Driving back from a meeting four years ago, Permaculture Association CEO Andy Goldring asked Chris: 'have you ever thought about permaculture as a sector of the economy?'. The resulting conversation raised interesting questions, like how many people in the UK make their living from permaculture, and what are they doing? What could the Permaculture Association do to support existing and new permaculture businesses? We realised that no-one had really approached these questions. Two years on, Chris was introduced to the perfect partner to help find some answers, Professor Audley Genus of Kingston University, and we secured a research grant from the Institute of Small Business and Enterprise (ISBE). Over the last eighteen months, Audley and Chris have worked with Audley’s colleague Dr Marfuga Iskandarova to research permaculture enterprises in the UK. We mapped and surveyed them and interviewed some of the founders.
The figure below summarises what we did in the project. The results of the project are currently being written up in academic publications. More information about what we found, case studies of the people we interviewed who make a living from permaculture, and a guide to starting a permaculture-inspired business can be found at: http://permaculture-enterprise.org/
The remainder of this article gives you a flavour of the inspiring people and stories we came across in the study. Some of the common themes across these cases concern the role that permaculture plays in their businesses and making a living more generally, and difficulties that need to be overcome such as obtaining funding, creating a product or service and finding customers.
What we did on the permaculture enterprise study
The project involved interviews with the owners of permaculture-inspired enterprises, many of whom are graduates of the Permaculture Design Certificate or Diploma. Interviews were conducted with permaculturalists based in locations across the UK, from the North West of Scotland to Cornwall and from Cumbria to Kent. The range of business types was huge – certainly not only in food growing or teaching permaculture. For all of the research team, this was the most exciting part of the research. We met some amazing people and learned about some truly inspiring ways to make a living from permaculture. We'd like to introduce a few of them.
Val Grainger lives in Cornwall with her family, chickens and dogs. Previously, Val ran the award winning wool insulation business The Woolly Shepherd. Today she runs an eco B&B in shepherd’s huts, Berry Lane Cottage, and a new venture, It’s Baaath Time goat's milk soaps. She also offers permaculture project management consultancy, courses and volunteering opportunities. Val sees permaculture as a pragmatic approach that ‘sums up common sense’, echoing the lifestyle and farming practices she experienced as a child. Val established her businesses on the principles of earth care, fair trade to/with local producers and local people, fair share, people care and non-exploitation.
To sum up Val’s motivation in her own words: ‘the whole idea is to be sustainable, not to make vast quantities of money. My main motive is to pay the bills, to eat and keep a roof above our heads and not to be in debt [and] have a debt free business’.
There was no specific point in her life which she could point to which led to this point of view; it seems to have been her thinking about life since she was very young.
It hasn’t been plain sailing for her business. Getting funding is an obvious hurdle. As Val says: “Yes they are essential [financial resources]. It’s almost impossible to get business start-up money for small businesses, almost impossible. If you go to a bank and say ‘I’ve got an idea. I want to do this. Nobody else has ever done it before and it’s a permaculture based business and it’s environmentally friendly’, they just go ‘Whoa, go away’. If you went and said ‘I’ve got a software company and I want to develop the latest PS4 game’ they’d be fine but because it’s something that’s totally out of their imagination, getting start-up finance is very difficult. The way we did it to get [funding for] our machinery because we needed probably about £20,000 of working machinery to start with, was to work as group and that’s how we were able to access the funding.”
Another area of difficulty was intellectual property rights, which Val’s company now owns for a type of sustainable sound insulation material. Val admits that: “I didn’t realise how important [that was]…until the local business association sat me down and said ‘don’t forget the business, the Woolly Shepherd, the business is mostly in your head’ and I was sort of ‘Really?’ and they said ‘Yes because it’s what you decide and how you do things that makes it what it is’.”
Darren Woods set up IT consultancy enCircle with business partner Tom in 2002, from a Loughborough bedroom. When Darren found permaculture two years later, he realised that the elements, functions and design systems were directly applicable to IT projects. enCircle's latest project has been for the Ministry of Justice, supporting female, black and state school educated legal professionals on their journey to become judges. After 14 years with enCircle, Darren has launched a pub which won Nottinghamshire Village Pub of the Year 2015 (another permaculture inspired enterprise!), and moved onto a canal boat.
Darren’s motivation to start up the business stemmed from a feeling that IT businesses over-charged the public sector and a desire to change that. One of the big difficulties the business faced in the first couple of years was getting big contracts, though the capital costs were low. In Darren’s words: “actually demonstrating [the process management software] to customers has proved very difficult…they just couldn’t get their heads round how they could actually use it. It was a huge leap to understanding what a bit of software like that can do for you. And we didn’t ever have time to educate any of our customers, so we were stuck in that kind of no man’s land of not having an educated customer and trying to go to them and sell them something they didn’t understand.”
They were able to overcome this problem through a combination of serendipity and recognition of what turned out to be great opportunity for the company. As Darren says: “We kind of realised we were going wrong after about a year, nobody really biting, and nobody really getting it. And that’s when I suddenly decided right we’re going to actually make this do something that people need doing well and sell that. So we looked at opportunities that were out there in terms of tenders. And this tender came out for an activity sampling solution from the police. I saw the name on the tender document, it was actually this manager I’d worked with in Europe, so I sent him an email saying, are you tendering for this? I’ve got just the solution for you. So then they sent all the requirements over. We configured the software platform to do what they needed it to do, and then demonstrated that to them. It sounds obvious! Yeah then we won the tender, we were doing activity sampling for the police, and we sold it to half a dozen forces over the next few years, allowing me to stop contracting and really focus full time on building up Encircle. Yeah and then we started doing more for different types of processes for people and packaging that up as a product and selling that as a service.”
Unfortunately it still proved very difficult to get other public sector work. In Darren’s view: “if you’ve not been trading for more than three years they [the government] don’t generally look at you. [But] we’ve seen huge growth in the last couple of years…because of this G Cloud framework which is a tender designed to allow government to buy IT within 48 hours from a catalogue of services… I think there’s been over £1 billion spent on this framework now. And not all of it, but 60 odd percent of it is going to SMEs.”
Lusi Alderslowe lives in Galloway, Scotland. Lusi teaches the Permaculture Design Certificate in Glasgow and is a tutor on the Diploma in Applied Permaculture, but is focusing more and more on work with children, inspired by the arrival of her own.
She is co-founder of Fun Outdoors, an after school project, and organises many family events like the Family Fun Permaculture Adventure. She is coordinating the EU funded Children in Permaculture project, which partly grew out of Lusi’s volunteering work.
Having become a mother Lusi felt she needed to find work which would fit around the time that she had available as well as doing something ‘that felt important and meaningful to me’. That was her main motivation.
She says that “I started teaching Permaculture because I was like ‘Hey, someone should be teaching this stuff [in Glasgow]’. I was thinking about teaching Human Ecology but it would pretty much be the same as the design course that I had just experienced, so I thought well actually maybe someone should be teaching this. That was my feeling, and I was like ‘Who’s going to do it?’. I couldn’t see anyone so I decided I’d do it. I suppose one could say that was spotting a gap in the market.”
Lusi has adapted her work to her family circumstances. For example as her children have got older she has developed multiple activities and income sources, some of which have focused on educating children about permaculture at a school with which she has developed a working relationship. So now she’s a diploma tutor teaching adults, as well as teaching school children and working for the Children in Permaculture project.
We hope that readers considering starting up a permaculture-inspired business or trying to earn a living from multiple activities find these personal stories inspiring. Visit http://permaculture-enterprise.org/ to find out more.
Audley Genus, Kingston University
Marfuga Iskandarova, Kingston University
Chris Warburton Brown, Research Coordinator, The Permaculture Association