Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Avoiding the Most Common Food Forest Mistakes

Everyone loves the IDEA of a garden, but once you get to the nitty gritty, things get more complicated. The truth is, most people don't keep up their gardens, and instead of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, they end up harvesting weeds, frustration and guilt! Most community gardens fail in just a few years, and instead of fostering community and cooperation, they often lead to arguments, crime and fist fights!
Forest Gardens are no different.
The truth is, while forest gardening CAN be the easiest, most productive and most beautiful form of gardening, most forest garden and Permaculture projects I've seen come to the same bad end. In fact, poorly designed forest gardens can perform worse than regular gardens! For example, the paper A Critical Review of Permaculture documents how a dozen such projects were started in the Urbana Illinois area between 2001 and 2003, and after a decade, none of them remained in their original form! 
Here in my city, Kalamazoo, there have already been a few high-profile forest garden projects that have failed and been completely removed. In one case, a forest garden that cost over $10k and used over 50 volunteers  was tilled and removed in just a few years after planting! In another, an unhappy forest gardener has been looking for someone to take over the project, because it's just "too much work!"
In my talks with forest gardeners and participation in forest gardening communities, there are a number of reoccurring major complaints that keep coming up over and over again. (By the way, most of these are actual quotes:)
"There aren't enough volunteers to do all the work!" 
"The weeds completely took over everywhere!" 
"Everyone hates it and thinks it looks like a mess, especially the neighbors!"
"I spent thousands of dollars and 5 years later all I have is a bunch of bug-filled, rotten fruit!"
"All my apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, etc.  are filled with bugs! I don't even pick them!"
"My yard is filled with angry ground wasps from all the buggy fruit laying around!" 
"The paths are impossible to maintain so the whole thing looks like a weedy mess!"
"It's too much work!" 
"Most of my trees and bushes get destroyed by wildlife!" 
Broadly speaking, all of these complaints boil down to the same mistake: poor planning! In Permaculture, these are called "TYPE 1" errors, which is where a project is literally designed to fail.
Being more specific, all of these complaints boil down to 4 big errors:
1.  Poor species slection - planted the wrong species for the project's needs and goals. 
2. Planned for too much work, when not enough work was available. 
3. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Nobody thought of aesthetics and now the neighbors and city staff hate you.
4.  Poor (or negative)  Return on Investment, the food forest is just too expensive,  usually because nobody did the math during planning. 
So remember, the best way to start a forest garden is to do your research nd thorough planning up front! Talk to people who know what they're doing and have experience forest gardening in your area.  
And if you're looking to start forest gardening in the Great Lakes region, check out our Community Supported Forest Gardening memberships. We're sure it's the easiest way to get started, and the cheapest way to start a collection of high-value forest gardening plants. You get a complete set of forest gardening plants, a site consultation with one of our Permaculture Designers, and a complete course that takes you through an entire season of installation and maintaining a forest garden. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

SPIN Permaculture?

Make $50,000 on half an acre doing Small Plot INtensive farming?

That's the promise of SPIN farming, a microfarming business plan that's become very popular in an economy that increasingly fails to provide good jobs, and a culture that's failing to feed us good food and a healthy, happy lifestyle. And so many hope that SPIN farming may provide the opportunity to make a decent income, reconnect with nature, and grow healthy food, without having to relocate to the country. But is it too good to be true? 

If you're reading this and you SPIN, are you farming successfully? How much are you making? 

More importantly, is it Permaculture? Is it even sustainable? 

SPIN farming is not a type of growing system, it is a business model that's available for around $80, which also includes membership in a community of aspiring SPIN farmers. It's a model especially adapted to small urban properties, and can even be used on multiple properties around town, like a de-centralized farm. (There are now many resources that teach the same idea, including many Permaculture sources.) While the business plan is quite expensive, you can learn much of the material by reading various reviews and first-person accounts around the web, to decide if SPIN is right for you before purchasing the plan. 

But as to whether or not SPIN delivers on its promise, you first have to read the fine print. 

First of all, the SPIN model is to GROSS $50,000 on half an acre, not net. Which means your income will be greatly dependent on how much you're paying for supplies and - most importantly - labor. Which is why, in the SPIN model, the farmer is also the accountant, marketer, planner, business manager, volunteer organizer, etc. The idea is to rely on as much free and trade labor as possible. 

Another piece of fine print is this: you can't do it on your own. 1/2 an acre, plus all the business, is generally too much for one person to do for long. The SPIN plan assumes help from at least one other person, which quickly means a best-case scenario of $25,000/person for an adult couple, who are able to source all their equipment and materials needs (LOTS of compost) for free.

This is actually pretty consistent with the historic normal for a small holdings and family homesteads, which I've written about before here. One family can farm about a half an acre intensively. After that, it's just a matter of using land less efficiently, using livestock, or exploiting labor in one way or another. Which is why the SPIN benchmarks are at $50k for a half an acre, but only $54- 60k for a full acre. The system quicky reaches diminishing marginal returns, as more money either has to go into labor, or the work just can't get done. 

A final bit of fine print is that it took the plan creators 3 years to get to a level of $50k GROSS. Whether or not that income became sustainable for them is not really discussed. But what is clear, is that with SPIN, there is a top limit on what is likely achievable, and it's probably around $50K Gross. 

But, looking around at various forums and testamonials on SPIN farming, a reasonable expectation is that after 3 years, 2 farmers working a SPIN model on a 9-month season (with business and marketing in the off season) would be making 10-15K a piece, with $20k as an exceptional outlier. Luckily for us, there are very many SPIN farmers writing about their experiences, so we can get a good idea of what to realistically expect.

Looking a little deeper, I see many stories of SPIN farmers having catastrophic crop losses, which makes sense for a growing system that's very hard on soil and uses very close plantings without space "wasted" for support plants. Since all fertility comes from off-site, SPIN farmers also open themselves to the risks of contaminated compost, which can immediately end any farming business.  

So, does SPIN deliver on its promises? I'd say "yes," but only if you read the fine print! And expect to work HARD for each and every penny. I suspect that many SPIN farmers would make an hourly rate no better than the $3/hour made by many farmers, as documented by University Extension research. 

Now, is SPIN Permaculture? 

The main premise of Permaculture is to "catch and store energy" of our labor into perennial systems, and communities that will help us slowly grow wealthier with less labor and input. It's getting the MOST back, out of the least work, and getting bigger returns over time. 

The point of Permaculture is that it pays dividends

Since SPIN is entirely based on doing the same annual work each year for (hopefully) the same return, without ever accumulating value, it is not Permaculture. 

And while Permaculture comes with a "built-in retirement plan" as the ecosystem naturally gains value and stability, a SPIN farmer will be doing the same exact thing at 70 as they were at 20, unless they somehow managed to save a large percentage of their income. 

(A Permaculture system with wildlife habitat, perennial plants, and off-season harvests.)

SPIN does not intend to increase wildlife habitat or ecosystem function, or to catch and filter water or other resources, which are other major goals of Permaculture. It would be difficult to do SPIN, without considerable adaptation, without tilling each year, which is both bad for soil and uses a lot of oil. In fact, the amount of oil/unit of food is higher with this type of production than in large commercial agriculture. Soil fertility comes from off-site, making it almost impossible to trace whether the farming is actually depleting soil elsewhere. So, SPIN is not sustainable, even if its adherents are trying their best to replenish the soil carbon and fertility they're mining. Those who call SPIN "sustainable farming" are using a very misleading definition of the word "sustainable." 

One final caveat that may be important to Permaculturists is this: "the farmer eats last." The few SPIN farmers I've spoken too, like many traditional farmers who make market gardening their main focus, compain that the best of their crops go to the market, not to their families. Unlike Permaculture, which prioritizes growing the healthiest food in "zone 1" for our families, a SPIN farmer will be putting most of their time into market crops, and the best will go to the customers. 

But SPIN could be part of a Permaculture system and plan, with good design. It could be part of the early succession of a system as perennials were maturing. It could be integrated with other social concepts, and use Permaculture techniques to lower costs, reduce labor and provide fertility on site. Since many perennial crops are far more profitable per square foot, Permaculture could help make SPIN more profitable, breaking through that $20k barrier, and certainly to increase that hourly wage. 

For gardeners with some experience, there are better resources with more information, for far less money. I especially recommend those offered by Grow BioIntensive. But for absolute new farmers digging the soil for the first time, the SPIN plan could be a way to get started towards Permaculture. It might be a good way to gain confidence and learn your market while making some income - like a paid internship you hire yourself for. But once a new grower found her "farm legs," I wouldn't suggest staying on the SPIN path for long. And even for the beginner, there may be better plans out there worth considering.