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Generating Income from a Holzer style agriculture, Hugelkultures, and Polycultures

 
Michael Billington
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Hey Everybody,

I have struggled over the past years to make an income off of the landscape created by sepp holzer in 2012 and I just wanted to share some of the experiences and outcomes as well as commence a thread on this topic. I have been hesitant to try and generate money from education because I think there are plenty examples of permaculturists and permaculture farms who make the majority of their income off of selling information. This is important but if the Permaculture community is going to demonstrate the validity of our practices we have got to better demonstrate that effecient nature fueled farming can produce enough to feed our communities. That will truly encourage people to start farming with Nature.

The polyculture scatter style of planting worked great for generating food for personal use but when it came down to earning money off of it, it has been less then easy. The proportion of costs from the sheer volume of scattered seed compared to the money it generated was disappointing. This is from on site sales and local farmer markets. It had the advantage of taking little time to plant, which is huge. But the biggest setback came in the form of harvesting time... harvesting for farmer's markets was easy enough because you only need a little of this or a little of that but it seems to me that in agriculture, producing in volume is critical to generating notable income. Getting enough small things like green onions was next to impossible. Five of my biggest take aways from trying to earn money off of polyculture on hugelkultures

1) Keep the polyculture simple: 2-4 species. This allows for high enough densities of a single species to generate volume that most markets demand.
2) Plant pickers on the bottom half and keepers on the top. For example on the bottom half plant things that require regular picking like tomatoes or beans, and on the bottom half plant things that require little maintenance and require time to bulk up like beets.
3) Plant bulky vegetables into hugels so that Identifying them is quick and easy, so that a large space is opened up for succession planting, and that you dont have to sift through all the plants to get enough radishes or green onions to make a bunch. Things like turnips, potatos, orech, diakons, beans.
4) To create produce that has the appearance and succulence that is expected at markets irrigation is required. We recieve 17 in of rain fall and the hugels are surrounded by ponds and are now entering there forth growing season so the wood is broken down well enough to store water. Given all of this, the plants still required extra irrigation to be considered marketable.
5) Its ok to cover hugels in near monocrops if the rest of the area has enough diversity. I have done this with both potatos and squash. Niether had significant problems with pests or diseases and were MASSIVE harvests.

I have begun to lean towards direct marketing towards organic restaurants. They want the volume of whole sale and also are willing to pay the extra cost for high quality fresh food like farmer's markets. Doing contract growing has been on my radar as well but I have not felt confident enough to gaurantee delivery. This year I will be growing naked pumpkins and I will be selling the pumpkin meat to a local brewery for there pumpkin beer and I will be harvesting the seeds for other purposes (propogation/sale/food storage).

Selling to people who have come for tours has been encouraging but sporadic because we have not done any marketing or encouraging people to come visit. This year we are amping up this strategy. Nearly every weekend we are hosting some kind of an event where people will have the opportunity to purchase food right from the garden. I will report how that goes at the end of the season.

I suspect some of the greatest income is likely to come from either a permaculture plant nursery, like akiva silver's operation, but on a broader scale or from specialty foods like crawdads (which we have been growing for three years now).

Folks who do special crafting like cosmetics, soaps, cough syrups, essiac have approached me to grow for them but as i mentioned earlier I have skepticism about promising people things I have not grown before.

What are other folk's experiences with generating income off of holzer style permaculture, hugelkultures, and polycultures?
 
Dillon Nichols
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Michael Billington wrote:
I have been hesitant to try and generate money from education because I think there are plenty examples of permaculturists and permaculture farms who make the majority of their income off of selling information. This is important but if the Permaculture community is going to demonstrate the validity of our practices we have got to better demonstrate that effecient nature fueled farming can produce enough to feed our communities. That will truly encourage people to start farming with Nature.


This is a concern that I don't see talked about much. On the one hand, people need to be exposed to permaculture if it's going to spread! On the other hand, everyone can't make an income giving tours/training to everyone else and expect it to change the world... at some point serious food production is needed!

Perhaps this concern is premature, though; when there are too many places seeking tourists/students to make a living off of... some of the places will drop out off as supply outstrips demand, no? And the places that depended on this income will have a problem, while those that were economically viable without it will be OK.

To me, if your setup would be profitable without the students/tours, etc... then it's great to add some extra income. However, an example of permaculture that is only sustainable as long as people pay to see it... doesn't really seem sustainable to me. Hopefully there is greater interest in places that are demonstrably profitable before accounting for education income...

Of course, you could make the same argument about WOOFers/volunteer labour. If you can't do it with market-priced labour, is it sustainable? Then you could justify the lack of economic sustainability by blaming subsidies of conventional agriculture for artificially low food prices, or fact that the cumulative damage to soils and biospheres is not being accounted for in the price of chemically grown crops...

Gets messy fast!

Michael Billington wrote:
I have begun to lean towards direct marketing towards organic restaurants. They want the volume of whole sale and also are willing to pay the extra cost for high quality fresh food like farmer's markets. Doing contract growing has been on my radar as well but I have not felt confident enough to gaurantee delivery. This year I will be growing naked pumpkins and I will be selling the pumpkin meat to a local brewery for there pumpkin beer and I will be harvesting the seeds for other purposes (propogation/sale/food storage).

Selling to people who have come for tours has been encouraging but sporadic because we have not done any marketing or encouraging people to come visit. This year we are amping up this strategy. Nearly every weekend we are hosting some kind of an event where people will have the opportunity to purchase food right from the garden. I will report how that goes at the end of the season.

I suspect some of the greatest income is likely to come from either a permaculture plant nursery, like akiva silver's operation, but on a broader scale or from specialty foods like crawdads (which we have been growing for three years now).


Finding high-margin income niches seems to be a very common trait of particularly successful permaculture farms. These 4 ideas all sound great. Does kind of tie back in to the question above, though!

Another option would be along the lines of a U-pick CSA like Miracle Orchard has implented. This would let you cut out the labour and transport costs by having customers not only come to you, but do their own harvesting. His setup is arranged around this plan, though, with rows of different crops intended to ripen at the same time. Holzer's 'sow and pray' planting technique certainly saves time on the front, but as you've noted can really slow down harvest of significant quantities.

Maybe this could be fun for U-pick people, though? Marketed as a treasure hunt of sorts?

For contract growing, could you commit to a fairly conservative amount, shoot for double that in production, and have a plan for the surplus if it goes well? What sort of risks do you run if you are unable to deliver; penalty clause, ritual suicide, reputation damage?
 
John Wolfram
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Location: Lafayette, Indiana
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Michael Billington wrote:1) Keep the polyculture simple: 2-4 species. This allows for high enough densities of a single species to generate volume that most markets demand.
...
5) Its ok to cover hugels in near monocrops if the rest of the area has enough diversity. I have done this with both potatos and squash. Niether had significant problems with pests or diseases and were MASSIVE harvests.

Great post! It's interesting how you can get many of the benefits of a polyculture with a only a couple species. It reminds me of the 80/20 rule for business where you often get 80% of the result from the first 20% of the effort.
 
Michael Billington
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Of course, you could make the same argument about WOOFers/volunteer labour. If you can't do it with market-priced labour, is it sustainable? Then you could justify the lack of economic sustainability by blaming subsidies of conventional agriculture for artificially low food prices, or fact that the cumulative damage to soils and biospheres is not being accounted for in the price of chemically grown crops...


This is a great point. If we factor in the current state of agriculture and look at it in a broader timeline, then maybe the high emphasis on informational sales at this point is just right. It gets people aware of it and trying things, then all those tendrils of new projects can be the ones to demonstrate its productive capacities. With all those forces working against the permaculture farmer (subsidies of conventional ag, lack of valueing ecologic service) we need as much "income leverage opportunities" as possible. I imagine you are right about the trend of focusing on informational products will transition as the market gets saturated and people will be economically encouraged to focus on production.

Maybe this could be fun for U-pick people, though? Marketed as a treasure hunt of sorts?

For contract growing, could you commit to a fairly conservative amount, shoot for double that in production, and have a plan for the surplus if it goes well? What sort of risks do you run if you are unable to deliver; penalty clause, ritual suicide, reputation damage?


Thanks for the good suggestions. I have had children groups come out to the farm and participate in "forage farming" and the loved it!!! absolutely loved it. Gearing a forage farming strategy towards families might be a successful way to go. It would be fairly easy to set up our hugel layout for this type of customer interaction as there are many winding hugels that often create food hallways. One of the events we have this year is called the Farmathalon where there will be different farm based challenges like wheel barrel relays, swimming around one of the irrigation ponds... two of the events are a veggie harvest bingo and an edible treasure hunt. I will be sure to post how that goes, its taking place on the third saturday in august.

In reference to the contract growing, I like that: commit to a conservative amount and try to double it and have a plan for the surplus. The whole start small and expand as capabilities provide thing really works. Work in chunks is one of the wisest permaculture principles, i believe. The risks in this situation I think are related to reputation, both of this farm and of permaculture practices. What do you mean by ritual suicide?

In the Netherlands there is an incredible Agrotourism industry that includes things like cow hugging and hosting corporate meetings at farms. This ultimately creates more exposure for all the quality food and increases sales. I see this as different from selling information because it is including the people in the operation of the farm rather than treating them as outside observers who can give money to look at all the cool stuff. That being said, i love it when people come and look at my project and give me money to look at the cool stuff... Identify the ideal and strive for it while acknowledging the current standing i suppose.

below is a photo of the installation when it was initially created. It shows the hallway effect I mentioned.
Fruit berm hall to Hugel Canyon Entrance.JPG
[Thumbnail for Fruit berm hall to Hugel Canyon Entrance.JPG]
 
Dillon Nichols
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Another aspect; the screwed up situation of subsidizing destructive practices doesn't seem to be going away by itself, so informational sales should hopefully also be helping with a 'hearts and minds' conversion campaign. When the average person on the average street corner knows that you can grow great food without poisons, because they've seen it themselves, or their kid won't stop talking about it, etc... then things will change. The advertising/promotional efforts of any permaculture farm are part of a war...

From this perspective, is that it seems to me that it's especially important that people are exposed to 'working permaculture', as opposed to 'permaculture that works with money thrown at it', because if you want them to go off and promote it and vote for it and try it themselves and stick with it... the example farm best not be spending 5x as much as the value of the food it creates!


Michael Billington wrote:
1) Keep the polyculture simple: 2-4 species. This allows for high enough densities of a single species to generate volume that most markets demand.
...
5) Its ok to cover hugels in near monocrops if the rest of the area has enough diversity. I have done this with both potatos and squash. Niether had significant problems with pests or diseases and were MASSIVE harvests.


By the standards of commercial agriculture, even 1 species *per hugel bed* is very much a polyculture, I suppose. Great to hear that this is still showing the polyculture benefits; it makes sense, but nothing like first hand experience!

Michael Billington wrote:
What do you mean by ritual suicide?

Was thinking Seppuku to abate the disgrace of failing to deliver enough potatos, perhaps a bit extreme.

Michael Billington wrote:Thanks for the good suggestions. I have had children groups come out to the farm and participate in "forage farming" and the loved it!!! absolutely loved it. Gearing a forage farming strategy towards families might be a successful way to go. It would be fairly easy to set up our hugel layout for this type of customer interaction as there are many winding hugels that often create food hallways. One of the events we have this year is called the Farmathalon where there will be different farm based challenges like wheel barrel relays, swimming around one of the irrigation ponds... two of the events are a veggie harvest bingo and an edible treasure hunt. I will be sure to post how that goes, its taking place on the third saturday in august.


Glad you like some of them!

I think the kids can really be key... if you can get people out to the farm to have fun as a family, *and then they realize that they are getting great food at a price that is comparable to similar quality organic food in town*, assuming they can even find that... seems like a really good value, which would be a way to make it a fairly regular thing, as opposed to an expensive treat that can only happen, say, once a summer!

I don't remember which book it was in, but I do recall reading of a u-pick plan based around a circuit like that; somewhere between a straight path and a maze, with a defined entrance and exit and good signage along the way, and you just plunk yourself down at the exit and collect the money. The miracle orchard CSA approach would allow for a relatively fixed client base, so you'd have more chance to get to know them, educate them, etc... but probably easier to pull customers without that larger/longer term commitment.

I think your plans have great potential, and look forward to hearing which pan out best! Would also be interested in hearing about how you promote/market your events/offerings, and what you think is most effective in that regard.

Michael Billington wrote:
Identify the ideal and strive for it while acknowledging the current standing i suppose.

below is a photo of the installation when it was initially created. It shows the hallway effect I mentioned.

That sums up rather a lot of stuff!

Do you have current pictures posted somewhere?
 
elle sagenev
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Dillon Nichols wrote:

Maybe this could be fun for U-pick people, though? Marketed as a treasure hunt of sorts?

For contract growing, could you commit to a fairly conservative amount, shoot for double that in production, and have a plan for the surplus if it goes well? What sort of risks do you run if you are unable to deliver; penalty clause, ritual suicide, reputation damage?


I am modeling myself after a U-pick but I still see the need to sell to other markets. The way I look at it I will be saving a lot of time and energy when people come pick fruit. If they happen to grab a few veggies and greens, good for them. Otherwise I'll be putting that saved energy and time into picking the greens for other markets.

I don't plan to have any permaculture sort of learning experiences but I am going to have school groups come out. So that's education of sorts. I do plan on setting up a nice pergola that would make events and weddings a possibility. So there is a sort of un-agriculture income stream. Of course I've seen lots of weddings happen in monoculture almond orchards and I know of several ranches around here that host events. So I don't think doing that sort of thing takes away from my growing power.
 
Peter Kalokerinos
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Location: Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
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Michael Billington wrote:Hey Everybody,
What are other folk's experiences with generating income off of holzer style permaculture, hugelkultures, and polycultures?


Any updates on this Michael?

We're in the infancy stages of starting something similar - but free range eggs will underpin cashflow in the medium term until we sort ourselves out on the produce side. In any respect, any form of fresh produce is hard work, there are few ways to automate it, labour is high regardless of how you do it. We're trying to avoid this.
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