Glen Skipper digs his fingers into the earth at Te Moeone garden and pulls out a long cream coloured kumara.
“Try this,” he says, gently dusting the dirt off the tendril.
Straight from the ground it’s crisp, sweet and tastes just earthy enough to remind you of its roots.
Skipper explains this kumara is a very old Māori variety, gifted to him from Papatuanuku Kokiri Marae in Mangere Auckland.
“It’s very nutrient dense, much more so than the commercial varieties. For me that’s what this garden is all about – putting real food back on our plates and creating meals for our whānau that have the most nutrients possible.”
The old Māori kumara is one of dozens of different variety of the vegetable Skipper has been growing at Te Moeone garden for the last few years.
He’s collected red, cream, orange, purple and gold kumara from off-the-grid families, from far away marae, and from old colleagues who want to help him in his quest to relocalise the vegetable to Taranaki soil.
“Every year that we grow them here is another year they grow stronger,” Skipper says.
But it’s not just knowing how to grow the kumara that’s important. You must also understand how to harvest them, how to grow next season’s plants from this season’s, and most importantly how to store them so they won’t rot.
Skipper’s kumara grow in the community garden at Kātere Marae in Waiwhakaiho, alongside an abundance of corn and potato. He says his ancestors once grew mountains of kumara at the site many decades ago, but for as long as he can remember the garden has been overgrown and unused.
Then in 2012 he felt a pull to create food and bring happiness back to his hapū . At the time he was the chairperson of the Ngāti Tāwhirikura Hapū and he, like many in his hapū, felt worn down by the Treaty settlement process.
Ngāti Tāwhirikura Hapū had largely been excluded from having a place at the table for Treaty settlement, and understandably there was a lot of hurt.
“We were having all these hui, going over the same horrible things, and it was getting us nowhere, only adding to this feeling of being disempowered,” Skipper says.
“So we stopped having monthly hui, and started having monthly wananga. We were still talking to each other, but in a garden and it was different, the energy was different, people got to take kai home, and we were working together.
“And we were way more happy. We were practicing becoming stewards of not only the land, but of each other.
“And you learn a lot in a garden. It’s not like being a parent of a child, when your mistakes can have major consequences. In the garden you can start again. It’s a good feeling.”
That was about seven years ago, and since then many whanau have helped tend to the community garden and the rows and rows of kumara, potato and corn. They’ve also adopted their own plots in the sprawling garden and are raising vegetables even the keenest of gardeners would be envious of.
There’s bushy globe artichokes reaching up to the sun, winding zucchini plants, hundreds and hundred of glossy red tomatoes, and beans that look like a red sky at night.
For Skipper it’s a chance for people to connect. Connect to the earth, connect to each other, and connect to the food they are eating.
And aside from that, he now loves being in the garden, and can often be found barefoot and tending to one of the many mounds of dirt and produce. He’s seed saving, educating others, and is a firm advocate for giving the power of food production back to the people.
“It’s a powerful movement – the counter culture to commercialisation.”
Skipper believes in inspiring others to create their own food, and will share his knowledge this coming weekend in workshops at the award-winning WOMAD festival.
The community gardening and kumara workshops are part of a series of WOMAD initiatives created by long-time partner Tui Ora.
The health organisation is a pivotal part of the festival’s Te Paepae area and this year Tui Ora staff will be in the Manaaki Lounge teaching various workshops, helping festival goers weave a korowai, running Māori games and demonstrating te reo in action.
By Taryn Utiger