I want to write about the economics of teaching permaculture and how it fits into the larger goal of “living in harmony with nature,” which is what permaculture is all about. In the process I’ll probably ramble a bit about economic theory, but I’ll also share specific figures from my 5 years of teaching experience. As a teacher who wants to see permaculture grow, I think it is important to be open about how and why we teach courses.
I’ve been interested in economics as a lense through which to view human interactions with the planet for a long time - and I’ve zigzagged all over the political spectrum. In 7th grade I got seduced by Ayn Rand libertarianism, in high school I rejected capitalism and started reading the Monthly Review, and in college I “saw the light” in liberal economics and the technocratic effort to utilize capitalism for its benefits (efficient allocation of resources) while regulating its negative externalities (pollution, income inequality, etc.). Then, in my mid-twenties, like a lot of millennials, I got jazzed on the idea of socially-responsible entrepreneurship and the triple bottom line (we can have our money and feel good about it too!).
In the past few years, as I’ve gotten married, racked up medical debt, bought land, and had a baby, my main focus has shifted to building economic stability for my family. I’ve been forced to accept, for better and for worse, our current economic context and figure out how to create resiliency within it. That means I get stoked about things like health insurance and matching retirement funds instead of the ideas of Keynes and Hayek. Don’t get me wrong, I am still interested in designing a path towards a better system, it’s just that my priorities have shifted - call me a realist with big dreams. Enter permaculture design and the side hustle of teaching…
I got into permaculture to learn how to design thriving human habitats that increase the health of the planet. At age 25, a few years out of college, I spent $1,200 to get my Permaculture Design Certificate. Compared to the cost of my undergraduate degree it was a small educational investment, although it was about half of my savings at the time. That investment launched my permaculture journey and a few years later I found myself as a teaching apprentice. At that point the only motivation to teach was Bill Mollison’s directive of “each one, teach one” - to spread the gospel that I thought could save the world. Fast forward another few years and I now co-own a permaculture education business along with Emilie Tweardy and Ryan Blosser. The teaching impetus is still the same, but now I have to make a certain amount per course to pay the business expenses and to justify spending time doing the work instead of being at home with the family. Here is a little breakdown of the finances for the average SPI PDC, to put things into context:
Cost Per Student: $1000
# of Students: 15
Course Revenue: $15,000
Administration overhead ((taxes, licensing, insurance, accounting) - $2,250
Guest Teacher Fees: $2,500
Teacher Apprentice Fee: $200
Supplies and Food: $500
Space Rental: Donated by SPI Teaching Team
Course Coordinator Fee - 18% revenue: $2,700
Total Expenses: $8,150
Lead Teacher Hours:
Prep Hours: 50
Teaching Hours: 90
Course Profit: $6,850
Take-Home Profit Per Lead Teacher: $2,283
Average Hourly Wage Per Lead Teacher (before taxes) = $16.28
As you can see, I make about $2,000 per course once you factor in income and self-employment taxes, and each course is a 4-weekend commitment, plus planning time. If we teach 2 courses in a year that is about $4,000 in supplemental income for my family - not an insignificant amount but also not exactly a game changer. This works for us right now, but I know that if I were to make much less I couldn’t justify it, even though I love doing it.
So there it is, our current money-based financial teaching model. Obviously, there are pros and cons to this model. What I like about it is that the monetary model incentivizes teachers to work hard, be accountable and professional, and provide a good product. It also provides clear feedback in the form of enrollment numbers - if we aren’t serving our customers we will find out quickly. Incentivizing people to work hard is one of the biggest benefits of the market mechanism from my experience, especially in team projects - have you ever worked with a group of unpaid volunteers and tried to get action items completed thoroughly and on time?
There are also some things I don’t like about our model, the biggest one being inaccessibility. Afterall, only a certain percentage of people are in a position where they can spend $1,000 and 4 weekends on a class. The other drawback to the monetary model is that it can be tempting for a teacher to pump out courses just to make cash. I never want to get so wrapped up in the lucrativeness of teaching that I stop doing the actual work of permaculture - developing my farm and building my community in harmony with nature.
There are certainly other models for teaching out there and we have and will continue to explore them. We could teach informal free courses and avoid all of the costs of licensing, taxes, accounting, etc. We could go digital like Geoff Lawton, drastically decreasing our overhead and tuition while reaching more students. Both options would decrease the quality of our courses in different ways. We could also start taking other forms of capital as payment for our courses (see Ryan’s blog series on Time Banks and the 8 Forms of Capital). We’ve tried scholarships and a sliding-scale, but we’ve found that neither is an effective way of making the course accessible to students in true financial need. It’s so difficult to come up with a way to measure need that we’ve found no significant difference in socioeconomic position between our students who take advantage of the tuition discounts and those who don’t. So, for now, we’ve settled for an early bird discount and the option of a tuition payment plan as ways of helping those with limited financial resources.
Our current model isn’t perfect, but it is working as a way to spread the powerful and much-needed idea of permaculture. And that’s the key for me: it has to work, or else we’re not doing anyone any good. So, for now, we utilize this tool called money while keeping our greater goals in mind, moving forward, and always being open to feedback and change.
My colleague Ryan asked me to write a blog about swales - actually, he asked me to write a blog about “why swales aren’t necessary and why we should all stop doing them except in clear cases where the design calls for it based on functional need.” Oh, and by the way, Ryan has a half-acre of ridiculous hand dug swales in his food forest - and me, I’ve left a trail of annoying swales over every project I’ve worked on….so here it goes!
My basic contention is that in the Mid-Atlantic climate swales are very rarely necessary, especially given how drastic, costly, and permanent they are. From a design perspective, we should be asking ourselves, “What is the problem or opportunity I am trying to address and what is the most appropriate and efficient way to address it?” We should not be asking ourselves, “Where should I put the swales?!” Unfortunately, that’s still a question I hear all the time, including in my own head.
It’s actually really weird that we are all so obsessed with swales when you think about it. After all, they are basically giant, expensive scars on the earth that make mowing a real pain in the ass. Maybe it’s Geoff Lawton’s fault for pumping us all with heady before and after images of lush, fruit-filled swales in the Australian tropics, all with a charismatic twinkle in his eye. Whatever the reason, the idea of swales has attached itself to the zeitgeist of permaculture like a bunch of burdock burs, planting itself around the world in the process.
So back to design…The main function of a swale is to slow down water sheeting across the landscape and infiltrate it into the soil, making it available to plants when otherwise it would be lost. So when might we want to utilize that function in design? The most common use of swales is in an orchard setting. Here’s the problem - most temperate climate fruit-trees (apples, peaches, cherries) are adapted to semi-arid regions and do not actually require that much water. The 3 inches per month average that we get in the Mid-Atlantic is plenty for most fruit trees once they’re established. What’s more, for some trees like apples, too much water can make them too vigorous, leading to an abundance of vegetative growth at the expense of fruit.
There is one big benefit to swales for fruit trees - they provide a raised-bed that will drain and dry out after heavy rain (fruit trees like to be inundated with water periodically but not stay wet). So if your soil doesn’t drain you could theoretically dig some swales and plant on the berms to achieve better drainage. The problem here is you are not actually solving the underlying problem - you still have that compaction layer below your swales. A cheaper and more effective intervention might be ripping your landscape with a sub-soiler or Yeoman’s Plow on a keyline pattern to simultaneously de-compact, redistribute water, and build soil. So swales in a Mid-Atlantic orchard? Probably not. The reason Geoff Lawton uses them in Australia is because he is growing water-hungry plants in an arid environment that gets huge sporadic rainstorms. When he gets rain he wants to capture every bit of it for his parched system.
So when might swales be appropriate in the Mid-Atlantic? One instance might be in a no-till, non-irrigated vegetable garden. Veggies need a lot of water, and when designed right and combined with deep mulch this system could enable you to grow veggies without any supplemental irrigation. Michael Judd has utilized these types of swales beautifully in his work at Ecologia Design. Another example might be a steep, compacted site with heavy clay soil where subsoiling is inaccessible or impractical. Alternately, I sometimes use swales on a 1% grade to slowly move water off of my site, for example, to get it away from the foundation of a house. Lastly, swales might help for growing water-loving plants like Paw Paws, especially if you can get multiple functions out of them (see Emilie’s Blog “Stacking Functions Part 1 - Paw Paw Perfection”).
When Ryan asked me to write this blog he suggested 500 words or less. But now that I’ve written well over 500 words, I’ve realized the subject is actually a bit complicated. I guess that’s because swales, just like good design, are all about your goals, your context, and the unique and evolving characteristics of your site.