In Career & Business

(Find Part 1, Tips from the Pros here and Part 2, Opportunities and Niches here

A Personal Take on Barriers to Success

Permaculture Barriers and Challenges

As with any career or business, there are barriers to achieving success. It is important to be aware of many of these barriers as possible so that you can avoid the pitfalls. One of Darren Doherty’s sayings is that you need to “know what you don’t know” and know when you need to ask for advice. This is crucial to your success as one of the biggest pitfalls when starting a new project in a foreign area is you usually don’t even know what these unknowns might look like. 

The best way to get a picture of these unknowns is to talk to as many people as you can. These should be people that have been around for awhile and can see challenges you can’t see. One of the ways that Michelle and I learned about our existing business model was to travel. We went all over the globe seeking solutions, innovation, and inspiring people. We worked on farms, we repaired wind turbines and solar arrays, we planted garlic and on and on, and while we were working we were able to ask hard, open-ended questions. It made a huge difference.  If I could start all over again, I would have talked to even more people. 

“Your own imagination as to the true ability of the permaculture design system, you need to trust the system and stick to main frame basics with profound and thorough thinking while trusting yourself.” Geoff Lawton

One of my biggest personal barriers has always been getting outside the box. I will always remember the above quote from Geoff Lawton on the second day of my PDC. To this day, I still find it difficult on occasion to think laterally.

Other Permaculture Business Barriers and Challenges

When asked about barriers, experts again and again included the lack of practical design experience. I can relate. Being an engineer, I had a huge learning curve getting to the space I’m in now. Again, one of the ways that I gained experience was doing tons of volunteering around the world, working on free and inexpensive design projects. Unfortunately, what I learned is that, outside of getting experience, doing things for free and cheap is not well-respected. People don’t take you seriously.

It’s important to move on from that as fast as you can. Your time is valuable, and permaculture principles teaches us to always obtain a yield. Your ticket price conveys a lot of hidden information to a potential client, including the value of your service or product, as well as how much you value yourself.

Land access also poses a major challenge. Like Ben Falk, “not having access to a site to practice on” has been an issue I have been grappling for years and it seems to get harder and harder with each passing year.

Richard Perkins also noted several other barriers to running a successful permaculture business:

  • Public perception of permaculture
  • The lack of a business mindset
  • Lack of tangible data within the community 

Barrier #1: The Hippie Image

Permaculture Barriers - Hippie Image

For better or for worse, the image that most people have of permaculture designers is usually that they are a bunch of hippies. I think this is unfortunate because 1.) the word hippie is totally misunderstood and misused and 2.) permaculture design is truly amazing and unique in its approach to problem-solving. One of the ways we can counter this stereotype is to exude professionalism. As Ethan Roland states, “Get a nice business shirt, nice pants, and new shoes. No Carhartts, flannel and work boots.” I have found that when I show up to meetings looking professional, I carry a lot more weight.

Barrier #2: Not Understanding Capital

Permaculture Barrier - Lack of Capital

As with most business ventures, there is a certain amount of capital required to get something off the ground. A lot of us think about capital solely in a financial sense, but as Ethan Roland and Gregorie Landua point out in their book, Regenerative Enterprise, there are eight forms of capital: Intellectual, material, financial, living, cultural, social, and in terms of the ethical sensibilities that should be informing what we do, spiritual capital. You may not have tons of money, but you probably have capital in one or more of the other areas.

Personally, I am a big fan of low financial capital, no bricks and mortar-style businesses, at least as a starting place. They allow us to begin without having to get loans and let us use the cash we’ve saved up to keep food on the table as we build our business. I am a huge fan of the SPIN farming model for this reason.

Barrier #3: A Lack of Tangible Data

Permaculture Barrier: Lack of Data

It’s hard to document all of your projects when they are coming at you at a million miles per second. The movement has also largely avoided working with colleges and universities, which serves its grassroots nature but hinders it from gaining mainstream legitimacy.

All these challenges may seem daunting, but as Adam Brock says, “starting a business is hard, period, and it’s all the more so when you are trying to do something that heals communities and ecosystems.”  Next, we’ll look at ways to turn barriers into positives.

Turning Business Barriers Into Take-Off Points

So to sum up: It’s hard to start a business. You need to have a considerable amount of experience, which is hard to get, in order to become a good designer or run a successful enterprise. We have to leave our inner hippie at the door. Also, there’s not that much support for PDC students who want to take that next step: 

“Our own movement has not done a very good job of providing ongoing support for new permies after the PDC. We need to start offering a wide variety of advanced education opportunities and more robust diploma programs to provide pathways to professional success.” – Adam Brock 

Adam Brock - tips on permaculture business

I couldn’t agree with Adam more. It makes me wonder why there are so many of us just teaching PDC’s instead of moving up the market to support younger designers and entrepreneurs with mentorship and guidance as they start their own permaculture journeys.

So how do we turn these seemingly big barriers into opportunities? I agree that running a business is hard and that getting experience can be challenging, but I also know how awesome it is to wake up with my kids and have a slow breakfast with them. I love that I control my own vacation time and that I control my workweek.  I was the kid in school that always had the lowest grades and struggled to make it through. I failed most of my biology classes and here I am teaching about it – why? It has only been since owning my own business that I understand the true power of passion.

Permaculture Barriers - Gap in the wall

When you are working with passion everything seems possible, work is fun and you can overcome anything. While some argue that working within your passion is a bad idea, I can’t imagine doing something for 40 hours a week that I hate.

There is of course one caveat that I would add: Passion-based anything can easily become an obsession and sometimes it can be hard to turn off. If you can manage this, you will be off to the races. 

Some fantastic pieces of advice from Richard Perkins:

Richard Perkins - tips on permaculture business “I choose to work with folks who are specifically looking for what I can offer, and I’ve learned what sort of engagements I’m not interested in.”

“For anyone wanting to farm, then complimentary businesses are the lowest risk, lowest investment way to be beneficial for sure. For example, after a couple of months of landing here in Sweden I noticed nearly every farm was underutilized which around me is mostly grazing and forestry. I set up a meeting with the neighbor and an hour later had full permission to start holistically managing beef and chicken grazing across 80 ha.”  


Check out the previous articles on the Permaculture Business series:

Part 1: Tips from the Pros
Part 2: On Opportunities and Niches 

Next up: Things successful permaculture professionals would have done differently.

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Showing 3 comments
  • William

    Thanks. This was very insightful post on what is actually holding back the business side of the permaculture.

    The PDC as itself is life changing event but then reality happens. What then? There is no guidance to help people make a transition!

  • Lee Davies

    I have taken several courses through Verge Permaculture over the past four years in Edmonton and Calgary and as always, I get nuggets of great information from almost everything I read from them. Great summary of what is lacking in the business of permaculture. The “tipping point” is coming. And Verge is positioned to be a leader… Grass roots movements are a wonderful thing…

    • Michelle Avis

      Thanks Lee!


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