Trish Allen is renowned globally as a leading exponent and teacher of permaculture and, more locally, as the driving force behind such groups as Mahurangi Wastebusters and the Matakana Community Garden. She and her husband, the late Joe Polaischer, set up Rainbow Valley Farm more than 30 years ago but, as she told Sally Marden, what is less well known is that it might never have happened were it not for a series of serendipitous events involving the New Zealand High Commission, the United Nations and a kapa haka on the River Danube …
I was going on an OE for six months and ended up staying away seven years. I got over to London without a lot of money, so I went job hunting straight away. After a day of interviews in the West End and feeling a bit homesick, I walked down Haymarket to the NZ High Commission and in the window was a sign saying ‘Secretary required, enquire within’. I got the job and found myself working for the NZ Trade Commissioner. I joined the London Maori Club to get to know people and we used to perform for free at school fairs and various events around the UK. When the NZ Government opened an embassy in Vienna, they hired a boat on the Danube, invited dignitaries on board, served NZ food and wine and we were the entertainment. During the visit, we were billeted with the NZ community in Vienna and I heard that the UN was recruiting secretaries with English as their mother tongue. I applied and got the job as secretary to one of the directors of the UN International Development Organisation. I really loved meeting people of all different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures – it was just so amazing. And, I came to the realisation that there was so much common ground when it came to what people wanted – a home and a safe environment to raise and educate their kids.
While in Vienna, I briefly met Joe Polaischer. He grew up in the same village as Arnold Schwarzenegger in southern Austria and was working as a graphic designer for one of the fashion stores. He later went to live in Hollywood where he worked in a garage for a mate, then did landscaping and little building jobs – he could turn his hand to anything. Later on he decided to come on a hitchhiking tour to New Zealand and Australia. On his last day in New Zealand, he got in touch and I invited him to dinner. He stayed six weeks and we got married two years later, in 1985.
We discovered permaculture around that time. It made sense to us, because it was working with, not against, nature and was all about looking after the soil, water air and eco-systems – nurturing the planet, so we can leave it better than we found it for future generations. Permaculture is not just growing food organically and building and restoring soils, it’s also about energy efficiency and creating no waste, not just minimising waste. But I believe you shouldn’t let perfection get in the way, or it all might be too overwhelming. Every little thing does count.
So we embraced permaculture and were keen to put it into practice. We bought 50 acres of run down farm land in Matakana Valley Rd. The local farmers called it rubbish land – it was eroded, pest-infested and weed-infested. We moved up here in a house truck and rolled into Matakana like a couple of old hippies. I think they thought we were dope smokers and growing it up there, but pretty soon realised we were serious about growing our own food, restoring the land and setting up gardens. We lived in the truck for two years with no power or phone – I used to drive the two tonne truck down to the post office in Matakana to make a phone call. Matakana was quite different then.
In the beginning, Joe went out to work building and I worked at home on the land, but it was heavy work, so we switched and I got a job with Morris & James, doing accounting and marketing, and Joe stayed at home. I still do one day a week at the pottery, just doing a bit of book-keeping and helping out with the Labour Weekend sale.
Initially, Rainbow Valley Farm was just for ourselves. But ours was the first earth-roofed house in Rodney, and one of the first with double glazing and made with adobe bricks, so people started showing up to have a look round and we started running tours. We were about 85 per cent self-sufficient – with sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, geese and pigeons, and we grew our own shiitake mushrooms and had rice in a paddy. We were invited to teach permaculture in Japan, then the Permaculture Centre of Japan started bringing groups to stay on the farm. A film was made about the farm, which was widely shown in Japan. So it kind of grew. We were in magazines in 10 different countries, on TV in four countries and Rainbow Valley Farm became one of the most well-known working permaculture examples in the world.
When Joe died suddenly in 2008, it was such a shock. I kept going for two years, then tripped and broke my ankle. I took that as a sign from the universe, so I sold Rainbow Valley Farm and bought a section in Matakana village. The mud brick house on the farm had taken a long time to build, so this time around, I wanted something faster. I used wood from the local sawmill and some macrocarpa from the farm that Joe had milled and stored. I moved here in 2011 and since then, I’ve squeezed in 50 fruit trees on just over a quarter of an acre, with bananas, plums, feijoas, peaches, apples, pears, figs, apricots, citrus, plus veggies. I love living in Matakana. I’m in a quiet street and I can walk to the cafes and the movies.
I learnt to garden and to love gardening from my Dad. I grew up in a little village almost in the shadow of Mt Tongariro, and in my teenage years and early 20s in New Plymouth, almost in the shadow of Mt Taranaki. I developed a great love of tramping and hiking in and around the mountain, and Joe was a great tramper and hiker, too, from living in the mountains of Austria, so we had some amazing outdoor adventures. We tramped a lot of the national park tracks, like the Dusky Sound Track where we didn’t see one person for six days. And in 1992, we walked all the way across Austria from the Czech border, across the Alps, down to Slovenia, which was the most challenging and amazing tramp I’ve ever done – 520km in 17 days. I got to see Austria from a whole different perspective. But our biggest adventure together was Rainbow Valley Farm.
I still teach permaculture design courses and I’m on the International Permaculture Council. I’ve been to conferences in Cuba, Jordan and India. I always feel guilty about my carbon footprint, so I try to make a contribution of some kind. When I went to India, I went for seven weeks and joined a volunteer programme to teach English near the Tibetan border to little monks near Dharmsala and in a tiny rural Indian government school. I was the oldest there, I think I was like a grandmother to them. I loved it.
My latest project, Mahurangi Wastebusters, is exciting. We aim to set up Community Recycling Centres to divert waste from landfill and recover resources. None of us wants a landfill near where we live, so the more we can reduce what we throw away, the better for us and the planet.