A bug family’s block life in Taranaki


Science, imagination, and sheer hard work have helped Aaron and Melissa Jacobson grow their dream life on a hilltop block in Taranaki.

Words: Catherine Groenestein  Photos: secretgardens.co.nz  Additional photos: Catherine Groenestein


Who: Aaron & Melissa Jacobson, Lucas (14), Cohen (9), Alinka-Jean (6)
What: The Little Insect Farm
Land: 1.4ha
Where: 11km east of Eltham, 50 minutes south of New Plymouth
Web: thelittleinsectfarm @thelittleinsectfarm secretgardens.co.nz/garden/the-little-insect-farm/


They eat insects, make hay by hand, and have a composting toilet, so Melissa and Aaron Jacobson aren’t surprised that some people think they’re mad hippies.

The science buffs are dedicated to natural farming. They’ve used it to turn a small, steep, windswept block into a productive permaculture garden over the last 10 years, and now produce a good portion of their family’s food.

The transformation, which included renovating a cold, damp house into their forever home, has taken a lot of innovative solutions and hard work.

“We’d never ever claim to know everything about what we are doing but we constantly give it a crack,” says Aaron. “Sometimes what we’re looking for doesn’t exist – we have to make it up as we go, with trial and error and educated guesses.”

“We also try to put things into perspective,” says Melissa. “If something doesn’t work the first time, we don’t just give up and don’t get down on it.”

Their home looks out over the abundant garden and burgeoning food forest to Taranaki Maunga (Mount Taranaki) on one side. On the other, it’s rolling hill country and views of the Rotokare Scenic Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary.

They moved to the Taranaki in 2009 after Melissa, who trained in ecology, conservation, and entomology, got a job developing an educational programme for Rotokare. She’s now a secondary school biology and science teacher, while Aaron works part-time as a lab technician and cares for the children.

Their block is a family affair, and their children are involved as much as possible. Alinka-Jean (6) already knows how to save seeds. Lucas (14) has taken the lead in caring for a breeding colony of mealworms.

“The kids help us with everything from planting, to slug and snail hunts, to picking up pony poo,” says Melissa.

GARDENING FROM TOP TO BOTTOM 

Melissa is the head gardener and designer. Aaron is the builder.

“Melissa has all the vision,” says Aaron. “I’m just the grunt, but it’s great because I like what she does.”

Their garden and orchard sit on the steep slope below the house. The couple started by building metre-wide terraces tucked into the hill below the deck to save it from slipping away, as the structure’s footings had been exposed by erosion.

Paths are lined with concrete pavers to soak up warmth from the sun.

In summer, the north-facing beds are full of corn and prolifically fruiting tomatoes (“we pick tomatoes into May,” says Melissa). Everything is abuzz with bees.

As the warm weather fades, the family plants winter crops of brassicas, including kale and Brussels sprouts, and carrots.

Further down the hill, there’s a glasshouse growing more tomatoes for preserving. Beside it is a double bed-sized plot of kūmara, which basks in the reflected heat from the glass.

Leafy greens grow in hugelkultur-style raised beds right beside the house for easy access. These are clad with corrugated iron from a neighbour’s old dairy shed. Hidden inside, wires tightened with fence strainers hold the timber frames straight. These hold the layers of decomposing logs and small branches sitting in the bottom half of each bed in place. The rotting timber soaks up water, providing moisture and microorganisms to feed the plants, which grow in compost sitting on top.

The trick to growing in a hugelkultur bed is to ensure you pack the branches in well, says Melissa.

“Once we lost a whole kale when it fell into a gap.”

The family eats seasonally. Vegetarian lasagne is a favourite summer and autumn dinner, full of sliced eggplants, capsicum, squash, fresh basil, and homemade tomato sauce. They eat mainly vegetarian meals – the children have meat about once a week, their parents every few weeks.

They have three horses, pet sheep Hazel and Lola, and Heidi the goat, but no longer grow stock for meat. They decided it wasn’t for them after losing a ewe and her triplet lambs.

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They also used to grow and rear ducks to sell, but Aaron says that quickly got old.

“We started out with three and ended up with 80.”

Now, they keep just seven ducks and three hens for their eggs. One of their children has an egg allergy, but duck egg whites contain a different protein from poultry which doesn’t affect him.

The ducks also patrol most of the garden, feasting on codling moths and other pest insects. They’re currently barred from a third of it because their fossicking was eroding the soil around the tree roots on the steep hillside.

MAKING A MEAL OF A BUG’S LIFE 

The couple named their block The Little Insect Farm.

They’re planning to make it the HQ for a venture into farming edible insects.

“A big part of our dream for the future is we want to start growing insects on a commercial scale,” says Melissa.

“It’s another way to increase sustainability – no way will the world be able to keep up with our protein demands the way we’re going.”

They’re close to launching a commercial operation to serve an appetite for organically reared, protein-packed products.

“Insects are the ultimate food,” says Melissa. “They’re full of protein, they use a fraction of the water of other foods to produce, and they’re easy to grow in a small space. It’s a
win-win.”

During the last Taranaki Garden Festival, their taste tests were so popular, she had to cook up extra freeze-dried mealworms each day.

“I dry roast them. If people are funny about eating insects, you can grind them into a powder for putting in smoothies or anything really.”

Mealworms are the larvae of a beetle called Tenebrio molitor. In Southeast Asia, they’re commonly found in food markets and sold as street food, along with other edible insects. Western countries are in the minority as non-insect-eaters – 70 million people around the world eat insects on a regular basis.

In New Zealand, many people buy freeze-dried mealworms for pet birds and lizards, and they’re a good food source for native birds.

Lucas made these insect hotels as part of an award-winning school project, looking at insect farming as a business.

“I set up a mealworm breeding project at Rotokare for feeding birds that are being translocated.”

At present, the family’s mealworm ‘farm’ is a set of plastic drawers, with one space for each part of the insects’ life cycle. The larvae feed on oat bran, with sliced carrots or apple to provide moisture. They’re harvested and frozen before they pupate.

About 20 percent are left to develop into adults for future breeding. The waste the larvae produce, called frass, looks like pale sand and is a useful fertiliser.

Lucas, who is home-schooled, won lots of awards in the Taranaki Science Fair last year for his project comparing frass with traditional commercial fertilisers.

“He found no difference in lots of areas for germination rates and growth.”

The couple plan to set up the insect breeding business in insulated shipping containers. Once they get the project going, they’ll add locusts or crickets to their ‘crops’.

“We’ll use the frass as a fertiliser to grow food for them,” says Melissa. “We’re hoping for a circular business model, with as little waste as possible.”

The family runs Leghorn hens in tunnel-shaped runs. “They’re great layers, but also chicken Einsteins that can escape and destroy a garden in a few hours,” says Melissa. They plan to extend the tunnels into the new food forest, so plants are protected, while also benefiting from pest control and fertiliser. The coop has a deep litter floor. They regularly add woodchips and bark over the manure, and the birds turn it over, forming a sort-of dry compost mix. Twice a year, they dig it out to use in the garden.

DIY SUSTAINABILITY 

Aaron is a dab hand at repurposing and building. He gathers many of the materials for his projects for free, from giant bamboo stakes to corrugated iron and scrap wood. There’s even a lean-to shed that he brought home and reassembled. It all saves money, plus it’s good for the environment, says Aaron.

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“If everybody changed their ways a wee bit and repurposed what they see as junk, we’d keep a lot of stuff out of landfill.”

That explains why an old barbecue table is now a potting bench. A dishwasher near the back door stores gardening tools. Trundler bed frames are now racks for drying onions, and old freezers are perfect for stock feed storage.

A mini glasshouse built from salvaged wood nurtures seedlings. A sturdy strop anchors a second mini hot house to a tree trunk, as the deck can be windy. It has a mini shade house underneath it for native trees that Melissa is growing for the many shelterbelts they’re planning.

On their northern boundary, they’re planting fruit trees on narrow terraces based on the sheep tracks that zig and zag down the steep hillside.

There’s a lot of green in a garden like this, so the Jacobsens incorporate as many flowers as possible into all their beds.

The couple is creating mini hugelkultur-style gardens around each tree to help stabilise and nourish them.

“Our idea is to build soil on steep land – we’ll lay down heat-treated pallets around the trees, using them to hold the soil and planting companion plants around the trees,” says Aaron.

“We’re hoping the trees, with the supporting plants, will eventually hold the beds up.”

To water the trees, they’ve built three mulch pits. Pipes carry greywater from the house into a bucket of scoria, then through the mulch-filled u-shaped pit.

Like swales, the system slows the water flow as it moves downhill.

“It’s full of nutrients so we’ll plant the edges with plants that are heavy feeders, like rhubarb.”

They were recently gifted a small glasshouse which will sit over one of the paths in the food forest. Inside, they plan to create wicking beds from intermediate bulk containers: 1000-litre plastic tanks inside square metal baskets.

LOVE TO LEARN 

The family comes from a line of creators. Both sets of grandparents built last year’s family Christmas present: a nest swing that hangs off power-pole-thick logs, big enough for adults and kids.

Future projects include connecting an old spa pool to a rocket stove, building a root cellar for fruit and vegetable storage, and digging a swimming pool.

They also intend to set up ‘duckquaponics’, a system similar to hydroponic growing. It will use the manure-enriched water from the duck pond to feed plants, which they’ll feed back to their birds.

Growing kūmara in their garden is an experiment.

The couple say they enjoy coming up with innovative solutions for problems.

“I’m a furious researcher,” says Melissa. “Our Friday night viewing is things like composting toilets – there’s a lot of rubbish out there, but you often glean something from them.”

“Having a science background, it’s easy to deep dive into researching something,” says Aaron. “We’ll read or watch everything we can find on that topic – there might be 57 YouTube videos and we’ll watch them all.”

THE BREWMASTER 

Melissa is an expert compost-maker and usually has several piles on the go. She uses ingredients from the garden and supplies from locals, such as spoiled hay a farmer friend was going to burn.

“The kids pick up buckets of horse poo and sometimes we head down to Middleton’s Bay at Opunake to get seaweed.”

They pile the compost inside timber and chicken netting frames, which are easy to set up and dismantle.

Another of her specialties is making fertilisers that meet all her plants’ needs for nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. She mixes a cultured ‘mother brew’ using Lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria found in yoghurt, kimchi, and kombucha. It’s diluted and added to liquid fertilisers made of comfrey, seaweed, and a mix of eggshells and bananas. The brews are used every second week.

Melissa says the ‘lacto’ stops the fertilisers from becoming smelly. Instead, they develop a sweet smell similar to silage.

“Comfrey tea stinks because it’s anaerobic, and I don’t think you should be putting stuff that reeks on your vegetable garden. Lacto creates an environment that’s hostile to bacteria.”

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It also greatly reduces the smell from Melissa’s liquid manure brews – made from chicken manure and fish – and is an excellent compost activator.

“We made (a pile) a week ago, and I tipped a bucket of the mother brew over it. It has already sunk to the same level as another one we made weeks ago. That’s the only thing I did differently, and it composted beautifully – it was up to 65°C in a few days.”

TRUMPING A FULL FLUSH 

The switch to a composting toilet was a logical move when the couple discovered the elderly septic tank they’d inherited with the property was inadequate.

Although perfectly legal, they knew there was a much better way of dealing with their waste.

“We feel that’s the ultimate in sustainability,” says Melissa. “It’s the ultimate responsibility to take care of your own waste – I can’t see any other way of closing the loop. It’s a mindset thing. We use perfectly good drinking water to flush waste away, and that’s a strange concept to a lot of places that struggle with water.”

The family trialled a composting toilet for several months.

“We researched everything, from traditional septic systems to all the fancy composting systems you can buy, but it was all so expensive,” says Aaron. “The more I looked into it, the more I thought, ‘let’s go simple’. Obviously, you have to make sure it’s safe and doesn’t smell bad.”

He built the prototype just before the couple opened their garden to the public for the first time last year. Visitors on the Sustainable Backyards Trail, part of the Taranaki Garden Festival, were intrigued, peeking into the house to see the toilet. What they saw was a tidy timber box, painted in easy-to-clean high gloss enamel, with a normal toilet seat over a hole in the lid.

There’s a section on one side full of wood shavings to sprinkle over deposits instead of flushing. The other side is for toilet roll storage.

Urine is collected separately, diverting through a plastic hose into a large bottle. When the permanent toilet is finished, urine will flow into a large collecting drum. Once diluted, it will be used as a liquid feed around citrus.

“It’s like peeing on your lemon tree,” says Aaron.

Solids collect in a 20-litre bucket. Each contribution is covered with a scoop of untreated wood shavings. When the bucket is full, it’s sealed with a lid.

They expect their family of five will fill about four buckets a week. These will be stored under cover until there’s enough material to make a hot compost pile.

Aaron is building a series of permanent hot composting bays out of concrete cinder blocks he bought for $1 each. Each bay will have a waterproof lid and concrete floor so any leachate can be funnelled out via a drain in the floor to a collection sump. The area will be securely fenced and lined with thick woodchip mulch, so any spills can be easily scooped up and composted.

There will also be a basin with water for a wash station.

Provided the compost heats to between 65-70°C for several days, the waste will be converted into a safe, useable product within nine months. If it’s not hot enough, it takes two years, but Melissa is confident they can get it cooking.

“I’m pretty switched on with our composting – it always reaches 69°C, and (the piles) heat up quickly.”

The mature compost is indistinguishable from their regular home compost.

“All the research says it’s perfectly safe to use on the crops in your garden, and we have so many areas that need compost – we can’t make it fast enough. We won’t put it on our vegetables – we’ll use it around the fruit trees, native trees and other areas.”

One of Melissa’s passions is photographing the bugs that buzz in – borage is always a favourite food for pollinators like bees.

HANDS-ON WITH HAYMAKING 

Faced with a need for hay and a paddock too steep for machinery to cut it, the couple came up with a way of making bales by hand.

Aaron designed and built a manual hay baler which presses the hay into cute half-sized bales.

He uses a weed whacker to mow the grass. They turn it each day with rakes to dry.

“The first time I was doing it, a neighbour asked me, ‘are you all right?’ He thought I was out mowing the whole paddock,” he laughs.

They pile the dry hay in a shed, then bit by bit, it’s processed into bales. It works similarly to an old-fashioned wool press. Loose hay is squashed into the oblong timber box. It’s compressed with a wooden lid attached to a hefty lever made of 4×2 wood, until the box is full and they can tie the strings.

It takes about 20 pressings to make one bale, which are about half the size of a conventional bale and light enough to lift in one hand.

However, they can’t produce enough hay to keep their horses fed over winter, so they also barter vegetables or homemade laundry powder with locals in exchange for standard small hay bales.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.

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