How to Set Up a Permaculture Farm — Methods to Start a Sustainable Farm

Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: September 28, 2021
How to Set Up a Permaculture Farm — Methods to Start a Sustainable Farm

More and more people are adopting a more sustainable and self-sufficient way of living—now, more than ever. This trend is not just some fad, but more of a response by many concerned individuals who want to do something about the ongoing environmental destruction caused by human activities. 

This is where permaculture comes in. This concept is centered on sustainability and self-sufficiency and steps away from the traditional method of farming. So, instead of planting with chemical fertilizers, you are creating a self-sufficient ecosystem.

Is it hard? Well, nothing comes easily, more so if you are “healing” damaged land. But once your permaculture famr is successfully established, you’ll come to realize that it is in fact simpler and easier to manage. Unlike running a traditional farm which can be very tedious, with permaculture, you only have to mimic nature. 

The bulk of the work you have to do is in setting up the permaculture farm. After that, there will be less maintenance work. 

So if you’re ready to learn how to set up a permaculture farm, please read on…

What Is Permaculture?

Agriculture was, once upon a time, simply just a systematic way of producing food. But that’s until people decided to massively increase production, which led to unnatural practices such as using chemicals to fertilize the soil and to kill pests. This resulted in the pollution of oceans, rivers, air, and soil. 

Soil erosion and destruction of local biodiversity and habitat also became the norm because of irresponsible agriculture. 

With over 30% of the world’s land damaged by soil erosion and poor agricultural practices, the world needed a change—a permanent solution. Because of this, two Tasmanian professors, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, came up with the idea of “permanent culture” in 1978. The phrase “permanent culture” then evolved to become “permaculture.”

Initially, “permanent culture” referred to a means of farming without harming the environment or biodiversity. But currently, defining permaculture can be quite challenging. 

Permaculture includes a collection of sustainable farming practices, philosophy, and unique ways of living.

The concept of permaculture is more than just an alternative to agriculture. It is a set of unique farming principles that conform to the patterns found in nature. 

Sounds profound? Yes, but to understand permaculture, you have to first understand nature and how it operates. Because this time around, we’re not imposing on nature, but we’re working with it to eliminate destructive human practices. 

Permaculture encompasses lots of elements, including community resilience, rewilding, and regenerative agriculture. 

The main aspect of permaculture is the diversity within the farm, which is far from the traditional agricultural practice of planting a single type of plant on a large area of land. Also part of the concept is sustainability without the need for chemicals. 

Permaculture Vs Agriculture

These are some of the concepts of permaculture that distinguish it from farming:

Same Objective but Different Energy Flows

A permaculture farm goes beyond organic farming by supporting nature in its ability to provide plenty. On the other hand, organic agriculture nurtures people and the environment by promoting natural fertilizers and soil health. 

Organic farming improves the carbon cycle and integrates domestic animals to help fertilize the farm. But permaculture is designed to close the energy flows.

Permaculture doesn’t work against nature like other agricultural methods. Instead, it works in tandem with nature and benefits from the diversity created by nature.

Protecting the World’s Resources

Normal single-crop farmers use fertilizers and pesticides to grow their plants, which can be very harmful. These chemicals can end up polluting the environment even more while diminishing the soil’s nutrients. 

On the other hand, permaculture focuses on growing crops organically. Instead of using fossil fuel to power the farm, permaculture advocates for renewable energy sources. So instead of powering the irrigation system with fuel or electricity, it uses wind power and gravity in most cases.

Self-Sufficient

Unlike most traditional farming techniques, permaculture farms are self-sufficient. 

With permaculture farms, you don’t need chemical fertilizer or herbicides. The animals on the farm provide you with the needed manure. Plus, composting is part of permaculture to help improve the soil structure. Permaculture farms don’t produce waste products like other farms; in fact, everything is recycled.

Less Work

Once the permaculture farms have been set up, the farmer stops working actively on the farm. Instead, they allow the soil to be processed naturally by worms. Other farming methods require the farmers to use cultivators and tillers, which damage the insect population in the soil.

How to Set Up a Permaculture Farm

Permaculture farming demands that you observe your surroundings and determine which animals and plants work in your home area. 

Once you find the right combination, you can start designing your farm in a way that is self-sufficient. Initially, you may have to pick a fast-growing plant or animals that reproduce faster so that your farm may start earning immediately. 

To start setting up your permaculture farm, you need to do the following:

Understand Your Hometown and Farm

The local climate is one of the most important factors you need to consider. So you have to determine the average temperature, humidity, and strength of the wind in your area. 

Another key factor is the geography of the region. This means studying the soil structure and even the level of destruction that has happened to the land over the last few decades. This is important, especially since the idea behind permaculture also involves correcting the mistakes that have been done to the environment and ecosystem in the past. 

To fully understand your hometown, you need to:

Collect More Data on Permaculture From Other Farmers Who Have Already Done It

Instead of creating a new design, you can save time by visiting local permaculture farms and find out what works in your hometown. Talk to other farmers and experts in the region and get as much information as possible from them.

If you can’t find many permaculture farms in your area, you can try finding permaculture farmers online and connect with them. These farmers may not know what works in your area, but they can offer great assistance and prevent you from repeating some silly mistakes.

Study the Historical and Current Climatic Data of Your Region

The weather is always changing, and it usually follows a particular pattern, so knowing what happened in the past can come in handy. 

Don’t rely on what you’ve just noticed in your home area. Instead, do your research, dig through recorded data, and find out how long the farming season lasts in your area. Find out if there are usually a lot of natural disasters like floods or hurricanes in your hometown and take note of when they usually occur.

You can look for government climate services online and get a record of your hometown. An excellent understanding of the rainy season, humidity, and average temperature can help you pick suitable crops to start with. It can also help you prepare for a possible occurrence of floods or long dry seasons.

Create a Topographical Map of Your Farm

Before you start designing your farm, you should create a topographical map of your land. Use Google Earth to capture the image of the farm and then mark the borders. Print the map, and then go around the farm and take note of everything shown on the map of your farm. 

Some of the details that you can take note of include:

  • The natural vegetation
  • The soil composition of different parts of the land, including how sandy or rocky the place is
  • Hills
  • Natural water resources

Walk around the farm a couple of times to find out which parts receive direct sunlight throughout the day. Look for places that get shade in the morning and evening. Finding out the shaded parts of the farm can help you pick the right crops to plant in certain places on the farm.

Test the Soil in Different Parts of the Farm

Before you start designing the farm, test the soil to check its pH and to see if there’s nutrient deficiency. Get your testing kit and test different parts of the land, particularly the areas where you will be planting crops. 

Knowing what a particular piece of the land lacks will help you decide which food to grow in certain parts of the farm. This will also help you choose the right organic solution to improve the soil.

For example, if a particular part of the farm is acidic, you need to add some bones to help lower the acidity. If the farm is nitrogen-deficient, then you can pour used coffee grounds into the farm. Remember that every problem has a natural solution, so you don’t have to resort to using chemicals to improve the quality of the soil.

Design Your Permaculture Farm

With all the details and the farm’s map, you can designate each part of the land for specific purposes. Remember, you have to plant crops in the right parts of the farm with the needed nutrients and pH levels. So knowing the pH level and nutrient level of the land and places shaded during the day can help you plan the farm.

Define the Access Roads in the Farm

The first thing you should do is develop the tracks, paths, and access roads that will serve as permanent features of the farm. The access points are essential, particularly when developing the permaculture farm. 

Your movements around the farm will define the exact locations of the access points. The location of the access points will also be influenced by the water supply system, shape of the land, and climate. The permanent roads must be positioned on gentle slopes.

You can place other access roads along the water channels like irrigations and boundary lines. The drainage systems that have occurred naturally can be affected by the new roads. So you can also build the roads on the contours of these water channels and prevent runoffs and soil erosion.

Develop Your Water Supply

Rainfall and water supply are essential to your farm. Therefore, water distributions, storing, and harvesting of rainwater will form the foundation for the farm. And that’s because the water lines like dams, diversion, terraces, and swales are what will become your farm’s main features. 

When developing the water system, you have to think about water storage and distribution.

Set Up a Water Storage System

Before setting up your water storage system, you must think about some important requirements. Do your research on the amount of water needed to sustain the livestock and crops you will be planting. Once you get an exact estimate, you can create a reliable storage system for the harvested water.

It’s always a great idea to place the pond at the highest point on your farm. Use your map to pinpoint the most suitable area. The harvested water will be used for irrigation purposes, so you will need some plastic pipes to deliver the water to the farm. Since the pond is at the highest spot on the farm, gravity will help bring water to where it’s needed during the dry seasons.

Harvest Rainwater

After setting up the storage system, you can now focus on creating some water-harvesting methods. If your land sits next to a stream, you can harvest the water and fill your storage. 

You can also use rainwater to fill your storage. You can capture the rainwater using the drains that help transfer harvested water. These drains can divert runoff and water from the stream, which can then be pumped to tanks. 

Swales and ditches can also help you harvest the runoff water and divert it to the storage system. So after installing the drainage system, the roads can also become part of the water harvesting system.

Water Reticulation

Water reticulation refers to the distribution system after water harvesting. Your main goal should be slowing down the rainwater and then spreading it on your farm in an even manner. You can achieve this by using the Keyline cultivation method

You can also capture water and then use your gravity-powered irrigation system to release water to the needed areas. But for this system to work, you need to install some irrigation reticulation pipes in the ridges to achieve maximum water supply. 

After setting up your irrigation system, you can start focusing on fencing and adding other elements to your farm.

Pick the Crops for Your Permaculture Farm

The best crops for permaculture farming are native crops, as they are well-adapted to the environmental conditions in your area. So, you can look for all the indigenous crops in your area and pick the right option for your farm. You can start by planting your favorite plants before proceeding to others.

Next, create a spreadsheet with these native plants and note the transplanting/planting and harvesting dates. Make sure you pick the right crops for your farm. When designing the farm, designate areas that receive sunlight the whole day to plants that need full sun. You can purchase the native plants in the local farms and gardening clubs in your area. When shopping for plants, they’ll let you know of the sunlight and water requirements. 

Create Space for the Animals

A true permaculture farm must include animals. You can start with small animals like chickens or pigs. After you have finished setting up the farm, you can introduce larger animals like goats and cows, so make sure you leave some grazing land for them. These animals will help keep the soil healthy.

Divide the Farm Internally Using Fences

Like all the other infrastructures on the farm, the fences will become a permanent part of the farm. So after choosing the right place for every crop, you can separate these crops using temporary fences. Temporary fences can also come in handy if you plan on introducing huge animals later.

But along the farm’s boundary, you must install a permanent fence. And if the neighbors already have fences, you can work with them and establish the boundaries. You can also separate the farming areas using live fences.

Improve the Soil According to Crop’s Needs

Using your topographic map, find out what needs to be done in different planting areas and do it. Remember, the soil improvement method you will use will depend on the crops you will plant in a particular area. 

Permaculture farms use natural development means, so you can use compost and bio-fertilizer to improve the soil. 

Confirm the planting information of all the crops you plan on growing and condition the soil. Remember, some plants need acidic soil conditions. So, you may need to deal with the pH level of some parts of the farm and not others. And even if you’re not planning on planting the entire farm, you can prepare the soil and leave it ready.

Plant Crops and Trees

At this stage, you will be setting up the farm’s main systems, which include woodlots, orchards, gardens, and pastures. To be on the safe side, you can start with establishing the windbreaks to help protect the plants from the strong wind. 

Once the soil is ready, you can plant the crops beginning with trees, woody crops, and then the annual and perennial ones. Don’t forget to mark the planting date on your spreadsheet.

One of the best planting methods for permaculture farming is dense planting. Planting densely can help reduce the number of weeds taking root in the farm. And since permaculture farms don’t need pesticides or herbicides, planting this way can keep the weeds at bay. 

With dense planting, you are allowed to remove the weak plants after they have germinated.

Introduce the Right Animals on the Farm

Animals are an essential part of the farm as they form a regenerative ecology. They are crucial for the perennial system as the farm won’t be complete without the animals. And if you need the progression to be as natural as possible, you must introduce the livestock after planting the trees.

Since it is a new project, you can start with some simple animals like pigs and chickens. These animals are very easy to maintain and can provide a very quick cash flow. Plus, they are omnivorous animals, which means that they have a wide range of feeding options.

You can introduce the huge herbivores later. And if you practice planned grazing, the fertility of the farm would increase in no time. If you maintain the living soil and livestock properly, then the cycle will be completed. And this can help transform the subsoil into permanent topsoil.

Construct Some Structures in the Farm

Every farm, even permaculture farms, needs at least two sheds. If you already have or plan to add huge herbivores, you may need a barn for the huge livestock. If you purchased a developed farm, you should consider converting some of the existing structures to sheds. But you may have to upgrade them and remove the ones you don’t need to create more farming space.

Develop the Economy for Your Permaculture Farm

Before you start harvesting, talk with the local consumers and start building a good relationship with them. This may not be as easy as you think, but your permaculture farm is also a business and you need to use all the marketing tools at your disposal, including social media. By keeping good relationships with your neighbors and supplying what they need, your farm will become sustainable in no time. 

To help you achieve this, you should:

Understand the Local Market

Before even deciding which crops to grow, you must find out what the locals need. This will help you start earning as soon as possible. One of your main goals should be to supply the local needs. 

You can also visit the other farmers in your region and talk to them. Find out what they have planted and also what they are undersupplying, so you can focus on those.

Find out how the other farmers are planting their crops and do things differently on your farm. For example, if they plant using fertilizers and pesticides, you can market your product as organically produced.

Introduce a Product That Can Start Earning You Cash in the Shortest Time Possible

Since some products can take a very long time to start earning, you can look for fast-growing crops to plant. Perennial crops like berries, figs, and grapes can come in handy in these situations. You can even purchase dairy cows and start supplying milk and milk products to your neighbors.

Another solution is keeping bees and selling honey to the neighbors. These fast-earning ideas will help fund the farm as you wait for the other plants and animals to mature.

Register the Farm as a Business

Since it’s already a business and has started earning, you can register it as a corporation and even open a separate bank account. However, registering it as a business may require you to do some paperwork or hire an attorney to help with that. Registering the farm as a business will turn the permaculture farm from a hobby into a trusted business. You can also hire an accountant to assist with bookkeeping.

In Closing

With the area of arable land diminishing every year, there is a need for everyone to step up and help restore lost farming land. This means going organic and preventing pollution by adopting permaculture farming practices.

Permaculture can help preserve the native wildlife and improve biodiversity. With it, you can also make large produce on a small farm using less energy.

Don’t expect to master permaculture in just a few days or weeks. There is so much to learn when engaging in this method of growing food and cultivating the land. If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge further, check out our list of the best permaculture books.

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