Grandpa Bill stated the prime goal of permaculture is “the aim to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable”. While we try to leave minimum foot print on the Earth, we are trying to produce food for ourselves and our animals.
Once we go back to the roots and study Bill Mollison again, we see that “economy” is actually playing a role in every design but we don’t see the examples of a Permaculture Farm where they produce food for the masses.
Beyond the Hobby Farm
While I was searching for answers to the problem of establishing an economically viable permaculture farm and reading leaders like Fukuoka-San, Sepp Holzer, Michael Phillips, Mike Sheppard, Paul Wheaton, Curtis Stone, Joel Salatin etc. I’ve found this forum entry written by Bryant Redhawk and I think answered most of my questions. This article is looking into key points that Redhawk mentioned. I sought and acquired Redhawk’s permission as well.
Let’s see what are my observations are to establish and run an economically viable, commercial permaculture farm. This may not be a complete list of course and there may be implementation differences based on the location but as a permaculturist you already know these nuances. Also many of these key points are talked before in different subjects. Combining them here gives easy access to them.
Key Point 1:
Thinking that you would be selling knowledge later on, don’t call yourself permaculturist. Conventional farmers don’t want to hear this word for some reason. Tell them you are a farmer just like them or a consultant. While you are selling knowledge to other farmers or selling produce at farmers’ market or to restaurants, identify yourself as a producer of good quality fruit, vegetable, and meat.
Key Point 2:
Be an example. Establish your farm using all the permaculture knowledge and experience you’ve gained and take the conventional farmers for tours. Show them what you are doing. A working example that makes money is better than powerpoint slides. Tell them your inputs and outputs and the profit you make. Especially the time you spent in the farm is less compared to conventional farmers.
Redhawk says “don’t be a tree hugger” in the eye of the farmers. Show them your balance sheet that is in positive.
Key Point 3:
Show credentials. Be a member of organisations that conventional farmers follow. Show your face at meetings. Give some workshops and be known in your area. Talk to them and understand what their worries are, how do they lose money, what do they expect from future etc. Get to know your fellow farmers and identify which one has an open mind to convert first. One another converted farmer example will make your future work easier.
Key Point 4:
Get the infrastructure first. Redhawk says know your land and soil. Build a water management system according to local rainfall like keylines of P.A Yeoman, mainlines of Mike Sheppard, swales of permaculture. You must study the rainfall on your land first and make a plan of what style of water management to install so that rain can be stored in the soil without causing erosion.
Redhawk says: Adaptation is required, with a large dose of observation (Mollison’s first principle) you will be able to design a hydrologically sound plan for water control that will work for your situation. Paper and pencil or pen, photos, topographic-maps, all are your friends for developing a plan that will work best so you don’t spend any energy fixing mistakes later.
Next is the place to live either renovate or build one with basic amenities and grey/black water management, composting toilet, proper heating with a rocket mass heater maybe, cooling with solar chimneys, storing rain water for drinking etc. whatever infrastructure needed to allow you and your family to live on that piece of land.
Don’t forget the animals (or future animals) as well and build proper holding places for them too.
Key Point 5:
Now that the water management is planned, find out about fruit, nut and berry trees you can plant in your area. You should first study your local area and identify what trees are suitable as well as their market value.
Key point 6:
Once you decide on trees, you need to plant them in a polycultural way so that your income does not rely on single crop or seasonal fruiting. Here you have options of silvopasture (permaculture way), alley cropping for your vegetables too. While your fruit trees are maturing, you can produce quick vegetables and sell them for your cash flow.
Key Point 7:
Build your soil in between the trees by growing your mulch as well as a cash crop. Things like wheat, barley, rye and a nitrogen fixer under story like clover (Fukuoka style) which you can harvest with a combine harvester high enough to leave the stalks.
Unleash the sheep / cows and they will stomp the stalks to the ground and leave fertilizer as they go. Of course your alleys should be wide enough for the combine harvester to operate and you need an electric fence to manage the animals.
If you don’t have a combine, you can use just animals to graze the wheat, barley etc. and produce high quality meat. Once the alleys managed this way for 12 months, you can grow another cash crop like squash, pumpkin and sell these quickly.
Redhawk says: If I do this year after year, in as little as 3 years I will have carbon rich soil around 18 inches deep in my alley ways.
Key Point 8:
Show profitability. The most important thing for a business is to make profit and commercial farming is the same. Compare the effort as well because this is usually the biggest thing for commercial farmers. Show them how you spend less time while building your soil, growing tree crops and feeding animals without bought hay and grains.
Key Point 9:
Display quality scientifically. Get a refractometer and take brix readings. Publish these openly and educate your customers. Once the health benefits understood by your customers, you can justify your premium prices. Display your soil quality as well; you have to explain that quality produce is produced in quality soil, and not with chemical fertilizers and hormones.
Key Point 10:
Know your market. When Redhawk was looking to sell his produce and find a market for his upcoming pecan nuts, he went to high end restaurants. He asked to executive chefs; what would they want to use that they cannot get now. Once you see 5 or more chefs and ask the same question, here is the list of things to produce on your hand with the amounts they want. This is an important piece of data which will identify what to produce, production numbers and frequency of delivery.
You can then calculate land, water, fertilizer, effort needed to supply this market. You may also need a greenhouse or two depending on the produce.
All this information will help you write your business plan, delivery plan and calculate total expected costs and revenues. Redhawk says, if the figures are in negative, do not jump in.
Key Point 11:
Identify your requirements. Just because there is a market for hogs doesn’t mean that you will get into production even if you are able to. You may want some flexibility in your life. In Redhawk’s situation, he wanted to travel with his beloved wife and see the country a bit. Once you have animals that require daily attention, you can’t do that. You know what they say, a farmer has 2 happiest days in her/his life; when they buy their first cow and sell the last one.
Matching your requirements with the demand of the market is the most important step in developing your business plan.
Key Point 12:
Do not slack off. Redhawk says, “the moment you decide you can slack off just a little bit, is the moment you have headed towards failure.” Things may be going well, you are seeing a neutral balance sheet or may be even doing some profit. That is not the time to take a vacation or thinking of taking things to auto pilot.
Redhawk says, “build slowly, get out and find the buyers for your market goods, and then go find more buyers and then go find more buyers, don’t contract with all of them at once, but rather know who will buy from you as you build up and are able to provide your goods to more people.”
Key Point 13:
Separate business finance from personal finance. Establish the farming business as an entity and if anything happens, your personal finance will be unaffected. You might want to get some advice from a professional according to your country’s tax laws.
Key Point 14:
Marketing is the key to selling anything. Use social media, blogs, posters, banners, packaging as your point of marketing. This is how you interact with your customers. Organise farm tours, call your customers and tell them about your quality produce and how you do it. Identify key elements of your production which customers may like and emphasize those.
Strive for quality and watch mouth-to-mouth advertisement spread. People should come to you to be able to buy some of your produce.
Do not lie, cheat or trick at any time. Redhawk says, “Always remember, nice guys can finish first, and they get more satisfaction out of it than those who cheat, lie and steal their way to first. “
Key Point 15:
Increase the number of things you are selling. If one fails, you can still have cash flow with others. Also provide education to teach profitable farming, establish a nursery to sell trees and seedlings, talks and appearances as a guest speaker on events or workshops etc. etc. These are some ways to get some cash during dearth times.
As a conclusion, you are an evangelist who spreads the idea of a profitable farming business. Redhawk says, “Once we get this methodology set up, the farmer can easily see that money not spent is money earned and once those pecan trees get mature enough to start producing nuts, there is an extra crop that only needs harvesting.
What the farmer sees is larger profit margins than ever before, less dependence on irrigation, no fertilizer expense, no herbicide expense and less wear and tear on his machinery.
He also sees more free time he can use to go hunting, fishing, spend more time with family or whatever he chooses to use that new found time for. “
This writing as it appears in permies.com forum written by Bryant Redhawk and other contributors.
Permaculture Apprentice: How to Design Your Perennial Farm and Your Life – Insights from Mark Shepard
Tcpermaculture.com: An Introduction to Keyline
Ncat.org: Marketing, Business & Risk Management
Smallfarm.org: How to Start a Farm Business