Case Study: Making a Living From a Permaculture Garden

Real-life stories show how one can create a profitable business through permaculture design and practice.

Young couple working in farm
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People often ask whether it is really possible to make a living from permaculture, the approach to growing that works with, rather than against, nature. As a permaculture designer and sustainability consultant, I thought it could be helpful to share both my own experience and the experience of others I have encountered who have managed to make a living in this way.

First of all, it is important to point out that there are really two different questions in the above. The first question is about whether there is sufficient interest in permaculture to make money from design, disseminating information, teaching, etc.

The second question is whether taking a permaculture approach can generate enough income for a farm or smallholding to become a self-sustaining (and perhaps even profitable) business.

Making a Living Through Permaculture Design

I make my living through disseminating information (including through writing), and through design. So I can answer the first question from first-hand experience. Putting permaculture into practice on my own small homestead, and working on many other projects, has given me the practical knowledge and experience that translate into "saleable" skills. I know of many others who are also making a primary living in this way.

People sometimes criticize the structure of permaculture for focussing too much on capitalization. and say that there are too many permaculture "designers" and "teachers" and not enough real practitioners. There are unfortunately plenty of so-called permaculture designers out there without real-world experience. But those who do turn it into a living successfully are usually those who have successfully implemented the ideas they espouse.

Often, making money in this manner can be a way to diversify income streams, and can help those implementing a permaculture approach to make money – especially as they work to grow market gardening or farming businesses.

But making a living in these ways is not necessarily a prerequisite for running a profitable business based on permaculture ethics, principles, and ideas. Here is one example that shows how it is possible to make a living from permaculture without relying on income from teaching or design:

Making a Living Through Market Gardening

It is possible to fairly quickly reach the stage where a market garden enterprise can tick along and be self-sustaining. Even if it is more difficult for it to become an expanding and profitable business.

Before going any further, it is important to point out that permaculture builds value in the more important ways – through adding natural capital and adding value in the social sphere. But since we live in a capitalist system, looking at a business as a financial concern can also be important. In this case study, for example, profit from the market garden went into building infrastructure, expanding the enterprise, and feeding more people in the community.

I want to share a case study of a successful and profitable market garden business.

Market Garden – approximately 1 acre. Land free for use. (Finding unoccupied or underutilized land for market gardening through a municipality or personal connection is one way in which a permaculture enterprise can hit the ground running, without debt.)

Initial expenditure: Approximately $2,000. Mostly spent on trees, plants, seeds, and infrastructure. Created an orchard and polyculture annual food beds. Second-hand, reclaimed, and natural materials significantly reduced the costs of tools, fencing, creation of growing area, etc.

Year One: Sales (mostly vegetable box schemes (CSAs), farmers markets) – approximately $2,000. Broke even, but human labor (two workers) not taken into account. (Workers had other part-time employment.)

Year Two: Sales of produce (vegetable box schemes, farmers markets, sale to local businesses) – profit approximately $5,500. Sales of processed goods (jams, jellies, chutneys, juices) – profit approximately $12,500. Compost creation (sale of compost and sale of composting worms) profit approximately $500. Garden events (summer fair, apple festival) – profit approximately $1,000. Hourly rate of $15 paid to two gardeners/producers as 10 hours per week – cost $15,600. Chickens for eggs introduced – cost $500. Total net profit: $3,400.

Year Three: Sales and revenue generation increased considerably as yield grew (and with the sale of eggs and baked goods) – profit approximately $42,000. One full-time salary and one part-time – cost $37,800. Total net profit: $4,200.

Year Four: Similar figures.

Year Five: Marketing drive and procurement grew the small business considerably during year five, along with increased market knowledge that drove focus to the crops and products most profitable in the local area. Total profit from sales and revenue: $72,000. (Still from just one acre). With one full-time and one part-time worker – cost $40,000. Total net profit: $32,000.

After this success, the enterprise was able to expand and took on an additional 2 acres of land, adjacent to the first site. Profit continues at 35-40% of revenue. And yields continue to grow.

Of course, in this example, the land was fertile and abundant, and the land was free to use (not owned by the business) – so the upfront costs were reduced significantly. But even were the land purchase price taken into account, the price of land in this area means that this business would have recouped the investment in the land by the end of this fifth year.

Permaculture dictates practice and principles for this profitable business. And shows that, though you might not make millions from a permaculture business, it is entirely possible to make a living, and even make a profit.