By Adam Blake Wright
Although people often ask why I am living and working in New Zealand, it remains a difficult question for me to answer. After all, I can’t remember a time when traveling here wasn’t at the top of my bucket list.
As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s National Geographic magazines, and I likely stumbled upon an article or glossy photograph that sparked my fascination with New Zealand at a young age.
When I watched The Lord of the Rings films as a high school student in the early 2000s, the majestic mountains and winding rivers of New Zealand that director Peter Jackson used to create his vision of Middle Earth only deepened my desire to travel to its real-world counterpart.
Flash forward to fall 2016: my second-to-last semester at Iowa State. While working as a graduate assistant for Live Green! and completing dual masters degrees in Creative Writing and Sustainable Agriculture, I became increasingly interested in moving abroad to see how other cultures use storytelling to engage with sustainability issues.
I sought advice from Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft, a mentor of mine who coordinates a study abroad trip to New Zealand for undergraduate agronomy students. After learning about the country’s many sustainability-related opportunities, the Study Abroad Center informed me that New Zealand is one of the few countries from which U.S. citizens can obtain a working holiday visa.
With a direct path to New Zealand now in place, I asked my girlfriend, Molly, to join me for a year-long adventure abroad. Once she agreed, we spent the next several months planning, preparing paperwork and packing for our trip, finally landing in New Zealand on Aug. 23, 2017.
Our journey began on New Zealand’s South Island in Queenstown, where the first-ever commercial bungee jump site in history opened in 1988. In the years since, Queenstown has earned the title of “the Adventure Capital of the World,” due to its booming tourism industry of extreme sports and outdoor activities such as skydiving, skiing and hiking.
Queenstown proved to be an ideal place to engage with the New Zealand landscape. A popular local hiking spot was located directly across from our residence, and we enjoyed several day cruises across Lake Wakatipu, one of the purest bodies of water in the entire country.
We also spent three days and nights hiking the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks,” which begins about an hour outside of Queenstown. While on the 20-mile trail, we saw a 570-foot waterfall, skirted the tops of the Southern Alps and also took the first helicopter trip of our lives. Completing the trail was easily the highlight of the trip thus far, as well as one of the most rewarding moments of my entire life.
Queenstown was also a perfect place to learn more about New Zealand’s sustainability initiatives. For example, there are several nearby wind farms that contribute to the fact that 80% of New Zealand’s electricity is sourced by renewable energy. The town is also home to the Kiwi Birdlife Park, one of many breed-to-release programs fighting to save a highly endangered species that is the country’s most famous national symbol.
In November, we moved to a small town on the South Island’s eastern coast to work at the Food Farm, which embraces a community supported agriculture (CSA) model that provides customers with weekly boxes of organic produce and eggs.
As home to vegetable gardens, fruit trees, berry patches, a food forest and five different species of livestock, the Food Farm was a true paradise. Our daily chores included feeding the animals, milking a Jersey cow, weeding, transplanting crops and organizing CSA boxes.
I especially connected with one of the of the farm’s owners, Angela Clifford, who serves as CEO for Eat New Zealand, an organization that uses storytelling to promote the country’s food culture.
Angela’s passionate commitment to sustainable agriculture inspires me to continue my own work—she recently connected me with the New Zealand food magazine Stone Soup, which has granted me the opportunity to serve as a guest writer.
After nearly a month on the Food Farm, we left the for the beach-side city of Tauranga on the North Island. In true “small world” fashion, we live with the daughter of a friend from Ames, and it has been a pleasure to learn more about New Zealand from the eyes of an American who has been here for several years.
My girlfriend and I are currently orchard workers in nearby Te Puke, which is known as “the Kiwifruit Capital of the World.” (And yes, despite being a small nation of less than five million people, New Zealand has more than its fair share of “[fill in the blank] Capitals of the World.”)
Although Te Puke’s kiwifruit-centered economy is a massive international industry, I am continually surprised by the sustainability initiatives used by the orchards where we work. Most orchards are surrounded by buffer strips of tall trees that help shield kiwifruits from wind and weather, and several producers also use organic alternatives to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals.
In many ways, serving as an orchard worker is a rite of passage for many backpackers—Molly and I work alongside other 20/30-somethings from countries such as Argentina, Chile, France, Germany and the Czech Republic, allowing for numerous languages to be heard during any given moment amongst the kiwifruits.
During the holidays, we celebrated these new friendships at a Christmas barbecue hosted by our orchard supervisors from Brazil. At the event, our supervisors shared the best of their home country: bounty upon bounty of succulent meat. I ate myself silly while my international co-workers and I watched on as a man performed the haka, a traditional dance of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people.
The event was symbolic of my entire trip to New Zealand: when people come together with the intent to share food, they can find common ground that transcends nationality, politics, race and culture. I will forever cherish this memory and welcome the chance to discover more during my remaining seven months in this beautiful country, better known in its native tongue as Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud.
All in all, traveling abroad makes me believe now more than ever in the importance of teaching our children how to build a better world. Upon my return to the U.S., I plan to combine my love for agriculture, sustainability and outreach into a career providing farm-to-school learning opportunities for K-12 students, and I look forward to cultivating the sense of love, celebration and understanding that food provides us all.