There are many reasons I want to get myself off grid and go and set up my forest garden, but they come down to the fact that it's going to need to be a financially viable concern sooner rather than later, by which I mean turning enough of a profit to cover at least a reasonable standard of living. Defining reasonable, of course, is a matter of interpretation, but I don't expect to be making my own clothes, cobbling my own boots or growing my own internet connection.
I've been told, several times, that a forest garden cannot be financially viable on its own. The question is, is that true? The question has been raised on these forums before https://permies.com/t/21994/farm-income/money-permaculture, without a clear conclusion, but I suspect the successful ones, doing this full time, are not hanging around on here. There are many things I need to know – not only is it possible but, if so, under what conditions?
This 48-page article answers this question.
It examines eight small-scale operations in England and Wales of under ten acres (a touch over 4 hectares/40 decares for those living in the 21st century: the article uses Barbarian Measures, which I've converted). Many aren't relevant to what I want to do, but those that are answer my question: can I do what I want to do and make a living from it?
The Introduction asks a broader question: can you make money from agriculture. Our agricultural system, especially in Europe, has encouraged a drive towards cheap food, bigger farms, more mechanisation, and more environmental devastation.
In spite of this, most farms, even those of a of hundred hectares plus, only survive through means of subsidies, dispersed through the political wing of the National Farmers' Union, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (this isn't quite what the article says, but that's what it means). “Once unpaid manual labour is factored in, [farm income] drops to a loss of £16,525 per farm per year.” For the most recent date for which figures were available (2008/9) public funding accounted for 56% of farm income, all to shore up supermarket profits and an unsustainable agricultural system (that last clause is my opinion, but it's my article, and in my opinion they could have been clearer on this).
In other words, the only way you can make money from conventional agriculture today is leeching on a massive scale.
It doesn't look good, but none of the people running the small outfits described in this article receive a penny of public money, yet none of them are being persecuted by the dole office.
The paper then moves on to Case Studies.
1) Longmeadow Organics (still running at the time of writing) is 2.5 acres (1 hectare/10 decares), built from scratch, with a turnover of £48,000 and a profit of £5,500 after the owners have been paid £11,500. Since I plan to be a joint owner, this shouldn't be a problem, and £17k a year with no rent and minimal food bills sounds rather nice, thank you. We'd never be able to afford a yacht, but who cares? The land quality is reasonable, and they have a decent location for their farm shop (something I'm not enthusiastic about). As with all the case studies, there is a simple SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.
2) The Real Seed Collection (still running) supports 3 people full time and 2 more part time on 0.5 acres (0.2 hectares), selling rare and heirloom seed. It's a membership club in order to evade EU rules on seed sales, designed to corner the market in favour of agribusiness. This is not what I want to be doing, but it's a viable business, and gives an important clue about the viability of a possible additional income stream.
3) Bridge Farm is (or was: I can't find the place online) the largest commercial forest garden in the UK. When I read this I thought it must be at least a couple of hectares, but it's not: it's 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares), supplying a weekly market stall, hotels, restaurants and the local whole food shop. The entire farm is actually 4.5 acres (1.8 hectares) of pretty marginal land to begin with, of which a fair bit seems to be devoted to ecosystem services, but this is the kind of thing I've already worked out (I think) how to work around and gain a yield. It has a turnover of £22,000, with a 50% margin. The place has its issues, which I'd need to find a way to work around, but it's clear that it can be made to work.
4) Holly Tree Poultry Hatchery (still running) is an economically viable operation on 2.5 acres (1 hectare). It's not what I want to be doing, but it's another example of a viable business on a small scale.
5) Spring Grove Market Garden (still running) is 6.5 acres (2.6 hectares) supplying a local market with a net profit in the region of £23,000. They're not doing what I want to be doing, but emphasises the viability of running a raised bed system while the forest garden gets started.
6) Maesyffin Mushrooms (still running) runs on 30m x 20m, supplying fresh and processed shiitake mushrooms. Again, it's not what I want to be doing, but I do regard mushrooms as integral to a viable forest garden operation. With such a tiny footprint it may be the kind of thing I could run as a side business. It's a one-man outfit, making £10,000 a year. No yacht, but no dole office thugs either.
7) Honeypot Farm (still running) is 5.5 acres (2.25 hectares) producing apples, honey and related added value items. It's really not what I want to be doing, and it's bigger than I'm likely to afford, but it's a viable business). It's not permaculture, even close, and I'm not that interested.
8 ) Lower Farm (still running) is 2 acres (0.8 hectares) (his web site says a quarter of an acre, or 0.1 hectares) of mainly salad vegetables being grown on what was marginal land. It's running a profit of around £10,000 a year, with a further £5,000 from courses. This is an intensive no-dig system, requiring a high level of skill, and is not permaculture, never mind forest gardening.
What can I take away from this? Most of the conclusions are in the the Key Findings section of the paper.
* The most important thing is to be aware that trying to do this on my own would be totally frakking stupid. I need to find someone to do this with – definitely someone I can trust and, for my own personal emotional perspective, most probably a permanent romantic partner. https://permies.com/t/50938/singles/Male-Edinburgh-Scotland-seeks-soulmate I didn't get that from the article: that's something I know of for me. We'd need to be there for each other. Frankly, I think this is probably crucial.
* I'm not going to get rich, but a £10,000 profit margin, with no rent and minimal food bills would allow the sort of low-impact, sensory-controlled lifestyle I'm looking for.
* One hectare (2.5 acres) is probably an ideal size for two people to look after and pick, process and sell the produce from. Much less is probably unviable; much more becomes unwieldy. Another hectare for ecosystem services would be an advantage.
* Location is key. It's no good being right out of the way, but it should be possible to do this and have some control over the conditions for human interaction that I need, but which stress me out in the wrong circumstances.
* One of us is likely to have to work part time for the first couple of years. This is one reason for not going it alone.
* Diversify, diversify, diversify. It's an ecosystem: treat it accordingly.
* Livestock is probably a bad idea at this scale, for a range of reasons. A few laying ducks is probably the limit.
* My Aspie neurotype is likely to be an asset, not a hindrance. Persistence, patience, and the ability to recognise patterns are all going to be useful.
* I need to be somewhere land is cheap. Scotland isn't it. I'm back to looking at the more depopulated areas of Europe. There needs to be a house I can renovate, which rules out some areas where farmland surrounds a village, as in much of eastern Europe. A Spanish finca probably remains the model for this.
The paper does have some Policy Recommendations, which probably won't be of relevance to this forum. Needless to say, governments could do better. Scotland's land reform process is more likely to achieve these results than England's, but neither country is where I want to be.
For now, I need to keep reading, and I need to keep putting myself out there, however uncomfortable that makes me feel, in order to increase the chances of meeting that right person to do this with me.
Nice post and great links. We're looking for somewhere in France, probably more along the Mark Shepard model. It's not always easy to find people to make the jump with you (although you only need one!) I wish you luck.
Netherlands Zone 7b 930mm (36 inches) rain, 1500 sunshine hours
Yes, silvopasturing isn't where I want to be going with this, for several reasons. I think Shepard has his good points, and one or two where I disagree on the fundamentals. It's based on a Vera-type model of woodland, which I tend to regard as oversimplistic at best.
If you run into someone you think I might get along with to make the jump with, please point her in my direction! I had a major setback on this, but I don't want to give up.