Greytown farmers Frank van Steensel and Josje Neerincx in one of their greenhouses, abundant with produce. PHOTOS/HAYLEY GASTMEIER
On an 8ha block in South Wairarapa is a sustainable ‘food forest’, with people lining up to get a taste of what’s on offer, writes HAYLEY GASTMEIER.
Sustainable farmers Frank van Steensel and Josje Neerincx live in a world of organised chaos.
Like nature, the Greytown couple farm in a way where finding an ecological balance is the goal.
Everything living on their property — people, plants, trees, animals, and insects – plays its unique role in an operation that produces nutrient-rich food while simultaneously enhancing the integrity of the land on which it grows.
Wairarapa Eco Farm, certified organic, is set in the Tauherenikau Plains in South Wairarapa.
Originally from the Netherlands, Josje and Frank purchased their 8ha section in 1996 when it was a barren paddock, and developed the farm over the years, planting shelterbelts, an olive grove, and building their eco-house from recycled materials.
The property is now a food forest abundant with grapes, olives, a berry orchard, and fresh produce growing in gardens and greenhouses.
Their four children, aged 24, 22, 15, and 12, are hands on helping out around the farm, on which free-range and organically fed chickens and eggs are also raised, as well as a few other animals.
Frank has a background in soil science and formerly worked as a sustainable agriculture consultant, while Josje’s background is in rural development.
Using ecological and permaculture principals, the couple are working to create an ecosystem which requires minimal interference from human hands.
“The more you interfere, the more you deregulate the balance,” Frank says.
Typical farming practices applied across the board were “monotonous” and unsustainable.
His holistic approach to farming allows him and his family a life of variety.
“We feel it’s necessary to change the practices that are commonly used.
“The best way to create change is to lead the way, live by example, walk the talk.”
Since 2014, the couple have run a successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programme, which they say is common in North and South America, Europe, Canada and Japan.
Through this, they provide weekly fresh-produce parcels all year round to about 150 individuals and families.
Members pay a one-off joining fee and then a subscription in exchange for a share of Josje and Frank’s weekly yield.
“We share out what we harvest so there’s no guaranteed amount . . . but it’s very diverse.”
For different prices (ranging from $15.63 to $95) members can choose the size of their produce box (containing from four to 15 items plus fruit), which they pick up from one of 18 collection points spread throughout Wairarapa and Wellington.
While production on the farm is always at the mercy of the Mother Nature, Frank says the CSA members have a direct link to the source or their food.
“They share the risks with the farmer, but in return they get a guarantee that the farmer is supporting the environment and doing the upmost to give them a proper diet and proper food quality.”
The couple invite CSA members to their farm a few times a year, and currently have a waiting list of people wanting to join.
Josje says many of their members have become friends, and it has been rewarding watching children grow up on their food.
The couple plant through the seasons alternating a wide-variety of crops, resulting in simultaneous health benefits for the soil and human body.
Frank says the practicality of having to cook with sometimes unfamiliar vegetables does not work for everyone.
But he’s certain if people ate his produce for three months straight, “your body and your mind won’t allow you to go back to the supermarket”.
When they started it, the CSA was more expensive than the supermarket and organic stores.
Now the business runs like a well-oiled machine, bringing overheads down so produce matches supermarket prices most of the time.
On Wairarapa Eco Farm, Frank and Josje’s pet dogs are more than just “man and woman’s best friend”.
Their guardian farm dogs not only make the family feel safe living in the country, but they have a second purpose, controlling pests in a natural and pesticide-free way.
Of the Maremma breed, the dogs keep harrier hawks from snatching up their free-ranging chickens, protect the young crops from possums and pukeko, and deter rats and mice from stored food.
And the couple plant particular herbs and weeds inside the green houses to keep pest insects in check.
After harvest, ducks, geese, and even piglets could be let loose into the berry block to take care of the weeds, while cultivating and fertilising the soil.
“The soil needs diversity,” says Frank.
“It needs the interaction between the different plants, the different insects, the different microbes, and the different animals.
“The more interactions there are between all these things, the better the food quality is, the better the environmental care is, and the better the diet for the people.”
At the moment, Josje’s sowing calendar shows there are 40 crops on the go.
Aubergines, asparagus, rhubarb, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, beans, Brussel sprouts, kale, chicory, passionfruit, and strawberries — the list goes on.
Frank and Josje grow veggies from seed in a greenhouse, moving the seedlings to a shady outdoor nursery to “harden off” before being popped in the ground.
Overseas travellers work on the farm from time to time, learning from the couple and gaining practical experience.
Last week, Tomas De Gooijer, from the Netherlands, was clearing trees to make way for a new, spacious vegetable patch.
“I was looking for places doing things a bit differently.”
He says the Greytown eco farm appealed to him.
“I wanted to see how they were doing it sustainably and taking care of the soil.”
Frank says he will used the felled timber to construct farm buildings.
He and Josje are also in the process of building a relatively large water collecting and cleaning system, which will catch water during winter, store it though spring, and then be used for irrigation in summer.
With a biofilter and flow forms, it will be clean enough to act as a natural swimming pool.
But a concrete mixer is the “heart of the operation”, making compost or humus, which Frank says is “black gold”, comparing it to the human immune system.
The couple say they have almost mastered the art of a “work-life balance” through their farming model.
“If you get the right combination there’s less work for us.
“We judge our success by how much we minimise our work load.”
Wairarapa Eco Farm features in a new documentary, Living the Change, which will screen at the Carterton Events Centre on April 12.