Commercial Farm ProjectsFinancial Management

Start Growing! Part 1: How to Buy a Farm Debt Free

Let’s say you have a bit of savings and you’re keen to buy land to farm. Even though permaculture has taught you how to see the hidden value in land and you have the skills to rehabilitate the most degraded landscapes, land is by no means cheap.

The problem is not that you can’t borrow money to purchase that hidden gem you’ve found. The problem is that the real costs only begin once you start; equipment, materials, transportation, energy, development, effort to build up a customer base. You’d have the burden of repaying the loan while you’re still at your most vulnerable — the startup phase. That means never giving the farm a fair chance to get up and running, a chance to be financially sustainable.

Is there another way? You bet.

My background is in business, finance and information technology. A decade ago, I would have never guessed that I’d one day be Bill Mollison’s farm manager and run several permaculture businesses. My first contact with permaculture was back when I was learning as much as I could about agriculture and climate so that I could profit by speculating in commodity futures. Although those days are past, I pass this on to would-be farmers (it also applies to any local food business):

Focus on income producing investments

Isn’t farmland an investment? Of course it is, but it doesn’t magically produce a yield by itself. Even the most efficient permaculture design still requires input from you, especially in the early years.

The trick is to choose assets with the highest return on investment. That’s what you get for how much you put in, and how quickly. (Of course we don’t consider anything outside of the ethics of earth care, people care and return of surplus.) Then when those assets have paid for themselves and provide cash-flow, you can reinvest the surplus into other assets like land.

Own your farm without the burden of debt

Lets look at three would-be farmers with $10,000 in savings who want to start a farm.

Meet Robert. He gets a loan of $90,000 to buy a piece of land and a small herd of cattle. He should have done more research because unexpected costs such as fencing and equipment maintenance have caught him off-guard. He soon finds himself (or his wife) working part-time in town just to make their $700 monthly loan payment(1). Under this pressure, mistakes are costly. Not able to commit to farming full time, there’s a good chance Robert will give up after a few years as he can’t keep up with expenses and debt.

Then there’s Chris. He knows a farmer approaching retirement willing to lease him a corner of his land at the edge of town. He uses $7000 of his savings to buy a small herd of heavy calves and invests the rest into the lease, portable electric fencing and other basic necessities. At the end of the season he processes the whole herd, and then makes a deal with the farmer to lease even more land. With a season of experience behind him, he is even more keen to start the next. He discovers he can time-stack poultry in the same space as cattle, and in a few years has earned and saved enough to buy a small piece of farmland debt-free.

Jessica is impressed with Chris’ success but thinks she can do even better. Instead of purchasing livestock, she puts all of her savings into leasing land and equipment so that she can start a farm share. Other people pay for livestock. She tends, manages and processes them for a fee. In a few years, she has enough savings to buy land debt-free. Instead of building a house right away on her new farm, she converts a shed into a temporary home opting rather to put in a few dams and swales and to plant up a low maintenance food forest that will pay in dividends later.

Money is merely a tool

It doesn’t matter which model of sustainable farming you choose to pursue. Either it sustains itself or you’ll have to sustain it. Profit is no different from other types of surplus. It is a healthy and essential part of diverse, abundant systems. It is necessary to keep moving forward. I’m not talking about profit for profit’s sake. Don’t make it your goal. I’m talking about the efficient use of a very powerful resource.

Money is merely a tool. When we use it skillfully, we decide whether we are the master or the slave.

So follow your heart and pursue your dreams. Even with inflated real estate prices, you can buy your farm debt-free.

Have your own story? Share it!

(1) Approximated: $90,000 loan at 5% interest over 15 years.

Update: Read Part II here!


  1. In your examples every one of those people would be better off still working fulltime, then spend the weekends developing their land. The ROI of the land may be slightly lower then if they were working it fulltime, but gross income would be much higher. Which allows you to become debt free so much faster, then you can focus on your own land without any pressure. I have some land, with a few beef cows. The value of the calves will cover the interest, and we use our wages to pay off the loan. We go out when we can to check on the stock, and plant a few trees, or do some fencing, but it’s a low input system. Once we are debt free we will have the time to develop it further. I doubt anyone could live off the income from any of those examples without outside income, let alone save up enough money to ever be debt free with land.

  2. Thanks Fraser. Very succinctly put. My husband and I will be buying property in the next few years and I have been wondering how to go about it. Being “Robert” is what I want to avoid, and I appreciate that you used two different positive scenarios, illustrating that there is variety in sustainable approaches.

  3. A tip of the hat to Rob Roy with the temporary dwelling concept. I assume that while leasing land the budding farmer is living in a nearby rental? Or perhaps they can investigate erecting a temporary dwelling on that leased land? Zaytuna is a rental property and I have often wondered what the leasing arrangement is at Zaytuna, as they have had so much liberty to develop their property as they wish. Very encouraging ideas Fraser. I’d love to see more communities develop that are modeled on Zaytuna. These sorts of places need to pop up around the country and leasing land would be a much easier step for people to take up those sorts of opportunities. It would also be an opportunity to not get too attached to things as one may be forced to let go of the development if the leasing arrangement changed for some reason. I have often admired the way that Lawton or Mollison have been prepared to walk away from projects that they have developed into maturity. No attachment there, just a job well done.

  4. I find this a timely article, but still I’m not sure that it helps me. My husband works in the city centre and earns $97 an hour. He isn’t interested in becoming a farmer nor would it pay him too.
    So I need to find land close enough to the city so that he can continue working while I can ‘start a permaculture farm’. I have found the perfect gem. It’s aprox 1hour from the city of Perth at $445,000. Any land further away is not possible for hubby work and anything closer is even more expensive or not the right block. So I’m not sure if we should get the block or not. We wouldn’t be able to build on it as the block mortgage will be too high (and hubby doesn’t want to live in a shed and feel like he’s ‘roughing it’), so we’d need to keep paying rent on top (still an hours drive away from the block). Land values keep going up as the the city keeps expanding. I also wonder if we don’t get it, it’ll be our last chance to get something within driving distance to the city. Should I give up? Solutions?

    1. Jodie, Joel Salatin wrote “You can farm” a few years ago now. In it he mentions a great number of ways to do farming, many suitable for urban situations. And definitely based on a profitable and sustainable model.
      The other model is SPIN farming – more here: . You can buy a series of learning modules, but with what’s available for free you can probably gauge for yourself if you want to work that way. So anyway – there’s two :-)

  5. I’m in the same boat. Next year I plan on buying a bit of land and setting it up. Our plan is to grow our own fruit and vegetables and build strawbale dwellings on it. Even have our own house cow. For the house we are going to have separate pavillions for different functions ie bedrooms, kitchen/dining and will pay for the construction with cash. Strawbale with earthen floors and earth renders may not appeal to all, however can be quite cost effective.

    So I’m looking for land without a house which makes it cheaper. We are looking for land that will enable us to have as little external income as possible. Time seems to be the scarcest resource I have. So my plan is to free up as much time as possible. 40 hours a week now is worth much more than 40 hours a week in 5 years time.

    Unfortunately I saw 5 north facing slightly sloped acres sold before we got a chance to put in an offer. Throw a few swales on it and that land would have been great. It also meant that we could have paid it off in a very short period of time. Which would then have greatly reduced the requirement for external income. Living with a mortgage in Brisbane and working in the city requires a much higher income -its easy to get addicted to the higher wage.

    Jodie if the limitation is your husband working in the city – is a farm a realistic enterprise? Is there something smaller scale and niche that you could do that is closer?

    I’ve realised the last few months that we generally don’t pool our resources enough. If I could go in with 2 or 3 families we could reduce the up front investment by a lot. I think its hard to get out of the mindset of doing everything for ourselves only. Sharing can also conserve energy and reduce doubling up of work. This approach will require a lot of trust with whoever is involved, but may produce a better outcome quicker.


    1. Hi Rohan,

      I to have thought about pooling resources but have met nothing but brick walls. Even buying 200 Acres for a very reasonable price just out of Perth, we enquired about the amount of dwellings allowed to be built. It was 1. How ridiculous. In the end I bought a quarter of an Acre and plan to build a straw bale house and grow my own veggies, have a few chooks and some fruit tree’s. Pooling of land would be ideal especially so much land. We would have had over 30 Acres each for what it cost me to buy 1/4 Acre. It is very frustrating.

    2. Rohan

      We have also been looking for other families who want to go in together for a farm share type property but as my husband has his heart set on Tasmania it’s difficult to find anyone who wants to go that far. As we were both single parents when we met we don’t have a lot of resources to put toward our dream. Superannuation is not much to speak of, savings would barely cap out at $20k. Even with both of us working it seems it would take decades before we could do something like this and yet we dream of selling everything we own, buying a couple of caravans and working the land while our youngest is still young enough to appreciate the benefit of getting her hands dirty and the personal satisfaction of “real” work. I did notice an ad on gumtree recently for a 95 acre property near Cairns, with two separate 3 bedroom houses and a 1-bedroom self contained flat on the property. It had a creek boundary and was selling for $900,000 something. What a great opportunity for 2 families and a single to go in together and do something amazing with 95 acres! To far away and too hot for me, but if anyone in Tassie is looking to go in together in a farm property please let me know! Jules

  6. So, what about farms that don’t rely on animals to profit on? I hope this isn’t the solution you’ve been hyping from the last post. And, not quite following you when you say you can buy a farm debt free???

  7. I’m pretty good with the growing systems of both livestock and plants. What I lack is the business side of the coin. Any suggestions for learning how to market whatever it is that I produce? I’m looking at high desert properties here in Oregon, USA because they’re affordable, so livestock will be a priority right out of the gate. Water systems such as gabions take years to mature, and a food forest takes longer to mature in the high desert than in the temperate valleys. I’m thinking of buying a used camp trailer (caravan?) to live in until I can build a house.

  8. Zaytuna Farm is owned by Geoff and Nadia Lawton and rented by PRI for education, the farm produce is sold to PRI and consumed mostly by students.

  9. Thank you for the post Fraser. The principle is sound enough I’m sure, but a little more detail would be good. How much is a typical lease? How are they paying for their accommodation and food prior to processing? What kind of return can be expected? etc.The devil is always in the details : )

  10. In your first example: Where can you buy land (large enough for ‘a small herd of cattle’ and purchase the cattle for $90,000? How would they have expected to live off ‘a small herd of cattle’? Of course they would have needed a job and not a part time one either! That is completely unrealistic.
    In the second example: what sort of lease costs per hectare have you used to determine this arrangement? What is a ‘small piece of farmland’? In our council area the smallest allowable parcel of farmland is 100 acres. Expensive – I cannot see how one could afford to buy such a parcel of land after only a few short years. If it was this easy why are none of my farming neighbours able to do so? In the third example: I know dozens of people who manage, tend and process stock for a fee. They’re called farmhands and farm overseers. None of them earn enough in a few years to buy land debt free. Sorry but I think this is a very flimsy set of arguments and needs a substantial amount of backing with examples containing details of costs of leasing, feeding and maintenance of livestock costs, compliance with stock id for on-sale and associated costs, legal implications of leasing arrangements, sales averages for stock, transport costs, processing costs, cost of living arrangements etc etc etc.

    1. I basically agree with what you are saying. I have found the price of land tends to be high enough to allow you to pay the mortgage, and maybe make a profit in an exceptional year. In other words the value of land is tied to its productive output. No bank would lend me 90% to buy land, I had to have substantial equity of at least 50% of the land value. My wife and I will be working fulltime until we are debt free, because the land we bought is only big enough to match our current living expenses, not our wages, just what we use to live on, the rest goes onto the mortgage.

  11. Maybe of interest for those in Florida – Big Small Farm ( – a non-profit farm incubator, where aspiring farmers can lease land for $20/acre/year.

    As for the the examples in the article – people who said it wouldn’t work in real life are missing a very important point. All you need to make it work is to replace cattle with unicorns – you can easily make 5000% or more a month on those :)

    Seriously though – yes, it’s not as rosy or simple but the underlying ideas are pretty sound. Investments in land and infrastructure have probably bankrupted more farmers than gambling and alcohol combined.

  12. It’s great to see the beginning of a discussion on land. The examples are interesting but need far, far more number crunching than (1) Approximated: $90,000 loan at 5% interest over 15 years. in order for this discussion to move beyond a beginning.

    If I were in the unenviable position of trying to acquire land which I’m not, I’d start by looking at organic farming. There’s a lot written about business plans and markets and produce. Then I’d take a look in the area of the country that I’d like to be in and see what markets exist that fit what I’m reading in my organic market search. Then I’d consider what types of land might work for the type of output I’m planning.

    BTW, I’d take cattle out of the discussion entirely. The acreage involved (no feedlots allowed) in order to operate in a humane and regenerative way with no external feed inputs require that you win a lottery. And the operating complexities and cost take cattle to a level of intensity that makes for a very fragile set-up.

    Far better to focus on fruits, vegetables, and herbs where you can target high end consumers such as restaurants, health food stores, and online sales. Flexibility is critical. For example, fresh herbs that don’t sell to restaurants become dried herbs that go to health food stores or sell online. Turn your herbs into vinegars and you have a value added product to offer to health food stores. Seeds harvested from the herbs sell online.

    Yes, there’s no numbers in the model I’m suggesting. But keeping capital and operational costs down reduce the pressure for sales. A model that is small but intensive and regenerative is far more robust.

    1. DGG, I doubt you really understand how easy cattle are to manage. I’m not sure how much land you think you would need either. Where I am, you would need more like $200-300K, in order to make a liveable income from cattle. I only need to check my cows when I want to, beef cows have been bred to be easy care. They are always growing and increasing in value, and once mature they multiply for free. There are no real hidden costs, maybe some salt which costs me less then $100 per year. It’s so simple I bet there would be 100 successful beef farmers for every successful organic farmer. Reading books won’t make you a good organic farmer, it takes literally years of experience, great marketing abilities, a very broad range of knowledge, and a huge amount of time weeding, harvesting, planting, preserving, etc. Not to mention the other front end costs, like certification (good like trying to sell to high end consumers without it) planting out an orchard, herbs creating gardens, irrigation, and the huge volumes of product you would have to shift etc.
      I’m not against organic per se, but you can’t just jump in head first and expect to make it. If you knew what you were doing, and had the time and resources to get set up, then organic would be great.
      I think you have the operating complexities back to front, I couldn’t imagine anything simpler then raising beef cattle.
      For the record, any process that involves taking produce from a farm, and ultimately flushing it down the toilet out to sea will never be regenerative. No matter how many dynamic accumulators you plant.

      1. Tight, closed nutrient loops are obviously better, but their absence shouldn’t necessarily prevent a farm being viewed as regenerative. I’d say Joel Salatin’s farm qualifies as regenerative, and he’s exporting produce flat out. Just look at what he started with.

        There’s practically no danger of a farm running out of raw minerals; a chemical analysis of the soil will reveal that. As long as there is biology in sufficient diversity, quantity and activity, fed carbohydrates by the plants and flocculating clays, the minerals in the sand, silt, clay and rock will move from the total pool to the exchangeable and soluble pools.

        ‘Regenerative’ should refer to the increase in the amount of life, its diversity, and along with that the increase in carbon stored above and below ground. Things move from place to place by gravity and other means. Nothing can really be kept in a steady state. A farmer’s job is to turn the water, carbon and nitrogen in the atmosphere into useful biomass. The question then is how much can be taken without reversing that increase.

        1. Well if you want to view a degenerative process as being regenerative, don’t let me stop you. If you think soil has infinite minerals just waiting for a suitable method of exploitation go ahead and call whatever you want regenerative. Kind of degenerates the word into another mindless cliché IMO.

          FYI chemical analysis of soils reveals exactly the kind of nutrient loss I am talking about. I run a pasture based dairy farm, if we don’t replace all the calcium that leaves the farm in the form of milk, with more calcium in the form of lime, the farm would be stuffed in a few short years. Same goes for every mineral that isn’t freely available from the air and rain, ie. nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen. This is why good farmers apply fertiliser, to replace the minerals that have left the farm. Otherwise you are just mining the soil for nutrients, some of the more abundant nutrients will obviously take longer to deplete, but unless your time horizon is shorter then a couple of decades you’ll find that soils do actually need a nutrient cycle.

          1. To regenerate just means to revitalise or make something better. Is a farm undergoing a large increase in soil carbon, water retention and life, able to rapidly solubilise soil mineral particles in a better state, at the cost of a small fraction of minerals? Given the word’s widespread use it seems you’re alone in saying no. Under your strict usage the word could never apply; some minerals would always be lost or misdirected.

            When lime, dolomite, and gypsum salts are dumped on the soil some of the microbiology is killed by desiccation. The sulfate from gypsum is also antifungal. Aerobic microbiology extends your root system, breaks up compaction, makes the insoluble minerals available, forms structure, feeds your plants, and keeps diseases in check. Without sufficient life you must amend the soil – at great cost, mined from somewhere else and mostly leached away.

            Dr. Elaine Ingham says “Look at the total mineral concentration in your soil. Go read any basic soil science book that you want to pick up. And if they talk about the total mineral nutrients that are present in any soil, you have hundreds of thousands of years of the calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron; even nitrogen is present in rock material.

            And what we’re lacking in most of our dirt is the organisms to solubilize those mineral nutrients out and put it back into a plant available form.”

            1. I suggest you read the humanure handbook, for a bit of background on nutrient cycling. There a plenty of other books and articles about cycling nutrients. Dr Elaine Ingham possibly is correct if she doesn’t include a rate of extraction in her calculations. I use calcium as a very simple example, in milk, but it applies equally as well for wool, beef animals and even vegetables.

              Wikipedia has some figures for sulphur
              Most sulfur is made available to plants, like phosphorus, by its release from decomposing organic matter.[122] Deficiencies may exist in some soils and if cropped, sulfur needs to be added. A 15-ton crop of onions uses up to 19 lb of sulfur and 4 tons of alfalfa uses 15 lb per acre. Sulfur abundance varies with depth. In a sample of soils in Ohio, United States, the sulfur abundance varied with depths, 0-6 inches, 6-12 inches, 12-18 inches, 18-24 inches in the amounts: 1056, 830, 686, 528 lb per acre respectively.

              Hardly thousands of years, and land productivity will be greatly diminished long before it is all gone. BTW that is total sulphur, dynamic accumulators cannot create sulphur, once it’s gone, it’s gone. Lucky oil is full of sulphur and we have a ready supply available to keep soil levels up.

              I may be alone in acknowledging that we are a deluded species justifying our own unsustainable lifestyles with cliché’s. I guess the majority is always right.

              1. Right, so you haven’t thought it through. It’s technically possible to recycle most mineral nutrients. It’s practically impossible to recycle all of them. That strand of hair, that flake of skin that dropped to the ground, the bodies of people and their pets, the fart now wafting into the atmosphere – how are you going to get those back to the farm? Commercial composting toilets have extractor fans; their purpose is to prevent smells backing up into the bathroom. What do you suppose is being carried away by those smelly gasses? I’ve seen enough home “compost” bins and worm farms to know that most people don’t keep them aerobic. The smells they produce and the flies that breed in the material are taking minerals. Even academic institutions have difficulty composting aerobically. The furniture that came off a timber plantation, the old woollen jumper – are they going to be returned to the land? Face it: it’s always going to be a leaky system. Then consider the energy and logistics involved.

                I’m not saying this to discourage nutrient cycling. It’s just a reality that in a large scale commercial venture where consumption is far removed from production by necessity (the local market is quickly saturated) it is impossible to have a perfect nutrient recycling system. Not to mention contamination by heavy metals and medication.

                I work with households where it is feasible to run a tight cycle to return waste to the soil, but even the best scenario is going to be leaky, and we still face legal and cultural resistance. How are you going with getting humanure from your customers?

                Elaine recognises that plant roots can go much deeper than 24 inches. Roots 60 meters long have been dug up. Clearly incorporating deep rooted perennials is of benefit. Then mycorrhizae increase the extent and surface area of the root system by many times. Critters such as earth worms and other burrowing creatures are constantly bringing soil to the surface and allowing roots to go deeper. She says if your mineral take up drops before you run short of total mineral content then the necessary biology is not present or not working for the plants.

                There is quite a bit of sulfur in rainfall, irrigation, ground water, and sedimentary deposits. Over 10ppm sulfate will kill fungi, so adding moderate quantities of any salt or elemental form will kill the fungus that would find the sulphur and other minerals for your plants naturally. Oil is also finite and environmentally destructive. If you really want to amend sulphur then do it through compost, or use kelp concentrate or fish hydrolysate (which forms a loose cycle). Fish oils also promote fungi. The absence of organisms means minerals are constantly leaching out of your soil. Mineral soil doesn’t do a good job of retaining them.

                I didn’t say that; you’re just confused about terminology. I can have a good night’s sleep and feel regenerated. Having a good sleep every night will not allow me to live forever, although it might extend my life. I will eventually have a fatal accident, succumb to a disease or an organ will fail. You are effectively saying a good night’s sleep is not regenerative because it doesn’t allow me to live forever.

              2. The fact remains that any process that involves the removal of nutrients from a system, flushing them down the toilet and out to sea is not regenerative. Simply telling me I’m wrong because it’s a) too hard to do, or b) there are vast amounts of nutrients to flush away, and we just need to get them from deeper down once those in the topsoil are gone. Does not actually prove me wrong, it just shows that you have stopped thinking about it.

                The Japanese had a large scale agricultural system based on nutrient cycling, so it’s not impossible. But yes when consumption is far removed from production you are going to end up with a broken nutrient cycle, or huge energetic costs to close the cycle. Still doesn’t disprove my statement, that a broken nutrient cycle cannot be regenerative.

                Shifting nutrients back from the sea, to the land is one way to attempt to close the cycle, but at huge energetic costs.

                You can have a good nights sleep and ‘feel’ regenerated, but after a lifetimes worth of good nights sleep, you will see that those feelings were no reflection of reality. Same goes for soils with a broken nutrient cycle.

                As I have repeatedly stated you can’t call a process that removes nutrients from the soil and flushes them out to sea regenerative. The size of the nutrient base argument sounds eerily similar to the ‘death of peak oil’ because there is so much out there, argument.

  13. Thank you all for your comments.

    Yes, we need more numbers! (If you have them, share them!) Individual situations and local prices will be different if you live in Florida or Oregon or Australia or Finland. Just like actual farming itself, even decisions made on the same farm at different times of year or under different stewardship would not be the same. It also depends if you are 25 or 55, you’re level of risk tolerance and if you’re willing to endure some short term ‘pain’ for long term gain.

    As Leon mentioned, the recipe doesn’t matter as much as the pattern itself. It is a way of thinking. It is up to each of us to take it and apply it to our very unique situation in the best way we can. In some cases, it may very well be that it takes over a decade to buy land debt-free, or maybe it’s enough that it creates positive cash-flow to service a manageable level of debt. If you love your city job and it can finance a hobby farm, then go for it!

    As Mariette’s suggested, there are whole books dedicated to this one subject. Salatin’s You Can Farm is certainly an excellent place to start.

    Tyrone is certainly not the only one with a green thumb and new to this marketing and financial business management deal. This is the first time in about a century that famers again have to wear multiple hats and interface directly with eaters. It’s a whole new world. My aim is to provide support and shorten the learning curve so that each farmer doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel.

    Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Start Growing! Series in 2 weeks.

  14. I know the author is writing from an Australian perspective about which I know nothing. Not knowing where you live, I’ll accept that it’s as easy and cheap as you say. That’s not the case in North America where I live. In North America, 200-300K gets you a hobby farm or something so marginal that you won’t make an on-farm living unless you go the feedlot route and even then many farmers still have off-farm jobs. If you want to keep your beef on pasture only which would seem to be the only way in a permaculture context, the price goes way up. That’s a huge barrier to entry.

    In the US, “Most farm households earn all of their income from nonfarm sources and even those operating larger farms often have substantial nonfarm income.” Poking into the report, 75% of the farms in the survey have little farm production which explains the above statement. The remaining 25% that have annual sales have off farm income. In the group with the largest farm sales, the operator was working +20 hrs/wk off the farm and the spouse another 4/wk off the farm.

    So what are the options if conventional farming is a non-starter for most entrants. If not big, then small. Small mostly means market gardening. That means farmers’ markets, farm gate, CSAs, online, restaurants, value added products (fresh fruit in season, preserves & sexy preserves out of season) in one or more combinations. You may or may not need to be certified. I have friends who sell to top end restaurants who want fresh produce. Because they know how it is produced, they don’t require certification. One actually produced a video that explains his farm and its approach to chefs who can’t visit it. It’s gotten him clients. Being certified organic, certainly pushes cost up. I agree with you 100% that books won’t make you a farmer or much else for that matter but it seems to me that some research first might be a good idea before putting money on the line. Interning or wwoofing might put some perspective into the research. As you say, jumping in head first is a bad idea.

    Numbers, numbers, numbers. It’s my sense that many would love of make a living farming and not split be split between job X and the farm. OK, let’s say for the sake of discussion that 200K gets you the land you need and covers startup costs for your farm, beef or otherwise. Figure out how long, it will take you to save enough so that whatever debt you take on will not push you into an off-farm job. Do a best-case and a worst-case. As for one’s level of risk-tolerance, it’s always far greater that it is when the shit hits the fan. Debt’s not an absolutely bad thing but it does tie your hands while you have it. And it’s even worse if you are too optimistic about the level you can handle. For a given level of debt servicing and fixed living expenses, what kind of sales do you need to generate? Most focus on sales but costs kill a business quickly. The smaller the costs, the greater the ability to withstand shocks, weather and customer.

    As for Polyface, how do you have a 550 acre farm in the Shenandoah hills that is mortgage free? With his parents buying it in 1961, I’m guessing he inherited it debt free or close to it. How do you generate $2 million in sales (he now leases additional land). He’s a brilliant marketer. I’m not trying to take anything away from Joel Salatin. He is truly inspirational but he’s more or less one of a kind.

  15. Land & money in the hands of the crony-capitalist oligarchy are a disaster. What is/has the Permaculture community doing/done about this? Advocating working within or alongside the system? For how long? How long do we have? Do we have enough time? What kind of Care of People/Earth is Care of People/Earth anyway? Permaculture doesn’t seem to be helping Fukushima, the sixth mass extinction event, or climate is change, is it? Given these kinds of things, what good is any kind of farm?
    “To get to a real resistance, we need a culture of resistance. Instead, we have the Permaculture wing, we have the Transition Towners, the Voluntary Simplicity people. I call them the OIMBY’s: ‘Only In My Back Yard’. Taken as a whole… they dismiss political action as either impractical or impossible.”
    ~ “Earth At Risk

  16. This is a potentially misleading article for people contemplating a farm start up. I have been farming, using permaculture systems, for close to 20 years. In Australia the price of food, even when sold direct, as ours is, is not high enough to repay a debt. You can basically generate a minimum award hourly rate for yourself by farming – there are no extra profits. If you grow and need to employ people they will be able to generate enough income to pay the wages you owe them. We now have more produce being created on our farm than we are able to harvest as the costs of harvesting the produce does not make it viable. We sell exclusively at local Farmers Markets and direct to restaurants and retailers. If we sold into the conventional market system we would have bulldozed our major crops some time ago.
    This is not saying you should abandon your dream of living on, and off, the land. We are self sufficient in meat, fruit and vegetables and generate a large surplus of products for sale, which is handy for our life within the wider community, but we could not have developed the property without off farm funding and tourism ventures.
    Be realistic – if you want to farm debt free put in the time on the well paid off farm job and save up to buy the farm.
    If you are in Australia do not be misled by stories from the USA. The US has a highly subsidised grain industry so supplementary animal feed is cheap, and it also has very low wages compared to Australia. These two inputs are often the basis of successful US small farming operations. Many large US farming operations rely on “illegal”, but widely accepted, Mexican labour which is cheaper again.
    Wwoofers are not skilled labour and you will not be able to leverage their work as a subsidy to your operation. If you have incredibly simple repetitive jobs you may be able to use Wwoofer labour to carry them out profitably, but at the expense of your Wwoofer well being and length of stay.
    The original permaculture advice is the best – start at the back door and produce your own food. Success in this can lead to generation of surplus to make some income. The money you save by growing your own food is the best return you will get from farming in Australia. There are many farmers working hard, turning over large amounts of money and then spending the small profit at the supermarket. Don’t look for a product to sell at the start – instead look at reducing, and then eliminating, your expenditure on food.
    Economics are very site specific, but if you buy cheap land remote from a townsite you will not be able to sell your produce direct and will have transport costs to deal with. If you are near a town with a poor economic profile (high unemployment and low average wages) you will have trouble selling value added product.
    We love our lifestyle, and encourage others to give it a go. But – don’t make the mistake of over estimating potential income from any farming operation in Australia.

    1. Very well put Jamie, I think the question of context keeps being missed. I can hardly find a farmer who makes money, its only breaking even or doing it for the love of it and having another job or someone else in the family works to pay the mortgage. I don’t even think I can find people who can make a decent living of a farm in Australia, even if they inherited the land and have no debt at all.
      Farming as it stands at the moment is serfdom, farming families are in servitude to banks, huge conglomerates own large multi-titles parcels of land and employ contractors to do farm work.
      In Australia, farming is a disaster and a joke, that is not to say that I don’t aspire to be one, or work with them. Everything about farming, from how we run the land, to how we live on it to how we pay for it is a deeply flawed system.

  17. From the video Caelan linked:

    “Given a realistic assessment of what we actually have, the only viable strategy left that I can see, is direct attacks on infrastructure. […] And it would be really great if the permaculture wing could get on board and provide that loyalty and material support. At the very least they’ve got to stop saying that this can’t be done.” Lierre Keith ~52:30-53:30.

    I am not on board with “continental scale” attacks on industrial infrastructure. And it is more than a little offensive for someone advocating violent revolution to accuse permaculturalists of being OIMBY do-nothings then turn around and ask us to provide you with loyalty and material support.

    In fact, it is a bit disturbing that your quote is from earlier in her talk when she speaks about political action, but listening just a few more minutes leads you to a full on call for violent attacks on infrastructure.

    A violent revolution against the industrial system is going to be considered terrorism. Giving material support to a violent revolution is a guaranteed way to make certain that the spread of permaculture is significantly curtailed.

    I do not support violent action against the industrial system.

  18. I am happy to see the discussion this article has stimulated.

    Lets not forget the words “not possible” do not apply to individuals motivated to find a better way. Our only limitations are those of our own creativity and imagination. The best returns, whether in farming, finance or life, are typically found when others are calling you crazy :)

    Coming up.. find out how you can start farming with no land and no money!

      1. You’re right, Andy, you got me on that one. I didn’t mention that the laws of physics still apply.

        Maybe you’re more mentally flexible than most, but the majority of us will hit our own personal limitations well before we come anywhere close to what is physically possible.

        Reinhold Messner, the most accomplished mountaineer of all time, was told by doctors and the world that climbing Everest without oxygen was impossible. It was suicide – his brain would explode if he tried. But try he did, without oxygen, solo, on the treacherous Northeast ridge, total free-climb, and he succeeded.

        And the funny thing is that Messner himself rejects any claim that he is physically more capable than anyone else – is it only a question of self-determination.

  19. The US has a highly subsidised grain industry so supplementary animal feed is cheap, and it also has very low wages compared to Australia. These two inputs are often the basis of successful US small farming operations. Many large US farming operations rely on “illegal”, but widely accepted, Mexican labour which is cheaper again.

    A bit of clarification, if I may. In the US, the large farms that use illegal labour tend to be fruit and vegetable. The other large farms – corn/feed, cotton, soy, wheat get the subsidies but employ relatively few people, illegal or otherwise, because of mechanization and herbicides. Between 1970 and 2010, changes in planting and harvesting machinery in field crops resulted in increases in acreage efficiency of 2262% and 1150% with much of the absolute increase coming after 2005. The labour and capital requirement in fruits, vegetables and nuts is extremely intensive. Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming is a recent USDA report that provides eye-opening detail

  20. Caelan,

    You want to rip it down. Great. Fantastic. Tell me what you’ll put in its place. Will you expend your energy in the ripping down or the building up? What about the middle time between the ripping down and the building up? Will there be chaos in the struggle? Will the innocent be hurt? In the Sixties, my same anger expressed itself the same way as yours. Now, my same anger is directed to building an alternative. It’s a much harder and challenging seeing the details of a future and building it while you’re still in the present. But it’s also infinitely more rewarding because it brings peace to the anger.

    What exists is in the process of self-destructing. It doesn’t need help, not even a nudge. As a snowball at the top of hill becomes an avalanche as it descends, so will the demise of crony/consumer capitalism pick up steam. If you truly care about us all, put your energy into building a better vision not trying to fix a broken one.

  21. Hi DGG
    US grain subsidies work their way down through the system effectively subsidising the farmer buying stockfeed as well as the grower of that feed.
    Low wages are a reality in the US and Europe as is the presence of illegal workers.
    These two factors are not present in Australia and alter the economic calculations as a consequence.
    I personally wouldn’t alter Australia’s minimum wage – everyone deserves a living wage, but it has to factor into costs of production.
    We have produce that is too expensive to pay people to pick and process despite our access to direct sales systems we have developed.
    I try to walk the line between encouraging people to pursue their dream of living on a productive permaculture farm and helping them be realistic about the actual financial realities of trying to make a living from surplus food production.
    You can make a living, but you will struggle to service a debt of any size.
    The best investment is feeding yourself and your family and stopping the expenditure of money at the supermarket. This can show you your areas of competence and build up expertise to develop some elements into a saleable surplus – preferably with a value added element.
    For us this has evolved into avocados, olive oil, wine, honey and capers. These are working well for us, but they were all established over a timeframe of years and the establishment had to be funded through non-agricultural work.
    We do all the labour on our farm ourselves, with occasional Wwoofer help. It simply isn’t economic to employ people to do farm work as the profits, even from direct marketing sales, are simply not great enough to cover the wages. I wish it were otherwise. No amount of optimistic financial planning will alter this reality in Australia at this point of time.

  22. Jamie,

    So it seems that a model might be keep it small, carry no debt, stay close to physical markets, reduce your costs by growing your own food, look for value added products, look for stacking, eg, if you grow tomatoes for you larder start extra plants to take to market, make packets and sell tomato seeds at market, make tomato chutney, salsa, etc to take to market. Look carefully at the cost/revenue ratio of everything that you take to market. Keep detailed records.

    BTW, incredible layout you have and all in 37 acres. Well done although I can only guess at the energy & tears invested in getting there.

  23. Well, I don’t recall reading anything in the permaculture literature about Care of Oil Corporations.

    Systemic-embedded violence, and already-increasing and violent civil unrest notwithstanding, unless a sea change can be made very quickly (and even then), there would seem to require places in permaculture in support– (surplus food; alternative/underground currencies; hiding/putting up so-called eco-terrorists/resisters/refugees, etc.?)– of & for those who do decide to ‘move and shake’ in different ways… in part by others (who maybe get their WWOOFers to) chop the heads off their free-range 40-acre permaculture farm cattle in preparation for the market and money-profit.

    Permaculture, as opposed to Stagnacutlure, would seem to need to be self-critical/reflective, adaptive, interactive, and evolutionary, etc., depending, naturally, on what exactly some of its practitioners really stand for. That’s how you get mycellium and perhaps even Daisyworld.

    Or, maybe systemic corporatocratic violence, if left unchecked, makes anything anyone does, such as within the Permaculture framework, moot.

    “What do you think you’ve accomplished? The streams are still flowing dirty…” ~ Bill Moyers to Wendell Berry

  24. DGG
    good summary.
    Energy, but no tears – plenty of mistakes and learning but no regrets. All been a lot of fun. Like I said – I encourage people to have a go – it is a great way to live, but you said it – “carry no debt”.

  25. Wendell Berry wouldn’t support your violent revolution. In the same interview you link to, he takes the time to make it abundantly clear that he means we should oppose the system with nonviolence. And Bill Moyers? Forget-about-it. One of the most peaceful people around!

    They wouldn’t support world-wide guerrilla warfare against the system. Yeah, lets all get together and cripple the system, bring it to its knees.

    Bringing this system to a halt would probably entail people going hungry, freezing, and many deaths of innocent people. Eco-terrorists taking down the grid in the middle of winter leading to even one death of a pensioner… that will make excellent headlines. Especially when the media starts replaying how some people called “Permaculturalists” who believe in “people care” have decided to aide in this revolt that killed grandma.

    Just because most people aren’t on board with violent revolution doesn’t mean that they aren’t innovative. It doesn’t mean that they are stagnating.

    What it really means is that we haven’t lost hope and that we still believe that people can change without being forced to by a small group of terrorists.

    Honestly, I can’t believe I am reading open calls for violent revolution on Permaculture News.

  26. Jamie,

    I’m sure that you have found as we have that being debt free gives you room to try things that might not generate immediate cash flow or even cash flow at all. When you don’t have to meet payments, you can afford to take creative risks. One idea creates a ripple effect and you often end up with new constructs that do lead to cash flow.

  27. Wendell Berry, aside from his self-described privileged life, seems to support civil disobedience. Also, in part, violence is a matter of context and semantics; civil disobedience, a matter of degree…

    Christian Bay’s encyclopedia article states that civil disobedience requires ‘carefully chosen and legitimate means’, but holds that they do not have to be nonviolent. It has been argued that, while both civil disobedience and civil rebellion are justified by appeal to constitutional defects, rebellion is much more destructive; therefore, the defects justifying rebellion must be much more serious than those justifying disobedience… McCloskey argues that ‘if violent, intimidatory, coercive disobedience is more effective, it is, other things being equal, more justified than less effective, nonviolent disobedience.’ ”
    ~ Wikipedia

    “The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When this adversary [systemic?]* has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, [“]his[“] reaction can only be negative.”
    ~ George Jackson

    “Lance Hill criticizes nonviolence as a failed strategy and argues that black armed self-defense and civil violence motivated civil rights reforms more than peaceful appeals to morality and reason.”
    ~ Wikipedia

    “Peter Gelderloos criticises nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategically inferior to militant activism, and deluded. Gelderloos claims that traditional histories whitewash the impact of nonviolence, ignoring the involvement of militants in such movements as the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights movement and falsely showing Gandhi and King as being their respective movement’s most successful activist. He further argues that nonviolence is generally advocated by [the] privileged… ”

    “William P. Meyers argued that nonviolence encourages violence by the state and corporations… with notions of non-violence in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to render [groups] harmless and ineffective.”

    “D. A. Clarke… suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be ‘practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose’. This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence, since nonviolence will be in keeping with people’s expectations for them and thus go unnoticed.”

    “Indian guru Osho Rajneesh heavily criticised teachings of nonviolence, on psychological and spiritual grounds:
    ‘…For five thousand years people have been taught to be non-violent; they have learnt the trick of pretending. And all that has happened is that they have repressed their violence… Let there be a riot, and all that piousness simply evaporates as if it had never been there…
    This violence erupts again and again in this country because of the teaching, a wrong teaching, which is based on repression. Whenever you repress something, it will come up again and again.
    I teach you awareness, not repression. That’s why I don’t talk about nonviolence. (…) And the more you become aware, the more your life will attain to silence, peace, love. They are by-products of awareness.”
    ~ Wikipedia

    “Gandhi was not a pacifist; he believed in the right of those being attacked to strike back and regarded inaction as a result of cowardice to be a greater sin than even the most ill-considered aggression.”
    ~ What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage, by Norman G. Finkelstein

    Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.“.” ~ The Matrix

    * My additions in square brackets.

  28. They wouldn’t support world-wide guerrilla warfare against the system. Yeah, lets all get together and cripple the system, bring it to its knees.” ~ Joshua Finch

    That’s not what was necessarily suggested or insinuated outright, although the system, all on its own, could take care of that scenario for us, perhaps with a little misplaced apathy or rationalization along the way…

    In any case, one more thing I forgot to mention in my previous comment:
    As per many, if not most, scientists, if the system– at least the fossil-fuel-rapacious one– is not appropriately limited fast enough, then there may not be a climate anyone, and much of anything else, will be able to live with.

    In other words, if people don’t make sacrifices yesteryear, they may have no future to worry about. Like that of the kids.

    Bill Moyers will be 80 next year apparently. Any progeny notwithstanding, he and Berry have less of a future to worry about.

    And of course, another kind of permanent culture is a dead one.

  29. Eric Toensmeier – Regenerative Farming at It’s about making the unconventional conventional. Some of the best stuff that I’ve heard from this man. Far better than anything he’s written. He talks about ways to make a living within a permaculture framework that do not involve courses which are probably the primary revenue stream for permaculturalists globally.

  30. We opted out of the rat race in 1990 and started an organic farm in Ireland moving there from Germany.Farming is a 24 hour job, work around the clock if you have animals. We almost killed ourselves to produce healthy food! If you’re interested in my experience, check out my blog, soon out to be a book.

  31. I love this post. Land is ridiculously expensive in Australia so it’s hard for a young person just starting out to do much, but this post just shows you don’t need to jump that first hurdle of buying land to start farming. Thanks so much for this post, I’ll make sure to link to it from my urban sustainability blog

  32. I have five fairly flat acres in N. MS at the back of a 10 acre property that my older son who at the time said he, wife & grandson were going to stay with me and is now going to move half the country away, talked me into buying. He says keeping it cut is going to cost me a lot so as a 62 yr old grandmother I am going to have to learn how to use the big ride on grasshopper mower so as to at least keep me a walking path for exercise around it or find out some other way to manage it. I don’t know what my options are. I love the Back to Eden method of gardening but I won’t need 5 acres in veggies for just my other son and myself. The front 5 acres of the property is in trees, then the house and then a nice pond about in the middle. The back five field has a surround of large trees on the south and west (rear) side and medium to small ones on the north side. And we are next to a same size property the man keeps mostly wild in trees. We frequently see deer. Any suggestions? The younger son “says” he’ll keep it all cut but due to past experience with him in that area I have no faith.

  33. Desire 10-50 acres to grow cotton, flowers, and vegetables. Less than 45 Miles from Arlington, Tx. Thank you.

  34. Hi, I have some questions about your three examples because I’m not sure I see the differences. One is paying a $700 a month mortgage but don’t the others have to pay on the land they are renting? And if they’re not living on the land, aren’t they now paying for that plus their housing? Mortgages tend to be cheaper then rent. Seems like you’d still need that part-time job. Also, if you rent land for a few years and there is no option to buy, even if you have saved money, don’t you have to start over from scratch when you purchase?

  35. These are some great tips for owning farm. We are actually definitely planning on using our savings to buy land to farm, like you said. I’ll be sure to use your tips to avoid getting debt. We don’t want to deal with debt!

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