Grow: Wāhine Finding Connection Through Food, by Sophie Merkens, takes the reader on a journey across Aotearoa meeting 37 inspiring women who find meaning and connection through food – from mothers, gardeners and hunters to chefs and hobbyists. One of the women profiled is Kay Baxter, co-founder of the Koanga Institute – read an extract from Kay’s story below, thanks to Lighthouse PR.
Kay Baxter co-founded the Koanga Institute, whose heritage seed collection is renowned around the world. Her work in regenerative food production, soil health, nutrition, and seeds is highly regarded and respected. In 2017, she was on the New Year Honours list (MNZM), for her services ‘to conservation and sustainable food production’. Kay has dedicated her life to pushing boundaries, learning, and sharing that knowledge. She has authored educational books and guides to help others on their journeys and created a regenerative education platform for online workshops.
I met Kay at the Koanga Institute in Wairoa, where she talked about accountability, change, and the inspiration behind living a simpler life. Kay showed me around the gardens and premises, where interns and workers were busy saving and cataloguing seeds in the late-autumn sun. Kay showed me the seed room, arguably Koanga’s most treasured taonga, with its adobe mud walls and jars of seeds lining the open shelves. We sat down in her office (a mundane contrast to the green oasis outside) to have a no-nonsense chat.
Can you tell me about your upbringing and how this has influenced you today?
There are two things about my upbringing that have had the biggest influence on me. Firstly, my grandmother, who was an amazing gardener and had a really inspirational, beautiful garden.
She instilled in me the love of gardening and a deep knowing, from a very early age, that gardening is the greatest gift, because everybody who has a garden has something to give.
Secondly, my mother, who’s now 95 and still gardening. What I got from her was something different, because I watched her grow and feed us all from her garden. I got from her that gardening is normal, it is a skilled job, and it is unbelievably satisfying to be a gardener and a cook, and to be responsible for the health of one’s family.
She’s a great cook, so I grew up liking vegetables and recognising the link between gardening, something Mum loved to do, and the food on our table each night, and the connection of love. There was no break in gardening in our family line.
I went to university during the Vietnam War. I was always questioning everything. I led every demonstration. I was very active politically. I knew from a really young age that I didn’t agree with mainstream values and culture. I wanted to find something different.
Part of that was organics and eating properly. It was even clear then, which was a bloody long time ago now, that food and the environment were going in a bad direction. Everything that’s happening now we could see 40 years ago.
My husband was also really active politically. We’ve always had a strong ability to analyse and see what’s going on in the world. We knew we wanted something different. We had kids fairly young, and as a young mother, the most important thing to me was how to feed them in the best possible way. In those days, I thought organics was the be-all and end-all. We had an organic farm; we fed the kids organically, and they were much healthier than most other kids around. But Bob and I weren’t. I ended up feeling like there had to be more than organics. I think it all came together for me about 15 years ago, when I was 55 or so, and I felt I didn’t understand what made a healthy person, because we both had health issues that I thought we shouldn’t have. I knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I was gardening and eating.
How did you go beyond organics?
When we did guided tours around our garden in Kaiwaka, I used to take people into the house. We brought four kids up in a house that was five metres by five metres. Pretty much everything that we ate came out of the garden, and it was all on open shelves, so you could see the food.
People were blown away that you could actually feed four kids from the garden – we’ve got to the point in our culture that we’ve forgotten that you can actually live out of the garden.
On one tour, this woman came up to me and gave me Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions, which really opened up a whole new world and gave me understandings that went beyond ‘organics’. I came to understand that every single group of Indigenous people in the world totally had it sussed. Contrary to what we’ve been told in our education system, their health was incredible when they were eating traditional food. They ate different things because of their varying locations, but their diets were based on the same principles which are critical for building and maintaining human health. We recreated our diet based on those principles, and we’re still in the process of doing that. We grow most of our own food, pretty much everything.
The other thing that happened at that same time was a friend of ours brought a guy to New Zealand called Dr Arden Andersen. We secured a place on a course he was running for our apprentice, who had a science background. He came back and asked to have his own garden to apply these new principles.
Within about 10 weeks, the nutrient density of what he was growing was higher than what I was growing. Even though my stuff was certified organic, the Brix, or the nutrient density, was so low that it was way below the level required to maintain human health. He convinced me. I started learning how to grow nutrient-dense food. That became my journey for the next 15 years, especially since we’ve been here in Wairoa, and I’m sure always will be.