a window sill will do. Your city council probably has some sort of free composting education going on or there may be local workshops. Go to one of those to learn how and set up a worm farm – they will gobble up most of your food waste and you can use the castings they produce to enrich your potting soil, which means you can grow beautiful greens and at the same time reduce costs buying rubbish bags and keep food waste out of the landfill.”

When I asked Caity what underlines her drive to teach gardening and maintain a lifestyle on an island, she commented that the “basis of civilisation is our soil” with her goal being to “expand the repertoire of what people eat” in order to “connect people with what they eat.” In this way, Caity’s philosophy is very much in line with the worldwide Slow Movement, which blossomed in 1986 after Carlo Petrini protested the opening of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna, Rome. The Movement, which focuses on restoring the lost connection between many aspects of human life and the natural world and rhythms around us, is (ironically) gaining more momentum as increasing numbers of people identify their own discomforts with the fast paced modern lifestyle.

Caity is about to further elaborate on her life philosophies when a fleet of local gardeners approach her with a range of very specific questions. Not wanting to disturb her further, in what would be a prime business time at the island Saturday market, I thank her for sitting down to talk. Already inspired by Caity and Gerald, it was a few days later – when I went with my mum to pick up our vegetable box from the bus stop – that I truly appreciated their lifestyle and realised that maybe I too need to start making a deliberate effort to slow down.
This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2014.
Posted 3:11pm Sunday 11th May 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.