Nurturing resilience at Awatea Organics

Awatea Organics is a research and training farm in Whangārei specialising in heritage organic food, seed and medicine. Its founder, Tui Shortland, talked to us about food sovereignty, saving heritage seed and her work supporting indigenous communities internationally. 

Photography: Jacob Leaf

Video: Tui Shortland spoke to Organic NZ about the kaupapa of Awatea Organics

Tui Shortland spoke to Organic NZ about the kaupapa of Awatea Organics

I’ve been gardening here at Te Rewarewa for four years now, opening up the māra as a way to reconnect our whānau back to the land and writing our food sovereignty kaupapa. Our business, Awatea Organics, specialises in growing heritage organic food, seed, and medicine, as well as cultivating farmers. We believe that sharing knowledge about growing heritage food is going to help our people to reclaim our culture, reconnect to the land and be healthy.  

Te Rewarewa was the traditional area of our tūpuna, but after colonisation, most of the land was confiscated. So pretty much, we’ve been squeezed down to this 165 acre block. A lot of things have happened in terms of illegal use of the land, pushing the family off and alienation but we’ve been fortunate to have a legal incorporation for a long time, so we have meetings – and every year more families come back and talk about our vision for the land.  

My father ran a traditional medicine clinic in Whangārei. He taught me how to harvest and prepare plant medicines. I get my love of the forest from him. 

At Awatea Organics, we believe the future of food is culture. We follow the ancient principles of mimicking nature, establishing biodiverse resilient ecosystems of nutritious food. Hand-raised and hand-harvested heritage produce reconnects people to their ancestors and follows indigenous practices with an intergenerational focus. Traditional superfoods we grow here include Māori potatoes like kōwinini as well as taro, kūmara and pūha, the native brassica – ruruhau, and we also grow medicinal plants like kūmarahou and karamū. 

There’s a famine when it comes to Māori seed, so growing out seed is really important. Sometimes we’ll get given a little handful of old seed and we grow the crop until we get to a point that we have enough to eat and also some seed to save. We’re constantly looking at how we can improve the resilience of our seed. We grew some plants through the seven-year drought in 2020 and it’s our favourite seed because it’s so hardy. Once we’ve grown a crop for 20 cycles, the seed has adapted to our microclimate and soil. 

We plant using indigenous methodologies. Our water conservation, terracing, companion planting, all of it is very much about tried and true ways of growing our food according to principles of our ancestors – principles around biodiversity, understanding your microclimate and fostering soil. As soon as we cleared the tobacco weed, privet and kikuyu away and opened up the māra, straight away we had birds coming in like riroriro (grey warbler) and tūi, and there’s a resident ruru here and a resident kāhu (hawk).  

Soil health is very important to us. Our indigenous ways of growing food are very much around soil regeneration and the ethics of returning life to that which gives you life. It’s about putting the breath or the mauri back into the plants because they’ve given it to us. We have some big old critters here – there’s a huge centipede that we try not to think about too much because otherwise you get put off putting your hands in the soil. But all of the life that is in the soil is supporting all of the plants that we’re bringing through. We try not to let the soil get too dry or too bare. We believe that if we follow our principles of fostering the soil, then we can grow food here for the next 100 years. We eat seafood regularly so use the leftovers as fertiliser.  

Kōwiniwini are a favourite heritage crop

This is an educational māra at the moment. We grow plants that generally you might not find in a cultivation in a traditional mara, like tī kōuka (cabbage trees). We are trialling species that are generally found in the forest, and native flowers that are vulnerable or threatened. There’s a yellow daisy that the caterpillar of the kahukura (red admiral) butterfly eats. We observe it here and collect the seed and distribute it, and are about to launch a range of seed we’ve gathered from native flowering plants. 

Food is related to land, and rights to land is an issue. I’ve been working in biodiversity for 25 years now.  It’s something I wanted to do since I was very young. There are many barriers to going back to land and growing food. I was generating a database of sacred places and cultural water indicators for my father’s people – Ngāti Hine – and back then there wasn’t a lot of traditional-knowledge work going on. We were all trying to be pseudoscientists and went around measuring faecal coliforms and e. coli. But when you go to court and you try to oppose a big discharge into a river, the developer always has a better scientist and so we decided that we would come from a strength-based approach and put forward our traditional knowledge around issues.  

Our elders said, “Go overseas and talk to other indigenous peoples and see how they are doing it.” We raised funds and went to India and then stopped in Malaysia on the way back and worked with the Orang Asli people there, and ever since then I have worked overseas teaching governments about what traditional knowledge is because there are UN treaties that require protection of traditional knowledge and customary sustainable use of biodiversity.  We also write reports on the state of biodiversity and climate, from Pasifika peoples’ perspectives, and find them partners to help with things like technological transfer, or investing in more monitoring. So a lot of the work that Awatea does is bridging and connecting and translating and mentoring. 

After the COP26 climate summit, we saw that there was more of a global commitment to changing the way that we live. We saw a lot of the private sector and some governments wanting to change, which gave us a lot of hope. But in the transition to achieve net-zero emissions, we need to ensure there are safeguards in place so indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities are not impacted by the new developments and new technologies. So that’s a big thing we’re doing at the moment – working with industries on shaping their sustainability frameworks to include indigenous safeguards. 

We’ve been part of the GE-free movement in the north since the beginning. A regional policy statement that came out said that GE was a major issue for the tangata whenua of Te Tai Tokerau. Because of that we ended up in the high court with Federated Farmers. All we were saying in the policy was that we wanted Northlanders to have a right to say around GE, but Federated Farmers said that they thought it should be the EPA instead of Northlanders. They lost but we’re back in it now because there’s new language around synthetic biology and things like that. So for me, organics is not only about following the principles of our ancestors in terms of how we grow and how we manaaki people, but it’s also about the political side of it and ensuring that these big industries and also industrial agriculture are ramped down. I believe we need to come together a lot more too. The organics community has so much to give to the industrial agriculture community – they need to open up because everybody needs to change within the next 10 years we’ve got – or less now we’ve been told by the scientists 

Kahu Armstrong (left), one of the Awatea Organics team, waters the garden while Tui’s daughter Hinetaekura (centre) plants orange cosmos in the garden to attract pollinators. Tui (right) has found pampas grass to be an effective mulch during Northland’s hot, dry summers.

We see ourselves as guardians of the community and have plans to open up parts of the māra. The garden teaches us so many things: about abundance and community, and we hope that in the future people will eventually come and experience it and be inspired by it.    

Find out more about Awatea Organics, their indigenous consultancy work, heritage native plants and the maramataka on their website: awateaorganics.nz. They also sell a range of products including a harvest-succession calendar. 

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