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How do you farm without owning land? On the fringes of Ōtaki, in a scene straight from Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood, two young farmers are growing vegetables as an act of revolution.
Crooked Vege’s Tae Luke-Hurley and Jonathan Mines found their patch of land with the help of a group called Village Agrarians, who (among other things) match landowners with landless farmers. “They’re addressing the issue of people who have more land than they need, but want to do something productive with it, and the issue of people who can’t afford to get onto the land but have the energy to do something with it,” says Jon. “We knew there were lots of life stylers out there with more land than they can manage, but how do you connect to those people?”
In the end it was surprisingly easy, and the response was huge. “We thought that we would have to work really hard to make it happen, but I think after our post went up I went and made dinner, and missed about 27 phone calls.”
Choosing the right piece of land was important. “We did a big trip around the country in our van and chose Ōtaki because we met local growers with a collaborative mindset, saying how can we help.” Locals are very open to sharing tools and resources, says Jon; and the huge range of skills needed to run a small farm – from construction to drainage to accounting, sales and distribution logistics – means that cooperation makes a whole lot of sense. The relationship with the landowners (who live on site, across an old pear orchard being converted to a food forest), is also critical. There is a lease agreement, but it’s also a relationship of trust. “It’s kind of a crazy thing to do with people you don’t know – move into their back paddock.”
When I visit, the pair have been living on the land for just six weeks, in a caravan without power or running water. But with help from a team of mates, they’ve already established several hundred square metres of beds in cover crops – buckwheat and Burseem clover, and a mixture of linseed, daikon, broad beans, barley, oats, hairy vetch, blue lupin and rye. The ground is heavy clay with a mat of dense buttercup. It’s fertile, but the structure has been damaged by cattle, creating waterlogging issues.
Crooked Vege are using no-dig techniques to develop beds; first, pasture is mown low, then ‘tarped’ – covered with black plastic for several months to knock back weeds. Cardboard is then laid down and covered in a layer of compost into which cover crops are sown. Applications of calcium will slowly loosen the soil structure and reduce acidity, helping the microbial life that’s crucial to the soil and plant health.
Cover crops, also called green manures, are a way of building up the soil without having to buy expensive compost (Crooked Vege are a low budget operation – Jon jokes about having to ration duct tape.) A tunnel house already on site is being used to grow mixed greens for the restaurant trade, and winter will be spent building up the soil and developing infrastructure. A water supply, a portacabin, and a wash station will mean they can hit the ground running with vege planting when the ground warms up in spring.
Jon and Tae are experimenting with polycropping, interplanting main crops of celery, kale, and silverbeet with faster-growing side crops of radish, pak choi, parsley, spring onion, and rocket. They have years of experience in this sort of small-scale market gardening, most recently in Taranaki, but, as each piece of land is different, they’re customising software to input exact planting dates and growing times for this particular terroir.
Before returning to New Zealand Jon was working in film, and taking breaks working on organic farms across Europe, and he found that was what he enjoyed more.
“I emailed every interesting-looking farm in the UK and Ireland, and ended up on a permaculture farm in Ireland just as the pandemic started.” Over lockdown, the stay became a crash course in all aspects of organic growing, looking after 600 square metres of market garden, an acre of food forest and two acres of woodland. “I also learned a lot about burnout – work on a farm never stops, and many farmers work 60–70 hour weeks.”
Sustaining human energy is an important part of farming, he says. “It’s a creatively and environmentally connected way of engaging with the world, but if you’re stressed all the time you’re not going to be making the best decisions.”
As their name suggests, Crooked Vege are planning an unconventional set up – a “Robin Hood” business model. Selling herbs and niche vegetables to high-end restaurants will help fund a social enterprise, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vege boxes. Subscribers signing up to buy the farm’s produce will get fresh food, with a knowledge of how it’s being produced, and put their money directly into the hands of the farmers, who can then concentrate on growing rather than marketing.
The farm is already certified with Organic Farm NZ; there’s a perception that organic food is expensive, but that’s not always true, says Jon. “Plus it’s better, nicer, fresher, harvested that day, local, all those good things, and far less destructive to the environment.” Direct selling of vege boxes means produce is fresher and there’s less wastage, making it more affordable, he says. Online and social media sales make this distribution model possible. “It closes the gap, or evens the playing field, to counteract the scales of efficiency that gives large scale commercial agriculture an advantage.”
Rather than growing high quality food for people with Teslas, they aim to make fresh food affordable by offering a sliding, pay-what-you-can scale. “If only rich people can afford environmentally friendly food then we’re kinda f****d.”
Crooked Vege also aims to have a social output, and would love to see their farm become a community place, reconnecting people with food systems. A “community carb” project is planned, to grow potatoes, pumpkin and kamokamo in a third of the farm’s total space. “It could be a communal exercise, where everybody comes and plants, turns up a few times over the season for a bit of weeding and earthing up, then everyone comes and harvests together.” Salads are financially viable to grow for sale on a small scale, he says, because of the high value and quick turnaround, but for slower growing crops like potatoes it’s impossible to compete with a tractor.
But food grown by conventional methods is only cheaper because growers are not paying their environmental bill, says Jon. “It’s way more labour intensive to grow this way, and labour is expensive. We want people to earn close to a respectable wage.” Many small growers are working for below minimum wage, or relying on unpaid labour, he says. “There’s a way larger political and social issue here in making food more equitable for everyone.”