Off the Contour #6 – ‘A Case Study in Permaculture Design Business Development’

Off the Contour #6 – ‘A Case Study in Permaculture Design Business Development’

A Case Study in Permaculture Design Business Development

By Darren J. Doherty, Regrarians Ltd,

Published by EcoHabitar Magazine, Spain, 2007

Back in 2000 Bill Mollison asked me to produce a book that sequentially outlined the process of developing a Permaculture Design Project that he would publish with Tagari Publications. To date this has not happened, with my primary focus remaining in continuing to operate my Permaculture Design, Development & Training business. Bill asked me to do this because he observed that I had developed a straight forward and transferable process in client relations, design creation, and the development and management of projects, a process that allowed us to be viable as a business and provide by and large sustainable outcomes – a process that we call “Our Work’s Pattern”. Furthermore we had embraced the use of computer-aided design and management systems to manage our many projects. We are still refining our process and this will forever continue. We have had the “bumps in the road” that all businesses face from time to time, and getting through these times have proven to be the most difficult operational issue over the last 14 years. This is all part of a bigger story and discussion, the relatively compressed analysis of which is as follows: perhaps a precursor to that book that Bill asked me to publish what is now way back when….

One of the great challenges open to the Permaculture movement has been in the sustainable development of professional Permaculture Design businesses. This perhaps stems from a lack of additional opportunities for mentoring and further training in this area, lack of quality examples of successful models, and lack of institutional regard therefore for the movement. The very grass-roots or “bottom up” nature of Permaculture encourages people to “do it yourself” and embrace some level of self-reliance whilst diluting the emphasis for Permaculturalists to “jump” into establishing themselves as a professional designer/developer or to a lesser extent as an educator.

We are now entering into a time where an increasing proportion of the latest generation of Permaculture graduates are becoming more and more interested in adopting Permaculture as a profession. This is clearly in response to the ever increasing viability and profile of the Permaculture concept which appears to be attracting more career oriented professionals to the movement, who are identifying an open market for Permaculture services & goods. That many of these people have previous tertiary qualifications in aligned fields only enhances their prospects. The challenge now lies for the movement to foster the professional development of these people; to thereby embrace the longstanding Permaculture ethic of “Cooperation not Competition” and facilitate their accelerated succession as designers.

Efforts such as Permaculture International Limited’s Accredited Permaculture Training (APT™) here in Australia and the GAIA University’s undergraduate and post-graduate programs are leading the way in delivering the level of training required to accelerate the professional development process. The Permaculture Institute (TPI Australia) has also augmented a Teacher Registration process for its Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC) which has also provided some means of regulating the delivery of PDC’s where TPI PDC certificates are provided. Many PDC’s across the globe are now being operated by very experienced trainer/practitioners often on well developed Permaculture sites. All of these measures are only enhancing the prospects for the qualitative and quantitative development of a new generation of Permaculture professionals.

The application of digital planning and mapping software and tools in Permaculture Design has to date not been prominent. A few designers across the developed world are starting to develop a range of techniques that utilize these technologies to varying degrees. In the other related disciplines the adoption of computer-aided design and management systems has proved quite revolutionary to become design industry standard practice. The advent of Google Earth has seen the burgeoning interest of many Permaculturalists in digital planning applications, though many are still limited in their ability to use this great digital planning information to extents beyond mere map viewing.

Since 1996 I have been using a combination of Spreadsheet (Microsoft® Excel), Geographic Information Systems (GIS – MapInfo Professional™) and Computer Aided Design (CAD – Autodesk® AutoCAD®) software in the development of Permaculture designs for our clients and demonstrating their manifold applications to PDC students and others. This has led to enormous gains in not only the quality of the designs developed by our business, but also in reducing the time required to produce these designs and the all-important quantification of the elements of the design: the Bill of Quantities.

In my pre-digital (1993-1996) Permaculture Design days I did all of designs by hand, learning as I went, my self-education as a draughtsman/cartographer developed by looking at the work of engineers, architects and other design professionals we worked with: a journey a “map mimicry” if you like. The same principle of ongoing self-education also extended to my development of the broad range of disciplines one needs to equip oneself with in becoming a Permaculture Design professional. Some base and ongoing understanding of the principles of Engineering, Architecture, Horticulture, Animal/Silvopastoral systems, Land Capability, Hydrology, Soils, and Business Management etc. is key to this development. A lot of reading, additional courses and vocational training, and good old experiential observation has been crucial in increasing my abilities as a designer.

It seems natural for any Permaculture enterprise to apply the Principles of Permaculture to your business operations model. “Not Putting All of Our Eggs in One Basket”…in our case we bought a Yeomans Keyline Plow to provide additional income when design work was slow. This also enabled us to develop our clients properties, providing income and valuable feedback. “Using Patterns from Details”…Broadscale planning and the development of “Our Works Pattern”. “Accelerating Succession”…in property development and in training others to accelerate our experience and that of others. There are so many other examples of how we have used the Permaculture Ethics & Principles in our operations.

In 1993 we enrolled into the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS). This 6 week full-time Australian Federal Government program fostered the development of business management skills and culminated in the development of a detailed Business Plan for new enterprises. Successful completion of this program was achieved by submitting the drafts of the Business Plan to a “sounding board” made up of successful local business people, who then “sifted” through the plan, admonishing any fantasies and providing sound, experienced advice and mentoring one needs to operate a successful small business.

Following completion we were then provided with a fortnightly payment equivalent to the unemployment benefit. Any earnings of the business in the full year of support were therefore able to be channeled back into the business, a great help in the establishment phase. Furthermore we were required to submit all of our accounts monthly to the NEIS reviewers and then complete a 6 month and 12 month review with the (dreaded to some) Sounding Board. If you didn’t come up to scratch then the support was removed. We were fortunate, though with a lot of hard work, to get through.

To my knowledge NEIS still operates in Australia, and it is likely that similar government programs are available in other developed countries. Clearly making the most of such programs is a real fillip in the sustainable and successful establishment of your professional Permaculture business.

The pragmatic development of a detailed Business Plan clearly outlines what is practically possible in the operating of any enterprise: defining your market, cashflow, opportunities and threats, how much to charge, etc. Our original, fairly expansive Business Plan (Permaculture Consultancy/Education/Establishment Service, Retail Nursery & Market Garden) was changed after about 6 months of our business establishment. We found that we were overwhelmed by the market for our Permaculture Consultancy/Establishment services, and the lower margin nursery & market garden services were soon dropped from our operational profile.

Since 1993 we continued to refine our Business Plan to where we dropped Education for some 7 years, concentrating on Broadacre system design, establishment and management. The decision to drop education up until 2000 was based upon our belief that we needed to understand a lot more about Permaculture systems before we felt it appropriate to accept payment for the training of others. This is a departure from the common advice given by the likes of Bill Mollison and others, that following a PDC, one should immediately start consulting and teaching Permaculture, practices that are largely out of the realms of capacity or current ability of most who complete a PDC. Confidence is a large factor, as is the desire to operate a small business with all of its inherent risks by comparison with somewhat lower risk paid employment. Certainly there have been times when I wished I had a different job, that I didn’t operate a business etc. This is not uncommon thinking for most folk in small business – luckily one quickly passes over these thoughts and gets back with the game.

Ironically it was Bill himself who invited me to teach a couple of PDC’s with him in Tasmania in 2000, saying “…its about time you did some teaching…” This proved a bit of a watershed moment as I now felt experienced enough as a designer to be confident as a teacher – especially where I concentrated on my strengths in Concepts & Themes in Design, Methods of Design, Soils, Water, Earthworks, and Trees. Up until 2006 these subjects were my mainstay in teaching PDC’s, before I started facilitating the whole course. Certainly working with the likes of David Holmgren & Su Dennett, Janet Millington & Hugh Gravestein (my original 1993 PDC teacher) among many others has only broadened my experience and provided an enormous body of material to draw upon.

The capacity of many of these people for sharing of information is a real highlight of working in the Permaculture industry, and is an ethic I hope will remain as our industry develops more and more professionals. It is my firm belief that we don’t have time for proprietary behavior in Permaculture, and that again we all embrace the ethic of “Cooperation not Competition”. Earth system and societal degradation is clearly a growing industry that demands open dissemination not cloistered individualism.

Since 2000 I have taught in Australia, Viet Nam, New Zealand, Argentina & the USA on over 20 PDC’s and delivered many short, technical workshops. For 2007 our business plan has shifted to concentrating more on Education, as after 14 years of developing over 1000 properties I have developed the broad knowledge base required for such a focus. Certainly gaining market acceptance and an industry profile is key to this: otherwise it is much more difficult to get enough participants to make a course viable, and we certainly not contemplate undertaking our 2007 World Teaching & Consulting Tour without this background.

One of the ubiquitous catch cries, originating with Bill Mollison, and often repeated on PDC’s, has been “…the map is not the territory…” That is to say that a map does not graphically record every physical or energetic attribute one would require for the development of a Permaculture Design. That may be so, but then we risk “paralysis by analysis” by attempting to record every nuance a landscape affords the analyst. Nonetheless the scale and diversity of cartographic technology and data that exists today pushes the limits of this statement. GIS and CAD software allows the placement of literally thousands of layers of data, in much the same way as the old clear acetate layers on a aerial photo basemap works. Only with this software you can quickly and easily click off or on these layers.

There is a range of baseline cartographic data that a rank and file Permaculture Design will require and that include: Topographic Contours, Soil Types/Geology, Land Capability, Sector Analysis (Wild Energies & Flows), Hydrology/Watershed/Catchment, Utilities & Services, Buildings/Infrastructure/Access. These can be easily assessed using aerial/satellite imagery, government maps, surveyor data, site analysis & GPS reconnaissance. This base of data is usually all one needs to construct the physical layout of a property.

The technology and software available today is a relatively low investment as a start up cost. Importantly training in the development of such plans is relatively quick and easy. We have delivered quite a few 1&2 day workshops explaining the techniques involved and the applications of such technologies. We have then supplied ongoing electronic support for those attending our workshops, though the principles are so simple that this is a very small effort on our behalf.

The opportunities, training, technology and support mechanisms have never been better for developing a Permaculture Design business. The market is every expanding at an overwhelming rate. There are extremely highly skilled people within the movement and this increases daily with the expanding educational opportunities available. So the conditions are good for getting started. Certainly some amount of entrepreneurial zeal, business acumen, hard work and the creation and development of opportunities is certainly required to make a sustainable business. Applying the Mollisonian or Holmgrenian Permaculture Principles is a lateral approach that makes such an enterprise a Permaculture, and only strengthens the likelihood of success. The greatest reason of all supporting the leap is that our planet needs as much help as it can – a need that will not diminish for many lifetimes…

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