What’s more important in your life, security, or freedom?
The reason I ask you this, is because the majority of people will opt for security. And they get exactly that: a 9-5 job, a regular paycheck and life in the suburbs…and yet, many will nonetheless still feel dissatisfied with their lives.
I know of many people who claim that they ‘wish’ they could start a permaculture farm – but that farm will only ever exist in their dreams. They simply don’t want to undertake the harsh reality of making that dream real. A reality that that will entail long hours of tough physical labor, low initial pay, constantly juggling “the numbers”, being hot, cold, wet, tired.
If you want to make a living from your farm, then it must be seen as a workable business. There are, of course, those who’ll prefer see it as a lifestyle choice but I wish to focus on the practical considerations rather than the ethical ones for the moment. You have to be able to make a viable living from something for it to ever be more than just a hobby. You can start that way but, it has to turn into something more.
According to USDA agricultural statistics, 80 percent of all contemporary farmers obtain the majority of their income off-farm. In fact most farms rely on off-farm income (teaching, nursing, truck driving etc.) to keep their indebted agricultural businesses afloat. So, think about it, this is our competition. I think we can do better and there are many fine examples of successful and profitable permaculture farms.
But to succeed, firstly you have to make that start and then you have to continue that commitment to go through an initial couple or so of rough years. It’s not a question of whether you can do it, it’s how you go about doing it in the first place that’s so important.
Here is what it’s all about:
Have good design>>> keep your expenses low and have a buffer of savings>>>make a basic business plan and have a source of an income immediately available>>> have a simple marketing strategy>>> learn how to crunch the numbers>>invest in education and gain the necessary skills >>> ensure your partner’s support>>>embrace the challenge and keep moving on.
Let’s dive in.
Have a good design
This is the starting point and your vision of how your farm will develop. Everything successful starts with a good design, and, moreover, this early planning is what will make your farm efficient. Efficient design saves energy, time and money.
Bill Mollison in The Designers Manual writes: “The planning stage is critical. We design, assess resources, locate components, decide priorities, and place critical systems”.
What Bill is referring to when he mentions “critical systems” is the mainframe permaculture: water systems, access, buildings – the core infrastructure. It is this infrastructure that is the single most significant factor during the early stages. Farmer and author Joel Salatin also highlights the importance of building upon landscapes using earthworks. In his lecture ‘ten threads to farming success’ he puts ‘working landscapes’ as the primary early factor in the formation of a successful farming operation.
Depending on the available capital, this creation of a ‘working landscape’ can be conducted in stages. Your initial blueprints should form both an outline and, for that matter, a plan of action. Once you the have the big picture down on paper, you will then know what your initial goals and priorities are.
Back to Bill: “As we draw up plans, we need to take the evolution in stages, to break up the job into easily-achieved parts, and to place components in these parts that will be needed early in development (access ways, shelter, plant nursery, water supply)”.
While a good design may indeed be the foundation for everything; it is also just the beginning. Working landscapes may harvest potential energy and create surplus energy in the system, but this is the just placing the first pieces of a much larger puzzle. As Richard Perkins from Ridgedale Permaculture states: “Design and installing are relatively easy. Designed a lot and it’s pretty much always finances/ decision-making that stall things”.
Keep your expenses low and have a buffer of savings
If you want your farm to succeed then you must learn to embrace frugality and downsize your lifestyle. This means keeping your expenses low by growing accustomed to cheap housing, cheap utilities and avoiding buying expensive equipment. The biggest mistake people make is starting out with a lengthy shopping list.
Don’t start with this list. From permaculture author Mark Shepard’s perspective “when starting out think how not to spend money”. To summarize: don’t buy lots of expensive new equipment and don’t spend too much on buildings. You can spend $100,000 building a house or you can build one for $5,000, or, even better, live in a teepee or camper. There is a 20-fold saving factor right there.
You can choose to spend a little or a lot, it’s all about your preferred style. Nobody is forcing you to do it one way or the other. However, look at the people who have made it – Milkwood, Market Gardener, Spiral Ridge. They all started frugally in cheap housing, while investing the money they saved in their businesses. As Joel Salatin observes: ”In the beginning you take care for business and later business takes care of you, If you start other way, taking care for you first than your business will suffer. ”
Another thing that will be of immense help when starting out is having a buffer of savings. Needless to say, the bigger the pot, the more time you have to make the transition to other sources of income. Being without a stable source of income is a somewhat unnerving and stressful experience, but you can mitigate this factor by accumulating cash before starting out – before you need it. Having some extra cash will also give you security and the confidence to try new things, as well if cushioning you if things start going south.
Make a basic business plan and have a source of an income immediately available
In order to live your dream, and build something that is enduring, you simply have to make it profitable. Otherwise, you will quickly lose the precious land you worked so hard for. To put it bluntly, a farm is a business. Either the farm is profitable and self-sustaining, or unprofitable and eventually gets sold.
One problem is that permaculture is, to some extent, a set of philosophies and techniques, not a standard business plan. I think that sometimes we forget that without a business plan, it’s easy to end up working for less than nothing. Joel Salatin agrees: “it’s better to do nothing for nothing than something for nothing”.
If you want to make the switch into full-time farming you will need a return on your investment as soon as possible. Maybe you already have 1000 trees planted and have big plans for the future, but in the beginning you’ll need an immediate source of income to keep yourself in the game. On average, it takes at least 10 years for perennial systems to mature and reach their full potential, but when starting out you need some source of early cash flow to gain momentum.
To do this you need a business plan like any other farm. However, keep it basic. By over-planning things, it’s easily to get caught in ‘analysis paralysis’. Keep things simple, have a plan for next 18 months. All you need to identify at first are two things: your target market, and the products that will do well there. It may be advisable to start by growing plants and raising animals, or using existing infrastructure and resources to get some cash return within weeks or months.
Here are some of the options:
-Growing annuals and quick-yielding perennials:
You can grow in a market garden style – examples: Market gardener, Curtis Stone SPIN gardening, Elliot Coleman. Or you could use an alley cropping system and grow annuals/quick yielding perennials between the trees you planted – examples: Mark Sheppard from New Forest Farm and Permaculture Orchard.
Free range eggs, poultry and pigs are the quickest return on an investment and probably the biggest bang for the buck. Pasturing requires very little machinery, infrastructure or buildings. Here you can learn from the master himself, Joel Salatin.
Pastured eggs – He uses ‘egg-mobiles’ and the laying hens live free-range from this. The egg-mobiles are portable henhouses, 12 x 20 foot, on mobile home axles. Here is his free video lesson on this system.
Pastured poultry – Broilers are raised in portable field-shelter housing moved daily to a fresh pasture paddock. Turkeys have a portable hoop-house inside an electrified-netting paddock moved every couple of days to a fresh pasture.
Pastured Pigs – During the summer and fall, pigs are in special savannah pastures rotated every few days within an electric fence. In this clip, Joel demonstrates how to set up portable infrastructure for a 20 acre beyond-organic hog operation that nets $60k/year on rented land.
You can propagate plants by seed, cuttings or root division. The chances are you’ll probably need a lot of plants for your property, however. If you learn the necessary plant propagation skills you can make money from selling the plants you propagate and significantly cut your expenses.
-Bees and honey:
Honey has unlimited shelf life, and bees are very productive little creatures that can produce significant amounts of honey in one year. If you have the courage to give it a go, you can try natural beekeeping. You’ll be rewarded.
-Education on the site:
If there are people interested in learning more about the techniques, willing to pay for it and you can serve them…Well then, I don’t see how that could be a bad thing. You can offer PDC courses, workshops and location specific education.
You can put your existing assets to productive use. For example, Ben Falk was renting out his main house while living cheaply in his studio. You can use Airbnb to promote your farm as a “retreat/vacation” style property. The possibilities are endless; people are even renting purpose-built tree-houses. Are you up for the challenge?
-Sustainable forestry management/woodworking:
If there are existing forests on your property you can produce fuel as coppiced firewood or use the wood to produce a huge variety of value added products – from beams and planks to eco-building materials and logs that you could inoculate with mushrooms.
The main question isn’t whether you can produce something of value; it’s what it is going to be, and who will buy it? The whole point of a business is to generate a customer base. For that you need to have a feasible marketing strategy.
Have a simple marketing strategy
Farmers absolutely love to talk about growing but generally hate anything concerning marketing. They tend to think that the whole concept is a waste of valuable time they could be using for nurturing their crops.
However, underlying this seemingly blasé attitude, a great deal of discomfort can often be glimpsed…they are scared that people will reject their product, and, when somebody rejects your product, it can often feel like they are rejecting you personally. And you have put all that effort into growing, tending and making it all so beautiful….
The brutal reality is that it doesn’t’t matter how good your product is, how efficiently you run your operation, how content your chickens are, if you cannot ultimately get people to buy your product it will not make you money., If you can’t sell it, then why put all the painstaking effort into producing it? Sure, you can eat it or give it away but, given all the time and toil you’ve put in, it’s only reasonable to expect to make a living from it.
At this point I have some good news and bad news for you…
First, the bad news: if you want to sell something that everybody else is selling using the channels that everybody else is using, you’re then in what’s called a “commodity business”. This means you’ll need to cut prices if you want to be competitive, and, in order to see a real return, you’ll have to do it on a bigger scale and at a lower cost. Here is where time and labor costs come to surface. It’s a regrettable fact that the average farmer only gets 8% of the retail price. This is because there are middlemen controlling the pricing. Basically, you have no control over the prices and you’re forced to accept whatever price the wholesaler tells you. The way to avoid this pitfall is to start developing a brand for yourself from day one and be in direct marketing sales. Be your own middleman or woman!
On a more cheerful note, here’s the good news.
The good news is that marketing is something that can be picked up slowly and gradually. Yes, it takes time – but it doesn’t’t automatically have to be scary. Here’s Joel Saltin’s view on the subject: “Can you find 1 person to sell to? Don’t think about 100 or 1000 customers – look only for 1 person”.
Take it from me, in the beginning the hardest thing to acquire is that elusive first customer, but then it becomes easier because you get references and people start to talk and give feedback about you and your products.
Jack Spirko, who founded The Survival Podcast and runs multiple other businesses, recommends the same thing: “Start selling small and talk with your customers, understand their needs. First build a small customer base with a product like eggs or something similar, later start selling and offering other goods and services”. This is how you start to build lasting relationships with customers, by learning about their lives and becoming friends with them. You want their lasting support, and to be the person they rely on to provide them with their favorite carrots…you want to be irreplaceable.
Direct marketing is never completely plain sailing, there’s going to be some obstacles to overcome, but and this is important, you gain control your own destiny. It can take years to build up, for example, your weekly delivery route of regular standing orders from stores and restaurants within a 100 mile radius. A business doesn’t happen overnight, but it is important to understand that marketing is the key to making money. To have any kind of a market for a product, you either have to produce a lot of one product, so you can sell wholesale, or you have to market your products, which takes more time commitment. It’s your choice.
Learn how to crunch the numbers
So, you thought you wouldn’t need algebra again once you passed your high school exam? Well, I’m afraid you’re wrong.
How are you going to know what works (or not) unless you’re keeping track, making calculations and quantifying outcomes? How are you going to improve something you can’t directly quantify it? Joel Salatin and Sepp Holzer are probably worth millions. Do you think they are bad with numbers? Given the fundamental importance of getting the maths to add up, can anyone even run a profitable business without some understanding of the numbers?
Each enterprise on your farm will have its income and expenses. And then there will be the overall expenses for everything. You will have to know those things if you want to run your farm as a business.
As a useful example, let’s take a look at Joel Salatin’s accounting practices. He defines every single direct cost to establish a gross margin. (percentage of total sales revenue that he retains after incurring the direct costs associated with producing the product). For instance, when pricing the cost of producing a chicken for the table, he will calculate the price of the chick, and then the costs for each chick: feed, maintenance, processing, packaging, hot water, and so on.
Moreover, Joel will do time and motion studies to assess exactly how to raise the chicken. These include where the feed is placed in the chicken house for the bird’s ease of access and how long it takes in terms of labor costs to feed, care for and prepare them for the table. This type of time and motion analysis is highly important. Conventional farm businesses already adopt this kind of strategy. Why should your farm be any different?
Mark Shepard emphasizes the importance of understanding taxes and how to access financing. He said: “Learn how to manage your numbers. Set up your IRS Schedule F farm business yesterday! Build your credit rating, learn how to ‘exercise’ your credit”.
The bottom line is numbers are important, yet they can also be fun. What I want to stress here, however, is that if you want to achieve good margins every single cost needs to be quantified. There is no room for guesstimates. These hard accounting skills will tell you the pure truth about your business in minute detail. No romance there just invaluable black and white facts.
Invest into education and gain the necessary skills
The best investment you can ever make is to invest in yourself. You can lose your job, house, farm…but nobody can take away the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired. Humans have an unlimited potential to transform their lives and become whatever they put their mind to.
What differentiates humans from animals is the ability to envisage their future, and the best way to plan for it is to learn from other people’s experience. So, listen to podcasts, read books, go on seminars. Learn from other people’s successes, and their mistakes. Predict what can happen, don’t just guess, learn what works from people who have done exactly what you plan to do.
Let me ask you a simple question: How much have you spent on coffee this month? Is it $20, $30, more? Did you know that Joel Salatin’s book “You can Farm” costs 20$? By purchasing this book you can absorb his extensive business experience in a week’s worth of reading. In my opinion having a diverse variety of knowledge and skills is crucial to making something with so many aspects to consider as a permaculture farm work. For this you need to double down on your brain. Joel Salatin states: “Read broadly, read food, marketing, business books”.
The willingness to invest in yourself is one of the most important ways to achieve what you want. So, just how committed are you to making your vision a reality? When people say ‘I don’t have much money to make an investment in myself, I only have a little bit here and there’…well, I’m afraid to say that, in that case they are almost certainly going to get the same results they always get because they are not willing to invest in getting a different outcome. So, if you are one of these apathy prone types, you should be prepared to accept your current situation, quit complaining and be happy with where you are, and will remain, at.
If, however, you want more, then you need to actively seek out people who you believe in, admire, and who can help you get where you really want to go in life. Pay them, read their books, work for them for free. You must track down these people in order to improve your circle of influence—they rarely just show up by chance. Realise that success is something you will attract by the person you become. In other words, your level of success—in every area of your life—will rarely exceed, and generally parallel, the current level of your knowledge and skills.
Ensure your partner’s support
Listen, none of this successful permaculture farm thing even matters if your domestic life is in a mess. A successful farm, healthy produce, astute marketing… none of this really matters if your partner is not reading the same page as you.
The single biggest derailment factor in running a farm is differences in opinion between partners. Generally, one person is passionate and can’t wait to start but other is a little less passionate about the switch. One craves this lifestyle while other may just be going along with it. Unspoken expectations between partners are one of the most common causes of breakdowns in relationships, and a significant obstacle to overcome in making the change to a permaculture lifestyle.
The hardest thing in life is our relationships with others. Growing veggies is easy in comparison, so is business, these are things you can control, but you can’t control the desires of another person, and nor should you attempt to. If you both have the same goal, you can start celebrating now, because not having support from your partner is the single biggest problem you’ll face, more so than anything farm-related.
You and your partner have to have a shared vision or it just isn’t going to work out. If your partner is not with you on this, then I’m sorry to tell you, but you’ll have to put your dream on hold.
However, there is, perhaps, a way to change their mind. I will let you in on a little secret that I learned from Joel Salatin. Here’s what he recommends you to tell your partner: “You know what, I will put my dream on hold until we are both on the same page”. Sounds simple and I can’t guarantee it will work, but at least it will make consider their own dreams, and how important is to have your support in achieving them.
Embrace the difficult and keep moving on
Everybody would love to have the freedom that a successful farm offers, but only a few are ready to endure the first few couple of years of struggle. I think Joel Salatin sums it up perfectly: “Everybody wants to be like me, but they don’t remember the 8 years that my wife and I lived in the attic of our parents’ house so we could save money and we lived on 100$ a month and drove the same car for 10 years”
If you really want to live the “good life” you’ll have to earn it. That may mean putting in a lot of hours, making a whole heap of sacrifices, cutting expenses and taking some odds jobs to earn some extra money on the side. Plan for the first year as being very lean and prepare for this eventuality in advance. Everything will probably cost more and take longer than you estimate.
There is no magic formula and you will probably fail a few times before you succeed – your failures though, are what will guide you to ultimate success. Anticipate setbacks and plan for them remain determined not to be demoralized when they occur. In the beginning it’s supposed to be hard, the hard is what makes it all so rewarding in the end. If it took you years to decide to quit your job and start a farm, why do you think you will succeed at first thing you put your effort to?
So, you’ll need to be innovative, creative and do whatever it takes to make it happen. You absolutely have to have a can-do attitude. To make it through first couple of years while establishing his farm Mark Shepard drove a truck, Joel Saltin was living in the attic of his parents’ house on just $100 a month; Market Gardener was living in a teepee for two years. I think all these examples prove that if you really want something hard enough – it’s within your reach.
Jack Spirko said: “in the beginning it’s damn hard and then it becomes simply hard work. When it becomes hard work you can be happy”. Just accept that when you’re starting out you’ll probably be an incomplete version of your ideal of what you would want to be, but at least you’re moving in the right direction.
Running a farm today in 2015 is all about forming a vision, a good grasp of marketing, creatively utilizing resources, financial planning and entrepreneurship.
As in any business today, some people end up making a fortune and some will just fail miserably. Farming, to my mind, is especially hard because it requires entrepreneurial skills and all the hard physical work involved.
Don’t let this discourage you, however. Here are some useful pointers to help you succeed:
- Planning is critical – have a good design and install working landscapes
- Keep your expenses low – embrace frugality and downsize your lifestyle
- Have a savings buffer – accumulate cash while you can and before you need it
- Start with a basic business plan – think how are you going to survive the next 18 months
- Have a simple marketing strategy – put the bigger challenges to one side and start to focus on developing a small customer base from day 1
- Learn how to manage your numbers – the math never lies about profit and loss
- Invest in yourself if you want to succeed, find people you can learn from and learn from other peoples mistakes
- If you don’t have your partners support none of this matters, you can’t make it alone
- It’s going to be hard, anticipate the setbacks and plan for them
Remember what Joel Salatin states:
“You make your way, you deserve your destiny with hard work”
It’s worth mentioning that I still feel I’ve only really just scratched the surface of this huge topic. Is there anything specific from the list you might be struggling with?
Let me know in the comments!