Free food hub emerges from derelict nursery for whānau in need

He Tipu wāhine take a break, from left: Blandina Diamond, Diane Karaitiana-Bryant, Rana Tahau and Wahine Murch.

A large-scale project to grow and distribute fresh fruit and vegetables for free to those who need it is under way in Waikato.

He Tipu Ltd is transforming a 22ha site that was home to the Taupō Native Plant Nursery until it closed in 2018.

The company has a dream of supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to the community for free, and to build up a seed bank of edible and medicinal native plant species. It has also just planted 160,000 native plants that will be used for riparian planting and native regeneration projects and has a labour force available for planting projects, largely made up of people who have previously been out of work.

He Tipu general manager Blandina Diamond said a forest garden would eventually be planted full of edible native species and medicinal plants, along with greenhouses of berries and hydroponic crops including watercress, leafy greens and herbs.

“Māori in particular, traditionally harvested from the bush. So we’re going to help regrow some of those, not only to show people and educate them but also to get seeds from so we can revegetate areas that may be missing them.”

Free food plans

He Tipu was still at stage one of a three-stage development with the long-term goal of becoming a food hub where free fruit and vegetables would be packaged together with other donations and distributed to the wider community through local marae and social service organisations as part of its Free Food Programme.

“It’s not a communal garden because we want a high yield and it will go into our Free Food Programme for those who can’t afford it at the moment because of the cost of living crisis.

“We’ve sown our first 160,000 native plants this year. They’re germinating at the moment and we’ve got our first plants in the ground for kai, and a whole bunch more we want to plant including 30 fruit trees. Before the end of the year we need to put our first round of Māori potatoes in the ground and then we’ll start on our hydroponic food.”

Planting gets under way at the He Tipu nursery near Taupō.
Planting gets under way at the He Tipu nursery near Taupō.

The aspirations did not end there and He Tipu would be making the most of the infrastructure left behind by the former nursery, including more than 20 greenhouses and nursery areas, workshops and sheds, water tanks and water bores.

There were also two houses and two office blocks on site, that would eventually be used for site management and training facilities.

The site itself is owned by the Department of Conservation and already has access to excess heat and steam from a nearby geothermal power station and its own geothermal bores to assist with heating the hothouses. Some of that geothermal infrastructure was old and would need some attention, Diamond said.

He Tipu is backed by Te Pae o Waimihia, representing six Ngāti Tūwharetoa hapū - Ngāti Rauhoto, Ngāti Te Urunga, Ngāti Hineure, Ngāti Hinerau, Ngāti Tutetawha, and Ngāti Tutemohuta. It owns substantial forest and land assets around Taupō.

This week, it also received a $50,000 grant from BayTrust that would allow a fulltime staff member to be employed for the next 12 months to work in the native nursery and māra kai.

Building up

Diamond said the role would involve processing all the different seeds gathered from the forest, managing the inventory, learning how to germinate them and tracking their progress in terms of nutrient levels and soil condition. They would also help manage the hydroponic crops.

“We will train them to essentially become a horticultural specialist. We’ve got a really great nursery and māra manager here. It’s a really good opportunity for someone who was previously unemployed to come on board and get intense supervision and training.”

Diamond said some of their activities would build revenue that could be “ploughed back into our charitable side”.

She said they were in the process of trying to build up some big revegetation and riparian planting projects with landowners around the area and once they had some bigger contracts, they would be able to build the labour side of the business, allowing them to train more people and provide them with jobs.

They also had a low-cost firewood operation.

Diamond is the former general manager of nationwide food rescue organisation Kiwi Harvest, so she already had a good idea of how to run large-scale community-focused businesses.

He Tipu general manager Blandina Diamond.
He Tipu general manager Blandina Diamond.

Stage 1 of the project will see the establishment of a self-sufficient, regenerative eco-centre that would provide employment, training and education, workforce, plants and a maara kai for whānau.

Stage 2 of the project will see the building of a wellbeing and cultural centre and the final stage will be the building a forest garden and an eco-village.

BayTrust chief executive Alastair Rhodes said He Tipu’s efforts to transform employment, food and environmental opportunities in the region were inspirational.

He said their kaupapa touched on many key priorities that BayTrust wanted to fund and promote including kaitiakitanga - protecting and improving the natural environment for future generations, enhancing community wellbeing, and tū Māori mai - empowering whānau to create abundant futures for themselves while embracing the natural world and te ao Māori.

“We acknowledge the tremendous investment that Te Pae o Waimihia is making in the Taupō region via He Tipu and we’re thrilled we can contribute to the seed bank by funding this new staff position. We wish them every success.”

The site required a lot of work before any planting could begin and an extensive cleanup as it had been derelict since 2018.

Diamond said the soil itself needed a bit of work and they had spent the first 12 months reconditioning it.

Taupō's pumice soils also dried out very quickly when it was hot and windy, so they were planting shelter in strategic areas.