#5, Vegetable Farming—One of the 5 Worst Ways to Fund Your Permaculture or Homesteading Dreams

Well, there’s a good reason Permaculture founder Bill Mollison often said “the last thing any of us Permaculturists should be doing is any kind of farming!”

Having grown up farming, spending most of my conscious 45 years around it, and working full time in the field over the last 20 years, I can say it almost never leads to real economic freedom. More often than not, when people count on farming to fund their dreams, they end in failure.

This might be surprising, because it’s probably the first thing people think of when they think of Permaculture or “living off the land.”

And the truth is, as I often say, a home vegetable garden can be an extremely valuable thing for the family economy. A good dialed in home vegetable garden can create $50-100/hour of value, or even higher in some cases.

On top of that, from what our parents tell us, many people would think that livelihoods as musicians, artists, potters, sculptors, or actors would certainly be more difficult than being a farmer! Meanwhile, there’s a whole industry devoted to selling the dream of going off grid and supporting a homestead lifestyle with small scale farming. 

But looking at the economic data, we can get a better idea of the reality, and it can help us understand some basic concepts for creating a truly FREE life. 

The fact is, that vegetable gardening has long been used to understand and demonstrate a fundamental idea of economics, the law of diminishing returns. A small garden can generate a huge value! But research shows it rapidly loses value as the scale, land area, and number of people involved goes up. And so farm businesses struggle to make money.

For example, in the US, there are about 2.5 million visual artists in the workforce, and the average income according to Ziprecruiter is $49,000. Meanwhile, in the US there are only about 120,000 people employed in the vegetable farming industry, many working as paid help. University research has suggested that many vegetable farmers earn as little as $3/hour, if they even profit. 

And while the risk is high for both artists and farmers, the risk/reward economics of farming appears to be broken. Art may be risky, but I personally know artists who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year simply making and selling art. Even a relatively humble artist may make a single piece that sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And on the high end, there are famous artists who generate serious wealth. Meanwhile, artists have a lot of freedom to experiment and seek opportunities. With such rewards, it makes good sense that we have a whole economy of educators training young artists willing to make that risk. 

Traditionally, high risk comes with higher pay to compensate. But farming is one of the riskiest professions, having abnormally high rates of bankruptcy, injury, and health issues, and farmers are at the risk of weather, pest, or disease problems that can lead to complete crop loss for the year. And most small farming operations are not even insurable. And to compensate for the high risk, farmers get exceptionally low wages. And even on the high end for the most successful farmers, the most celebrated paragons in the field able to charge exorbitant prices, according to their own numbers, tend to make little more than $15-20K/year, working long, hard hours. That doesn’t count bad years or crop failures. 

Worse, with all this economic difficulty, there’s huge pressure to “race to the bottom” in terms of care for the land. Many people start farming to heal the earth and connect with nature, then end up feeling forced into going to war with nature with plastics, poisons, and petroleum products, just to pay the bills. 

Does all this mean we should give up on creating a regenerative agriculture? 

Of course not! But if we want it to work, we need to start being realistic about the economics and challenges involved. And as we say in Growing FREE, we need to be smart and creative about redesigning the system so it actually works. Being realistic, we may need to design other parts of our lives to support regenerative agriculture activities, rather than thinking farming will pay the bills for our off-grid life.

One response to “#5, Vegetable Farming—One of the 5 Worst Ways to Fund Your Permaculture or Homesteading Dreams”

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