Earning a Living Away from a Permaculture Garden
As my wife Emma and I work to move from dreams of a permaculture homestead into actually operating one, we are often in a position of having to explain our financial situation. Usually, we are asked what crop we’ll be growing (to sell). Long before acquiring a property, we decided that we would not base our income on the success of our gardens, at least at the outset. She is an ESL teacher, working about 30 hours a week online, and I’m a freelance writer, as well as a paid gardener/handy-person type.
Despite having the PDC credentials to teach courses and the potential to grow a market garden, we feel the need to establish a site before attempting to profit from one. As most permaculture upstarts do, we have aspirations of eventually offering resident internships and tours and workshops and niche markets and consultancies, but we fear being financially strapped would put us at risk of sacrificing our design goals for the sake of money. So, we have consciously avoided putting undue pressure on our project to pay off financially. If it never does, we are fine with that.
Business in permaculture can be a difficult situation to broach, but it’s one that’s often on my mind. While there are many opportunities to earn money as a professional permaculturist, I don’t believe that practicing permaculture necessarily requires it. In fact, I think it’s important that we collectively begin to think beyond this. Simply put, we can’t all be permaculture design instructors/consultants, we can’t all grow the same local niche crops, and we can’t all provide tours of our sites, not if we are honestly trying to build the movement to a meaningful tipping point.
Basic logic suggests that, if everyone with a PDC is chasing the same prize, we’ll reach financial dead ends quickly. Farmers markets are going to be flooded with once-obscure vegetables, the bulk of us growing our own food anyway, so niche crops soon become surpluses. Permaculture courses will become a dime a dozen and watered down, and—what, with everyone certified—the need for consultancy will be less and less. In other words, we can’t all fall back on these occupational tropes.
Though we are far from this being a problem on a global scale, as the permaculture movement continues to expand, it’s important to do so with an eye on collaboration rather than competitiveness. In other words, finding a niche within our communities should perhaps be more about filling a void than vying for the limited spots to be the local permaculture designer. There are many facets to permaculture living and sustainable living, which means there are plenty of worthwhile job openings beyond designer, teacher, and farmer.
Though we should all have a general working knowledge of our homes, we do need specialists to help with getting it all in motion. Skillful and ecological plumbers come to mind. Solar power experts might be useful. Machine operators for earthworks are a must. Vets, doctors, school teachers, journalists, mechanics, and a list of other everyday, nuts-and-bolts craftspeople that provide us with the commodities and knowledge we need. In other words, a permaculture design certification is hardly the final step or the ultimate solution for getting us where we need to go.
A lot of us embark upon our permaculture pursuits on a personal level, but the point of the practice is to build cooperative communities, not independent individuals. In fact, ecologically and economically speaking, it makes little sense for each individual’s permaculture site to attempt to operate independently of and competitively against others, particularly the neighbouring ones. It’s much more practical that we find ways to live self-reliantly but also with a mutual reliance on our like-minded community. Mollison’s Designers’ Manual finishes with that in mind.
As Emma and I go through the process of building our home, something we wholeheartedly wished to do ourselves, we’ve had to come to grips with the fact that it’s not all within our grasp. We needed an earthmover to dig out our dam, which had been left to its own devices for some thirty years. We need a licensed plumber and electrician to sign off on our plumbing and wiring in order to meet building codes. We’ve had to lean on friends, friends of friends, and the kindness/honesty of inspectors in our attempts to build a home ourselves. The existing system is not always conducive to all of the permaculture and sustainable techniques we have learned.
In short, moving through this process, one can’t help but think I wish there were someone who knew…, I wish there were someone who could do... We know the permaculture, but we don’t know what we can and can’t get away with legally. We could build a cob house, but we’d not likely be allowed to live in it. We could build our entire home from repurposed lumber; however, the state would not approve. It’s an issue to have a composting toilet, to catch rainwater, to irrigate with grey-water, to dam up streams, to use natural materials, to not use petroleum-based materials. Any one of these issues could stop us in our tracks.
All of this is simply to say that the process of putting an actual homestead together, particularly one in the US as opposed to a country with more lax legal limits, has really brought into focus the multitude of avenues a permaculturist could take in terms of “earning a living”. It always sat funny with me that most of the permaculturists I knew, which were along the Central American backpacker trail, were peddling the same sustainable guesthouse experience. I worried that the movement would at some point exceed its capacity in this way.
However, in a reality where specialisation is somewhat downplayed, the permaculture movement needs well-rounded specialists. We need innovative, environmentally-conscious, and motivated people to delve into the appropriate technologies we tout. As Emma and I develop our site, we’re continually finding ourselves in need of expertise, the person that can answer a specific question rather than present a broad concept. We know the concepts, but we don’t necessarily always feel confident when the fine-tuned application of, say, installing a solar array with nickel-iron battery backup is on the agenda.
It has definitely occurred to me that my certification has not prepared me to plumb a home or operate a backhoe, nor do I believe that was the intention. A PDC, I think, is more about opening up and introducing possibilities. Nonetheless, when it comes to getting the work done, particularly the types of tasks I’ve already mentioned, we need people who both understand the possibilities and the dirty task of getting it done. For me, that’s an exciting prospect because we can’t all have guesthouses, farmers market stands, and consultancy firms.
That is exactly what I have been thinking about lately. Diversity is needed as much in permaculture livelihood as it is in the garden. It would be fantastic to have a wave of new permaculture tradespeople, architects, equipment operators, etc. And it would be super great to have a troop lawyers and other specialists who can help us change a few of the building codes and other bylaws – greywater and composting toilets, etc. – to enable people to actually live sustainably.
Thanks for this article. Hopefully it gives people some good ideas about what they can do with their new knowledge.
Well articulated, Jonathon. We hired such a one as you described when John Kaisner, ( The Natural Farmer on YouTube) permaculturist and architect, design the renovation for our old house.
It did not take me long to find a fairy tale. Permaculture “the point of the practice is to build cooperative communities, not independent individuals.” Come again? That is nonsense. The point is to have BOTH cooperative communities AND independent individuals. I’m 73, spent the last 14 years of my life going from a 1/3 acre of very old lawn to small food forest/ wildlife habitat/ micro farm, by my little old self. Read books, used my brain to figure out what was real and what was not. Took a free course by Lawton, with many videos and actually watched non-stop for three days (I don’t need much sleep). Used much of what I learned. This town has a total of two wildlife habitats. You can bet I’m independent. How do I determine if a permaculture site is legit or not? Most are “not really” because all the do is repeat what someone told them. My measure? Two questions. 1) how much water does this plant need (about a bunch of plants)? Answer: regarding every plant, an inch. WRONG. I then ask how much sun does these plants need? Answer: regarding every one: full sun. WRONG. If that were the case my main crop would not be tomatoes, grown in Northern Minnesota, in a very short season. To summerize, someone hears something and then spreads the fairy tales, that most people fall for because they don’t use brain. Permaculture, means not that much sun and ways to collect rain, where you DO NOT get an inch every week. What Permaculture required is people who can think and not a bunch of parrots, repeating what they were told. I doubt very much that Lawton was or is a parrot, if he were he wouldn’t have gone to a desert to plant.