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Episode 17: Back To The Land

Back to the Land

In a remote part of the East Coast the Atkins family is demonstrating how a small Maori land block can support people as well as native flora and fauna.

Wally and Bobby Atkins have established an organic vegetable business on their 70 hectare multiply-owned property, while alongside them their son Graham is restoring indigenous forest, birds and rare plants.

It all started nine years ago when Wally and his wife Bobby decided to leave their paid jobs in Wellington and take their chances back on their whanau land. Wally had been raised in the Tikapa Valley north of Ruatoria and when his two brothers died he felt an obligation to go home and care for the land.

It was thick with gorse and blackberry - and the few remnants of primary forest were severely damaged by cattle, possums and other pests.

Wally and Bobby set themselves up with a caravan and a lean-to shed and began to clear away the weeds with the idea of cropping kumara, just the way many people in the Tikapa Valley did 50 years ago.

Their son, Graham, cleared gorse too - but with a different aim. He works for the Department of Conservation and specialises in rare plant species.

Graham saw the family land as a chance to show the locals what can be achieved by fencing off native forests and getting rid of pests.

Wally and Bobby had some ups and downs with their cropping. It took them years to get their land certified by Biogro for organic growing - and then they discovered that people on the East Coast were not interested in paying extra for organic produce.

The couple struggled with marketing and administration - but three years ago a near-neighbours Mere and Len Chaffey became partners to help with marketing.

This season the Maori potatoes and butternuts that Wally grew were pre-sold before they were harvested. And he's being encouraged to try new varieties and additional organic crops to supply an organic wholesaler in Auckland.

Meanwhile, Graham has continued planting native trees around the property and has fenced off a 30 hectare block with the help of Nga Whenua Rahui conservation fund. The stream that runs through the property is now crystal clear and home to native koura.  Small seedlings are popping up on the forest floor.

Graham takes his children with him when he traps possums. They love the work because it's the chance to be with their father in the outdoors and to make some good money from possum fur.

As possum numbers have gone down, bird life in the area has flourished. Lower possum numbers have also been a boon for rare plant species that Graham has introduced, such as woodrose and native mistletoe.

Among his skills is his expertise in rongoa or Maori medicine, so when anyone in the family gets sick Graham knows many remedies using native plants.

Wally is known in the Tikapa valley as a hardworking grower. He can be seen bent over in his paddocks weeding from October through to March. Weeds are always a challenge for organic growers because they can't use conventional herbicides.

Until now Wally has not employed anyone to help him with the weeding - but that will be the next step if he is to expand his business.  At harvest time his whanau come and help with the picking. It's a traditional activity that Wally wanted to revive but he'd like one day to be able to pay all his relatives who come to help. At present they are offered as much of the crop as they need to feed their families.

Wally dreams of seeing the Tikapa valley revived to become the flourishing community it was when he was a boy. He believes commercial organic cropping could entice people back and offer them a reasonable living.

Graham has his dreams too. He'd like to see native forests on Maori land fenced off in a chain along the East coast to provide a corridor for birds and plant species.

Other sites to view:

* For information about Tikapa Valley archeology, go to 

* For a report about Project Crimson in the Tikapa area, go to TRUECOLOURS