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
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
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
“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
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
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
- 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,
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
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
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
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.