Living the Dream – St Francis Catholic Worker

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 52, Lent 2010

Annie Wilson

In a remote corner of Northland at the very end of a long, bush-lined road there is a community of people working the land; they are part of the extended Land family. I spent the morning with Joseph and Catherine, hoping to get a small glimpse of their life in which they have largely eschewed the trappings and traps of the consumerist, capitalist culture that pervades today. They are aligned to an organisation called Catholic Workers, which has an underlying principle or set of practices called voluntary poverty, which means owning and using as little as possible.

The vision is that by living simply ‘one is able to spend more time with children, spouses and friends, in art, reading, helping people, watching the sunset or whatever makes us happy’ (The Radical Christian, issue 3, 2003).

Joseph’s family bought a piece of land in the bush-clad valley by the river, and moved there 31 years ago. He was fifteen and one of nine siblings. His father had a strong vision for a community that could develop autonomy by producing its own food, while striving towards a spirituality that included prayer, work and study. Joseph embraced the life early on, deciding not to leave for university study, and began learning how to grow food sustainably from his mother, a gardener, and local Maori growers in the area.

When I mention the term self-sufficiency, Joseph and Catherine tell me that it’s not a term they use – that there is no ‘self’ in what they’re doing. They say they are completely dependent on and interdependent with the land, the rain, the wider community and God.

They’re not survivalists, and open their doors to anyone who wants to come. Joseph and Catherine have raised seven children on the farm, mostly born at home and all home-schooled. There are now four generations living with them, twenty-six people at last count, with two more babies born this year and another expected. There are various simple dwellings dotted about, and one sturdy house built for Joseph’s mother and father. His grandmother, who had also lived there, died not so long ago at the age of 98.

The community does still trade in currency (by necessity since they must pay rates) and when something is needed – wire and posts for fencing, bridge building materials, horse gear, farm equipment, young trees – they will go out to work. This can include selling possum fur, fencing and forestry work, building and other jobs. They buy in organic flour, tea, sugar, yeast, oil, and matches. There is no electricity; water is gravity-fed from the river to the houses. Clothes are hand washed in large tubs with a wringer, and hung out to dry. I did see two solar panels on the roof. There are no petrol-driven devices. No chainsaws – firewood is cut down with an axe and split. No tractors – Joseph works the gardens with a beautiful Clydesdale draught horse called Major who pulls a plough, scarifier, mounder, cart and discs.

Joseph and Catherine do not own a car at the moment, but get lifts with people who do. If they find themselves out near the coast with a trailer they will bring home a load of seaweed for the garden, to help with trace elements like selenium and iodine, but there is nothing else that is brought in for the garden. They don’t have a phone, but do have the use of one if necessary, when they go out to visit other Catholic Workers in the nearby community.

Joseph is a katekita in the local Maori Catholic Church where they worship every Sunday. This is like a priest’s role, since there are few around in rural New Zealand. (The word is a transliteration of catechist.)

The animals

In addition to Major the Clydesdale, there are also riding horses for the children. Pigs, chickens, a flock of fifty sheep, and goats also add meat to the diet. If a sheep is killed, all the meat is consumed in two or three days by the families, since there are no freezers for putting stores by. For this reason they do not often kill and eat beef. The community milks three house cows, who all calve at different times so that a constant milk supply is assured. Soft cheese is made during times of lots of milk, and yoghurt every day. While we sat and talked in the house, we took turns shaking an Agee jar half filled with cream. In half an hour we had butter for lunch.

The gardens

The summer crops were over, and a lot of lupin was showing, and large fallow areas also. Some lupin is allowed to go to seed for saving. The pods are dried in the sun on corrugated iron and then raked until seed is separated. I estimated that at least 100 kg of seed was saved this way. Mustard is sown for the summer green crop. Kikuyu is rampant in the north of course, but canna lilies were providing a successful barrier on the edges of the gardens.

Each of the families has their own garden plot and orchard, and everyone helps out in the big gardens across the river, where the staples are grown. Compost piles line the vegetable beds. Compost is made from weeds and prunings, takes six months, and is not turned. Some horse and cow manure is incorporated. Kikuyu is scythed in the orchard, left out to dry and then used as an effective mulch in the vegetable beds.

Joseph and his brother Andrew work with the Koanga Institute multiplying seed and propagating fruit trees from the area for the collection. They grow all their own seed – about sixty lines – and also supply Koanga with seed from various pumpkins, runner beans, Early Red capsicum and lettuce. This is a valuable source of income for the families, and generated on the property.

For their own supply the Lands grow Russian Red tomatoes, Tommy Toe (which can grow to twenty feet), and an early dwarf variety that is harvested before the blight occurs in the season – a result of the Northland climate. Welsh bunching onions are grown because other onion varieties perform poorly. This year they have also trialled wheat and rye crops.

Staple crops

Maize, potatoes, kumara and pumpkin are eaten every day. Fifteen types of potatoes are grown, with Maori varieties going to Koanga for seed. Rua and Desiree varieties grow and keep well. They grow a huge crop of the beautiful red and yellow Hokianga corn, which was given to them twenty years ago by a man from Kaikohe, and 500 ears every year are saved for replanting. This corn is soaked with ash and then washed and ground for mixing with flour for the daily bread. They grow a similar quantity of kaanga ma (white corn), which is ground every morning for porridge. This is one corn that Maori make kaanga pirau or kaanga wai (rotten corn) from. All the corn is stored over winter in purpose-built structures called whata, safe from the weather and rodents.

Joseph helps to supply the local area with kumara tupu (shoots for planting) in October, harvesting from many different varieties that have come to him from the old gardeners nearby. There are raised beds filled with sand into which the tubers are buried. As the shoots appear they are prised off and planted. One kumara can produce up to 100 tupu. There are long skinny types, magical purple ones with colour right through the tuber, orange, red and white varieties, some of which were still lying on the beds to harden off before storage. All the potatoes and kumara are stored in sacks in a carefully designed and built storage shed away from sunlight and rodents.

Catherine and Joseph’s children are all good gardeners, and have shown a keenness to take on the lifestyle. They have recently started a four-year cropping, two-year fallow system, fencing off the fallow areas with solar powered electric fencing and grazing it with cattle. There is also a big rotation of crops. After the planting of the main crops of kumara, potatoes and corn, the draught horse is hitched up to the scarifier, which hoes in between the beds (which are 30 inches apart). Bear in mind that this is an animal with hooves like dinner plates, but he works without damaging the crops. I watched him back up a small cart of gravel that he was hitched to. Joseph’s commands were gentle and relaxed, and so was the horse. He was bought as a three-year-old, already trained, and has been regularly worked now for ten years. There is hope of getting a Clydesdale mare in, for breeding more lovely work horses, since some of the equipment is better pulled by two animals. Finding the harness gear is getting harder and harder now, some of it coming from Australia.

Trees for fruit and firewood

There are orchards dotted all over: citrus, bananas, peaches, apples, plums, figs grapes, tamarillos, guavas, and feijoas to name a few. Catherine bottles wild blackberries in the season too. Olive trees have been planted with the expectation of one day pressing oil.

Joseph’s brother Andrew also lives on the land with his family, and is growing heritage fruit trees for Koanga, and also sells trees from the Hokianga collection locally. Every year he saves two or three more heritage trees from the area, which he finds or is given. Usually they have no name, and so are named after whoever has given them. After years of felling manuka for firewood and also burning willow, Joseph has planted a firewood tree area with gum, alder, Tasmanian blackwood and silver wattle trees. These are all varieties that coppice well, and will be harvested before the trunks are too big for cutting up with an axe and bow saw.

Living simply

From these unassuming, gentle folk I sensed a quiet satisfaction in the integrity of doing things by hand. They have great sustainable systems up and working now, and their direction has allowed for trial and error and a great enjoyment of the process. Joseph says that it is easier to maintain your faith when living simply, and Catherine adds that just being has its rewards.

The Lands have a community committed to living as lightly as possible on the Earth. They are working out what we all need to survive ultimately, which crops are best, how to live without machines, how to take care of the soil for many generations to come, and how to take care of others. It was a rare privilege for me to witness their communion with the land and observe their simple but rich life. They are keeping a way of life alive that could once have been lost to us. We must be thankful to them for thinking so far ahead.

Annie Wilson is a certified organic grower and auditor with OrganicFarmNZ. This article was first published in Organic NZ July/August 2009,, and reprinted with kind permission of Annie Wilson and Organic NZ..

Joseph and Catherine Land can be contacted at St Francis Farm, Jacksons Rd, Whirinaki RD 3, Kaikohe 0473, Northland.

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