Perhaps the greatest advantage of Permaculture and forest gardening is that it can be used to maximize the return on investment of any productive landscape. In other words, it can optimize the value of your landscape, market garden or business, no matter what you do with it.
This is substantially different than the more commonly-stated goal of maximizing yields.
See, Permaculture is a design system that can be used to create landscapes that are tailored to your individual lifestyles and goals. Some may want to try to maximize the output of their gardens for research purposes or to prove a philosophical point. Unfortunately, measuring the complex outputs of a diverse Permaculture system is proven extremely difficult to do in comparison to a simple one-time harvest of monoculture corn, maximized with oil and chemical inputs.
But for most of us, living lives with finite energy and resources to put into our projects, and finite energy to deal with the outputs, (harvesting, storage, transport, sales….) maximizing yields isn’t always a very practical goal.
In fact, this reductionist goal of increasing yields at all costs seems downright childish when compared to the goal of “maximizing value” to stakeholders, including land stewards, end-users, and the human and natural communities which inhabit and surround the production area.
Consider the conventional market farm doing everything “by the book,” following “best practices” to maximize yield in an effort to maximize PROFIT: working long hours to squeeze every bit of profit from the land, doing extra spraying and fertilizing, hiring extra workers at exploitation wages, exposing volunteers and family members to harmful chemicals, taking on that extra farmers market on Tuesday evening for an extra 50 bucks a week…. Repeatedly, economic analyses find such farmers end up paying themselves a ridiculously low wage, with many admitting they pay themselves as little as $3/hour. Meanwhile they moved to the country to get away from the “rat race” of marketing, management and machines, and “back in touch with nature” only to find themselves deeply entrenched in managing an underpaid workforce, using spreadsheets, repairing machines and computers, and fighting tooth and nail against nature for their lives.
Instead, wouldn’t such a farmer be better off to design a system that yields far less than the maximim, but instead optimizes quality of life, healthful contact with nature, and a HIGHER LIVING WAGE for her work? Like most things, this follows the 80/20 principle, or the law of deminishing returns. Why pour extra hours of struggle into a system to squeeze out a few more units at the expense of your hourly wage?
This is where good Permaculture design really shines.
A great Permaculture system maximizes LIFE yields across different kinds of capital, not just that one most inflexible and dehumanizing form: financial capital. It buids our social capital, frees us to observe and interact with nature rather than going to war with it – something that helps us grow our informational capital. It frees up time to invest in our spiritual and social capital. And it give us a beautiful, nurturing environment to work in.
Some of this is hard to quantify,
I don’t track the number of times I’m told that our garden is the most beautiful place in Kalamazoo, but I feel happy to report that I’ve already heard this a few times this Spring! I can’t tell you how many people have told me they’ve driven past and been stunned by our garden, or that our garden was a revolation to people that changed their lives. Or that my Permaculture talk, based on the things I’ve learned from this home ecosystem, was the most inspiring talk someone has heard. But I’ve had the honor of hearing all of these comments just in the last month.
I can’t tell you about the hours I’ve spent just sitting in my back yard watching the birds and butterflies. Or spectacular way the light shined on the broad leaves of sea kale on one special evening. Or how I got a free masterclass on photography from a watching a pro work in my garden.
But what I can do is share our input/output tally again! For 3 years now I’ve attempted to share monthly updates here on our yields, inputs and time we’ve spent in the garden.
Yet again, the off-site inputs have been very low so far this month. We did purchase one bag of cocoa mulch to pretty up the garden for a photographer’s visit. We also put in substantially more work hours than we typically do, not to maintain productivity, but just to make things unnaturally tidy for a home landscape. Still, the work we’ve spent has been relatively low compared to most homesteads, farms or even home landscapes, and in return we’ve had daily yields of vegetables.
And again, much of what we COULD harvest never gets picked since we haven’t yet developed good long-term outlets for sales and distribution. At this point, I simply have higher Return on Investment activities to put my time into than marketing produce I’d rather enjoy myself.
In April and May my Lillie House related income was around $5,000/month, which is honestly quite high. This won’t continue through the summer. About 1/3rd of that came from Forest Garening CSA registrations. Another 3rd came from edible landscaping design/install work. And the final 1/3rd came from rental income, final payments on our Winter Permaculture Design Course, speaking engagements, plant, produce and seed sales, and our online classes. As we shift to summer, more income will come from production and less from non-production activities, but honestly, I would philosophically like to see more coming direcly from production, AND at a reasonable market rate, not highway robbery boutique prices. But I’m also not in a rush to push it, since I want to ramp up the natural productivity of our site and live sustainably off the excess, rather than exploit the land, labor and finite resources unsustainably to convert them into cash.
Michael Hoag: Manager/teacher/gardener/author/designer/consultant.
Michael Hoag has spent over 20 years as a full-time worker in the army of Permaculture change-makers. He is founder of the Transformative Adventures Cooperative, managing director of Lillie House Permaculture, and a full-time Permaculture designer and consultant who has participated in over 300 projects. He has worked on farms of all sizes, worked with food justice organizations, colleges and universities, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and PIRGIM. As a teacher trainer, he has worked as a pedagog in crafting university curricula, adult education curricula, and programs for environmental and ecological awareness, and Permaculture. He has worked at a farm credit bureau, a commodities exchange, and managed farmers markets. He has created businesses including market gardens, vermicomposting operations, and helped start and lead multiple community and non-profit organizations.
Michael has over 20 years experience teaching classes and facilitating group projects, including community garden and forest garden projects. He’s an enthusiastic researcher of traditional temperate forest garden systems and productive ecologies of the Great Lakes region. The culture, history and aesthetics of gardens and garden architecture are his great passions, and he believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people and cultures. He has taught and lectured for McHenry County College, Arora University, the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Chicago Adult Learning Resource Center, The Kalamazoo Nature Center, and gives presentations to community groups, organizations and churches. He helps organize Van-Kal Permaculture, the SoMi Permimixer, Michigan Safe Energy Future, CORE and the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition’s Food Group.
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