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The perfect lifestyle block: Zena and Paul, making five acres work on a budget

Northland couple Zena and Paul and their family are proof that you don’t need lots of money to live in paradise. With hard work and compromise, they are living well on their five acres near Kerikeri. They bought their land with the intention of owning their own place and being able to provide their own food. Zena grew up in the country with “chooks, house cow, garden and a pig now and then” while Paul had a more urban upbringing and has learnt by experience as they have developed their property.

Zena says “right from the start we have been constrained by money, so most of what we do on our land is to make things cheaper for us in the long run. We have also found innovative and cost-effective ways to solve problems.”

They bought the land as a bare block, with no fences and no house. An attempt to bring in a relocated house foundered when the haulage company discovered it couldn’t access the site, so with their typical approach of finding another way round the problem, they built the house themselves in the most economical fashion: a Totalspan kitset and lots of work from Paul, with a little outside help to get the frame up. Eighteen months after purchasing the land, they were ready to move in with their eight children (five permanently at home and three others who visit at weekends and holidays) to a cosy 104m2 home, well-insulated and warm, despite the lack of a fireplace as yet. They designed it with relatively few windows to keep heat losses to a minimum and have found this works well. If they could have a larger house, Zena would like 150m2, with an extra bedroom, and a bigger laundry to replace the currently very crowded small one.

One problem with the relatively small house size is that the roof area is limited for water collection, but they maximise their efficiency by having two storage tanks and a diesel pump to transfer from the lower to the upper one, where gravity takes over to feed the household supply. They can also take the pump to the river on a trailer, along with two 1000L cubed cage tanks, and use this system to fill an extra 5000L tank which supplies the troughs and the garden hose. Zena also now has a very water-efficient washing machine, which reduces water demand.

Although Zena and Paul had hoped to be on alternative power, the set-up costs meant that it was cheaper to connect to the grid, and take advantage of their north-facing, sheltered site and insulated house to keep their power bills down to a very modest $60 per month. They also run a gas hot water system, with gas costs of under $80 per month.

Recycling free materials is one of Paul and Zena’s strengths: they have used old tyres to create retaining walls and culverts, and have also used tyres as tree protectors, to stop chickens and ducks scratching down to the roots, and to provide a wall for filling with mulch. Discarded pallets have also been put to good use in creating fences, a bridge across the swamp, and a piglet pen and pig house.

The property has a creek on one side, spreading into a swamp most of the way along, and at present there are two acres in useable pasture. Their main problems are scrub and gorse, and their chief regret is that to finish the house, they had to sell the small tractor they had acquired very cheaply when they first bought the site. Zena comments “In hindsight we would have kept the tractor at all costs...with its blade, trailer, slasher and rotary hoe it would be invaluable to us.” They do use their 4WD vehicles on the property for collecting firewood and carting building materials, and have gates wide enough to accommodate their neighbour’s big tractor – he occasionally helps out with major projects.

The family’s animals are all hand-reared and very quiet, but they still look forward to building a small handling yard to make vet’s visits easier and to allow easy separation of cow and calf when needed. They also aim to build a small cow bail to allow milking to be done out of the weather and to increase storage for hay and other feeds.

Zena has a terraced garden and orchard, with the house and lawn at the top, then a drop of about 2 metres to the garden, followed by another similar drop to the orchard, which also houses the chooks and ducks and has the pig run alongside. Zena is using raised mounded beds in the vege garden to provide an increased soil layer above the clay. She grows “some of everything”, including this year an attempt at peanuts and stevia. From October to April the family are almost self-sufficient in vegetables, and while not officially organic, they use no chemicals in the garden and select seeds from their hardiest plants to save for next season’s plantings. Zena makes seaweed fertilizer in a 200L drum, and the children earn their pocket money by collecting cow manure for the manure pile. Kitchen wastes are, to quote Zena, “turned into bacon and eggs”, with only onion skins going to the compost heap.

The crops not eaten directly are saved as relishes, chutneys and pickles, and as the fruit trees start to bear, Zena is bottling: 20 jars from the peach tree’s first yield this year. She also makes jam, and dehydrates surplus fruit and tomatoes. Most of this is done by simple open-air drying on racks, with the dehydrator only used in winter. Zena and Paul also make their own beer, and have just started wine-making, the first product being feijoa and honey. The heifer is due to calve soon, and they hope to share milk with the calf. In the meanwhile, Zena gets milk from a friend and makes her own butter, yoghurt, camembert and feta, along with manufacturing her own sweetened condensed milk.

Their biggest issue is transport, due to living some distance from Paul’s work and the children’s schools – this means two vehicles and significant maintenance costs in replacing tyres damaged by the gravel roads, but in compensation, Zena says “We have wonderful majestic views of some bush-clad rugged hills for 180 degrees out of our front door. We can sit on the concrete slab that is going to be a pergola, sip some home brewed wine, and survey our kingdom... I do think this is paradise.”

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