Super Natural

A visit to the impressive farm of Six Toed Fox Organics.

Six Toed Fox Organics takes a sustainable approach to its a three-acre produce farm that’s planted and tended by hand. They work with nature to ensure both the land and produce is nourished.

For Rachel Yeats, founder of Six Toed Fox Organics, her entire business and life philosophy
stems from love; love for her children, love for her family (and she counts the farm team as
part of this), and love for the planet.

Rachel and her partner Brad Harding started their organic journey with a modest backyard vege garden, and they’re now building their dream on an impressive three-acre, hand-tended organic produce farm, located just past McLarens Falls. They are regulars at the Tauranga Farmers’
Market, and they also supply produce to local wholefoods stores, including Be Organics and
Te Puna Deli, as well as Huckleberry throughout Tauranga and Auckland.

When they first met, Brad was working in a hydroponic lettuce operations, having been in the floriculture industry since high school. Rachel can remember being horrified at the number of chemicals he was spraying on the lettuces each day, but at the time her focus was more around
fossil fuels and Greenpeace-related causes.

It was only once their first child Juno was about to start eating solids that her questions around
what’s really in and on our food started to become a bigger worry. Rachel was constantly asking herself, “What am I going to give her every day, of every week, that doesn’t have crap in it?” And so the seed for Six Toed Fox was planted.

Family has remained the focus, even as the scale of their business has grown. The recent name change from Handcrafted Produce to Six Toed Fox Organics reflects this. This name was inspired
by their youngest son Fox and acts as both a symbol and reminder that they can overcome any challenge when they’re doing it together.

Fox is a sweet three year old born with six toes on one foot, and he’s been there for every step of the business since they jumped right in. He attended every market until he was 18 months  — sleeping or playing in the background, he rode along with every delivery and sat in the front pack during harvest. He’s been there through the most challenging days and the most celebratory ones.

Even though family is the very reason the business started, Rachel knows what they’re doing is even bigger than themselves. “It’s not just about me and my family. At the end of the day, we’re doing things that can spread out and go further than us… it can mean less families consuming foods covered in chemicals.”

The first time they got to see the impact that organic farming could have, was at the Koanga
Institute. The institute asked them to come and manage the garden just after their second child Gryphon was born, so the family packed up and went down to Hawkes Bay to do just that.

This gave them a taste of what it’s like to use hands-on organic, permaculture practices on a
scale larger than a backyard garden. This started their brains whirring with thoughts of being
able to provide for a wider community and make this passion their livelihood.

That the couple chose a life that benefits more than just them is not surprising when you learn
their background. Their first business together was in insulation — this came from the same premise of helping others and the environment, just using a different approach. Rachel also has a background in NGOs, particularly in women and family related organisations, which just solidified her will to
help other families in whatever way she can. “I always try and look at what we do as something
that can be externalised to others. If I’m onto a good thing I want to share that with people, not keep it to myself.”

And with Six Toed Fox , they’re certainly onto a good thing. Having moved to a new farm last year, after encountering flooding and size restrictions with their first one-acre market garden, they are starting to build the systems and life they envisioned.

The entire farm is tended to by hand, with the occasional use of hand-operated machinery and
a tractor for prep work (so they use very little fossil fuel). Each bed is a 25-metre long, narrow strip, designed to give enough space for them to get in-between and tend the crops, which are regularly rotated. This kind of intensive labour becomes even more impressive when you learn there are currently 350 beds, with ground being prepared for an orchard and medicinal garden in the gully. And that’s not even including all of the babies waiting in the nurseries for their turn, nor the rows
of flowers bursting joyously from their plot. The team have been so busy since the move from their previous property 10 months ago, that a greenhouse is still waiting to be erected.

Seeing the team in action makes you appreciate even more just how much time and work is
involved for their farm to work. For Rachel and Brad, the care required for each plant can only be done by hand. Their philosophy is based on harnessing nature’s own processes to grow their plants, which eliminates the need for sprays and results in produce that nourishes their whenua and community safely.

As Rachel puts it, “We’re trying to bring out the best of mother nature. It’s very easy to look at organics as just substituting the way its conventionally done, such as putting in more organic products, using non-synthetic sprays and adding in biodiversity. But you can go deeper than that, by identifying the services nature has to offer and using her to her best potential too.”

I always try and look at what we do as something that can be externalised to others,” says Rachel. “If I’m onto a good thing I want to share that with people, not keep it to myself."

This working-with-nature approach has led to changes, such as not disturbing much of the soil, which ensures its microbiology is looked after. When they’re finished with a crop, the team use a customised rotary hoe to chop up any debri left in that bed and turn it into the top few inches of
soil. Making sure they only touch the top layers is time consuming right now, but over time as the
soil becomes more nutrient enriched, they will be able to disturb it less and less, with the aim
of not needing to do anything to it at all.

In more conventional models, plant crops are usually kept together to speed up planting, maintenance and harvesting. But at Six Toed Fox Organics, they often break up crops of the
same produce, adding complementary plants in between. This “distributed planting” can help
protect them from bugs and disease — using nature’s protection instead of man made.  The multiple benefits can include growing a more resilient crop. “Sometimes we can see early signs of pest or disease pressure and take pre-emptive action on the same crop in a different area or phase of growth,” says Rachel. “Biodiversity above the soil results in greater biodiversity below the soil,
and that’s essentially what we’re trying to do more than grow plants — grow our soil microbiology
not just in number but in diversity.”

By helping the plants thrive without any sprays or major intervention, they are growing food that
is much more flavoursome and nutritious. And the same approach is employed in the recently
added flower garden, which now provides a vibrant, spray-free bouquet for customers to safely
take into their homes.

Rachel looks beyond their property too, considering other far-reaching impacts their regenerative farming practices can have on the planet. “What if we also looked at negating emissions, rather
than just stopping them, with increasing carbon sequestration from farms like ours?” she asks, referring to the fact that sustainable agricultural practices can mean the soil and plants have the capacity to sequester carbon, therefore be part of an answer around climate change. It’s clear
she’s always thinking about how to do things better and where they are going next.  

One thing she loves about Tauranga is that her family are not the only ones thinking like this.
“We’re lucky in the Bay of Plenty that there’s already a great network of people looking to create
a better future.”

By the sounds of it, some of these people are market regulars that visit Six Toed Fox Organics’ stall every week, rain or shine. People who either want to support local, want the freshest produce they can get, want to avoid chemicals, or a combination of all three.

Tips on growing organically

→ When you’re preparing your garden, get the best-quality compost you can and use it liberally.
The goal is to increase the soil’s organic matter so it supports plant growth.

→ For most crops, plant few and often, spacing them closely to create a living mulch. See what grows well in your garden at different times to test your microclimate for future planning. This
also keeps your garden diverse, which increases the resilience to different bugs and diseases.

→ Use nature to help protect your plants from pests. For example, plant a habitat for beneficial predator bugs (eg alyssum, phacelia and buckwheat), keep a worm farm and use the vermicast
for your soil, or plant herbs or flowers that bees love (eg borage and zinnias). Creating biodiversity above and below ground is key to a naturally flourishing garden.

Brad, Rachel and their three children, from left, Gryphon, Juno and Fox.

Some of the 350 meticulously planted beds on the property.

Story by Megan Raynor
Photography by Alice Veysey