In Praise of Kay Baxter's Work

We have a great deal of respect for Kay Baxter and the work of the Koanga Institute she founded in Northland. More than anybody else we know of, she brings a wealth of practical experience to the whole field of organics and self sufficiency. I can’t think that we have ever met her, although He of the Elephantine Memory recalls that she was on the student executive when we were at Massey in the early 1970s. They were heady days to be a student. We were a highly politicised generation at the time of the Vietnam War when the nuclear threat was also at a peak. Many of us chose to explore alternative lifestyles (variously described as communes, communities, ohus, counter culture, self sufficiency, The Good Life and even hippies). We opted for a largely self sufficient lifestyle on three acres in Dunedin. But whereas most of us became diverted by other goals in life, Kay Baxter stayed true and she now has nearly forty years of experience which she shares with passion and generosity.

The Koanga Garden Guide is one of the references we have at hand when we compile In the Garden each week. It is quite simply the best book we have found on organic gardening and all those readers and enthusiasts out there who espouse organic principles should be getting their own copy. There is a great deal more to organics than just doing away with sprays and chemical fertilisers. Kay Baxter brings critical analysis and rigour to the process, avoiding the flakiness and woolly assertions which can be off-putting to hardened old cynics such as us. For the learner gardener, there is a month by month guide as well as details on a full range of crops while experienced gardeners may find her information on carbon content of compost, nutrient density, no-dig gardening versus double digging and the like give food for thought. Mark’s one criticism is the lack of an index at the back but this will apparently be rectified in future editions.

One can’t mention Koanga and Kay Baxter without adding in heirloom fruit and vegetables in the same breath. Many pay lip service to the importance of retaining bio-diversity and keeping old seed strains and good performing old cultivars going but it does tend to be along the lines of: “My, don’t the apples on that old tree taste great. Why doesn’t somebody propagate it?” Kay Baxter does. She has spent years gathering together the old varieties of edible crops in this country and they are being maintained and dispersed through Koanga. We would hesitate before going so far as to say old varieties (when they are old enough they become heirloom) are invariably superior in performance, taste, nutrition and health to modern cultivars but in an era of increasing industrialisation of global food production, it is really important that a whole range of different genetic material be maintained. Kay Baxter also points out that you need to find the heirloom crops which are local to your area. There is absolutely no guarantee that heirloom tomatoes from Italian sourced seed will be as good here. Last year when we put out a call in this column for good performing apricot trees in Taranaki, readers responded with about four different trees. Based on that info, we now have Apricot Fitzroy, of which we have high hopes. It is a shame none of you offered up good performing fruiting cherry trees this year…. But, yes we can certainly understand that true heirloom crops may be very localised and there is a great deal of trial and error required to find what performs well. We think Kay Baxter should be given a medal for the work she and her colleagues have done in this whole area.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a best seller by American writer Michael Pollan which is a must-read for anybody who has concerns about the directions of food production and the quality of food which they put in their mouths, let alone reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. I will never buy corn fed chicken again. The information on the industrialisation of mass organic food production will remove the virtuous glow you feel when you reach for the organic products at the supermarket. I have to admit that I only read this book by proxy. That is to say Mark is a caring and sharing sort of reader who likes to discuss all the interesting bits. And there were a lot of interesting bits in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Our discussions set the scene for Kay Baxter’s latest book, Change of Heart, the Ecology of Nourishing Food, co-written with her partner, Bob Corker.

When the copy of Change of Heart arrived, at first glance I wondered if I should be reviewing it for the food pages, not the gardening pages. It is ostensibly a book of recipes, but not your usual stand-alone ideas for something different for dinner. Overall, it is a collective recipe for a major change in lifestyle. The authors synthesise a number of different movements which often run parallel but separate to each other, including organics, sustainability, seasonal eating and sourcing local food. Their purpose is to address what they see as a loss of nutrients in modern diets and to show how it is possible to redress many of these issues in the family kitchen at a practical daily level but strongly based in past traditions.

The result is a very interesting philosophy. Mark and I have spent countless hours in the last few weeks discussing this whole approach to food production, diet and lifestyle. We are still debating it, analysing it, critiquing it and sorting out where the concepts fit with our lives. Much of it is controversial and turns conventional wisdom on its ear. The authors have turned their backs on vegetarianism and strongly advocate the use of traditional fats and oils, actively debunking the negative role currently assigned to animal fats. While modern nutritionists may shudder at the return to eating and cooking with animal fats, this can not be taken in isolation from the whole diet which is dominated by whole foods produced by traditional methods along with soaking and fermentation, including lacto fermentation of a whole range of different foods, some of which you may never have thought to ferment. I was particularly pleased to see that my frequent use of broths is soundly based but those whose diets are very high in beans, pulses and grains may find some of their current practices challenged. The reservation about soy-based products is interesting (as The Omnivore’s Dilemma is interesting about corn).

If you enjoy having pre-conceived notions challenged or are looking for alternatives, this is a thought provoking book based on keen observation and decades of learning at a practical level backed up by some wider research. While the authors personally practice self sufficiency, it is not a pre-requisite for this change in eating habits, though it is a corollary and an affirmation for readers who are aiming for a high level of self sufficiency.

Kay Baxter’s books are published privately through Body and Soul Publishing. If your local bookshop can’t help (though with their ISBN numbers, they should be able to), you can mail order from the Koanga Gardens Centre for Sustainable Living (

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an international best seller and probably in every library and many bookshops.

Koanga Garden Guide ISBN 978 0 9582894 0 5
Change of Heart ISBN 978 0 9582894 5 0

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