A North Canterbury family has embraced permaculture to feed themselves and teach others how to do the same. Angela Clifford and Nick Gill talked to Tony Benny.
New Zealander Angela Clifford and her Aussie partner Nick Gill were highfliers in the Australian wine industry when, 17 years ago, Nick was offered a job in New Zealand. They left corporate life behind in favour of getting their hands dirty and creating a different way of life.
“I thought the customs guy at the airport was going to give me a hug and high five. He literally said to Angela, ‘You’ve brought one back’,” laughs Nick, remembering the day they arrived in NZ.
Angela moved to Australia as a student to study wine at the University of Adelaide’s Roseworthy Campus, a course not then available at home. She met Nick, the son of a farmer, who was studying dryland farming systems and instead of coming home to work in the NZ wine industry after graduation, she stayed in South Australia with Nick.
“We were just incredibly lucky, we timed our graduations just as the Australian wine industry went through a massive boom,” Angela said.
Seeing the hard times farming was going through in Australia, Nick had pulled out of dryland farming and after graduation was swept up in the rapidly expanding wine industry, rising to be in charge of 500ha of vineyards in the Barossa Valley.
Angela’s career was also well on-track.
“I’d set up the Barossa farmers market and had a really good job with Rockford, a boutique winery, so it definitely was not our plan to come back but it was an opportunity too good to pass up,” she said.
Nick was offered a job setting up a new vineyard, Greystone, in Waipara and with Angela’s parents still living in NZ, they took the leap across the Tasman.
“I was getting a bit sick of the big corporate with lots of meetings but not really any hands in the dirt time, and I came here and was given a ute and a 130ha farm and they said, ‘Plant a vineyard on that’,” Nick said.
“I’d done it a few times before and there weren’t many people round here who had a proven track record of doing that and also getting good grapes quickly.”
They bought a 6ha block near Amberley and started a family – Ruby is 17, Matilda,14, and son Flynn is 12.
From the outset, they had big plans for their new land, which they call The Food Farm.
“If you look around the world, small farms can be incredibly productive but they have bad wrap here — they’re lifestyle blocks — and we were quite determined that NZ was a good place to be,” Angela said.
“We’d done a permaculture design course in Australia, so that was really our guiding light in terms of what we wanted to do with this property.”
Angela Clifford & Nick Gill
Permaculture, or permanent culture, is a way of farming, growing many perennials as well as annuals and using similar techniques to regenerative farmers, but there’s more to it than that, Angela says.
“It isn’t just about designing a piece of land, it’s also about designing your life and designing communities as well, and that’s really important to me,” she said.
Sitting under the shade of a large grapevine-covered pergola that creates an outside room for their house, Angela says designed structures like it follow permaculture principles, too.
“This vine is an example of passive solar design, so you have something that creates shade in summer but loses its leaves in winter and allows sunlight back into the house on to concrete floors where it creates a thermal mass,” she said.
On The Food Farm they grow more than 60 varieties of fruit and vegetables, raise hens for eggs and meat, as well as pigs, ducks, sheep, milking cows and bees.
“When we have a meal, the food is (usually) all off the property – and that happens a lot. It’s something that we value and it takes time and effort,” Nick said.
“We recognise we’re very fortunate to be able to do that — we’re living here, we’ve got the space, we’ve got off-farm income that enables us to develop the farm, we’ve got water.”
Nick and Angela used to sell surplus food at markets and through the community supported agriculture scheme (CSA), under which people pay an annual subscription for a weekly box of fruit and veges. They no longer sell food, but run regular courses on the farm teaching people how to grow and preserve food.
“An important part of the ethics of permaculture is that you see yourself as part of the community and you need to contribute to your community. This farm has the ability to sustain way more than just us, so we need to find a way to share that with our community and a good way of sharing that is through education,” Angela said.
Nick still works for Greystone Wines and Angela is chief executive of Eat New Zealand, a collective of chefs, producers, media, tourism and event operators working to create a national platform to promote NZ food, drink and culinary tourism.
“Our mission is to connect people to our land through food and it’s a grassroots movement that sits across the food system,” she said.
“We believe the future for farms in NZ could include the ability to do what we’re doing, which is to create an on-farm experience – whether that’s education or farmstay or a hospitality experience.
“When we have people who come through who want to see a NZ food story, particularly when we did have international travellers, The Food Farm is a great place to base that story from.
“It also gives me an authentic place to stand when I talk about NZ food, because I’m a food producer so both parts of my life are pretty intimately connected really.”
Although they grow a huge range of crops, they’re still exploring others and this year have an experiment running with an ancient variety of white maize called kaanga ma.
“It’s a traditional Māori corn from Ruatoria and we’re going to use it to make masa flour for tortillas. It’s a really amazing NZ heritage grain,” Nick said.
He also plans to use it as a stock feed to replace the wheat he has to buy in. They’re growing it using a mixture of traditional South American methods and modern technology. A Kaiapoi seed raising firm that usually propagates seedlings by the tens of thousands agreed to a run of 2000 maize seedlings, raising them in cell packs.
“It was probably not economic but they did it just so they could see what happened, I think. It’s really nice to meet people like that with a really big operation saying, ‘We’ll raise your crazy maize plants’,” he said.
With the children’s help, the seedlings were planted in a 1ha plot over a weekend, and with a traditional South American twist, pumpkins and beans were companion planted – the pumpkins to suppress the weeds and the climbing beans to “utilise the vertical space.”
The crop’s too small to bring in a harvester, so Nick’s planning to do it the old-fashioned way, as can be seen in films from the 1940s on YouTube.
“They used to have husking competitions where you’d strip the husk and twist the cob out. The maize plants’ seed heads get really big and they flop down and they dry in autumn and then you just take them out,” he said.
The cobs will be stored in a “crib” – a slatted, rat-proof bin with a roof.
“I’d like to get a t-shirt with “Farming like it’s the 1930s” printed on it,” he jokes.
What Angela Clifford and Nick Gill have created is nothing like the “life sentence block” or “life on lawnmower” that cynics often dub smallholdings. Their little farm is incredibly productive, sustainable and resilient, and they’re passing their knowledge on to the community and just as importantly, they’ve made a family home.
“It was really important to us to create a place to stand, or tūrangawaewae, for us to be from, to go out to the world to do what we wanted to do, and a place to raise our children,” Angela said.