canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

Cornelia and Kai Holten never expected, on arriving in New Zealand 10 years ago, that they would be growing herbs and running a successful sustainable herb business from their backyard in Pigeon Bay. The couple moved from Germany in 2009 and settled on a small home in Christchurch. Kai was a software engineer, and Cornelia was a primary school teacher. Things were pretty normal. But coming from a rural village in southern Germany, they were used to being in the countryside, and so when they rediscovered their love of nature, the writing was on the wall.

‘Our property in Christchurch had a small vege garden, but by the time we left there to move to Pigeon Bay, we had no lawn left,’ smiles Cornelia. ‘We had seen our grandparents working the land, milking the cows, tending the soil, and we both realised we wanted the same thing.’

So they sold up in Christchurch and moved to a 15-acre property in Pigeon Bay in 2013, intending to become self-sufficient. As part of this ambition, Cornelia undertook a herb apprenticeship at Phytofarm in Little River, where she received thorough instruction in the growing, harvesting, processing and manufacturing of a wide range of herbal products. At the end of the course, the students were set the task of creating their own product, coming up with a company name and creating something unique.

‘My son was just one year old at the time, and so I created the Baby Bottom Balm to deal with nappy rash. I was pregnant with my daughter, so I showed the product to my midwife, and she loved it.’ Husband Kai soon came on board with the idea of starting a business, and in January 2015 the couple launched their herbal remedy business with just three products and a website.

‘I look back now, and I wonder how I managed it,’ she reflects. ‘In between naptimes for the children and establishing the property we had just bought, I managed to create a business.’ It’s this unwavering dedication that comes across when talking with Cornelia. She loves what she does and believes passionately in making a difference in people’s lives.

Five years later Korukai is selling products to as far afield as France, Germany and Singapore, as well as from the far north to the far south of New Zealand. She is growing more and more herbs each year, with a total of 80 different varieties now growing. The herbs are grown chemical-free and follow the BioGro standard for organic production. Although the farm is not certified organic at this stage, it seems almost an academic exercise. With all the herbs being visible from the house and readily available, there is no need to worry about sprays or irradiation. ‘Everything gets my attention when it needs it,’ states Cornelia. ‘We only work with small batches of herbs, so I know everything about each herb’s journey.’

Once the herbs are harvested in the summer, they are carefully dried on racks in their purpose-built solar ventilated drying shed, away from direct sunlight. This way the colour and potency of the herbs are maintained. Once dried, the herbs are further processed by hand to remove stalks and other unwanted plant materials like grass or weeds. The herbs are then put away for storage and are ready for processing into tinctures, infusions, creams and salves. It’s this formulating that takes the rest of the year and provides the cyclical nature of the business.

For natural skin care products, Cornelia chooses herbs for their skin-calming, anti-inflammatory and beautifying properties. Those herbs are then infused in a cold-pressed and certified organic sunflower seed oil that is sourced from within New Zealand. After a six-week period, the herbs have given off their constituents and colour to the oil. The oil is then pressed and filtered, ready to be used as a base for the natural skin care and skin healing products.

‘I love this connection to the earth,’ she muses. ‘I remember when I was a child, I used to watch my grandmother making a balm for her dairy cows. Of course, I don’t know how she made it, or what went into it, but I remember the warmth I felt on seeing her connection with the animals.’

It’s this connection that runs deep for Cornelia. She loves looking after her one dairy cow, Lulu, which provides the family with milk for butter, yoghurt and cheese. She loves the chickens that provide her family and two other families with fresh eggs every day. And she loves the difference she is making to others.

‘The highlight of my job has to be when I get an email from a mum who has bought one of our products, and it’s turned her life around,’ states Cornelia. ‘The other day, I got one from a lady who bought the Chest Ease for her asthmatic son, and now he is completely free of asthma symptoms.’

It’s success stories like this that remind Cornelia she’s doing something worthwhile; and it’s these joyful moments that get her through the busy season. ‘Summer can be a very intense time for us. Sometimes everything is ready at once. We are harvesting, drying and processing and then packing orders and shipping them out in the evenings.’

All the while, Cornelia is caring for her children (now six and four years old) and keeping the household running. It’s this motivation of raising healthy children that leads her to continually evolve the business. She is also running workshops to educate others on the benefits of growing and eating locally grown food, reducing stress and getting good sleep.

‘The more I learn, the more I realise we need to look after our microbiome. There are around 1000 species of bacteria in the human gut, and each of them plays a different role in your body. Most of them are extremely important for your health, whether that be your heart, your brain or your immune system.’

Improving the gut microbiome is a vital piece of the jigsaw for better health and wellbeing, according to Cornelia, and so she’s started adding fermentation starter kits to her inventory as well as offering workshops on fermentation through the low season.

‘Fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and kefir all contain healthy bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut. If we do get sick then we can take plant-based medicines. I really want to help people understand the reasons why this stuff is important.’

And what plans for the future? The couple is always brimming with new projects. The latest being a cold store fridge room made of recycled concrete bricks, which will be used as a cheese cave and for storing vegetables and herbs. Another work in progress is the experimenting with Hügelkultur, a method of constructing a mound from decaying wood debris and other compostable plant materials to create soil, improve soil fertility and water retention.

From an unexpected beginning, Cornelia has grown a haven of wellness in the form of her modest herb garden. But broader than just this, she has created a beautiful family business, in tune with her philosophies and beliefs around wellbeing and living off the land, with the capacity to touch many people’s lives.

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Words Kathy Catton Images Kathy Catton & Cornelia Holten