In Community Design, Methods of Design & Patterns, Permaculture Design Certificate, Permaculture Projects, Permaculture Vision & Values

For the last couple of years, I have recognized that transitioning our culture from one that looks at the planet as an endless mine and ecological destruction as a just another externality to one that recognizes that our species depends on those “externalities” and that the earth is much more than a mine has less to do with design and more to do with basic social needs. For this reason I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to get people out of earth destruction based jobs and businesses and transition them to earth repair businesses.

The longer I teach, the more needs, niches and opportunities I see. This is why my version of the design course is focused on people care, helping people to meet their needs by starting their own earth repair businesses. Some of my students half joke about the sheer number of ideas I generate, but they are only half joking because they usually write them down. I thought I would share a few of these ideas here, as well as some basic advice on how to succeed where there may be no example or case study for the business you want to create.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I don’t think it is only business that is going to save this planet, far from it. I think that we all need to play a personal role in fixing this planet with our gardens, perennial food systems, rain harvesting, composting and everything else that is included in holistic design. However, I see REAL green businesses as one piece in the puzzle. I think that most of us don’t really love our jobs, don’t have a passion for how we spend our 40+ hours away from home, and likely don’t resonate with how our jobs or the companies that we work for interface with our most valuable resource, the planet.

Unfortunately we have all gotten ourselves into debt and we end up being required to work these jobs to have shelter. It is pretty crazy that a lot of us have to invest close to half of our lives pursuing jobs that we don’t love to provide shelter and food for our families. I am not saying these things should be free, I believe we should have to work for them, I just don’t think it should take 30 years of work to meet our basic needs. Part of this problem is the system, part of it is our sentiment about how these things (particularly shelter) should look and the size it should be.

How to Succeed at your Earth Repair Venture

While I think it is quite easy to generate a 6 figure income doing earth repair, I think it is wiser to reduce what you spend dramatically and find opportunities to reduce your debts and liabilities so that you have to generate less. Ashley Lubyk from Dirt Craft Natural Building wrote a great piece on why working less is better for the environment. I think he hit the nail on the head with this piece. One of the things that I have noticed in my life is the importance of space in my life. Space gives me opportunity because I have time to think things through. It is tough in our day and age with smart phones, email, sms, facebook and everything else we have to do to create space to just be. In addition to having space, time is the ultimate commodity. In this episode of Tapestry, Mary Hindes interviews Karl Pillemer who interviewed over 1000 elders over the age of 65 about their lives and what they would like to have done differently. Resoundingly, they all said a few similar things such as they wish that they had taken more risks and that they had been less concerned about achieving so much at an early age to free up more time. Quality of life is as important as having a passion for what you do.

To ensure that you have the largest chance of success in your new venture here are a few pieces of advice that have served us well.

1) Get rid of debt and have 1 year of money in the bank so that you can take risk. Not having to make payments other than groceries and rent was a key to our success. We actually house sat for over a year to eliminate our $1200/month rent bill. It was great and some gigs even paid us to watch their homes. How to do this successfully is a whole other blog post. Being able to take risk is huge; it means you don’t have to be a pushy salesman and you can be picky about who you choose to work with. As a business you are far more desirable when you are not desperate. I am sure there are analogies with love coaching here.

2) Choose a business that not only fits your passion, but that focuses on fixing a problem or liability. These services and products are easier to sell and, if they work, word of mouth will work wonders for you. If these products save thousands of dollars, then the solution you offer has a lot value, which means you are likely going to be successful.

3) Get really clear on your marketing, determine what your niche is, who your target customer is and how to communicate what you have to offer. There is nothing worse than bad marketing: it turns people off, you are embarrassed to present it and your business struggles. Check out my interview with Tad Hargrave from Marketing for Hippies. You could just be a permaculture designer for everyone, or you could be laser clear on who you are targeting. For example, a permaculture designer for horse owners is far easier to market because there are thousands of periodicals, stores and events that cater to these types of people. In other words it is easy to find them and if you understand horses and the horse game, you will understand their needs.

4) In addition to #3, once you are clear on your niche, you can seek out the hubs for that niche. For the horse example, these hubs might include horse trainers, teachers, magazines, shows, horse venues, trade shows, and tack shops. These are the people you want to know and vice versa. Each of these hubs represents thousands of people that might need what you have to offer. Once you are clear on who these people are, start having coffee with them to understand what their needs are. Don’t be pushy, or try to sell anything, just get to know them and listen. Remember that hubs are busy people so respect their time, and make sure you buy the coffee.

5) From all of these tips, you will get business, I guarantee. As well, all of these conversations will help you to identify your position even more. Now you can build a simple website and business card. If you choose to write a newsletter, make it relevant and full of value. There are plenty of ways to get subscribers but one of my favourites is to offer something for free. For the horse example, perhaps it would be an e-book on “10 ways to grow more hay and buy less winter feed”. You can then put this hook onto your business card and instead of the card being recycled, they will likely sign up for your newsletter.

I think out of all of these things, the most important advice above is get out of debt, have some spare cash and make space. All of the other steps will come naturally when you are not stressed out about making that sale.

Business Ideas

Here are a few business ideas that I have come up with. I literally have hundreds, so I am only going to include a few.


Pre-purchase property consultation: this is service that a designer can offer to help people find the right home based on their goals. These goals could include self reliance, food production, renewable energy, food forestry etc. In light of the recent floods here in Calgary, you might also be able to help mitigate purchase of property in dangerous locations, such as places that are prone to flood, fire or mudslide.

Rainwater harvesting design and installation: rainwater harvesting is going to be a major growth area. We are running out of water, or at least the ridiculous lifestyle that we have become accustomed to is coming to an end. Rainwater harvesting for domestic and commercial use is the only way forward. Get good at it now so that when it explodes you will be running!

Design of horse properties: Horses are called hay burners for a reason: they eat a lot. Horse owners generally don’t have very good grazing habits so they have to purchase supplemental feed. Properly designed horse properties can optimize the property they have to produce more feed and save money. They also generally have a surplus of manure which, when composted properly, can become an asset instead of a liability.


Doula/Midwife products: We have just come through two natural births and throughout the pregnancies, Michelle drank a ton of raspberry leaf tea. Raspberries are loaded with elastogen which prevents stretch marks and helps with a smooth birth. It makes everything more stretchy. The tea that you can buy at the store tastes horrible and raspberry grows like a weed in Canada. Doulas and Midwives are usually all about protecting the planet, I think you have to be if you are in that profession. For this reason they are usually keen to support local products. Calendula tincture is another product that they use a ton of and again it usually comes from overseas. The beautiful thing about this gig is that you have a ton of hubs to work with.

Compost Tea/ Extract: there is going to be an endless need for folks to do this. There are a ton of fertilizer pushers out there claiming to make your lawn green, when in fact they are turning into a poison zone that kids and dogs should not be on. Turn a liability into an asset and become the gateway drug to gardening!

Organic seedlings from seed blocks: to my knowledge, no one produces certified organic seedlings. I think someone could get a machine that produces soil blocks with bioactive components that are certified organic and sell them for a premium price. Superfood stores are taking off, but why buy superfood if you can grow it. Those same stores would likely sell your products.

SPIN Farming: the organic seedling business would work well with SPIN farming. SPIN farming has an unlimited potential to completely shift our food system. Basically urban farmers make agreements to use peoples lawns in exchange for supplying them with produce. You have no land costs, infrastructure needed to get going is cost effective and, if you are smart, you will do it bike powered to keep fossil fuels to a minimum. Check out the SPIN farming website for more details.

The potential for green earth repairative business is unlimited! I have literally hundreds of amazing ideas that fill niches that I have identified over the last five years of teaching and consulting. If you are keen on transitioning your life and occupation, check out one of our PDCs. I am sure you will be blown away!


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Showing 5 comments
  • Turon S

    Why couldn’t you have been in business when I was living in Calgary in 2008? But then I probably would have thought Permaculture was another wacka-do hippie crazy thing people have come up with and dismissed you. But now that I live in BC and am trying to figure this all out, it is so expensive to live, start and run a business and own anything that I might move back to Ontario…. maybe even Southern Saskatchewan, I loved living in Saskatoon. In the meantime, thank you for all the work you are doing. Maybe soon I can figure out how to start my own small business and work on these small niches. Geoff Lawton’s online PDC just went through a section talking about how all the houses and building in North American need to be retrofitted and soon to have Solar Heat Pump Glasshouse attachments with thermal mass heat and shade house. And this was said the day after I received and watched your free newsletter video and listened to your Permaculture Voices work and thought, yeah I can do that. I can’t afford my own farm and moving to an internship is a little out of planning right now, but I can do a business providing this information and knowledge about retrofitting, glasshouses, shade houses, thermal mass and rain-harvesting. Its all a big step when you have very little support or partnerships and even less experience besides PDC, reading and videos, but I will do it… eventually. Thanks again.

    • Rob Avis

      Thanks for the comment.

  • victoria

    Great idea with the Raspberry leaf tea and Calendula! I grew tonnes of Calendula this summer at my rental property and as a Doula and herbalist this is very valuable. Raspberry leaf next year;) I noticed we had lots and lots of bees around the Calendula and I believe it also kept the rabbits away from my lettuce?

  • Michele Peel

    I think this is a beautiful idea and will repost this article. I would like to find out more about the organic seed starting business. Thank you

  • Ty Thompson

    Awesome post! Been looking at the SPIN farming website now for a few hours…pretty cool. I just might do something along those lines while saving up my money to buy some acreage after I finish college in two years. I was happy to see that it’s easy to adapt SPIN to permaculture…or is that the other way around? At any rate, I think it’s a great idea. Speaking of ideas, I’d be very interested to hear some more from you.



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