Category Archives: interns

The Vegetarian Butcher

“Now that you’ve cleaned a chicken’s bum, I think it’s time to write your first blog post,” he says.

“Makes sense,” I say.

The Vegetarian Butcher

In the span of two days, I assisted in skinning a sheep; watched its butchering; plucked, gutted, and prepped a chicken. Farm life, am I right? That’s a lot of flesh and blood for a vegetarian celebrating five meat-free years and a year of being vegan-ish.


I’d wanted to be a vegetarian since a very young age, in hopes of being more like 8-year-old environmental activist Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons. I didn’t take the plunge though, until I was 17 and decided I was done supporting factory farms. I did so somewhat begrudgingly because I had (have) a soft spot for meatloaf and chicken tenders and still claim that I’d cave for either, so long as it was smothered in ketchup. I’ve stayed strong, though, and even moved towards a vegan lifestyle last December, excited about the added challenge to cook without the use of animal products. My college running coach wasn’t so thrilled—through university, I was averaging 100km, three weightlifting sessions, and assorted cross training every week—but I felt incredible! I was eating cleanly, feeling fueled, and morally sound.


Here, as is typical of a farm, the animals are workers. Where Kaitiaki differs, however, is in the tasks expected of the animals. In permaculture, the long-term health of the land must be considered in every decision made. By housing the majority of our poultry in tractors that are shifted daily to new grass, the ducks and chickens are providing a service without degrading the land. In a stationary poultry run, the birds are compacting the soil, stripping away grass, digging ruts, and accumulating poo that’s fertilizing nothing. Eventually there’s no fresh grass or insects for the birds to eat and the land underneath is unsuitable for future cultivation.

dsc_2631There is the added task of moving the tractors each morning, but this tiny pec/delt/shoulder workout is hardly a nuisance when considering the range of good done by our feathered farmhands. While chickens and ducks are for meat and eggs on any other farm, those are merely added bonuses here—rather than demanding eggs from the birds, we graciously accept them as gifts.

So when misfortunes fall upon our animals (i.e. broken limbs or little dogs), it’s time to put my tofu-centric views aside and utilize Holmgren’s third, fifth, sixth, and twelfth permaculture design principle: obtain a yield; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no waste; creatively use and respond to change. In permaculture, we are quick to learn that looking at the big picture and the long term can surmount what seems desirable (or undesirable) in the moment. In this instance, an animal lost is a meal gained. I’ve always said that I’d rather eat meat than see it thrown in the trash; I might soon have to eat my words.

-Liz (Illinois, USA)

What I have Learned About (Permanent) Agriculture

When I arrived to New Zealand a month ago, I had no idea how it would be to work on a permaculture farm. I hardly had any idea of what permaculture was about. I grew up at a hobby farm with 190ha and have recently been working on a duck farm with 500ha, so I thought that the Lebo family’s 5ha would be ‘piece of cake’. But I was wrong!


My home country, Denmark is, like New Zealand a proud farm country. We produce a lot of grains and potatoes on our very flat landscape. I expected to see something similar here. But arriving in New Zealand has taught me that not only climate, but also landscape decides what the farmers grow and produce on their land. New Zealand has the most beautiful hilled landscape, where it’s often impossible to plow a field. Instead they produce a lot of wool and dairy from sheep and cows that easily graze on the hillsides.
The Lebo family has been taking advantage of the landscape of their property as well. Not only for their own benefit but also to benefit nature and the environment.


Their farm is 99% organic, where vegetables are grown in the flat parts of the property, while cows, sheep and goats are fed with grass from the hillsides. They have rehabilitated the biology of the soil of a compacted horse field, where they today grow lots of garlic, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and different kinds of fruit trees. They have started rehabilitation of wetland on their property, and planted poplars to keep the soil from sliding down the hill. All of this has already proven worthwhile and will continue to pay off in the future, to them and to the environment, which I found out is exactly what permaculture is about. Permaculture (Permanent agriculture) is about working with nature instead of fighting against it.

Since the day I came to the farm, we have been working hard on both small and bigger projects. I have been fighting thorny thistles and gorse with loppers and a spade. I have been fencing in the hills, which I find ten times harder than fencing in flat Denmark. I have planted, transplanted and watered hundreds of trees and vegetables. I have been weeding, feeding and sweating in the burning sun and I got to know the world’s best tool; the stirrup hoe.


At a permaculture farm you have a small scale but big variation in plants and animals, which gives you different kinds of chores than on a traditional farm, which is often specialised in a curtain plant or animal. I knew that farming was hard work, but at this farm we do everything by hand and tools. No machines. That is hard work – and fun work. It gives me skills that I have never thought, I would get, and I am looking forward to learning more the next few months.

-Rikke (from Randers, Denmark)

Everybody Loves Us…Almost

Editor’s Note: This is one of my weekly columns for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I use it regularly to help facilitate transformation in our city, and to point out some of the wasteful and unsustainable practices of our council.

The last two columns told stories about our first interns, John and Amy, and how they helped us transform an abandoned villa and section full of rubbish and weeds into a little paradise of sustainability. Along the way, the process of working with us provided vital steppingstones for each of their own transformations to more sustainable worldviews.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.15 PM

Transformative learning, as I pointed, is a learning theory often applied to adults that seeks to explain changes of perspective that differ drastically from those held previously.

As I have pointed out in this column with regards to Castlecliff Beach, the potential for change can be scary, and so many people resist it. Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order to undergo transformation, learners must experience a “disorienting dilemma” or “cognitive crisis.”

In a nutshell, either of these conditions present the learner with the perception of mixed messages about the world and their place in it. For example, one message might say, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” while another message says, “Western consumer lifestyles are harming the planet.” Then she or he may choose to seek out learning experiences that help change their perspectives and lifestyles accordingly.

The mixed messages that most of us observe and some of us internalize are also sometimes called “cognitive dissonance.” For example, one can smoke cigarettes while believing it to be unhealthy. Psychologists suggest that those who experience such inconsistency (dissonance) are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Well people, I’m here to say I’m psychologically distressed. No, I don’t smoke. Nor am I living a consumer lifestyle. Here is the nature of my distress.

During any week, half dozen strangers will stop me on the street and say something like, “I read your column. Keep up the good work.” Or something like, “What you’re doing is so important for Whanganui. Don’t stop.”

Additionally, our work has been praised by leading permaculturists across the country and around the world. Our Eco-Thrifty projects have been featured in national and international magazines. We have been invited to other cities to present our work. Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.06 PM

Meanwhile, it appears that certain elements of Wanganui District Council does its best to ignore the work that Dani and Verti and I do to help make our community more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Please note, I have been advised not to make blanket statements about “council”, as it is a large and diverse organization. I recognize that many council staff may feel their positions have little or nothing to do with sustainability, and that they are not the ones making what appear to be unsustainable decisions for our city.

On another level, I suppose an argument can be made that it is not the role of council to help people live healthier lives while saving money and protecting the environment. Indeed, a senior staff member indicated such in a letter rejecting funding for a Community Contract with which I was involved.

Our council cuts heritage trees, dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and spends tens of thousands of dollars pushing sand to windward on the beach while other councils around New Zealand support innovative and successful sustainability programmes that help people and the planet. Does this explain the cause of my psychological distress?

Leading up to the elections last year I asked the question in this column if “sustainability” and “environment” were dirty words in Whanganui because almost nobody standing for office used them. Evidence of council decision-making certainly supports the suggestion that they are. But this begs the question, WHY?

Given the amount of good will that comes my way and the number of people that ask me to stand for office, it would appear there is a quiet majority of citizens – including some council employees – who recognize and appreciate the win-win-win thinking that I share in this column.

Silence over the last three years on our work appears to indicate the positions of those recently re-elected politicians, but the good news is that two of the newly elected councilors have indicated an interest in sustainability: one has contacted me via Facebook and one recently attended a local Green Drinks gathering.

Could it be the early signs of transformation for WDC? Time will tell.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.24 PM


We’ve just passed the third anniversary of the arrival of our first two interns. John Wright was a former student of mine from my high school teaching days, and Amy Lamb came to us through her uncle, a good friend and groomsman at our wedding. They were both in their early twenties when they arrived in Whanganui in late summer, 2011.

Screen shot 2014-02-14 at 6.54.19 AM

 We were in the heart and guts of our renovation: ripping open walls, adding insulation, hanging Gib and weatherboards, installing solar hot water. Much of what we were doing at that time required close supervision, as it would be scrutinized by our building inspector. I’ll admit I was a bit of a taskmaster, which went over better with John than with Amy.

John had come to us straight after 4 months on a lobster boat off the coast of Maine through a Northern winter. Amy was fresh out of uni, and looking for a gap year type of experience.

By the time they left us, both had experienced transformative learning experiences on different levels. John returned to the states and immediately took up a lease on a two-acre organic vegetable farm. Amy took a job with a conservation organization, enrolled in a permaculture design course, and now works with a sustainable forestry consultant.

Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order for one to transform their perspective they must first recognize that something is wrong with their current perspective, then look for alternatives, and eventually adopt a new worldview. For those like John and Amy, the Western consumer lifestyle messages bombarding them on a daily basis did not satisfy their need for meaning.

They came to us and experienced some alternative worldviews such as sustainability, permaculture, and what we call eco-thrifty living. For the first month they spent with us, most of their ‘transformative learning’ took place outside of our nine to five workday dictated by the NZ Building Code. It took place over the dinner table, in the garden, and even during our weekly trips to Hayward’s Auctions.

But as the pressure of pre-line and post-line inspections waned, I allowed John and Amy to select from a long list of non-consent jobs to engage with while I got back to writing my PhD thesis.

 Screen shot 2014-02-14 at 6.49.36 AM

After building our outdoor pizza oven together, John embarked on laying second-hand brick for our patio and Amy set herself to constructing a fence. I’ll share John’s experience this week and Amy’s next week.

In my 14-year teaching career, John was one of my top 10 favourite students. Although not a strong academic, he always worked hard, had fun, and was open to new ideas. He was just an awesome kid.

 Screen shot 2014-02-14 at 6.49.24 AM

I had no problem telling him to build me a patio and trusting he would do a good job. The bulk of the work involved carting many wheelbarrows of sand to fill and level out the trench beneath the former deck that was full of rubble and rubbish. John was the perfect candidate for this job because he was strong as a horse, but also carefully used a leveling line to place each brick. John took ownership for the job and followed through with an amazing result more or less on his own.

 Screen shot 2014-02-14 at 6.49.58 AM

The project is a good example of eco-thrifty renovation because it involved second-hand materials, local materials, and free materials. With a little vision, hard work and patience, the bricks that made up a chimney in a Gonville home are now our patio in Castlecliff. What a transformation.

Beach Logging

I have been splitting quite a bit of wood for our two wood stoves over the past year and figured that leaving the rural lifestyle behind me and stepping into the suburbs for a few months might offer a change of pace. This dream came to an abrupt end with the three day rainstorm we had last weekend. The Whaganui river swelled into a churning brown monster laden with debris that were belched into the ocean. I thought twice before I took a swim in New Zealand’s agricultural run-off, but figured it was all part of the experience and plunged in. Over the next twenty-four hours the beach was transformed from a smooth black sand ribbon, laced with footprints and ATV tracks, to the remnants of a clear cut gone wrong.

Whole trees were washed up and stacked randomly amongst one another, leaving little room for my daily swim routine. So began my new career as a beach logger.

Nelson and I fire up our skidder and rumble down to the parking lot. Selecting only the finest wood for burning, we proceed to load the roof rack with logs of various sizes and up to eight meters long. Roping it all down, we headed for home.

The poor Subaru was riding low as we lumbered down the street, branches trailing close to the pavement. The four police cars we passed along the way seemed more concerned with catching hard criminals and drunks than busting us for doing a little beach clearing. Safely home, we unloaded without a scratch to the paint job. The wood now sits in a pile in the yard, awaiting the arrival of the multi-fuel stove and outdoor pizza oven.

-John the Intern

Editor’s Note: John the Intern arrived to us, straight off a lobster boat in Maine, last Friday. He has been disappointed in the rainy New Zealand summer he’s experienced thus far. But it beats the wintery thundersnows back home. He’ll be in New Zealand until May, working with us and traveling to other sites. We’ve coerced him into writing some blog posts as part of his interning duties, so you can look forward to hearing more from him in the future.