Can You Really Make a Living From a Permaculture Farm? – 7 Ways to Find Out
William Horvath is the mind behind Permaculture Apprentice, a blog that deals with the practicalities of making a transition to permaculture lifestyle and starting a permaculture farm. As a permaculture farmer, designer and researcher he documents his experience of setting up a permaculture farm and deconstructs proven models, strategies, and techniques used by many successful permaculture farmers. His website permacultureapprentice.com is rich in practical information, including free resources, step by step guides, articles, and case studies.
By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be urban, and in more developed regions of the world, these numbers are expected to reach close to 90%. The number of cities and mega-cities with more than 10 million people is slowly but surely increasing in number.
You can catch a glimpse of this very large organism by looking at a satellite photograph of the earth at night. Brilliant clusters of sparkling city lights that dim at the edges to produce long thinly lit highways connecting other distant city clusters, forming organic, treelike patterns. Even these advanced human creations of steel and concrete still conform to the laws of nature that we humans seem to forget so easily…
There is something magical about city light. When I was living in Melbourne I would sometimes sit for what seemed hours and watch the lights of a central business district from a bank of Maribyrnong river, absolutely fascinated by the wonders we humans are capable of – our engineering capabilities, the energy we produce and harness, the complexity of our society…
Yet, at the back of my mind, I was always thinking about the ways to move my family out of the city towards a more abundant life. For me, no matter how much I liked the convenience of a city life and the technological wonders of the modern age, something was missing. I simply knew I could never be a city dweller for life…
Leaving the big city behind to start over on a farm
So, what happens for those of us who want to restructure our lives to be close to nature, and play a part of that natural environment rather than going ‘in nature’ on a weekend trip to a local park; those of us who want to be free of the chains of our modern corporate consumerist jails we, humans, have created for ourselves…
For a lot of people, this kind of freedom starts where the property boundary of their farm begins. Their permaculture farm is the ultimate expression of their values, dreams, and hopes about the future… but this is often just the start of further struggles…
You see, this freedom and that permaculture farm come at a cost, in the form that we all exchange our life energy for – money. Whether it is struggling financially as a farmer or working at a job that takes your precious time away from the farm so you’re able to pay off your mortgage, one thing is for sure, when it comes to making a living off a permaculture farm, there are no easy one-size-fits-all solutions…
Since I now spend my days thinking about this problem and designing my life so I never have to go back to the daily corporate grind, here is what I found has worked for others in the same situation as many of us trying to move closer to the abundant and life-defining vocation of running a permaculture farm.
In this post, I will outline some of the different ways of making an income once you have some farmland and, in my next, I will outline a transition strategy whether you’re currently living on your farm or not, so stay tuned.
There’s lots to cover here, so let’s dive in.
7 Ways to make an income from a permaculture farm
1. Permaculture farmer
Ok, so first, of course, is the permaculture farmer… I would say that the big difference between a permaculture farmer and the conventional agricultural farmer is that, as a permaculture farmer, you’ll probably start by producing 90% of your own food first. Put simply, you’ll start by feeding yourself. In contrast, in big agriculture, the farmer starts with the idea of how am I going to sell that? How am I going to get the money first? Which makes a whole process of starting up much harder.
Therefore, farming will be your baseline activity and, even if you’re not producing a surplus for the market yet, this will be your starting point. Once you get to a more professional level, farming in it-self is a livelihood – growing crops, trees, animals, mushrooms, sustainable forestry… There are a wealth of possible paths you can take and there are many great examples of permaculture farmers out there.
2. Secondary producer of value-added products
This will be a natural addition to your farming efforts, as anything that you can’t sell needs to be preserved, thus adding to its value. Also, when you’re a primary producer on a small scale there is a ton of competition, so you’ll have to find a way to differentiate from others by adding value. People love to buy stuff like that: an artisan local production, healthy food, and healthy products, so it’s reasonable to appeal to people’s perceptions of natural agriculture.
However, here’s the deal, even though you have a farm, you don’t necessary have to be a primary producer. Sure, you’ll be producing the bulk of your food needs but, rather than expanding your production and selling commodities, you can process the output of others and develop your products. As Joel Salatin would say, “always value add” – the reason being, by doing so, you can obtain a higher price, and you can start to develop your brand and differentiate yourself from others.
A great example of value adding is Ben Law – a permaculture teacher and woodlands and wood-land crafts master. Rather than using his forests to sell firewood, he uses wood to produce a variety of value-added products from furniture to coppice crafts.
3. Marketing and distribution
After production (farming) and processing (value adding), we get to marketing and distribution. I would say that the hardest thing is not actually to produce; rather, it’s to sell that produce or products. However, it has to be said that many of us would rather spend our days in the field tending to animals and crops than making business plans and negotiating. Marketing and selling are skills that many people lack and are ready to delegate to someone to whom this comes naturally.
Therefore, with a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit, your farm could become a hub for the marketing and distribution of other people’s products. This is simply brokering products for other farmers – you aggregate products that other people produce, find existing markets and sell the product earning a commission. For this, you don’t even have to produce anything of your own, but if you have people coming to your farm to buy stuff, how hard would it then be to sell them something you’ve produced?
During my stay at David Holmgren’s place, his wife Su was buying in bulk and reselling at a fee. As I remember, she wasn’t earning a commission in a form of money but she was getting a lot of products for free in exchange for her generous and convenient service.
4. Nursery: plant propagation and animal breeding
As permaculture and regenerative agriculture continue to gain in popularity, so does the need for new plants, trees, poultry etc. There is, consequently, an opportunity for people to develop these new breeds – and we can already see this happening. One of the best examples is Mark Shepard’s farm, where he is already not only developing new varieties of chestnuts and hazelnuts but also chickens and pigs that can be left to forage for themselves. Grant Shultz, in Iowa, is also developing his own breeds of pig.
The nursery business, whether big or small, is also one of the essential businesses you could run. In permaculture, everybody needs plants. Not everyone has space, time, or desire to keep animals, but everyone needs plants. Sure, it’s more complicated than taking a cutting, sticking it in sand, watching it grow and then selling it for cash, but the barrier to entry is so low that anybody can try it for themselves. Read this post to get you started with establishing your own permaculture nursery…
As mentioned, Mark Shepard is a great example here; he has his Forestag nursery, where he’s sell-ing chestnut and hazel varieties that can tolerate climate extremes, droughts and floods …who wouldn’t want to buy trees like that? And we Europeans have Paul Alfrey from Balkep covering our backs…
5. Services related to your farm or farming
Your farm can also provide different farm-related services such as eco-tourism, recreation, and basic healthcare….The simplest way to put your existing assets to productive use is to rent them and promote your farm as a “retreat/vacation” style property. Here you have many possibilities, as you’re selling experiences – from fun and recreational, to farm-work related ones to renting a room on Airbnb.
Moreover, basic health care and therapeutic services such as massage, acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners are always in demand. These are essential services as much as producing food – people will always need to eat and people will always get sick, tired, or need to relieve stress. This is a great way to put value-added products from your farm to use and sell them to customers coming to your farm.
6. Teaching and education on the site
Education can be time-intensive but requires little expenditure, meaning that, in terms of turnover versus net income, education has relatively low cost compared to, for instance, primary production/food processing and direct selling at farmers markets. So, once you have your farm going, you can start leveraging your experiences and your demonstration site to teach people the secrets of your success.
You can offer PDC courses, workshops, location-specific education, do farm tours and take interns that are willing to pay for their stay in exchange for learning from you. Also, note that your teaching doesn’t even have to be limited to the physical site itself, you can offer online classes such as Geoff Lawton does with his PDC, sell DVDs like Ben Falk or e-books/books like David Holmgren.
Consequently, if there are people interested in learning more about your site and your techniques, they’re willing to pay for it and you can serve them…Well then, I don’t see how that could be a bad thing.
7. Consulting – designing and implementing designs
One final layer of permaculture farm-related income streams is consultancy services. Although one could say this is not strictly an on-farm activity, it can be very much a spin-off from your farm. It is, after all, the farm that is your keystone portfolio site, and the aspect that will probably get you, clients. Here, for the sake of simplicity, I’m grouping designing and implementing services under the umbrella of being a consultant. Sure, they can, and often are, practiced separately, but let’s keep things simple…
With so many people turning to permaculture and wanting to permaculturize their properties, there’s an obvious need for designers, off-grid consultants and qualified earthmovers helping to establish permaculture systems such as food forest, orchards or whole farms and homesteads.
You can view each of these permaculture farm occupations as a potential enterprise or a business unit that you can develop and master on its own. However, in real life, these are actually intertwined and aren’t really practiced in isolation. Most frequently, they complement each other, and the easiest way to understand it is to think in percentages. Here’s what I mean…
As I outlined in the permaculture farm profiles, each and every one of the models of a successful permaculture farm has multiple income streams. For example, Grant Shultz of Versaland makes 40% of his income from farming, 30% from his nursery business, 20% from education and 10% from consulting… It’s rare indeed that successful permies focus on just one thing…
In part 2 of this post, I’ll outline the strategy of how can you transition to one of the occupations in a relatively safe manner, mitigating risks whether you’re currently living on the land of your farm or not.
Until then, let me know if you can think of anything else that can be added to this list by leaving a comment in the comments section below!