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Permaculture Q&A: An Economic Perspective

Want to become a better permaculturalist? Have a burning question about permaculture design? All month long Chelsea Green is taking reader questions and putting them to some of our top permaculture authors. If you want some advice from our expert authors, you can submit your questions using this form.

Today, authors Toby Hemenway (Gaia’s Garden) and Eric Toensmerier (Paradise Lot, Perennial Vegetables) discuss the business side of permaculture.

For previous posts from the “Permaculture Q&A” series check out these links:

Shaun from Vermont asks:

What is the single most important business strategy for the success of permaculture while earning a livable wage?

Eric Toensmeier: Hi Sean, there are a lot of “single most important things” in making a permaculture business work. If I had to pick one, it would probably be to take it seriously as a business. This applies whether your permaculture business is farming, landscaping, design and consulting, teaching, or whatever it might be.

Nobody starts a permaculture business because they are excited about record-keeping, obtaining permits, market research, or tax preparation. But businesses that take the time to plan all of these things out carefully are much more likely to succeed.

I highly recommend taking a business planning course, whether it is permaculture related or not. Clarifying your goals, understanding your markets, understanding the legal landscape, and budgeting are essential tools as much as shovels, tractors, mapping equipment, or whatever you may use. I also highly recommend Elizabeth Ü’s book, Raising Dough, which is an excellent guide to creative ways to finance your business idea once you have these other pieces in place.

Sandy from New York asks:

Can you speak to what appears to be a lack of sociopolitical analysis within permaculture education and business practices. In terms of thinking about accessibility to the classes or affordability of a design consultation firm or individual willing to share knowledge without emptying the bank. Is permaculture just another niche market in green capitalism or is it actually about building relationships and community with a shared vision for ecological preservation?

Toby Hemenway: There is no set price for a permaculture consult or plan. They cost whatever the client can afford. I know over a hundred permaculture designers, and all have sliding scales. All do at least one quarter of their work for free; in many cases it is half their work. Every permaculture teacher I know offers free classes, generous scholarships paid out of their own pocket, and does far more free mentoring than paid (I have never been paid for a mentorship, except for having my office painted in trade after a year of mentoring). Many designers—I can name dozens—travel to Haiti, other disaster areas, and inner cities at their own expense to do aid work, for free. The way they can afford this—and most of them really can’t afford it—is to have a posted fee rate comparable to other landscape designers.

Permaculture courses have always been at prices far below that of other workshops (a 2-week course with room and board costs the same as the tuition alone for a 2-day facilitation or management workshop). I have never known a teacher to turn anyone away for lack of money. You do have to ask, though, because we have found that if we advertise discounts, everyone, including the affluent, and the well educated who practice voluntary simplicity, ask for them, which denies access to the truly needy.

Unfortunately, there is a strong sense in the alternative community that everything should be free or discounted, but that turns out not to be sustainable. In a recent survey, out of 80 professional permaculture teachers and designers, only 2 were supporting themselves solely from permaculture work. The rest needed jobs in the mainstream economy to make ends meet. The real question for me is, if permaculture is valuable, why is it not valued among the sociopolitically aware community?

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