We need to find ways for ordinary people to get into permaculture farming without needing grants, loans, independent wealth, or a life of poverty. A lot of you have been doing amazing work on this for years, and I've learned so much from reading all that you've shared here (and other places). You all got me worked up, and I’m hoping to start pitching in. I’m working on an idea and would love your feedback and advice! At this point, the hope is to have a business ready and start accepting members for the 2017 growing season.
Here are the basic goals:
1. Make a decent business: have a viable, bootstrappable business model so that (if it works) others could follow the model without needing loans, grants, independent wealth, or poverty.
2. Produce food sustainably: in my neighborhood, and with minimal external outputs. Kind of like agriculture, but permanent. If only there was a word for that...
3. Spread knowledge and skills: permaculture, cooking with whole foods, preserving food, using herbal medicine, using fiber plants.
4. Spread mindset: together we can make our own food, medicine, and clothing from our common birthright of soil, water, sunshine, and a little bit of love.
That last bit may have exposed my hippie colors a bit. Oops. Back to business...
The rough idea is to have a subscription garden program for an urban or suburban area. Members would pay a monthly fee, and then they would be provide with a vibrant, ecologically sensitive, sustainable garden growing food in their own yard. We would take care of making beds, planting seeds, growing transplants, weed and pest control, fertility, succession planting, crop rotation, irrigation setup and all the other details. All the members would have to do is walk into their yard to harvest abundant, delicious fresh food, medicine, and fiber.
In addition to garden care, we would also provide:
- hands on training. I.e., if we are working in the garden, they would be warmly invited to participate and learn.
- weekly video updates and recipes about what to harvest and how to use it.
- biweekly or monthly classes in topics like permaculture design, soil fertility, herbal medicine, fiber spinning, making raised beds, growing seedlings, conserving water, hugelkulture, and on and on and on.
- the opportunity to donate your homegrown food to a local food bank, by having us harvest a little bit from each garden to donate.
- a taste of old fashioned, mutually supporting community. If one person had a crop failure with tomatoes, for example, others would be encouraged to share a little of their crop.
- composting of their yard waste and food scraps.
- guidebook and training on minimizing waste in the kitchen and refrigerator (this could help members save time and money, and reduce the net cost of the membership)
- a private online forum (maybe a Facebook group) for members to stay in contact.
- participation in important plant breeding work and research, by supporting us they would be supporting our work to develop perennial grains and other resilient, carbon-sequestering crops.
So, it would be kind of like a supercharged, year-round U-pick CSA.
The program would go year round because the work goes year round, if you count research, preparation, and the rest needed from the crazy busy seasons, and also because in the Pacific Northwest there’s actually a decent amount of winter gardening we can do. Mostly, though, because farmers don’t stop existing in the winter, and having support completely cut doesn’t feel like a solid solution.
And I imagine it would be easier to keep relationships and memberships steady if you are in continued contact, and continually being helpful and valuable, instead of pausing the relationship for months at a time every year.
The add-ons would require little additional work to scale to more members, because most of them would be online and shareable among all the members, or stack with existing work (like the hands-on training).
A viable business in this space has to thread a monetary needle: it needs to provide a decent income and lifestyle for the farmers, and it needs to provide affordable food to the members. The secret sauce to the approach here is having the members do the work of harvesting their own food.
This might work because (1) harvest, cleaning, storage and distribution make up a ton of the work that people pay for when they buy CSA or farmers market produce, and (2) the work of harvest, cleaning, and storage are hardwired into the human psyche, and helping people reengage with this part of themselves has got to be a good thing.
For the mental and physical health of the members, it would be a good thing. And it directly works to fulfill goals 3 and 4 above, namely spreading knowledge and spreading mindset.
Remaining for the farmers to do would be everything else. The work of weed and pest control could be kept down with proper selection of varieties, maintenance of fertility, and adequate use of cover crops and mulch. The work of planning would be kept down by having a small number of standardized bed plans that members could choose from.
The work of planting would be kept down by using John Jeavons biointensive style flats of transplants, so large numbers of seedlings could be babied in a central location and planted out when old enough to fend for themselves. Irrigation would be taken care of by sprinklers set on timers, or by instructing members about when and how often to turn the hose on and off.
Bed preparation would be cardboard, paper, or other mulch, with 4 inches laid down over the top of it. Strictly no till.
The biggest challenges I see are:
- Harvest, cleaning, and preservation require skill and time. This is part of why people shop at the grocery store. I assume that we can still find enough members... but it is possible that people who are willing to do that work are already gardening themselves.
- The money needle may be impossible to thread: the time it takes for us with this model might be more than people are willing to pay for. I’m hoping we can swing it by being very smart about saving labor, and by offering a very compelling package of service + education + community. We’ll see.
- I imagine that most people will want to grow primarily vegetables (i.e. things which will take a lot out of the soil), and won’t want to compost their manure or grow 70% biomass staples and dynamic accumulators. If we can’t find an easy, simple way to get people growing their own fertility, we’ll need to import compost to the system. This would still be a lot better than industrial food, and as long as we were educating we could move towards the right direction, at least. : /
- Initial setup will have a cost (I’m thinking in most cases some lumber for raised beds, compost, hoses and sprinklers, lumber for compost box, etc). We could either charge an upfront fee, or give free setup with a year paid in advance... but in any case, that could be a financial barrier to people. It is something that adds value to the property (right? it should, at least), and would be well worth the investment, but if people don’t have the money they don’t have the money.
- Monthly fees might be tricky for a whole bunch of reasons. I think it is important to have a stable rhythm for this to be a healthy system, both for the farmers and members. But there still could be complications.
Okay, now for some back-of-the-envelope math. In my region, there is a lot of money floating around. This makes it easier to sell higher-priced things, but it also raises the cost of living and means you have to earn more to keep your head above water. Pros and cons. Anyway, middle class in the greater Seattle area is incomes between $58,666 and $176,000 according to http://www.hughcalc.org/midclass.php.
If members were charged $100 a month, it roughly compares to a CSA (of course, different regions vary tremendously in CSA prices), and could definitely compare to a budget for vegetables from the store or farmers market. There would be potentially more produce than a CSA, and there would be wintertime crops as well, and people would have the wonderful and important experience of being intimately involved in the process.
If a farming family could support then 50 members, that would give a net revenue of $60,000 a year. After all the taxes that self-employed people pay, that’s about $45,000 take home a year. Health insurance would also need to come out of that. In my area, that isn’t a lot of money. It is enough to buy a small house on the outskirts, or to rent something closer in. If you want to buy land with that kind of income, you have to get out pretty far. And then you’d have to commute to the areas where population and money were concentrated enough to make this work. All in all, this would be livable, but finances would be tight enough that it would be dabbling in the end of the “farming as sacrifice” zone.
If the family could support 60 members, that’d be $72,000 net revenue, and that would be much more comfortable... as long as the workload was manageable.
If the monthly fee was $150, then it would give, to a rough approximation, 50% more revenue per member (math!). If people were willing to pay that it would give a lot more financial leeway, which would be nice. At the same time, though, making real, local food affordable is important, too. The higher the price, the richer people have to be to pay it.
So, that’s the idea. Penny (and eternal undying gratitude) for your thoughts?
Our thinking has changed a bit - if the market is for people who don't have time / expertise in growing food, having them do all the harvesting is probably a weak point. So we'll do the harvesting, and will just make sure we continually encourage and invite people to participate so they can keep learning.
We're planning to launch a membership drive in January with hopes of enrolling a minimum of 10 households by the start of March (and a max of 20), then closing enrollment for the year. A pilot of 20 households is simultaneously small (just 1/3 or so of what would be required for a living), but also pretty ambitious (it'll probably be a trick to get that many signups, and it will be a lot of work to keep up the gardens). January is coming *fast*, and there is a lot to do. Here's my todo list right now (I'm sure things are missing, but there is enough for the moment to keep us pretty busy):
- clarify and write up mission. We have tons of goals (basically, make the world a better place), pick which ones are the focus.
- choose a name
- website... about page (include farmers & mission)
- website... home page
- website... blog page
- website... garden plan. Show how succession and polyculture planning makes it all tick.
- content plan: themes and topics for blog, email newsletter, facebook page
- video... homepage, about us (1:30)
- video... extended explanation of mission (5 minutes)
- decide which crops to grow
- get business license
- set up bank account
- research if contracts are needed, and if so, find a template to use
- set up payment portal online
- recruit team (help with videos, recipes, relief farmers)
- prepare flyers
- make facebook page
- prepare promotional facebook contest
- set up email newsletter (behind the scenes of a neighborhood farm and permaculture program)
Have you seen what Stacey Murphy is doing in Brooklyn? It has many parallels to your plan and may give you some good ideas. I believe she does the harvesting, gives the homeowners a share and sells the rest.
I haven't made much concrete progress - I've been mired down in all the different possibilities. This post will just capture some of the swirl of ideas as I'm trying to come up with a clear plan of action.
I think I'm getting clarity, though. I think I've finalized the goal:
Get as many people as possible in my area eating hyperlocal, sustainably grown food. The dream is not a handful of beautiful permaculture gardens, but food produced at community scale.
To do that, I need to make a thriving business at it. The business isn't the goal, but it almost is because I see it as a absolute practical necessity to achieving the goal. There is no way that my community is going to suddenly start practicing permaculture and eating healthier foods without an ongoing, aggressive marketing push, and a lot of training and services. There are thousands of people within a few miles of where I live, and we need a full-time team of people to bring this kind of change. That means money, and that means business.
I'm terribly excited about the dream of being able to hire people to do permaculture. Wouldn't it be amazing to have the resources to let driven permaculture people switch their current day jobs for doing permaculture for a living?
Here's some more clarity. I looked up the census medium income data for the neighborhoods around where I live. My eyes popped out when I saw that the neighborhoods *start* at $100,00 a year, and go up to $140,000 a year. We live in a little bubble of older and manufactured homes, and I had no clue we were surrounded by such wealth. That makes me more optimistic about being able to charge $150 a month, or maybe even more. Of course, just because somebody earns $100,000 doesn't mean that they throw money around. But still, there is a lot more space around "affordable" in my community than I had any idea of.
I don't want to gouge people, and once I know how the numbers work out I intend to lower the price as much as possible. But I know that starting out, if I undercharge it'll make the whole thing waaaay likelier to fail. It'll be better to start out more expensive than we need, survive, and then once we understand how the business side works to trim the costs to customers.
A neighbor with horses has offered a plot of garden space, instructional space, and unlimited free manure (not what I'll rely on as a source of ongoing fertility, but would be fantastic for jumpstarting a garden). So now I'm trying to sort through all the different possibilities that would offer, and how that goes with the original idea of doing distributed gardens in people's yards, and whether we should try to do any kind of regular-ish CSA program...
I'm becoming more and more convinced that our health problems are coming from eating terribly deficient food. I want everybody to eat kale, dandelion leaves, berries, nuts, and ancient grains, and I would love to make that a part of this project. Pitch the idea of a garden that isn't just beyond organic, but is beyond lettuce. On the other hand, there's enough of a slope to climb in terms of selling anyway, and if I'm trying to go whole hog on food forests with perennial vegetables and wild edibles, I may be pushing too hard too fast for there to be any adoption. A lot of people probably won't ever want to branch out much further than lettuce and tomatoes.
A compromise would be to offer a standard package (ordinary European annual vegetables), and also offer a package that had some of those, but veered pretty heavily towards perennial food forest. This way we could pitch the great stuff, while still being able to recruit members who were ready for a jump to local / organic / permaculture, but not quite ready to jump the whole way.
...but on the other hand, if we're trying to be practical, there has to be a pretty high degree of standardization. The more we branch out our offerings, the more time and energy it will take for each individual garden, and we either have to raise the price more or have more gardeners as sacrificial offerings. Both of those will limit the ability to grow this.
I've given away a few different starts / cultures of things through my neighborhood's buy nothing group, and it has been really wonderful. I introduced a number of people to Moringa, which firmly falls into the exotic / nutritious / food foresty category. That was really exciting. So I'm thinking that if we can afford the time and space, we'll try to run something like a free perennial vegetable nursery. Regularly pot up a few dozen tree collard cuttings, or plant a bunch of Hablitzia tamnoides seeds, or chestnuts, or apple seeds, grow them out till they're pretty durable, and offer them free to the community.
This'd be a way to hopefully contribute to a gradual groundswell in my community of understanding about permaculture, nutritious food, perennial vegetables. We could get people growing stuff they never would have considered, and get them healthier and more food-independent, even if they aren't customers. The biggest goal is to get people doing this stuff - and we need customers to fund that, but that doesn't mean that our reach and ambition to share has to be restricted to customers.
And there are more things swirling, too. Should we try to include staple crops, or just veggies? Should we offer herb gardens or medicinal gardens? Maybe grow some stuff distributed at people's houses (like low-maintenance stuff), and grow the demanding European annuals at the centralized location? And plenty more.
The next step is to just start making decisions, so I can start getting ready to launch this. That's much harder work than just brainstorming and imagining, though. Oh well...