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In conversation with Jake Clarke of OMG

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Jake Clarke

Published April 12 2022

Beyond a thriving food system, good food policy offers the opportunity to build a stronger, equitable, resilient future for all. We recently spoke with Jake Clarke, Head Farmer at OMG, exploring how collaboration can produce a more responsible, regenerative cycle of growing that stretches far beyond the farm—and the spectacle that is growing pumpkins.

What was the first plant that shifted things for you? What inspired your love for cultivation?

I have always been inspired by cucurbits and their rambunctious nature, particularly pumpkins. I love how they ramble and take over a space, you can try to guide them, but they'll do whatever they want. The pumpkins fruit production is a visual spectacle, especially with the large fruits such as the Musquee de Provance or more exciting fruits such as the rampicante. It's fantastic watching the plant capture and store energy received from the sun, organic matter and moisture in big bulbous shapes that have the potential to keep into the winter. Cutting into and enjoying a pumpkin in midwinter—it is like cutting into the midsummer sun.

You also worked as a Food Garden Facilitator for North and West Auckland, a part of the Diabetes’s Foundation and Gardens4health team. You said it made you feel anything was possible. How did this inform your future pursuits?

Yeah, I think the context around that statement was regarding supported community projects, in this case, community gardens. It was a real privilege to work for Gardens4health, a unique opportunity to spend my time travelling between community gardens and working in a diverse and beautiful community like Auckland. Growing up in a world where we hear a lot about climate change, ecosystem loss, and food insecurities, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. But working for Gardens4health showed me what a community is capable of. It also taught me that if we aren't happy with the change happening at the top, we should do what we can to change what we can on our level—think global, and act locally.

And you worked, work with clients, are you still working with clients in their gardens?

Yeah, before working for OMG and Gardens4health, I worked self-employed for 18months offering my services and knowledge as a "Sustainable Gardener." I have retained several clients, but right now, the majority of my attention and energy remains at OMG and For The Love of Bees.

What plants do you recommend for those of us without a green thumb?

Some edible perennials that produce easy picking and an abundance of food are great for people just getting started. Sorrel, sea beet and perpetual kale would be some good recommendations that you plant once and have forever. Leafy greens are easy to look after and are good to have fresh in your diet.

Can you share how you came to work at OMG?

I heard about OMG almost three years ago. I visited the farm a few times and heard Levi was doing a talk at Grey Lynn Festival, which I thought was inspiring. I knew I loved growing and eating food and watching the miracle of life unfold but hearing Levi's talk put me into the possibility of a career. I attended working bees at OMG and became familiar with Levi and Rhiannon.

Then midway through September lockdown 2021, Levi and Rhiannon approached me, saying there would be a job opportunity available for Farm Assistant on a pathway to Head Farmer. I didn't have any second thoughts and knew this was an opportunity like no other, so I put together my application and applied. I started work in October 2021. Unfortunately, it meant I did not get to work alongside Rhiannon as she was leaving, which was a shame because I always admired her passion for cultivation. I have worked with Levi almost every day since and have thoroughly enjoyed learning from all he has to share. His work with For The Love of Bees and establishing OMG showed me what was possible and acted as an anchor to attach my aspirations. So I owe a lot to Levi. We’ve cultivated an extraordinary friendship.

Why grow following the permaculture, regenerative agriculture model? How do you determine what to grow?

For me, it's pretty simple. Every action we take is either contributing to a better world or is degenerating our current state. Regenerative agriculture and permaculture concepts are a way of growing produce that attempts to improve our local ecosystem, capture and store carbon, and nutrient-dense food while making us less reliant on mining and importing minerals and fertilisers, not to mention building community and strengthening relationships.

We cannot continue to do what hasn't worked for the past fifty to eighty years. Permaculture principles represent actual and practical solutions tackling many issues we face today and this represents one approach. Yes, there are scientific discoveries that can benefit food production, but we must consider and reflect on those cultures who have farmed before us, those who have worked with their environments and learn from what they have to teach us. We need to rehabilitate our land. I don't feel like we have an option now.

Could you pass on a word of advice for those interested in growing food using permaculture practices? How to grow food at scale and diversity, enough food that we don’t need to go to the supermarket.

Don't be afraid of making mistakes. My most incredible help throughout this growing journey is to not be so hard on myself when things go wrong or don't work out the way I had hoped. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. I can often find myself in my head too much, putting myself down but all we can do is try again next season. That's the beauty of the seasons. They allow us to change and grow, learn and evolve with each passing moment, responsive to our environments and conditions. It feels like there is always something new around the corner, a new lesson to learn and a new obstacle to overcome. Sometimes it might be nice if those obstacles weren't so large, but that's life.

I honestly still feel like I am learning to grow food at scale and in large quantities, and I imagine I will be learning this for the rest of my farming life, but I think your question almost answers itself. Diversity is key! OMG isn't capable of supplying 40 vegetable boxes a week if it uses monoculture methods. We need to rely on polyculture and diverse, complex planting schemes to produce high-quality organic produce and large quantities of it. Stacking species in guilds through space and time allows us to be resourceful and have high production rates on 320 sqm of growing space.

Do you have resources from which people could learn? Do you have any favourite gardens? Sources of inspiration for your plants?

My primary source of inspiration for growing, poly-cropping and gardening is Aotearoa's native bush. It's such a spectacle to see so much biomass, so many plants growing in such proximity to one another, burgeoning, thriving, flourishing on life. That's how I aspire for my gardens to be—packed with abundance, diversity and beauty.

There's an endless amount of content on the Internet about growing, gardening, et cetera. I would encourage people to allow nature to spire a journey towards cultivation—marvel in the miracle of life and what we take for granted daily.

Watch a seed germinate into a plant that produces a fruit that you then get to consume, enjoy and realise we are all part of one beautiful interconnected world. That's my favourite resource for learning and inspiration.

There is a lot of talk about pesticides globally. What are your thoughts regarding pesticides in New Zealand? Why is the government not doing more to remove these chemicals from our food supply?

This is a divisive topic, and I find it hard to answer. Like with anything, there are many different perspectives we could take. When I think of pesticides, I think of insecticides (kill insects) and rodenticides (kill rodents such as rats and mice). Insecticides seem like they are a waste of time, money, and resources and a massive detriment to our ecology. By killing insects, particularly those that eat our crops, we are also missing out on an opportunity to learn from nature and improve our standard of growing and our health.

Many insects can't digest the complex sugars, ions and nitrates of healthy fruits because they have a simple digestive system but will happily digest the fruits of unhealthy plants. We call these sugar levels Brix. If our plants have low Brix, then insects will be able to eat our crops. What's more is that humans, mammals and other non-insect herbivores require high amounts of complex sugars in our diets for our health and wellbeing.

This is what we mean when we say "nutrient-dense food." So by exterminating our insects, we ask nature not to communicate with us about our growing conditions. The insects act like nature's clean up crew, consuming the fruits that offer us little to no nutritional value. When we see a caterpillar eating our tomatoes as growers, we should be asking, "how can I improve this plant's growing conditions?" not "how can I get rid of this insect?'' The insect infestation is a symptom of more significant issues, including inadequate growing conditions.

This perspective cannot be taken with rats. Rodenticides are a whole other issue. If you've ever had a rat infestation, you'll know how hard and impossible it is to catch rats with traps alone. In some cases, using rodenticides and traps together is our only option as they can be incredibly damaging economically and environmentally. I have spent some time with conservationists and the hard work in the bush, trapping and poisoning rats and other introduced mammals.

I have also had first-hand experience dealing with rat infestations, and I'll tell you now that it isn't anything I want to experience again. So that is where the use of pesticides gets complex. It isn't the rats' fault but ours, and unfortunately, the most successful and efficient way of eradicating them is extermination. It's the harsh reality I have realised as a farmer and conservationist.

What do you hope for the future from a food security perspective? What governmental changes would advocate for more ambitious change?

I hope for reduced waste and the promotion of more thoughtful, holistic approaches to food production that prioritise public health—and our environment rather than financial gains and economic growth. I'd like to see a plan or transition to ban all insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. And that includes all artificial fertilisers in an attempt to radically reduce biodiversity loss and build soil to mitigate climate change. And ideally, I’d like to see an increased focus on saving our current wild habitats, and carbon sinks here in Aotearoa, such as forests, wetlands and mangroves (not only amazing carbon sinks but also really crucial in preventing coastal erosion and natural protection against tsunamis and storm surges).

Food prices are topical in our current climate. Perhaps more specifically, fruit and vegetables. However, in recent reporting, stating some growers have not received price increases in a decade, it brings to question the role of retail, supply chains, and supermarket powers. Where do you think we, as a nation, are going wrong?

It's very easy for me to say this but greed, money and capitalism. I think both human health and environmental health should be prioritised in the growing and producing of food. Until that changes, I feel like the current systems set both our people and planet up for failure. They have never worked.

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