8 April 2022, Spirit Magazine – Judy McAuliffe

It popped up on my Facebook feed and I was intrigued by the name. Several messages and a few days later, I find myself on the road. I turn off a short stetch of gravel road onto a long driveway, chickens scattering as I go. Did one just go under the car? There’s no squawking, so I must be OK.

The driveway leads on to my destination – an enormous, fenced off, garden patch where I’m met by Kiri Roberts, mother, farmer, environmentalist, employer and now market gardener at The Dirty Fork.

It’s evident that Kiri is one of those people who constantly questions the status quo. No matter if something has been done a certain way forever, she wants to know why, and how she can improve it.

“The idea was a very small one in the beginning,” she says. “As farmers, we’re constantly talking about staff – training and retaining staff, improving the lifestyle and making farming a more attractive proposition. Health and Safety is the most discussed topic in our weekly meetings, but 90% of that is about safety, very little about health, and I thought ‘here’s where we can make a difference.”

Kiri and her husband Rhys are entrepreneurial farmers, managing seven farms, under the Align Farms umbrella. They currently have around 30 staff who are already supplied with meat and milk, so why not add organically grown vegetables? “We certainly had the space, so we thought we’d give it a go.” Mum, Liz Phillipps, who is a ‘gardening guru’ was keen to help out, so the plot was prepared, a selection of veges planted and nourished, and in December 2021 – yes, just four months ago – the first vege boxes were delivered, overflowing with fresh, homegrown goodness: lettuce, spinach, potatoes, beans, carrots, radishes, spring onions and plenty more.

So where did the name, The Dirty Fork, come from? Kiri grins. “It was totally Mum’s idea. We wanted something a bit quirky, a bit fun, so she made a long list of words associated with garden and food and she put that together. An instant winner!”
“Building a good garden is like building a house,” Kiri says. “If you have a good foundation, then you’re on your way. The better the soil, the better the plants will grow. We have great soil here, and from our day-to-day farming, we also have the ability to measure the nutrients in it so that the veges grow to their full potential. We don’t use any chemicals, but there are plenty of organic fertiliser options available to replenish anything that may be needed.”

Remember those chickens on the driveway? Well, they follow the cows, breaking up the manure, allowing it to easily enrich the soil, and they also keep the insect population down.  “Our girls (the chickens) are an important part of the picture. We’ve built them a roosting trailer that gets moved around behind them. They’re laying well, so they are pretty happy, and we’re very happy to have them around.  It’s also easy to collect the eggs, which are a new addition to the vege boxes.

The process is simple: staff fill out a weekly tick box request for the vegetables they want, make a note of the number of people to feed per household – not that Kiri doesn’t already know this, but she’s not always going to be involved in making the boxes up – and as if by magic, their vege boxes arrive!

She says that the reaction has been absolute delight and appreciation. “Our vision is to supply our teams with 60% of their diet on-farm. It’s another way to support our staff and their families, save them money, and it’s a nice wee bonus.”

More than a dozen boxes go out to the farms and any surplus is delivered in town. So far, word-of-mouth and social media have spread the word, and they’re steadily building a list of regular customers.

There’s no time for basking in the glory of success though. Liz is employed full-time in the garden, with sporadic help from Kiri’s children, Lottie and Gus, and says there’s continuous planting, weeding and feeding to be done. “A lot of vegetables can be grown on rotation, year-round, and some actually taste better after a frost, so we’re aiming to make the most of every season,” she says.

Did I mention flowers? A very talented cake maker lives on the farm, so they also grow a few edible flowers to provide instant, colourful decorations for her amazing creations. Companion growing of vegetables and flowers also keeps the bug population down naturally, so it works for everyone.

Looking ahead, there’s more ground being prepared to extend the outdoor garden; a sizeable greenhouse being built to provide early spring and summer crops of tomatoes, lettuce and more; plans to add to the variety of companion flower growing for the cake maker, and Kiri is looking forward to getting back to ‘regular farming.’

“It’s incredibly satisfying to achieve a goal, but it’s been full-on. It’ll be exciting to see how far it goes, but I’m a farmer and I’m looking forward to stepping back and getting out there,” she says, pointing to the open paddocks.

No doubt she’ll have her thinking cap on though, so watch this space.