After all, that’s the dream, right?
Forget the well-paid 9-to-5 job, six bedroom house and the other trappings of material wealth. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but we permaculturists know that real wealth is clean air, clear water and healthy nutritious food, not piling up stuff and then dying with it.
We want to spend our days outside, tending our gardens and food forests, spending more time with our families. We want the freedom and security of a permaculture farm and take care of our needs, bring abundant vitality back to the landscape, and earn a living wage from our efforts to “make the Earth great again”.
It’s a modest dream, isn’t it? In a world of greedy banking elites, deceitful and self-serving politicians and daily environmental destruction, it’s a simple ideal that deserves to come true, and yet you can’t help but wonder…
Can this dream come true for you?
Do you really have what it takes to be a permaculture farmer, or that’s just an escapist fantasy? Is it realistic to expect that you can make a living wage from your farm and quit your job, or is it just the pipe dream that everyone ‘normal’, including your spouse, thinks it is?
Can you really expect that you, amongst all the many people out there who have land and want the same dream that you’re somehow special… that you can be a success story like Mark Shepard, Joel Salatin or Ben Falk, or will it just become another unfulfilled dream?
Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be just a dream. Actually, in contrast to what you might have been told, it’s quite a reasonable expectation.
There is a way to turn your dream into a productive reality, but the truth is you’ll have to be strategic about it and learn a little bit about business and entrepreneurship.
Here’s what I mean…
Having a hobby vs. running a business
The moment you decide to use your land to generate some income for you, you’re no longer just a hobby farmer playing “Farmville”. At that moment, you also become an entrepreneur, and your farm becomes a small business.
Farming today is essentially entrepreneurship and this means that you’ll be putting extra hours to make this work. I’ve never seen anyone starting a sustainable and profitable farm business without the time investment.
Also, there’s the chance of failure, almost at every step of the way. You can invest all that time and money, try and fail miserably because you made a fatal mistake.
In other words, it’s exactly like starting a business. Exactly.
Can you succeed as a farmer entrepreneur? Sure, there are many people doing it, some of them crushing it and that’s why many people are attracted to making a living from the farm, because it can be done.
But you can also waste all that time for nothing and lose everything you invested in.
I’m not saying that to discourage you. I’m just trying to make sure you have reasonable expectations…All right?
Your six-step process for starting a permaculture farm business
In part 1 of this post, I talked about the seven different ways you can make an income from a permaculture farm. Now, I’ll outline a six-step process for starting your permaculture farm businesses in a way in which you can mitigate the consequences of failure and increase your chances of ultimate success.
In summary, these steps are:
- Know yourself and identify your strengths, passions and interests.
- Select your “industry” based on these strengths and passions.
- Research your local market and identify what people want.
- Produce a minimum viable product and learn about the business.
- Develop deep domain expertise and scale up.
- Stack other enterprises and develop multiple income streams.
Step 1. Know yourself and identify your strengths, passions and interests
The first step in this process should be to identify your key strengths, passions and interests. In other words, to reveal what would come naturally to you. As Joel Salatin states:
”Most people are not evenly gifted, even as farmers within producing plants or animals, that’s why you tend to see farms that gravitate towards plants and farms that gravitate towards animals. And that’s why generally you don’t see expertness on both of those things even among the farmers.”
Think about this for a second, what kind of person are you; are you an animal, plant, technical or people person? Not everything will come naturally to you, and not all elements of permaculture will interest you to the same extent, nor will you have the same levels of skills and strengths in all areas of your new professional life.
You might be a people person, with teaching and education as your thing, or you might be a technical person who just loves earthworks and can’t stop talking about machinery – you get the picture, right? Whatever it’s, discover your natural inclinations and your unique skill-set.
Now, if you have problems identifying what these may be, these four questions may help you in answering this vital early consideration:
- What did you grow up around?
- What do your friends say you’re great at?
- What have you been doing in the last 10 years?
- What can you talk about effortlessly with friends and family?
Action step: find out what you, personally, can offer to permaculture – your strengths, passions, interests and what comes naturally to you.
Step 2. Select your “industry” based on your strengths and passions
Now, based on your initial assessment in Step 1, decide what would be the best path for you. Not everything in permaculture has the same appeal to everyone, and not everything comes down to being simply a permaculture farmer, you have many options from which to choose.
Darren Doherty and Joel Salatin talk about the four-legged stool, i.e. choosing a path of being in production, processing, marketing or distribution. However, in part 1 of this post, I expanded these four core activities a little to also include other farm-related businesses.
To sum up, in essence you can choose to be a permaculture farmer (the most obvious option), a secondary producer of value-added products (kale chips anyone?), do marketing and distribution (basically selling the fresh produce or value added products), provide services related to your farm or farming (ecotourism, basic healthcare…), develop a nursery, i.e. plant propagation and animal breeding (everyone needs plants), teaching and education on the site (and online as well), or consulting – designing and implementing designs.
As this suggests, there are many ways to win at this permaculture game and, once you now know what interests you, comes naturally to you, and what your strengths are, you’ve definitely minimized the chances of doing something that, ultimately, won’t work out for you.
Action Step: read part 1 of this post, and then choose your farmer-entrepreneur path based on the considerations in Step 1.
Step 3. Research your local market and identify what people want
When you’re starting a farm business, ideally you want to find something that is at the intersection of your passion/strengths and what people want to buy.
Once you’ve determined the first part of that equation, your next step should be to research your local market to learn more about your potential customers and their needs/desires.
I’m going to simplify the process here and say that the market research in this stage boils down to analyzing what type of people live in your local area (demographics – young students, retirees, or…), what the culture of the area is like (what do people value – local artisan products, nutritious food or perhaps they couldn’t care less), what is their purchasing power (is the local economy booming and people have the extra income to spend on quality produce, products and services?) and their purchasing habits.
This research doesn’t have to be complex or extensive, in the beginning just develop the habit of putting your market research hat on when you visit different places (especially your competitors) and looking at who are the customers, what’s the demand like for certain products, what sells well and why, how are they marketing and selling their produce/product/service.
For example, if you want to start a nursery, make sure you visit one and see what people are buying. If a certain type of tree is selling like crazy, then this is a good indicator that there is a demand for more than what’s being produced. You could be potentially filling that hole, (see what I did there?), so dig deeper.
If you’re planning on growing veggies for the farmers’ market, you should be visiting there regularly and getting to know the place, your potential customers, and the local competition. Go there and gather as much information as possible, meet your prospective customers and talk with them, and analyze what they’re buying the most and with which producers they’re spending their time. If you carefully watch which producers are doing the best you’ll have a better understanding of the types of crops you could grow and decide what produce to sell.
Go there and gather as much information as possible, meet your prospective customers and talk with them, and analyze what they’re buying the most and with which producers they’re spending their time. If you carefully watch which producers are doing the best you’ll have a better understanding of the types of crops you could grow and decide what produce to sell.
Action Step: research your local market to see what type of people live there, what they value, and what are their purchasing habits and power. Get into the habit of analyzing local businesses and what makes them successful.
Step 4. Produce a minimum viable product and learn about business
Once your research has shown that there is a need for a certain produce, product or service, it’s now time to test the waters and produce something of your own.
At this stage, I suggest you hang on to your old job and start something small on the side. I really don’t recommend simply handing in your notice and figuring it out later; you wouldn’t want to jump off a cliff without a parachute and then try to figure out how to make one on the way down. Instead, use your secure job and security to learn new skills and start to develop something on the side.
You don’t have to worry about all the details of running a successful business just yet, diving in too deep when starting out can result in analysis paralysis and, as a budding entrepreneur, momentum is important. So, start small and as a sideline – this can be one nursery bed, one garden bed, one room to rent, one value-added product…
The point is that all these small activities will require some prior learning and, most importantly, are scaleable, think about them as small modules or small business units.
For example, one five-gallon bucket filled with chestnut seeds is a small module. That small module can, however, teach you a great deal about setting up a permaculture nursery: you’ll need to understand what seeds need to germinate, what kind of soil you need for these seeds, when to sow the seeds, when to transplant, how to fertilise…
The idea is that, from this one small module, you’ll want to produce something called a “minimum viable product” (MVP), i.e. not a fancily packed product or a premium service that requires significant time and financial investment because, at this stage, you don’t yet know whether or not it will fly.
That’s why the emphasis is on MINIMUM here, for the basic idea of a product you don’t have to have a professional business. At this stage you simply want to validate that YOU are able to: 1. Produce something, and 2. Sell your product or a service.
You see, the hardest part of your farmer-entrepreneur journey is going to be putting yourself out there, getting that first sale and first customer, learning how to sell, market and promoting yourself and what you offer.
This one small module and your MVP will teach you a great deal about those fundamental skills of business and entrepreneurship. Of course, you’re going to suck in the beginning, but this doesn’t matter. What does is that you prove to, above anyone else, yourself that you can do it, and you have what it takes to produce that product, run that service and that people are buying from you.
Action Step: start with something small on the side, a small module – one nursery bed, one or two garden beds, one batch of value added products. Learn what it takes to produce and sell a minimum viable product or a service.
Step 5. Develop deep domain expertise and scale up
Okay, so let’s recap what you’ve done thus far: you’ve found your permaculture career path based on your passions, interests and strengths, you’ve done the market research that’s helped you pinpoint exactly what people want and like to buy (a produce, product or a service) and you’ve successfully created your first MVP, which proved that people will want to buy from you.
You haven’t invested that much time and/or money, yet in the process you’ve learned about business and what it means to be entrepreneurial.
As you can see, you don’t have to wait for that perfect, day when you’ll suddenly have more space, land and time to start that big business that will replace your day job and you’ll live happily ever after. You want to test the waters first and take a few calculated risks. Being risk-averse is a good thing, especially if you’re the breadwinner in your family.
Now you can start to take that one small test module that has produced your MVP and scale it up. For our nursery example, this could be to two, four, six or eight buckets, a further nursery bed, or to a more professional setup. You’re not attempting anything new, rather you’re simply doing more of the same, just on a bigger scale.
As you scale up and produce more products or provide more services they become better with every new iteration as you start to learn more about the entire business cycle.
Because you now know that you’re onto something, you have extra confidence to put in the time and effort to develop the necessary expertise in your domain.
Honestly, in today’s mediocre dumbed-down world it really doesn’t require much effort to be better than average, but it does demand that you’re prepared to put in the work. However, since you love what you do (remember Step 1?), it’s far easier to put the effort into something you believe in, right?
Action Steps: start developing more expertise in your domain of choice and scale up. Improve your product/service with each new iteration.
Step 6. Stack other enterprises and develop multiple income streams
Once you’ve mastered that first initial business unit or enterprise and it generates some continuous profit, you can start thinking about all the other business opportunities on your farm. First, you need to focus on just that one aspect and getting it off the ground, but once you have it running efficiently, you can use the profits to expand your field of operations and stack other enterprises.
If you’ve have had a close look at the sources of incomes of successful permaculture farms, you can clearly see that every single one of them has multiple income streams. That’s because it’s hard to make a living by doing one thing; the reality is that in today’s world no one venture alone can keep the farm afloat.
At one point in his long journey, Mark Shepard noted, “My income is derived from farm products, edible tree and shrub sales, speaking and consulting and brokering products for other farmers. My wife is a massage therapist, which is essential. No single enterprise that we have going on, is able to carry the whole economic load. The system, does. All of the things working together; we designed it that way.“
You should always ensure multiple income streams. In this way you become more resilient and, if one falls apart, each business unit will prop up the others (some years one unit will carry the others, while at other times, other units will be successful). Eventually, all of these will help keep you securely anchored to the land, close to your family and the abundance you’ve created.
Action step: look for other business opportunities on your farm and use existing profits to start developing and stacking other enterprises.
Whatever your dream is, get started now
Starting a successful permaculture farm business is not easy, and realistically there is a high chance you’ll fail, but here’s the deal… If you really want to come closer to living off the land, you must be willing to actively get yourself in the game, making mistakes, learning from them and then moving on, wiser and stronger.
Whatever your dream is – get started now. Don’t wait for that perfect, never to be seen, moment when you’ll have more land, the optimal financial situation, more experience or (insert your limiting belief here).
As we’ve learned, you can start small, on the side, with just one small module and, if it works, then scale up. You can start your journey as a hobby, but to be able to make a living from something, it has to be more than just that. You can start out that way, but ultimately you’ve got to turn it into something more.
As with everything you try for the first time, at first it’s going to be a bad version of what you want to be. Accept this, because, in the beginning, the right mentality and momentum are more important than perfection. That imperfect and modest version of what you is still better than where you’re currently at if your life feels drab, soulless and unfulfilling.
In summary, here’s the action steps for starting your farm business:
- Find out your unique abilities – your strengths, passions, interests and discover what comes naturally to you.
- Read part 1 of this post, and then choose your farmer-entrepreneur path based on the considerations in Step 1.
- Research your local market to see what type of people live there, what they value, their purchasing habits and purchasing power. Develop a habit of analyzing local businesses and what makes them successful.
- Start something small on the side; a small module – one nursery bad, one or two garden beds, one batch of value added products. Learn what it takes to produce and sell a minimum viable product or service.
- Start developing more expertise in your domain of work and then scale up. Improve your product/service with each new iteration
- Look for other business opportunities on your farm and use existing profits to start developing and stacking other enterprises.
That’s it, I hope that this will help you to take the first steps on your permaculture business journey.
Let me know what you think about these steps in the comments section below.