Designing Land-Based Livelihoods that Actually Work with THISTLE

First a reminder of my background for those who don’t know me: I grew up in a conventional farming situation with acres in commodity crops, a market garden (which I helped run for a while,) agritourism ventures like pumpkins, corn mazes, and Christmas trees, a wood lot, and a general self-sufficiency lifestyle. I’ve gone on to work both as an environmentalist and in every aspect of land livelihoods: working on a commodities trade floor, working for a farm credit operation, managing farmers markets, at the nation’s largest sustainable aquaponics research facility, working on farms of every scale, consulting on about 400 regenerative enterprises, and managing my own very successful smallholding business.

I see a whole lot of posts here from poor folks who jumped into land-based livelihoods like farming, and they’re really struggling with it. A lot of them end up angry with “permaculture.” Here’s a small collection from a recent social media post. Whenever people post about this, there’s an avalanche of complaints like this.

Though these poor disgruntled farmers call this “permaculture,” it was EXACTLY from listening to failing farmers like this that Bill Mollison created Permaculture. Permaculture was created pretty much entirely to help people who were failing at conventional farming as a job.

In fact, in his “Introduction to Permaculture” classes, Bill Mollison always used to make the point that conventional approaches to “farming as a job” don’t work. He’d dismiss talk of farming jobs: ”the last thing any of us should be doing is any kind of farming” (that’s a verbatim quote he often repeated.) “I don’t want to talk about (market gardening or farming) you can read 1000 books on that. Permaculture is about how you spend your money and where you bank it.”

So, the INTRODUCTION to Permaculture, Permaculture 101 BEGINS with the understanding that conventional ”homesteading” and “farming” will be very difficult for most people. Permaculture isn’t about just going back to the land. Permaculture is about going back to the land without going bankrupt, losing your soul, or destroying the planet to make it work.

Yet, the principle message of Permaculture seems to have been lost in “pop permaculture” on YouTube these days. If one person claims to be making $40k selling vegetables off 1/2 an acre, then the next will claim to be making $60k off 1/4 acre, and he’ll get twice as many views! It’s profitable to tell people what they want to hear. (Yes, I said “he” because let’s face it, these scammers are entirely white dudes.)

So people think they can watch a couple YouTube videos of some “permaculture” guy claiming he makes $40k/year on 1/4 acre doing vegetable farming, and double that in their first year if they hustle 24/7 and work real hard. Sorry, if that were real it would show up in the economic studies. It doesn’t. To say the least, that is extraordinarily exceptional to the point that I’d say claims like that have never been proven or verified.

The historical fact is, “farmers” the way we talk about them these days, are a myth. One can no more be a

“Farmer” as a job, than one can be a Christmas elf or Bigfoot.

“Farmers” the way we talk about them, as people who make money off growing and selling produce for a job, have never really existed. The reality going back to Ancient Greece is instead of ”farmers” we’ve had “gentlemen farmer” landlords who exploited labor for profit, and exploited interchangeable labor, or “peasants.” Agrarian civilization runs off the model of food being produced by exploited peasants for the profit of landlords.

So, for example, in the US our food system was built upon people getting rich off stolen land and slave labor. When slavery ended, we confiscated land from African Americans and gave it for free to wealthy whites to create a system that looked like feudalism. Agriculture has been exempt from minimum wage increases since about 1960, so today, the real agricultural minimum wage is about $3/hour. Whenever we do any “farm work,” we’re competing with the government-imposed wage of $3/hour. No wonder, every big study of farm profitability finds that farm owners make about $3/hour for their labor. And usually they make that while exploiting other workers, and degrading the earth with plastics, poisons, and petroleum inputs. The idea that one can run a profitable business paying a living wage while competing against a large industry using highly exploited labor kept in situations of generational poverty is right out.

Sorry, hustle and hard work won’t overcome these realities.

This is why “Permaculture” isn’t ”hustle” and “hard work.” Permaculture is “protracted thought and design over protracted labor.” (Holmgren and Mollison.)

That means thoughtfully using tools like the Transformative Adventures Cooperative’s THISTLE model to think through your whole financial life. THISTLE was developed as a teaching tool for the ideas in the classic Permaculture Design Certificate Course. This is the real Permaculture, and it’s good for anyone, no matter what their goals.


THISTLE is a design tool, which means we use it by actually taking each letter as a little design exercise. If we don’t actually, you know, DO it, then it doesn’t work. Just reading about it doesn’t get us anywhere.

Let’s use this example of the failed farmer as a Permaculture design exercise using THISTLE.

T-Transition. You need to think about transitioning from where you are now to where you want to go. In some cases, that means keeping one foot in the old economy as you step into the new. I see so many young people quit their day jobs to do some “profitable farming” scheme from some social media celeb, and they’re stepping right into a pit trap. Have a transition plan.

H-Holsitic thinking. Mollison taught you can’t just think about your farming business, you’ve got to think about your finances holistically. If you want a FREE life, you need to design for that, not just hope you can solve problems by making money by selling more vegetables. This means 1, we need to have a really good idea of the kind of life we WANT to live.

A lot of people get into farming because they WANT to connect with nature, have a simpler life, have better food, and a healthy environment for their kids. Then they watch YouTube and think they need to do some “profitable farming” scam, so they cover the entire farm with plastic, which contaminates the soil and food with micro plastics and phthalates, the use a tiller to destroy the soil, and they go to absolute WAR with any organism that’s not part of their system. The nature they wanted to connect with becomes “pests and weeds,” their food is more contaminated than industrial produce, and their “healthy environment” becomes an industrial, noisy toxic landscape.

“Don’t let dogma get in the way of profits!” The Youtube celebs say, selling their programs. But is the $3/hour worth losing everything you wanted in the first place?

I-Investing. “Permaculture is about how you spend your money and where you bank it.” The most important letter. Farming as a job is a myth. It has literally almost never existed on any scale. IT’s a recent invention of the back-to-the-land movement trying to sell a dream. But the reality is there have never been “farmers” the way there have been cobblers and masons. In reality, there have been “gentlemen farmer” land lords who profited off of exploited (or slave) labor, and that exploited labor, “peasants.” To the extent there have been individuals and movements who’ve thrived and grown wealthy off the land, that has ALWAYS been a matter of investing, not selling vegetables for profit. So if you don’t know what your “regenerative investments” are, then you haven’t started the game yet.

There are so many people out there actually making amazing livelihoods off of smart long-term investments. There are dozes and dozens of models of real people doing this. Classic Permaculture developed a whole system of “asset class analysis” to help us make smart investments. I’ve written about transformative investments elsewhere. In Growing FREE, you can read about dozens of examples.

Letter S in THISTLE is for Stacking. Which means we need to think about creating “stacked” income streams, markets, and skill sets for a FREE life. I see poor young farmers who’ve watched too many YouTube videos, so they’re trying to do it all! They’re doing cattle, bees, a market garden, mushrooms, compost, ducks, aquaculture…. That IS NOT a “stacked” set of incomes! That’s a monstrous haphazard pile about to collapse at any moment! Each unrelated income here comes with its own set of costs, upkeep, and labor. Each adds “overhead” to our lives. If we can’t keep up, then they crash.

When you design your life around a haphazard pile of jobs you’re designing your life for disaster. The goal of a stacked income stream is to get multiple incomes from the same amount of labor, not to add lots of new, unrelated “Jobs” to your life. For example, if you do vegetables, you specialize in one that you have great soil for, use it for value-added products, give workshops on that value-added product, sell specialty plants for that one crop, give local workshops on that one plant, write a pamphlet on that one crop, etc. That’s a STACK.

T-Team up! In classic Mollisonian Permaculture, the first step of “doing Permaculture” is a community organizing phase. Nobody—NOBODY—in this business succeeds without community organizing. We call Joel Salatin a “farmer,” but at best, he’s a community organizer (though some would say a poor one.) Joel Salatin doesn’t make money growing food, he makes money connecting people to ideas and building a strong network around those ideas. Now, you don’t have to be an internet scammer and sell online BS classes to make it. But you do need community to support you. The T is take time to think about how you’re going to develop and serve your community. Do that, and they’ll want to support you.

L-Luck. Nobody succeeds in this business without luck. See Joel Salatin again. We’ve got celebs who MAYBE managed to make $12/hour for one season that managed to get famous for that as “rock star farmers.” They survived, and somehow got lucky. Again, don’t count on getting famous. That’s a bad plan. But you do need luck. Luckily, modern science says we can actually design to be lucky. For example, think of that haphazard pile of incomes above. That is designing to be unlucky. And, here’s a big thing with luck: all that time overhead of conventional farming comes with what economists call “opportunity costs.” If you can’t get away from the farm for a weekend because somebody’s got to feed the chickens, then you lose out on opportunities, i.e. luck. So, we need to take time to actually design to have better luck.

E-Enough. All these YouTube celebs say “you’ve got to be able to SCALE!!!!!” Scale is KING!!! Scale is a boondoggle waiting to happen. In Ag careers it pretty much means exploiting labor. To experience real wealth, you have to know what is enough for you.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Making this stuff work in the real world takes some thoughtfulness. That is “Permaculture.” It takes sitting down and working through how you’re going to actually make it work while knowing most people fail. If you’re not willing to do that, then I’m sorry to say the result will be predictable. But don’t blame that on “permaculture.”

One response to “Designing Land-Based Livelihoods that Actually Work with THISTLE”

  1. […] our experience, making that work takes a different set of strategies than conventional businesses and personal finance in a society built around exploitation and […]


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