An Interview with Elisabeth Fekonia
by Matis Aerts, Nederlands (14 years old)
Elisabeth Fekonia has been practicing food self-sufficiency for the last 20 years on her six-acre property at Black Mountain on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
Besides the usual vegetable gardens, fruit trees and chooks, Elisabeth also keeps cows, goats, pigs and bees.
She makes all her own dairy foods including various types of hard cheese such as cheddar, brie and feta, as well as butter, ghee and kefir.
Over the years, Elisabeth has also learnt how to make sourdough bread and other lactic ferments as well as miso, tempeh and soy sauce.
For the last 8 years this has become a permaculture teaching business where she travels all over southeast Queensland to teach other people how to grow and ferment their own food.
There is very little time left for hobbies but she has recently joined a local life drawing group and is thoroughly enjoying getting back to her other passion — art.
Matis Aerts: How did you discover permaculture?
MA: How do you see the three ethics of permaculture and how do you use them?
EF: The three ethics are the very basis of our survival as a species — we need to take care of the environment so we can feed ourselves and keep the ecology intact.
We should always think of others as being our equal and share the good stuff around.
MA: If you could have your ideal farm, where would it be and what would it be like?
EF: It would be in the area I’m in now — Sunshine Coast, SE Queensland. It would be slightly undulating land instead of the steep block I’m on now.
It would be 15- 20 acres instead of six acres and there would be paddocks and several dams. There would also be several dwellings on it for people to live in so there would be more human input potential to contribute to the upkeep of the property.
MA: What do you think of biochar?
EF: It’s a very ingenious way of adding permanent carbon to the soil to aid soil fertility.
It is supposed to last around a 100 years.
MA: What is the minimum space you need for a forest garden?
EF: A few square meters is enough to create an understory and canopy for a micro-climate.
A bigger space will allow for more variation in the understory-to-canopy ratio.
MA: What makes a plant invasive?
EF: A plant that has the potential to become invasive should be used as a source of mulch.
What makes it invasive could be because it is a dynamic accumulator to balance the soil mineral profile if certain minerals are lacking and the plant has the ability to mine those minerals from the sub soil.
Another reason for a plant becoming invasive is the spreading of seed by birds if they are attractive to them.
MA: What kind of earthworks is optimal to use in a food forest?
EF: Swales. The shallow ditches on contour will allow for a passive ground soakage and this makes it very productive for growing food plants on.
MA: How do earthworks stimulate food forest growth?
EF: Water pathways can be constructed with minimal disturbance to the top soil layer. More water within the system will allow for more fertility.
MA: Have you heard of insect farming for human consumption?
EF: Yes, farming and eating insects for the human population has been a traditional source of protein in many countries. In a growing global population, we can easily take this on as a serious intake of our daily protein needs. Farming insects for human and livestock consumption will inevitably lighten the environmental footprint on many levels. We just need a series of finger lickin’ good cook books to help educate the general population!
MA: What do you find the best way to help people learn to eat perennial foods they aren’t familiar with?
EF: I teach a course that introduces people to the concept of growing foods that are mainly perennials and which grow like weeds. Then I have one lesson where we cook up lots of recipes and have a big feast afterwards. That usually convinces them of the value of growing these unusual vegetables.
MA: With the question from above in mind, do you think it is a good idea for a commercial permaculture farm to sell produce without giving courses — just like a normal farmer but using permaculture methods? And how?
EF: Yes, a friend of mine from Papua New Guinea does this. She grew food that was cultural for her and her friends. Friends tell their friends that her produce — such as taro, yams, pumpkin and choko vine tips — were for sale at a local market. Other people see it and they get curious or perma people already recognize some of them.
MA: How important is aquaculture in a permaculture garden to you? And have you got tips about aquaculture gardens?
EF: Aquaculture is a bit more specialized and most gardeners don’t go that far.
We do however tend to create water gardens in the food forest to encourage frogs and other life that will be part of a built-in pest control system.
Aquaponics on the other hand have been very popular with urban farmers with small backyards. Such a system packs a lot of food into a very confined space.
Elisabeth has an excellent DVD for sale: Home Cheese-Making and All Things Dairy.