Living the good life on Australia’s Sunshine Coast
Heirloom livestock integrated with tropical perennials helps couple toward self-sufficiency.

By Kyle Holzhueter

 

Networking Permaculture for learning, work and fun

Frank and Elisabeth are members of Permaculture Noosa, a group of Permaculturists in Southeast Queensland. Permaculture Noosa was founded in 1995 by Geoff Lawton, the director of the Permaculture Research Institute in The Channon, Australia. Permaculture Noosa holds a monthly gathering the third Thursday of each month in the town of Noosa, open to everyone. About 60 to 70 of the 120 members attend the monthly gatherings.

A typical gathering includes a market with a recycling area and free stalls for farm stales, and a Q&A table for information exchange. A guest speaker is usually followed by talks given by members, usually with a plant profile. Recent topics have included soil and water heath, seed-saving, and homemade gray-water systems.

Permaculture Noosa maintains a library and an educational trailer sponsored by a local government grant. They offer a weekend introduction to Permaculture course taught several times each year. The groups also organize “work bee” events, which they call PET (Permaculture Energy Transfer), held each month at a member’s property.

For further Permaculture details: http://www.users.bigpond.com/
brookman/aboutPC.html

Contact the Fekonias

383 Black Mountain Road
Cooroy, Queensland 4563
Australia

Phone: 61-7-5442-6089

www.permacultureproduce.info

Posted August 3, 2004: Frank and Elisabeth Fekonia dreamed of living “the good life” suited to a particular place. Like American homesteading pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing, the Fekonias envisioned building their own home and living off the land in a dry region of Australia’s central eastern coast.

Their inspiration came from Frank’s peasant upbringing in a small Slovenian farming village. His family, by necessity, ate only what the land provided, including homegrown wheat and homemade wine. His own quest stretches that sense of sufficiency of the land to include startling architectural accomplishments, integrated farming and fine food developed step-by-step over time on a rocky hillside.

Frank chose his steep 6-acre property in Southeast Queensland because it reminded him of his homeland with its steep hills and valleys.” Fortunately the Fekonias property faces north (toward the sun in the Southern Hemisphere) and provides a million-dollar, 180-degree view of the Sunshine Coast’s hinterland.

By building their own home and growing their own food, the Fekonias aim to achieve economic independence as well. “It’s all been about being self-sufficient, using as little money as possible. It’s all been a learning experience,” says Elisabeth. “The cost of living can be drastically reduced by producing our own food.”

The Fekonias keep half a dozen to a dozen chickens, three pigs, three bee hives, three dairy cows, three to four goats, and four sheep. The Fekonias kill and dress the animals themselves to supply all their own meat.

The chickens are a mix of breeds for eggs and meat. Because “so many people are selling eggs, and in the country everyone keeps chooks,” Elisabeth limits the number of chickens on her farm.

The pigs are Saddle-backs, an old-fashioned farm-house breed. Their dark coats protect them from sunburn, allowing them to stay outside even on sunny days. The Fekonias use the pork to make bacon and sausage in their home-made smoker.

The cows consist of two Jerseys and one Guernsey. Elisabeth, who is passionate about nutrition, chose these breeds because of her concern over the biochemical differences between A1 and A2 milk. A2 milk is free of the controversial protein beta casein A1, which has been linked with various illnesses and is causing quite a debate in Australia and New Zealand. Certain breeds of cows, mainly Holsteins, produce mostly A1-type milk. Other dairy cow breeds, such as Jerseys and Guernseys, as well as sheep and goats, produce mostly A2-type milk.

Elisabeth prefers Anglo Nubian goats for milk. She makes and sells feta cheese but can’t keep up with demand and can’t find a breeder of top-quality milking goats. In order to make more feta cheese, last year Elisabeth began keeping East Friesian sheep for milk. “They’re the best-milking sheep in the world,” Elisabeth explains, “and they also put on really good muscle for meat.”

Creativity from concrete to music

Elisabeth and Frank are both artists at heart. Elisabeth paints as a hobby and Frank came to Australia thinking that he would become a professional trumpet player. Now his organ music can be heard almost every night echoing from the hills. Their love to create permeates their lives. Elisabeth is working to prefect the art of ferment, while Frank’s artistic energies are expressed in his building.

Frank studied electrical engineering in Slovenia. After arriving in Australia in 1960, Frank designed and built custom homes west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. “Every home was unique, not a cut-out box.” Frank continues work on his home that he is building with concrete because it permits curves and oddities much more easily than timber.

Frank’s eccentric building approach and material is also pragmatic. The advantages of concrete are numerous. It’s low-maintenance, durable, and offers good insulation from Southeast Queensland’s heat and cold. It is also free from termites and relatively easy to exclude cockroaches and rodents.

But most importantly, it’s cost effective. Since it’s also owner-builder friendly, most of the work can be done by hand. Frank, Elisabeth, and her son Jay have done all the building. Add to this Frank’s wide-ranging building skills, and the result is a low-impact, low-cost, elegant home.

“You know why I’m so busy,” Frank muses wryly. “It’s because I can do anything. Everything you see here, we did. The construction, the wiring, the plumbing -- everything.” Doing everything themselves has allowed them to build their home for little over $30,000 Australian (about $21,100 US). He has returned discarded washing machines to like-new condition, and keeps old cars running for years.

Expanding what’s possible in a dry land

The Fekonias are aiming to become as food self-sufficient as possible. Elisabeth says they raise most of their vegetables in extensive Permaculture gardens, which include quite a variety of fruit. Most of Southeast Queensland’s annual rainfall comes during the Australian summer months from January to March, meaning farmers combat drought most of the year. Living on a steep slope makes matters worse for the couple. Rather than fighting against the arid conditions, Elisabeth has learned to raise food crops far beyond the common European vegetable garden.

Following the principles of Permaculture, she’s created a food forest. Drought-tolerant under-story crops such as chili peppers, cassava, galangal, and yakon are grown beneath drought-tolerant fruit trees, such as banana, papaya, avocado, and mango. (The root vegetable cassava (manihot esculenta), also known as manioc, is the source of tapioca. The galangal rhizome (Alpinia oficinarum) is a member of the Zingaberaceae family and thrives in dry, shaded conditions. Yakon (smallanthus sonchifolius), also called sweet root or ground apple, is a crunchy, sweet tuber. It is extremely hardy and needs no irrigation once established.)

“The real advantage,” Elisabeth explains, “is that these hardy plants don’t need extra irrigation to do well. They do well enough on their own and don’t need the kind of attention that temperate vegetables do.”

Since most Australians descend from Anglo-Europeans, they don’t traditionally grow and eat these tropical vegetables. In order to educate residents how to expand their use of what can be seasonal and local, Elisabeth leads classes in “Permacook,” a name she coined herself.

Elisabeth teaches the cultivation and kitchen preparation of tropical vegetables, including:

  • Aibika (abelmoschus manihot) is a shrub with edible leaves high in protein.
  • Kang kong (Ipomea Aquatica) is a prolific perennial green leaf vegetable.
  • Madagascar bean (phaseolus lunatus) is a perennial climbing red bean closely related to the lima bean.
  • Pitpit (sacharum edule), also called New Guinea asparagus, is a drought-tolerant perennial related to sugar cane.
  • Winged bean (psophocarpus tetragonolubus), popularly known as arsebean or bin, is a drought-tolerant climbing bean also cultivated in Papa New Guinea. Almost all parts of the plant are eaten: flowers, leaves, green beans, seeds, and tubers.

Inspired by her Permacook workshops, Elisabeth is writing a book about tropical vegetable cultivation and kitchen preparation.

Design by Permaculture

The Fekonias’ operation incorporates many Permaculture principles. The word permaculture, coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is a contraction of two words, permanent and culture (from the Latin cultura, cultivation of the land). It incorporates careful organic farming within an extensive design system intended to create sustainable human environments. The purpose is to harmoniously integrate landscape and people, providing food, energy, shelter, and other needs in a sustainable way. As advocated in Permaculture, the Fekonias have integrated their animal and plant systems as much as possible given their steep slope and often dry conditions.

A classic example is their “pig tractor” system, similar to a rotational grazing plan, where the hogs are moved through a series of runs (contained areas). They work and fertilize the soil, preparing the run’s soil for planting. Their rooting and manure saves the Fekonias from having to dig the soil and apply fertilizer.

The couple has successfully cultivated a variety of vegetables, grains, and legumes using this pig tractor process to create arable planting areas. For example, they grow broadcast crops such as sunflower and millet for human and animal food in the runs. After the crop matures, the Fekonias harvest their share and leave the residue for the pigs to clean up. The pigs then prepare and fertilize the run for another crop.

The Fekonias have also successfully cultivated potatoes and sweet corn in their pig-prepared garden, two vegetables difficult to grow in rocky, clay-type soil. Rather than hill her potatoes, Elisabeth places the potato in contact with the soil and covers it with a thick layer of mulch. As the potatoes shoot upward, she applies mulch as needed to keep the potatoes covered so they don’t turn green from exposure to sunlight.

Sweet corn planting in the same soil follows potato harvest, because there are still enough nutrients from the pig tractor and heavy mulch. Elisabeth plants and saves seed from an heirloom corn variety called Jolly Roger. She got it from the Seed Saver’s Network centered in Byron Bay, the largest seed bank in Australia.

Following Permaculture design, all animal housing is located in close proximity to the vegetable garden and food forest. This allows animal bedding to be easily applied without having to carry it long distances. The chicken house is located above the intensive vegetable gardens. Rain runoff from the chicken run washes nutrient-rich water into the garden.

Another classic Permaculture concept is “living fences.” The Fekonias use drought-tolerant mugwort (long-leaf wormwood) bushes to fence in all of their free-ranging livestock. In addition to acting as a living fence, mugwort can also be slashed for mulch at any time of year and is good fodder for bees.

Foods from ferment


Elisabeth is keenly interested in fermented foods. In addition to making and selling cheese, she’s experienced in soy ferments and teaches a course in making miso and tempe. She also bakes her own sourdough bread in a wood-fired oven. Both she and Frank ferment an array of fruits into wine and spirits. Frank also brews a light beer using less sugar than home brewing kits usually call for and elderberry blossoms to substitute for yeast.

Elisabeth's interest in ferments extends even to composting. She cultivates “bokashi” -- a Japanese starter for compost – by fermenting water, rice, rice bran, molasses and local soil. Elisabeth sprinkles the biological brew on garden beds dressed with nutrient-rich animal bedding.

The couple’s passion for making and enjoying sourdough bread, wine, and cheese reflect their European heritage. Elisabeth, a native of the Netherlands, feels a calling to teach and preserve these traditional foods. She offers bread, cheese and wine making workshops at her home for a mere $35. Their Permaculture network provides teaching (and learning) opportunities for them, and they are WWOOF hosts, one of 1,600 such sites in Australia. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a network offering visitors opportunity to live, work and learn on organic farms. www.wwoof.com.au

Frank and Elisabeth Fekonia are creating a place-based homestead that celebrates self-sufficiency and sustainability in what some would think an unlikely place. They have embraced its adverse characteristics with flexibility, resilience and a determination to enjoy the results. Elisabeth has even named her operation “The Good Life.” They are sincere teachers with a desire to share their experience by passing on the knowledge and skills to all those who want to pursue “the good life” as they do.

 

Kyle Holzhueter has studied natural approaches to agriculture in Japan and environmental design in Australia. He hopes to develop a demonstration homestead and further the eco-village movement throughout North America after his current apprenticeship at the Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, Kimberton PA.