by Bob Corker, Co-founder of Kotare Village.
I grew up in a traditional farming community that still had a strong sense of place and a sense of who and what it was. Much of what we did each day would connect us directly to our environment and the community. Our whole family helped on the farm and in the garden. We fished, gathered watercress, played in the wilderness, and watched the progression of life around us. It was a rich tapestry, and this later became the basis for my deep interest in ecology and subsequently my passion for ecological design.
When I returned to the farm in the 1970’s, full of enthusiasm and idealism from the ‘ferment’ of university during the Vietnam war era, the community I knew was fast disappearing. One family had left, and another was working in town, the farm having become a hobby. The economics of farming had become a matter of ‘get bigger or get out’, and this trend continues today.
Since the Second World War, in NZ, Australia, the USA and other places, farming communities have been decimated by the changing economics of commodity farming. We can still see the ruins of the small cowsheds and pigsties, resilient daffodils, eleagnus hedges, and macrocarpa shelterbelts; all shadows of a once vibrant culture. In contrast to the 50 individually-named cows on which our family thrived, the modern milking platform has 800+ cows with computer chips, corporate owners and workers who have no hope of ever being a farmer.
What has caused all this?
My ancestors were crofters in the highlands and islands of Scotland. The crofters had small holdings that were integrated within the commons, supporting an indigenous, tribal culture with close connections to, and love for, the land. The lairds owned the land and shared a close, mutually supportive relationship with their tenants, the crofters.
Then the industrial revolution intervened.
The industrialists of the south persuaded the Lairds to kick the crofters out and transform the land use to grazing for new breeds of sheep that would make them wealthy with returns from wool. So, the clearances began and the benefits of this biotechnological advance (the increased productivity of cold, hardy cheviot sheep) and the new markets were appropriated by the Lairds and not shared amongst the community. The responsibility to kith and kin was forgotten; commodity farming had begun. All that was left of the old culture were the sad ruins, inviting memories.
Our modern farming communities repeat this process again and again. The benefits of new technology and expanded markets are appropriated off the farm. The farms and the communities are diminished.
Surely there is a better way?
I had a dream; that we could honour both land and people, through a more creative process. Reading Bill Mollison’s – Permaculture: A Permanent Agriculture motivated me to action. Looking back, Bill’s words were incredibly prophetic, wise and sometimes naive. Most importantly, they were inspirational, and they struck a chord with thousands like me all over the world, kicking off a swarm of experiments in the new paradigm of permaculture and ecological design. The world owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Bill’s foresight and courage. We can all play a part in repaying that debt by reshaping our lives in the patterns of permaculture.
Back on my families farm, there was an opportunity to develop these new ideas, and we did; the farm went from being an uneconomic unit to employing many people. We developed the Koanga Institute, and New Zealand’s largest collection of heritage vegetable seeds. We shared our experience and knowledge with thousands of people through workshops, design courses, and events and we published books to further spread this knowledge. I created a business developing constructed wetlands for sewage and storm water treatment, and began New Zealand’s first dedicated wetland nursery and developed some innovative designs for wastewater treatment. How anyone could believe in the concept of ‘waste water’ I’m really not sure, do we have waste air, and waste soil? Well, that’s another story.
We learned and experienced lots about organic gardening, nutritious food, homeschooling, earth building, and more. As we worked through various ideas and ventures, there was an obvious need for people. We had a sense that we needed to rebuild the community of old, but where were the models for stacking people into our communities, in a similar way that we had learnt about ‘stacking’ plants and animals into our Permaculture designs? These models were back beyond living memory, and we had to start again.
The philosophies and enthusiasm of individual “back to the landers”, communes, and others who wished to abandon mainstream values weren’t enough. Neither could we attach our vision to existing cooperative land tenure systems. We lacked structures that would hold us together, and due to competition from commodity farming, we definitely lacked the capital to purchase good land. We needed a structure that recognised our need for both individualism and access to the commons; for building both private and community economies that were inspired by a vision beyond that of one more blade of grass and maximum export dollars.
And so, over many years of experimentation, with successes and failures, the eco-village movement was born. For me, this led to developing the Kohatu Toa Eco-village, a conversion of my family farm into a seven-title hamlet inspired by the benchmark for eco-villages at the time – Crystal Waters Eco-Village, Queensland, Australia.
All over the world, many other eco-villages sprung up, including a few others in New Zealand. By most standards, they were successful and most continue today, increasing in size. People buy in to the communities, and sell on the open market with the capital gain happening as in the wider community. As with any group of people, they have had their share of dramas, but most residents are happy with their choice and getting on with their lives.
Kay and I lived in the Kohatu Toa Eco-Village for seven years. In many ways, we had achieved our dream. In 2007, however, we decided to leave. This was a major consideration, given that this farm had been my home for over 50 years. Why did we leave? There were many reasons, and I will list them all here because they have had a big influence on the shape our current project.
We started to feel as though we were living in the busyness of Auckland (New Zealand’s biggest city). The old farming culture, which I had found so nourishing in the past, had gone. The pace of life for most people in the larger community around us was ever increasing busyness and so was ours. We couldn’t see it getting quieter.
Our Eco-Village was under-capitalised, and under-resourced in people, time, and energy. Most people were busy paying off a mortgage, and the standard way of eco-villages getting more capital to develop the common land (by selling more sections) was cut off to us, due to limitations placed by the Roading Authority governing our access to the State Highway.
Given the extent of the gardening and seed growing we were embarking on, we had limited good soils and water, and desired more.
The governance of the commons tended to drift into neo-consensus most of the time, with everyone feeling emotionally involved in making decisions. This was energy sapping, and tended to prevent change. On reflection this was probably a result of the small number of villagers. Larger numbers could likely have helped us to establish a ‘Council’ form of governance.
The market values for the titles appreciated rapidly (just like in the wider community). This set the requirement that incoming new members needed to be wealthier, or had to have bigger mortgages. The wealth that had been created by our village was being appropriated by individuals and removed, usually ending up in the hands of banks. The effect of this was that we were becoming a retirement village for middle-class aging hippies. Apparently, this effect has been noticed in many other eco-villages: young people can’t afford to enter, and their energy goes elsewhere.
In the end, we weren’t content to retire with all these limitations around us. We decided that we would rather do something bolder; something inspired by the lessons we had learned, and by what others had learned on journeys with similar visions. It was time to take our experience to another level.
We moved to what is now Kotare Village, Wairoa, in the Northern Hawkes Bay area about four years ago and chose it for it’s fertile free draining soils, good climate for seed production, water security and the supportive community that Wairoa offers. We have not been disappointed. The Koanga Institute has become well established with seed-gardens, a nursery, and orchard so now is the time to really start the development of the village to further support our vision.
Here on this land there is always an array of birdcalls to greet me, their call amplified by the stillness that holds in this valley. I can retreat to the quietness of the streams and bush valleys or join in the chatter of the latest discovery or idea that has been drawn into our midst. A large part of my ‘ work’’ is creating ‘new’ ways forward, new ideas, stories, structures, visions – and these arise naturally as I ‘beaver’ away in the garden pulling weeds, or as I am striding out to bring the cows in for milking.
I am in my element here, I don’t miss for much, and every now and again I can enjoy the treat of an adventure in the wider world, to engage with wider projects and share in the vision of others. Already our house site looks like an oasis in the grass prairie, and we can feel the vision of a perennial polyculture slowly growing around us year by year, filled with more produce, bird song and laughter.
Another large part of my ’work’ here is Thorny Croft a 6-hectare farm, another dream nurtured by Kay and I for some time. We are developing a system that will feed people, cows, pigs, chickens and others (My ‘bacon and egg’ farm) and is powered by oaks, walnuts, mulberries, acacias, chicken forage trees, multiple exotic species we’ve barely heard of, and many more.
Already we have started holistic management of our pastures and brought about a major positive change in pasture species. We have a temporary cowshed, we are feeding curds as part of our chickens diet, and raising several litters of pigs each year. The bacon and egg is natural, organic, nutrient dense and sizzlingly tasty, finished with fresh kefir – yum! We’re just a little way off our Jamón Ibérico but dreams are free, and building the foundations of them is fun. Our grandchildren will surely be the lucky ones.
As I write this, there are over 400 eco-villages being planned in the USA alone, and probably as many, if not more, in the rest of the world. There are dozens springing up in Europe and Russia. We are entering a new stage for intentional communities. Much has been learned over the last 50 years. Many more possibilities have been created by the rapid evolution of science and technology with the internet, in particular, having significantly expanded our horizons. We are not flying in the dark anymore. Much of the pioneering work has been done and many lessons have been learned. Experience has given us confidence in ‘being’ the vision we wish to see around us.
The motivation to do something different has also increased dramatically during this time. We have become more conscious of peak oil, peak everything, global warming and the impending clash between decreasing resources such as mineralised topsoil, clean water, clean air, low cost minerals/oil and the dominant economic paradigm of constant economic growth complete with the debt that fuels it.
One of the most important changes for us personally over the last 5 years is the understanding that, as a species, our trans-generational genetic base is rapidly being eroded by demineralised and industrially processed foods and we are clearly getting less healthy. The importance of this has driven our commitment to food self-reliance. We are now confident in our ability to achieve this quickly. This is the only way to guarantee the quality of our food and ensure our good health. What is happening out there in the world is like nothing else we have ever experienced before. Our society has burned bright on rapid consumption and now the chickens are coming home to roost.
Not only are we faced with many ecological challenges we also are faced with many social challenges. I came across an interesting quote, from Hilary Clinton, recently. “It takes a village to raise a child – our offspring are being reared by the global village.” Think about this for a while. Is this actually what we want for our children, our grandchildren? Let’s get clear that we can develop our own culture based on traditional values, but to do this we need to seize the initiative.
We are faced with two choices: denial or change. These are amazing times, requiring radical solutions (in the truest sense of the word). Can we rely on our national governments, local bodies and corporate organizations to fully support or achieve these changes? I don’t think so. While they muddle on as best they can within their existing paradigm, we need to create our own governance and our own economic organisations: decentralised, local and relevant to us – with vision and ethics. We need new models; ones that go beyond our timid attempts so far. It is time for bold decisions.