9 Steps to Setting Up a Permaculture Farm

A basket of assorted vegetables from a permaculture farm

Setting up a permaculture farm is not difficult, but it does require thought and planning. Permaculture involves a holistic approach that considers the interaction between plants, animals, and the environment. Sounds difficult? Realistically, you are probably doing some of the steps right now.

What is Permaculture?

Bill Mollison
Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison, An Australian farmer, was the author/farmer who was among the first to articulate the permaculture principles in the late 1970s. Throughout his life, this co-creator of permaculture produced a series of books that developed the concept of permaculture as it has been evolving. He died in 2016, internationally known as an ecologist and author.

In a nutshell, what he said was that, for a permaculture farm, farmers have to consciously design and maintain agricultural systems that are diverse, stable, and fit with the natural ecosystems of the land.

The farmer should avoid monocultures and plant a large variety of crops that are appropriate within the landscape. People should live in harmony with their landscape and produce their shelter, energy, food, and everything else that they need sustainably.

In the 1970s, the concept of a permaculture design was unheard of and basically rejected, but Mollison began to teach his concept world-wide and today, over 3 million people in over 140 countries practice it.

The principles of permaculture are based upon “earth care, people care, and fair share.”

Most farmers are very conscious of being stewards of the land and do everything they can to preserve and improve it (earth care). What probably requires more work and thought is caring for people (people care) as well as making sure that everyone is treated fairly (fair share) when it comes to the world’s resources.

9 Steps to a Permaculture Farm

Step 1: Analyze your farming site.

This will probably take some time, but you need to be thorough in your analysis for it is the basis of all of the other steps. Make a map of the physical features of your land to begin planning your permaculture farm.

Soil

Determine the type of soil on your land. Take samples from every area, for soil may differ from place to place. Submit your samples for a professional soil test. This way, you will know which crops will prosper in your soil, how much water will be required, and whether you will need to provide soil nutrients.

Water

Water is essential for crops, so you need to make sure that you are able to get water on your fields. Irrigation and/or weather are your two possibilities. Weather is undependable, so it is always good to have a backup system available. Irrigation requires equipment and a water source. To make it really effective, your field has to be graded for irrigation purposes.

Topography

ewe and lamb in rocky field

Topography is the natural ecosystem or the artificial features of your land. Perhaps some of it is rocky and might only be appropriate for grazing goats or sheep. You might have beautiful rolling fields, good for planting. You even might have a pond on your land. Map out the look of your land–high, low, good, bad. It’s all part of the makeup of a permaculture farm.

Microclimate

A microclimate is a small area that has a different climate than the surrounding areas. You might find a microclimate at the edge of a forest, by a stream or pond, at the top of a hill, or in a gully. Plants will grow differently in each of these spots. If you know this, you can plant crops that will benefit from the unique climate available.

Step 2: Permaculture designs for your site.

After you have collected the information about your soil, water, land features, and microclimates, you should have all of this recorded on a map. This can be simply hand-drawn or you can go techie and create a map on your computer.

Once you have a simple map, incorporate how you would use energy (for example, in your irrigation system) or where you should plant which crops.

fields divided into zones

Many people use a system of dividing the land into zones. For example, Zone 1 would be the land directly around your house. Zone 2 might be an area you might go to every day, such as visiting your fruit trees or chickens. Zone 3 is an area you won’t visit every day, such as a cattle pasture or field crop. Zone 4 could be an area for a forest, pond, or hunting. You could also add another zone where the area needs repair (from overgrazing, leaving fallow, etc.) and you can leave it alone, just observing the changes.

You could have as many zones as you wish, by just dividing the land by the different uses and functions. Define your zones as your land requires, not according to anyone else’s rules. Adding this type of organization to your map will help you focus on your goals for the land usage. By focusing on your goals, you will be building sustainable agriculture on your land.

Think through the process of growing food and discover how you can integrate that process into the effective use of your land.

Step 3: Manage your water.

rainwater capture system

Consider where your water is coming from: do you have natural water on your land or are you depending upon seasonal irrigation water. You have to have a system for getting water to your crops.

Capture rainwater

A water management system would be important for capturing and storing rainwater, then distributing it.

Irrigation systems

An irrigation system is more complicated. You have to connect to the system, then build a method of distributing water throughout your land. This could be by gravity or the different complexities of sprinkler systems.

Many permaculture farms utilize both types in order to make sure everything is adequately watered, even during the dry months.

Step 4: Soil Management

Soil can always be improved and there are many soil management practices that you can do. All of these below assist in improving soil fertility and structure. The beauty in all three of these management systems is that they are all renewable resources.

Composting

Composting is one of the most valuable tasks you can do on your farm. You are utilizing grass clippings, manure, and other organic matter to decompose and reform in a compost heap. You end up with a nutrient-rich, friable dirt that benefits any plants. Composting takes time, but it is worth it for any farmer or gardener.

Another interesting idea is lasagna gardening, similar to raised beds without the defined border. For lasagna gardening, you lay out the composting materials on the ground in the pattern you want your garden, and over a period of 6 to 12 months, the organic matter breaks down and then you can plant in this rustic pile.

Cover Cropping

clover

Cover cropping is another of those “old-timey” soil remedies that is still valuable in our quiver of soil management tools. Basically, cover cropping is planting a crop such as annual rye or clover in a plowed field to stop soil erosion, hold water better, control any pests that may occur, and smother weeds that may start growing after the plowing.

Mulching

Mulching is primarily used in a permaculture garden to hold water around the plants and restrict weed growth. When used in a field, mulching will do many of the same tasks as cover cropping, such as holding the soil in place and prevent it from drying out and restricting weed growth. Usually mulching is done using organic materials, but you can even use sheet mulching (plastic sheeting) if that makes your job easier.

Step 5: Plant Selection

seedlings

When planting, you should always choose a diversity of plants that are suited to your local climate and soil conditions. Avoid planting monocultures; that is, avoid planting your land with only one particular crop. This might work for a while, but monocultures tend to get hit with disease, and then your entire crop gets wiped out. Hedge your bets, practice permaculture practices, and plant a variety of annual and perennial plants.

Another useful management system is to use companion planting in your garden beds or farm fields. Plant crops that are beneficial to one another, either nutrient-wise or bug resisting, to obtain an optimal permaculture garden.

Incorporate perennial crops, such as fruit and nut trees, to reduce the need for annual replanting. Try planting a food forest garden which is a system that mimics the ecosystem by cultivating diverse, edible plants that are found throughout nature. Food production via the food forest will become easier over the years as your system and design matures.

Permaculture gardening will incorporate all of these ideas, just on a smaller scale from a permaculture farm.

Step 6: Animals

By good planning, animals can benefit your permaculture design immensely and make your work load easier and more productive.

lamb

If you have cows, goats, or sheep, they produce manure. That manure can go into your compost pile. Or, your chickens (meat and eggs) can root through their pasture, eating the bugs and worms, becoming an effective pest control system and fertilizing your soil as they go along.

If you plant a vegetable garden, you need pollination, and if you have a bee hive and propagate bees, you are working with natural processes to produce food through pollination.

Step 7: Energy Input

old windmill by pond

Today, energy use has become a hot topic. Everyone debates which way is most effective and what we will be using in the future.

When you are designing your permaculture system, consider using a combination of the energy sources of what you have available. Implement energy-efficient practices such as using renewable energy sources, reducing energy consumption, and maximizing passive solar design.

Step 8: Social and Economic Considerations

Consider the social and economic aspects of your farm, such as community involvement, labor needs, and financial sustainability.

Community involvement might mean being active in the farmer’s market or inviting the school kids to come and learn about permaculture principles.

Your farm may require more labor than you are able to provide, which means you have to look into your community for laborers.

Finally, go slowly in making purchases for your permaculture farm. Most businesses fail because they are under-capitalized. If you pace your expenditures as you can afford them, you have a much greater chance of success. Financial sustainability is as important to you as sustainable agriculture.

Step 9: Implementation and Management

Now the fun begins! Implement the design plan and monitor the farm to ensure it meets its goals. Continuously evaluate and adapt the farm management practices to improve sustainability and productivity. Utilize the natural processes and work with nature. However, your permaculture farm is also a business, so you need to follow best business practices to assure your success.

You will not have instant, 100% success the first year, but you will see progress. In several years, if you persist, you will have a beautiful, full-functioning permaculture farm. Keep your eyes on your goal.

Practicing Permaculture

These steps are just a general outline, and each permaculture farm will have unique challenges and opportunities. It is important to be flexible, patient, and adaptive throughout the process. Continue to learn what works and what doesn’t by implementing new ideas, but in a limited way at first.

Set your farm up for success by treating it like a small business. Have a business plan, a marketing plan, and a goal in mind. This is your business start-up.

Although the permaculture movement has recently been accepted, it has been around for centuries–just never defined. Now the permaculture principles have evolved into modern acceptance.

Developing a permaculture farm takes time, but you will appreciate the sustainable development of your crops over the years.

Want More Information? Here are some links.

9 Steps to a Market Garden

Grow Microgreens for Profit

Growing Your Own Food with Micro-Farming

Composted Manure