seed saving couple

Meet the seed-saving couple living entirely off the land (except for salt)

Thirty years ago, Kay Baxter and Bob Corker began seed-saving the heritage plant foods of New Zealand.  They founded the Koanga Institute, where regenerative farmers come together to fulfill this mission, in Kotare Village, Nother Hawke’s Bay. Together, they have collected over 800 heritage vegetable seeds and over 400 heritage fruit tree and berry seeds. 

“If we don’t value these seeds enough we’re going to lose them and we need them for our future; there’s heaps of science there now to show we need them,” said Baxter. 

Seed-Saving with Regenerative Farming 

After decades of dedicated work, Baxter and Corker wanted to test the productivity of their initiative. In 2016, they vowed not to buy any kind of food that came from outside of Kotare Village (aside from during travels). Salt is the only thing on their shopping list for out-of-village purchases. They use it for fermenting foods as well as flavoring them. 

Everything else the couple eats grows nearby, like heirloom corn including Manaia, Pink Hopi, and Blue Aztec. Meat and dairy they process themselves, as well as eggs and honey from Kotare bees. They even have their own harvest of stevia. 

“It’s sweeter than the same weight of sugar. When our granddaughter Elanor comes into the garden she usually heads for the stevia first and picks a bit,” said Baxter. 

Complete self-reliance is a dream for many, but there’s incredibly hard work involved. It takes a lot of perseverance and commitment to this new lifestyle instead of relying on buying foods others have produced. There’s a certain desire to keep working to make money to buy food, instead of staying home to grow it yourself. Corker solves this by saying the “key to being self-sufficient is to decrease your need for money.” 

“It’s mainly about staying home! If you go out your wallet comes out of your pocket. That makes it difficult for a lot of people but it’s easy to make meaningful changes,” said Corker. “Not everyone wants to be self-sufficient but everyone can become involved in buying local, nutrient-dense food.” 

He added that, “When you first start thinking about growing all your own food, you immediately think of all the things you couldn’t give up or how difficult it all seems. But once you work through the reality and become more confident it turns out it’s no big drama.” [1] 

Read: Man Turns Island Into Garden to Grow 7,000 pounds of Food for the Homeless

The Inspiration Behind the Seed-Saving

The passion for heritage seeds and home-grown food began when Baxter and Corker moved to Corker’s family farm. On the way there, they picked some wild fruit from trees growing along the road. Baxter noticed that the trees seemed more bountiful than cultivated ones. And the fruits themselves were richer in flavor. However, these trees were dying or scheduled to be cut down. So she became inspired to collect them and whatever history came with them. 

The importance of seed-saving didn’t strike the couple until the Chernobyl disaster. They learned that most of the seeds sold in New Zealand came from Holland, an area touched by the nuclear fallout. Seeds suddenly became vulnerable and vital. 

“[A friend] said did I know that the only New Zealand seeds we could buy were Pukekohe Long Keeper onions and all the rest came from Holland? And here we were in this country and no one knew, no one had a clue, and I just walked out of there knowing I was going to do something,” said Baxter. “I’d never heard of heritage seeds; I’d never heard of seed-saving.” 

So she joined a local garden club. At the first meeting, a woman gave her a bag of heritage bean seeds. 

“I realized the old seeds had to be with the gardeners, so I started looking there. We had heaps of TV coverage and Julian Matthews did a story years and years ago when he was the editor of New Zealand Gardener and I got 500 letters. It was just unheard of.”

There grew her resolve to keep these seeds alive. Seed-saving must come from the farmers since it won’t come from the food industry.

“The food plants and the seeds touch people somehow. We’ve got between one and five percent of the seeds we had 100 years ago. Someone has to keep them alive or that’s it, and it’s really clear now that industrial food isn’t going to maintain our health through the generations, so heritage seeds are totally key to our future.” 

About Regenerative Farming 

According to the Kotare Village website, they explain that ‘sustainability’ is not enough to keep up with the depleting resources on Earth. Regeneration is key. It’s a process that restores and revitalizes Earth’s sources of materials and energy. This creates a sustainable system that marries societal needs with nature in its original form. 

Kotare Village’s regenerative farming in particular lives by certain principles. These include improving water availability, stop the need for fossil fuels and imported fertilizers, use all soil depths, utilize solar power, choose species that best fit their environment and culture, and provide healthy food and support to their community. [2] 

Feeding the Body and the DNA 

Their organic regenerative gardening had become their lifestyle. The food produced is filled with nutrients and free from fillers and emulsifiers. 

“We need nutrient-dense food,” said Baxter. “The industrial process just denatures it, we get unclear messages, mixed messages, weak messages going to our junk DNA which then places weak tags on our DNA so we get sick and the next generation gets sicker.” 

She believes that food grown from heritage seeds with regenerative farming is more than just fodder for the bodies; it feeds the DNA as well. And now science of epigenetics is proving her correct. [3] 

“We now know that environment determines genetic expression. Essentially, you cannot get the nourishment you need from the foods in the supermarket because it’s not nutrient dense and it’s not nutrient dense for two reasons: one is the way it’s grown and the other is the genetics that the food was grown from,” she explained. 

This is where organic farming in Kotare Village comes in. “The only food plants we have that were selected and held and grown to nourish us are those we co-evolved with, our heritage food plants. They are our ancestors’ gift to us, they are our most precious taonga.” [4] 

Keep Reading: Their Dream Was a Working Farm (But They Weren’t Farmers)

[1] Nadene Hall. “Meet the seed-saving couple living entirely off the land (except for salt).” Stuff. June 12, 2015 

[2] Regenerative Agriculture. Kotare Village.  

[3] Céline Tiffon. “The Impact of Nutrition and Environmental Epigenetics on Human Health and Disease.” Internation Journal of Molecular Sciences. November 1, 2018 

[4] Annie Kin. “This couple lives entirely off the land with the seeds they save (except for salt).” ACH News. November 24, 2020 

Sarah Schafer
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.