Why Permaculture?

Money & Permaculture

Money, though valuable in its own way, probably should not be the motivating factor for adopting a permaculture lifestyle, that is unless the idea is to escape the perils associated with it. Nonetheless, how and where money will come from seems to be one of the more frequently asked questions when I tell people my plan for setting up a small homestead somewhere, building a home, and growing food. Most think the idea equates to wanting to sell stuff at a farmers’ market for a “living”. For me, it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I don’t need any money. My wife Emma and I have saved a modest amount to buy a property, and we have been looking for pieces that leave us some start up for building and setting up gardens, etc. We also plan on having ongoing sources of income, but the permaculture lifestyle—at least the one we’ve adopted and/or continually strive for—has appealed to us from the start because, while money still has value, life isn’t centered around acquiring it. For us, that’s huge.

While explaining our goals to others, it becomes more and more clear that money does not have the same role in our life or our plans as modern systems seem to dictate. “Working” isn’t solely based on earning a paycheck; rather, we plan to work for what money pays for: food, shelter, energy, etc. And, life’s luxuries, the ones many fear giving up, look more like a burden: Satellite TV or the new iPhone don’t improve life so much as add bills and persuade a sedentary, dull existence. For once, or once again, life can be about living.

Photo: Courtesy of the USDA

Reimagining What We Need Money For

When Emma and I talk about living simply, about eating food that we grow, about building a small home ourselves, about existing off-grid, we do so with a very conscious thrust towards reducing the need for money. While cash-based economies insist on retirement and saving accounts, we believe we are investing in something more stable and valuable: perennial sources of food, a comfortable place to live, and low-cost energy. In a word, these things are a true part of our livelihood now and our retirement later.

This mode of thinking, however, has us constantly moving against the grain. While a lucrative career is well within our respective reaches, we avoid full-time work, sure that it will strip us of the time and energy needed to accomplish the important tasks of room and board. If we spend all our time working for someone else, then how will we work towards our own needs? If we don’t have time to work towards our own needs, then we’ll have to pay someone else to do it. Then, in a word, we would be trapped in a deteriorating cycle of making other people wealthy while we work to pay money for everything we’ve got.

Money is only as good as the things it buys. To buy sustainably grown organic food is incredibly expensive, but we aren’t interested in eating unhealthy, processed, and destructive food. Big houses are expensive, but we don’t one. Those houses are energy hogs, but we don’t want to be. We don’t want new clothes because secondhand is just fine. We don’t want disposable items because they are wasteful, often harmful, and usually unappreciated. We don’t want 250 channels because they’ll lull us into bad habits. In a word, money doesn’t buy everything; it doesn’t necessarily buy what we want.

This isn’t to say we don’t need it in some capacity. We can’t buy a piece of land without it. We can’t buy solar panels or repurposed building materials. We can’t have a farm truck to get to town from time to time, or insurance, or gasoline. But, what we can do is chip away at those costs as time passes, doing our best to prolong the life of things, stay out of debt, and avoid the trappings of convenience over quality. What we can do is make money less the priority by not buying stuff that, in the end, eats up our hours in earning money to pay for them. In a word, necessity, even desirability, is constantly in question these days.

Photo: Courtesy of proby458 (Paul)

The Trade-Off on “Quality of Life”

It’s not that concepts of permaculture completely reject those things that make our lives “easier”, but I think we must re-define what easier is. The fact is that forty hours in an office, though less intensive in terms of physical labor, has not provided us with better health or happier homes. In fact, it has created the market for gym memberships, fast food meal deals, and depression medication. Most people nowadays don’t look at television as improving our lives. Even practical, useful items, such as smartphones, more often give way to scrolling through Facebook, digitally connecting with others while missing the experiences around us. Very few, I think, want lives centered around Netflix, social media, and office cubicles.

This isn’t to say that life outside of these systems is necessarily only roses and apple trees. Growing food, storing it, and preparing it are all time-consuming and require considerable work. Designing a passive energy home takes study and mental energy, and building one involves lots of patience, skill, and labor. Then, in the end, gardens can’t necessarily provide us with everything we want on demand as a supermarket can, and energy-efficient homes won’t allow us as much space or thermostat control. Having less money will certainly keep this year’s version of technology and dining out daily at bay. The point, I think, is recognizing what actually creates life quality.

The problem I’ve often had, and many seem to have, within the current workforce is that the effort I put in seems meaningless or, worse yet, destructive beyond the salary it garners. If the purpose of work is to make a corporation more money, if that corporation isn’t necessarily doing good things for the world or me (or knowingly doing bad things), then what’s the point? Similarly, if television and computers and smartphones distract from real human connection and an active, healthy lifestyle, then what’s the big draw? Why wouldn’t anyone, I think, prefer to spend time and energy on things—healthy food, family, clean environment (both home and natural), self-improvement—that would actually increase their own quality of life and, equally so, the quality of the lives of those around them.

Emma and I see this lifestyle as one full of benefits. Keeping up with a garden and cooking from scratch means staying physically activity and having chemical-free food without the guilt of food miles hanging over us, as well as not having to earn money for monthly gym payments or food products. Building a small, energy-efficient home provides a sense of pride, appreciation, and self-reliance, as opposed to not relying solely on industry and real estate markets. Cleaner, passive, and renewable energy sources cost less while keeping the world around us in better shape. What we have to do in providing these things for ourselves, rather than merely paying for them, gives purpose to our actions and improves our quality of life in terms of indisputably relevant things: the air we breath, the food we eat, the place we sleep. These things, I think, take precedence over constant convenience.

Photo: Courtesy of Christine und Hagen Graf

A Different Way to Work and Pay

None of this is say we don’t have jobs or use money. At the moment, I am an adjunct instructor of English at a community college and a freelance writer for several websites, both of which are technically what I’ve qualified myself to do. It keeps me—not us, just me—right around the national poverty level. Emma, fresh off a successful bid for a green card, just got a part-time job as an online teacher. Because we don’t have a car note, phone contracts, or cable bills, we need less capital. Because we rarely dine out and mostly cook from ingredients rather than products, we spend less on groceries, even though we are still having to spring for organic produce.

In reality, there are a lot of upcoming expenses. We will spend the bulk of our savings on a piece of property soon, but we don’t plan to take out a loan. We will spend more of our savings on developing that property, but those costs will be lessened by us doing much of the work ourselves and regulated by what we can afford. We will spend money on a small, used truck—a singe-car family—that’ll help us haul materials and carry us to town now and then to buy bulk grains and supplies, and even though we’ll buy something used and somewhat fuel-efficient, it will also add cost in insurance and upkeep. We’ll need an internet connection for work and off-grid power supply to run that. Simply put, we are assessing that which is needed and superfluous because money is most certainly involved in our immediate future.

What we are hoping for and working for is that money doesn’t become central to that future. We hope for diversified streams of income: writing, teaching, conducting workshops, offering camping, providing tours, selling surpluses as products, picking up odd and seasonal jobs. In this way, we can pursue our interests rather than a corporate ladder, and we can work towards real goals rather than higher salaries. When the goals—food forests, home, our own small businesses—are reached, the need for money and the amount of labor decreases, as opposed to the typically modern situation in which higher salaries equate to more things and hours on the job to increase quality of life.

Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Kuhl

Money & Permaculture

People get caught up on how to make a living through permaculture, but perhaps the point, at least to some degree, is to eliminate those financial demands as much as possible. The permaculture lifestyle has to be about more than turning a profit, if it is ever about that at all. For me, the thought of an income primarily from selling sustainably grown crops seems beyond daunting. The realization that we don’t have to (and shouldn’t really) have only one source of income is much more crucial. Then, if something fails, all isn’t lost: The age-old eggs-in-one-basket life lesson.

As well, the rationalization that money doesn’t actually provide our needs is paramount to what we do as permaculturists. With that notion, we have to learn to provide those verifiable needs before we stress over the niceties that now devour most of the modern “living”. We don’t always need the new version, an upgrade, or immediate gratification. In fact, these marketing concepts are what have created the destructive economic system—both personally and globally—in which most of us are now entwined. Money is only a tool, much of what it buys are only tools. They are not the end goal.

In other words, we are striving to diversify our income, utilizing a myriad of skills and interests, and we are looking to recognize that income as more than just a bank account balance or the products we buy. For us and, I believe, permaculture as a whole, separating ourselves from a cash-centered economy is part of the ultimate goal, and in many ways, it’s the point of the whole damn movement. Not that being a vendor is a terrible life, but the purpose does not boil down to earning a living at a farmers’ market. Selling produce never has to factor in at all.

Feature Image: Courtesy of TaxCredits.net

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I couldn’t agree more Jonathon!
    the less one spends, the less one needs to earn! more time to be a producer, help others, and grow oneself…

  2. I have a couple issues with this piece. I totally agree that decreasing expenses is a must, but there is a limit, and that limit seems to me to be pretty high. Partly it matters where and how you live, but it also matters what you’re trying to achieve.

    I also have come up against the “produce for yourself, sell the surplus, and live a happy life” limit. I feel that it’s very unlikely for the vast majority of people to do this without a community of minimum 20 people around them all pushing in that same direction. And even then I’m not sure it would really come together over the long haul.

    I don’t really think that the sum of modern devices is really the silver-bullet either. The cost, relative to what people earn, is so low that most people accept it and move on, so I don’t think it’s likely that just giving up computers-iphones-cars-etc would really be a revolution in one’s existence. Also, one would probably just substitute those expenses with others (a new axe to chop wood? Buying in inputs for soil improvement? etc. etc.).

    But, and here is really my major beef, having a comfortable life and attaining personal dreams, at least for me, is not a huge motivating factor. If the current climate of near-total catastrophe isn’t enough to sway one to the conclusion that there are other, more important things than one’s own existence, I don’t know what else to say. If having clean food, water, and, well, life on earth in the future meant that I would have to slave away in my miserable existence I would find it worth it. What I mean to say is that I don’t feel that my own personal well-being and the well-being of larger biotic systems are directly linked, so this whole premise, speaking for myself, is just like “meh”.

    Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but living the permaculture dream, while it has its merits, is vastly not enough. Sorry for the downer. All the best.

  3. Thank you for sharing this article Jonathon! You hit on so many key points. Trading our time for dollars to make someone’s else’s dream come true at the expense of our own dreams and our health makes for a downward spiral in our lifestyle and well-being. Please keep us posted on the status of your food forest, home and health-oriented lifestyle.

  4. I’ve read your article as my morning’s inspirational piece. I commend your pursuit to differentiate in distancing reliance on money that simultaneously allows you to grow reliance on yourself. You will reap good things because you are intelligently and intentionally sowing good things into your lives.

  5. The topic “money and permaculture/sustainable agriculture” has been haunting me for some months now. Me and my wife have a piece of land. No debts, but (second season growing) a very tiny income. We mainly still live off savings.
    Some friends of ours gave us some reality checks and although I wouldn’t blindly agree a 100% with them, some points are essential to me, too.
    – car maintenance (oil filter, oil, air filter, new tires, timing belt kit)
    – fuel costs: we live quite remote and transportation costs are a serious issue
    – inviting people for coffee or tea (except herbal teas, of course)
    – once in a while an ice cream / nasty sweets
    – traveling (to visit my family I do need to get on a airplane as we live on different continents) and of course vacations (even by car or bus only and WWOOFing in other countries)
    – kids (school uniforms, books, gifts, ice cream :-) )
    The cost reduction is just crucial to me, but it’s simply not enough. In order to live within our society (whether it’s worth it or not) we need to have some cashflow.
    Lastly I want to redirect to some articles and youtube-videos covering the topic. Look them up!


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