Meet the family living in an off-grid organic farm in the Coromandel

After establishing an off-grid organic farm and gardening school, a Coromandel family have poured their permaculture expertise into a book on regenerative gardening.

Most gardeners are kind, but for Niva and Yotam Kay it’s a quality they possess in abundance. Not only is the produce they grow kind to our bodies but it’s also kind to the planet, thanks to the regenerative methods they use at their market garden and organic farm in the Kauaeraunga Valley, near Thames.

Wood sign with an arrow pointing left saying Pakaraka Permaculture and Niva, Yotam, Lily and Dina, and pointing forward saying Jeannette and Harry

There, they live off the grid with their daughters, Lily, 10, and Dina, 7, their chocolate kelpie Luna and an assortment of ducks, chickens, sheep, worms and bees. Their produce, which is sold at the local organic store and cafés, and at the Thames Market every Saturday, is grown according to the permacultural ethics of earth care, people care and fair share. With this ethos, combined with years of food-growing experience, they’ve turned a sloping piece of land not much larger than a traditional quarter-acre section into a garden that produces around 8.5 tonnes of salad, vegetables, microgreens and flowers every season.

Lily Kay picking anemones from a garden filled with pink flowers
Lily picks the anemones she grew in her plot.

Soil health is paramount to this type of intensive gardening, and Yotam and Niva are advocates of the “no dig” method. Instead, they build garden beds on top of the ground and aerate the soil with a fork when necessary. “Topsoil is composed of different sub-layers,” says Yotam. “If we mix up those layers it really disturbs the soil’s biological community. Keeping them intact means that we can cultivate a more diverse, more comprehensive and more robust biological community.”

If this feels unattainable because you’re just trying to get your head around sorting your greens from your browns for the compost, be reassured that the Kays have a string of horticulture and education qualifications to their name. In fact, they met back in Israel, where they both grew up, while completing a diploma in interdisciplinary environmental studies and peace leadership in 2006. Together they have worked and taught permaculture at more than 100 intentional communities and permaculture farms around the world.

Their desire to raise a family and lead a sustainable lifestyle was behind their decision to move to New Zealand in 2012, plus Yotam has whānau here. “We wanted to live in a place where you can have land, access to fresh water, live off the grid and be part of the community,” says Yotam.

Yotam Kay carring a tray of soil in a greenhouse
In the tunnel house, Yotam grows trays of microgreens.

After a couple of years working on organic farms, in 2014 they started volunteering at Pakaraka Farm, which had been established in 1991 by long-time organic farmer Harry Parke and his wife, the late Green MP and environmentalist Jeanette Fitzsimons. They leased a piece of land on the farm and established a market garden, and then decided to put down roots and buy half the property. “We really, really loved Harry and Jeanette and decided to join the farm,” says Niva.

As well as running the garden, they also help Harry manage the rest of the farm, harvesting and processing the crops from the chestnut, olive and pecan trees that Jeanette and Harry planted, although thieving rosellas – who aren’t practising the permacultural ethics of fair share – get most of the pecan crop.

They say it’s been a difficult year since Jeanette’s passing in March 2020 but their warm relationship with Harry has been a comfort to all.

Niva and Yotam Kay in Kauaeraunga Valley garden farm with Harry Parke
Yotam (standing, at right) and Niva (kneeling) purchased half the farm from Harry Parke (left) and his late wife, Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons. Harry helps them run courses at the onsite learning centre.

Harry assists Yotam and Niva with running Pakaraka Permaculture Education Centre, which they established on the farm in 2016. It offers a range of workshops, from one-day home gardening workshops to five-day workshops for aspiring market gardeners, and a course where participants can learn sustainable- living and “homesteading” skills, including how to grow a food forest, keep chickens and develop off-grid systems such as composting toilets and solar cooking. In 2019 they started offering online courses as well.

“We’re really on a mission to start a regenerative, organic food culture,” says Yotam. “We see that in the future 50 to 80 percent of food will be grown in people’s backyards. You don’t need to have a lot of space to grow a significant amount of your own food, and if you do it’s such a great contributor to your physical health, mental health and food resiliency.”

As part of that mission, the couple have published a book, The Abundant Garden, which is a guide to growing a regenerative home garden. Comprehensive and accessible, it includes information on enhancing soil life and fertility, what you can sow when, and preserving and fermenting – and it even has a guide to the shelf life of different vegetable seeds.

It’s hard to be believe they found the time to write a book, after long days growing crops, homeschooling the girls and teaching workshops, not to mention that Niva has also co-directed and co-produced an environmental documentary, High Tide Don’t Hide, which is dedicated to Jeanette and will be released in June. But after gardening together for 15 years, they want to share their knowledge, and a big part of their message is to just give it a go. “You don’t need the perfect piece of land or all the things,” says Niva. “Just start growing some food, if you can.”

A wood shed with an assortment of garden tools hanging

When they’re relaxing, the family read books together, play board games, explore the 73ha of bush on the farm, swim in the river in summer and eat pizza cooked in their pizza oven – “Pineapple pizza, to be clear!” says Dina, who also confesses to a passion for Duck Island toasted marshmallow ice cream.

Life is busy and there are a lot of late nights, but one of the advantages of being self-employed is that it gives them flexibility to support each other in pursuing their passions. “We share our values and we’re a team. We take on this world together,” says Niva. “And we try to live by what it is we’re working for,” adds Yotam.

 Niva and Yotam Kay holding their daughters Dina and Lily while standing in their green farm
The girls are homeschooled and have their own gardens where Dina (left) grows fennel, yellow raspberries and watermelon, and Lily (right) grows flowers. Every day in summer, the family, including chocolate kelpie Luna, swim in the river that runs alongside their property.

Niva & Yotam’s tips on earth-friendly gardening

  • Grow only what you want to eat.
  • Make sure your garden is situated in an area that gets adequate sunlight. Leafy greens need around four hours of sunlight whereas other vegetables require around eight.
  • Plant your garden close to your house, where you can see it. “The best fertiliser for a garden is the gardener’s feet” is one of our favourite sayings because when you visit your garden often, you observe your plants and become familiar with how they look when they’re thriving and when they are affected by pests or need watering.
  • Start off small, so it’s manageable. Maintaining 4-5sqm should require only half an hour per week.
  • If you’re buying compost, make sure it’s well made and organic. Add small amounts (1-2cm) to the top layer of soil around four times a year, between crop successions.

To find out more about Yotam and Niva, including their workshops, visit pakarakafarm.co.nz.

The Abundant Garden by Niva and Yotam Kay
The Abundant Garden by Niva and Yotam Kay (Allen & Unwin, $45)

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANE USSHER AND NIVA KAY FROM THE ABUNDANT GARDEN


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