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
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
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
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
- 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.