Rebecca and Kevin Thom met while in graduate school in California. Rebecca was teaching writing and women’s studies to college students while working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature. Kevin was working in IT. In all respects, they had a successful life. But they weren’t fulfilled. So they packed up their lives and headed to Rebecca’s native land of New Zealand. The couple started their own farmlet on the northern-most peninsula of the North Island.
Now they are striving toward self-sustainability with their 1-year-old son, while chronicling their farm life, gardening and organic ideas on their blog, farmlet.co.nz.
“We used to sit at our desks, thinking about raising chickens, surfing the internet for organic gardening tips, and wondering what it would be like to live our dream,” Rebecca wrote on their blog. “Now we’re happy to say that we’re doing more than just wondering about it.”
They are an example of the environmental consciousness New Zealanders are know for throughout the world. I interviewed Rebecca via phone conversation Oct. 11 about life and current events in New Zealand today.
Q&A with Rebecca Thom:
Tell me about your farm.
We live in one of the most economically depressed areas in New Zealand. Compared to a lot of other parts of New Zealand, land prices are cheaper and housing is more basic. There are a lot more people living on welfare or on minimum wage, and the housing reflects that. Having said that, there are a lot of beautiful houses here, especially along the coast. It’s various, I guess.
Why is the area on an economic downturn?
It’s just always been like that. Northland, it lives at a slower pace and I don’t think the people necessarily want to carve it up. There is a high percentage of Maori here and a lot of those people are more family oriented and less about making money and going away to do whatever it takes to supposedly “make good.”
Since the colonization, I think we’re still seeing the aftermath of that. People’s language and cultures being taken away. There is a lot of impoverishment among those people – cultural and economic impoverishment. There are some people who are in a sad state. It’s not just Maori people, but it’s other people too.
Also, we don’t have any big cities up here, any big commercial centers. Compared to other parts of the country where they’ve got the huge dairy farms, we don’t have that kind of thing. There’s less industry, there are fewer job opportunities up here. But on the other hand, with what money you’ve got you can live on less. We actually chose to come here because of that. One of the reasons we like this area is because its slower, you can get a house for cheaper and you don’t need as much money to live here. And I think people are very relaxed and down-to-earth. And my family is here, that’s the main reason we came.
Did you expect to start your own farm and live off the land before you moved back to New Zealand?
Yes, we sat in the U.S. daydreaming about doing something about this and wondering if we could really manage in practical term and economic terms. We just decided to take the plunge.
We call ourselves a farmlet rather than a farm because we are not a commercial enterprise. I guess you could call it a hobby farm, but also with places to reduce our costs and do as much as we can for ourselves. We have a couple of dairy cows and we get our own milk when the season it right. We use their offspring for meat, so we get our own beef to put in the freezer and we get enough beef to share with our neighbors, who’s grazing we share. And we have enough to give to my parents. And we have a couple of goats we plan to breed. We’re also considering a chicken run, so we can have eggs and chicken. I’m looking out the window at a construction site outside because we’re getting that in. We grow vegetables for ourselves. Excluding grains and starches, we grow most food for ourselves. We looked forward to being here a long time and we’re really excited about what we’re doing.
For someone who has never been to New Zealand, could you describe the climate?
Up north here, this is the mildest part of the country. We get a handful of frosts here in the winter. But it doesn’t get much colder than that. The main reason you know its winter is because it rains a lot. We have very high rainfall here. The summer tends to be fine, but it could rain any day. Compared to living in Southern California is the high humidity. But we live in this green valley that’s often full of clouds and mist and raindrops. It takes us about 25 minutes to drive out to the coast.
I’ve noticed in the news there is a lot of talk about the economy in New Zealand. I know you said your area is a bit downtrodden, but how is it impacting the whole country?
I know that it’s a lot harder to fill their shopping carts and put gas in their cars from week to week than it ever has been in living memory for me. I’m in my 30s and I don’t ever remember a time where people feel they are putting so much money just into meeting the basics. I know people who by the time they pay for groceries, gas and the mortgage payment or rent, there’s not a lot of change. Some of them are really struggling to do that. It’s sobering, really, when you see families who are really trying to use their money sensibly, having so much trouble trying to buy groceries; that’s a worry.
Is there something New Zealanders can point to that has caused the economic downturn?
Compared to the U.S., the interest rates have always been high here. It’s held the housing market back and its people back from getting silly loans. I don’t think there was ever a zero down payment loan scheme here. Having said that, our property market is very inflated. People are paying too much on mortgages they can’t afford.
Because New Zealand interest rates are so high, Japan pensioners were sending all their money into New Zealand to get high interest rates. That was really pushing our economy and the government didn’t want to push the interest rates down because all the money would leave. We ended up kind of tied, if you like. Now, because they’ve dropped the interest rates and because of the uncertain global situation, all those people have called their money in. Suddenly the Kiwi economy is tanking. All these people with savings are pulling it out.
Next to Iceland and the U.S., New Zealand is one of the biggest borrowers. We export more than Iceland does and produce more of our foods. But we borrow a lot to finance our way of life. In that regard we’re like the U.S.A. and Iceland. We’re looking at the U.S. and Iceland and thinking, “yikes, we’re really in trouble.” We have to look at the way we’re spending our money and the way we’re running this place. We’re really worried what happened in Iceland will happen here.
With the elections coming up in New Zealand Nov. 8, is the economy an issue being talked about?
Yeah, the economic situation is a big concern for a lot of people. They’re addressing it in different ways. But nothing anyone is saying or doing at this point is going to get us out. The fact is, I think there are hard times ahead. New Zealand is tiny and this is a global problem. Anything our Federal Reserve does to try and change what’s happening with our currency is like bailing us out with a teaspoon.
What other issues are at the forefront of New Zealand politics?
The environment for Kiwis is always a big one. For us it’s a big issue. We are concerned about genetically modified organisms. That was a big ones in previous campaigns and I think it still is even though its not getting the media coverage it used to. They did a poll and most New Zealanders don’t want it. And yet the major parties, of course because of all the foreign trade things and because of big business and research interests, they’re very reluctant to make New Zealand a GE-free zone. I think the only party who has really committed to that is the Green Party, which is a minority party. But they do have a certain amount of sway.
New Zealand is known for being progressive on ecological issues. Have there been any recent advancements in this area?
One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been back is that now nearly ever school has an organic gardening program. That’s been a huge movement towards that kind of thing. I think more schools have it than not. That’s a wonderful thing as far as fostering awareness.
I do think of average New Zealanders are more aware of the environment than people in the U.S. But that doesn’t always correspond into the right kind of action. There is still irresponsible behavior going on and ignorance. I don’t want to paint a picture that everything is perfect here.
Do you think New Zealand has influenced other countries in the area of the environment?
Yeah I do, actually. I didn’t realize this until last year when I was doing some reading, but the Green Party in New Zealand actually coined the term sustainability.
For example New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand was a big deal. I feel like New Zealand is an example in some places. And those schools who have organic gardens get on the Internet and have exchanges with schools in other places.