Grower profile – Gail & John Aiken.
Gail & John have been involved with Koanga for many years and live in the Hokianga on a beautiful piece of land overlooking the Waima River. They are seed growers, grow plants for the perennial back order system and Gail is the Northern Fruit Tree Collection and Back Order System Manager.
Our aim is to live as self reliantly and simply as possible and to nurture this land. We have two main motivators for living as we do. One is an awareness of, and response to, issues such as peak resources, climate change, environmental degradation, social injustice and an unstable and inequitable global economic system which exacerbates all of these issues and puts profits before the well-being of people, other creatures and the planet. We are trying to live in a way that contributes to those problems as little as possible and to be part of the movement that is trying to find and promote practical solutions to the problems that face us. Ethical decision making is very important to us and we try to make the best decisions that we can to limit the impact that our actions have on others (human and non-human) or the environment. Under capitalism this usually comes back to ethical consumption so we try to limit what we buy and make the best choices that we can for the things we have to buy.
The other motivator is a desire to live in a ‘better’ way; to be more connected with the earth, the sky, the seasons and the ecologies that we are part of, and to take responsibility for our lives. We love working on the land, being in the garden, interacting with the animals, and sharing skills and ideas in our local community. Humans evolved as part of ecological systems and living as we try to feels more natural, and healthier physically, psychologically and spiritually.
We have used permaculture principles for the design of our farm and within the garden the technique we use is bio-intensive. As growers we try to nurture the earth, to build the soil, create diversity and support the plants to grow themselves. Our long term goal is to try to minimise inputs and use natural things we can harvest or create ourselves. At the moment though we recognise the importance of re-mineralising our soil so that we can grow high quality, mineral rich produce. To aid this process we currently use mineral based fertilisers from Environmental Fertilisers. Our approach to pest control is to grow healthy soil that grows healthy plants and then pest control largely looks after itself. We companion plant with plants that are known to support each other and we believe strongly in creating abundance and diversity in our gardens so that there is balance. Our assumption is that if we have diversity then there will be a healthy environment even if we don’t understand the details of all of the relationships. If we do have pest or disease problems then our approach is to look for the underlying causes and we are very slow to reach for a spray and, if we do, only use things allowable under organic certification.
At our previous property we were certified organic but decided not to go for organic certification here. Although we understand the importance of organic certification as a standard when growers and consumers don’t connect, we hope to have a more personal relationship with people who buy our products either locally or through Koanga. We garden in the same way as we did under certification and make sure that we are not using practices or products that are harmful.
Above all we love gardening and plants and seeds and flowers and trees. We still get a huge buzz from cooking, eating and sharing food that we’ve grown. Gardening and working on the land is a joyful experience – our focus is on food but other plants are really important too and many of them are there because they are companions for us as people, food for the soul really.
Our orchards are the Northland home for the Koanga Institute Fruit Tree Collection and are quite extensive. Our basic approach in the orchards is the same as in our gardens – trying to create healthy soils to support healthy plants. We need them to be as low maintenance as possible and are developing them along forest garden lines using support plants to create a supportive ecology for the fruit trees. We use geese, ducks and chickens at different times to fulfil certain roles within the ecology we are trying to create.
On the broader farm we are slowly working through a programme of fencing to protect wild areas (native forest and salt marsh), water courses and dams, and to create smaller paddocks to allow us to have a well managed grazing system that will improve the soil and the pasture and have health benefits for the animals. We believe strongly in the benefit of integrated systems where the different elements give multiple benefits and support each other. The Dexter cattle are small and easy to manage, provide manure for the gardens, graze the grass down, convert grass to milk and provide meat that we are willing to eat as the animals have been ethically raised and home killed; the sheep assist with grazing of the pasture and provide wool & meat; the poultry clean up and help with pest control and produce eggs and meat and the rotation of different animals across the paddocks helps break parasite life cycles. The horse is our least utilised animal at present as we struggle to find the time to develop the skills needed to integrate her work into our systems. In the meantime though her manure contributions are greatly appreciated! We have some steep land which should never have been cleared of forest and we are encouraging natural regeneration in some of these areas to return them to bush and undertaking managed planting in others to create woodlot areas for coppicing and harvesting (often using brambles or gorse to assist the establishment of the trees).
Although much of our focus is here on our land we recognise the importance of linking with the broader community. We believe that working with others and sharing skills, knowledge, resources and ideas is essential for healthy living now and crucial for building community resilience to support us all to meet the challenges of an uncertain future. Our focus is on simple activities that bring people together, for example workshops, tours and interest groups (we have a fermented food group that meets occasionally to share recipes and ideas, and a garden group that meets each month to work together at a different members property). We have a fairly quiet life but connecting socially with others remains important. We have it incredibly liberating not to have a TV to waste our time and really value home grown and locally created, low tech, family friendly events that bring people together such as music evenings, ceilidhs and seasonal celebrations