How to Setup a Small Permaculture Farm Without Being a Rich Dude

Blood, sweat and tears, literally indeed. Farming is indeed a 3D job (Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult). Long hours, low pay and being in the mercy of nature. Why would young people want to do this? Perhaps the question to ask is whether are they Determined, Driven and Disciplined enough to see the bigger picture; whether be they for genuine lifestyle change (suffice to pay bills and get by reasonably comfortably) or purely for profit purposes.

An encouraging note from a fellow permaculture-convert. Kudos for the enlightenment!
An encouraging note from a fellow permaculture-convert. Kudos for the enlightenment!

15 months down into the rabbit hole trying to grapple with this increasingly important rice bowl-cum-farming-business especially in the face of the pandemic, a note came in. It’s quite encouraging to see more people going into natural farming or perhaps even questioning is there a better way to live and earn an income. I may not be an expert but I firmly believe 15 months is quite a time to be able to share some thoughts as to how to get about setting up a small permaculture farm (<= 2 acres) with no financial backing.

More importantly, the correct steps one need to take makes a lot of difference in reaching your operational and income-generating goals. The more mistakes one makes, the longer time and more expensive it takes to get things done right. The process is often bumpy, nerve-racking and uncertain. However, mistakes made are to be cherished because they help inform your future decisions into advancing more smoothly.

Truth be told, the journey would be fraught with a great many elements of discomfort; financial, technical, time, etc. Especially in my case when farming is a do or die situation: I’m not a professional, having no qualifications whatsoever, not financially sound, no social networks/connections, have no other source of income, all savings depleted and I need to get the farm up to be able to generate income in the shortest possible time. No safety nets, no inheritance, no support whatsoever apart from my wife. Doing permaculture full time, living and breathing it for survival as a late 30s-something as though your life depends on it (with everything to lose) is a stark contrast from established loaded folks in their 50s/60s with deep reserves/large acreage/established ecosystem and army of workers or younger folks with inheritance.

So in retrospect, what steps have I taken to setup my permaculture farm? It’s a slow and painful process, but in a nutshell, Yeomans’ Keyline Scale of Permanence is a good guide to figure out what’s to be done when starting up a farm. Building a hut is certainly not the first and most important thing to do. I started out sleeping in a tent and still kinda do! In fact, the preparations stretched as far back as since my late teens.

If I could improvise Yeomans’ approach in a slightly more personalised adapted experience (from my baseline perspective as a 39 year old, and rightfully potentially relevant to me only as different people bring with them different personal circumstances):

  1. Save money like hell and reduce borrowing from bank (for the first 20 years of your working life for those not born with a silver spoon in the mouth). Treat debt like a disease and strive to extinguish it. No smoking. No drinking. No unnecessary entertainment. Harsh? Tell me about it. No silver spoon, no choice. In a nutshell, just save.
  2. Purchase a small piece of land and pay it off in full to own it resulting in loss of 2 arms, 1 leg, and half a torso (no lease, no TOLs please. Never ever, though some farmers have done pretty well on TOLs for more than 40 years with due respect I must say. I paid mine off in 4 years). As a non-bumi purchasing a non-bumi lot, that would be a loss of an additional leg and almost a head. Despite still bleeding from the loss of limbs, this is the stage where you suck it up and do your site analysis and energy audit on the land.
  3. Buy an old model and reliable 4WD but new in cash (from money saved in #1. Remember no silver spoon, no debts). No 4WD, forget about farming (at least commercially, though, that should be your goal if that’s the sole income generator like for me. Even if you do farming for self sustenance, having a 4WD offers you great mileage). Used 4WD with problems? Only drains you in maintenance in the long run. You need a set of wheels to carry and move things around, in and out of the farm.
  4. Start collecting thrash from the roadside and go junk-buying for stuffs you need on the cheap to setup the farm infrastructure. Wood, metal, containers, scraps, etc, you name it. There’s a tonne of stuffs you would need in all forms, shapes and sizes that just simply doesn’t make sense for buying new, or looking for it when the time comes. Hoarding may be conventionally unwise but trust me, I’ve been through many times when I’m thankful I did keep that wood offcut back then. Get acquainted with the circular economy and learn how not to buy things if you can get it for free. Yes, nothing is free in this world. Something’s got to give. Try to find ways to obtain resources with mutual benefits without ending up looking like a parasite (read symbiosis). Be good working with your hands. Learn to DIY.
  5. Slog like crazy in either a corporate desk-bound job or personal business to save even more money and switch between two hats; day time city job and night time farmer, then work for a good number of years until disaster hits; i.e. Covid-19. Throughout this period, read voraciously. Learn hungrily. Stalk others online and find out what other people are doing in the farming circle. Try doing it yourself. Learn. Fail. Rinse and repeat.
  6. Exhaust all your funds in a husband-wife partnership without resorting to external investors or even family financial assistance to setup the farm by building the most important key infrastructure first: Water, just as I did with my dam.
  7. Toilet (Arborloo first). Proper toilet comes later.
  8. Fence/Security/Dogs/Makeshift shelter (not necessarily an important step to most people depending on land condition but mine dictated the necessity for this). The provision of a temporary/permanent structure to house equipment is crucial. You need a shelter to keep your tools and shy away from the elements, a base from which you launch forth if you will.
  9. Earthworks/Swale/Drainage/Electricity/Fridge. Fridge? Yes fridge. Helps you keep substandard quality not-for-sale durians for breakfast or lunch (dinner sometimes) to help you save even more money and time from eating out. Leftover meals kept is money saved. Cold water would be a welcome respite too from having to work in the field during the day. Trust me.
  10. Plants/Access/Piping. Get a few low-maintenance high survivability trees/shrubs/crops planted first as per the permaculture design already done. They should be able to pull their own weight as you go along working on other things (because trees take time to grow, so time runs in parallel. That’s efficiency). Lock down the position of the bigger trees and assess the microclimate created (and then plan forward for your other smaller plants/cash crop as per designed). As these are planted, consideration and care given to general access, service roads and foot paths. Plants here also refer to fodder crops. By the time you’re ready to introduce animal systems, you would have ready food for them. More importantly, start a nursery. This is important for plant propagation before they hit the field. Having your own collection of plants also helps save money as per #1. Buy if you need to, otherwise exchange seeds, barter trade, etc. As for piping, now that the layout of the land is established (earthworks done) with the different planting zones as per your design, you may start laying your water pipes accordingly.
  11. Ponds. Get ponds established first during the earthworks phase, throw in some fish and let them survive and share your struggles, as farming can be a lonely journey. Watching them frolicking around the pond is a huge stress reliever after a hard day’s work, if the kingfisher or otters haven’t got to them first that is. Let the fish do their thing. It’s super low maintenance than chickens, ducks and goats. The dam or whatever water source you’ve had prepared earlier would be able to stock up water for your pond by now.
  12. Conserve/Capture Energy/Generate Nutrients. Observe patterns in nature at your land and work with it; i.e. having elements at their rightful places. Where’s the high and mid point? How can your farm activities and their daily workflows be made smoother so as not to expend unnecessary energy. Setup structures for animal systems at a high point in the land (e.g. so nutrients from manure can flow downhill). For me, it’s the goat house and chicken coop that I’m building now. I need the goat manure to feed ANC worms in my worm bin, chicken dungs for BSFL, and the rest for ponds and plants. What is farming without fertility? Best not to resort to unsustainable external input unless absolutely necessary; even then, for a short term only. No one’s perfect and everybody needs “breathing space” to get into position of comfort to operate sustainably. Leave no ground exposed. Plant ground covers. Having ground covers also is a form of capturing energy by way of plants harvesting solar energy and CO2. Be selfish. Not as a person. But as to how you view energy flows in the land. Store and soak water into the ground. Keep them there. Keep and hoard organic matter. Ironically, just as much as nature is selflessly giving to us (and we humans seemingly “taking from” her endlessly), strangely, we should thank nature in return by being selfish; for by doing so, we are helping her lock carbon into the ground (“giving back”): again, a form of capturing energy.
  13. IMPORTANT linchpin!!! – Setup BSFL, vermicomposting, azolla and duckweed production facilities. Without animal/plant food, they can’t survive, can they? This should run in concurrent with #12 if not earlier. Earlier the better. But of course, you would have needed to ensure all the designed elements are already in place accordingly first (again in my case, financial health was a hindrance in getting some structures up. Just find ways to work around it). Now, try as much as possible to ensure that when you put a structure into the ground in your farm, make it permanent. It’s always cheaper to build now, build slow and build well, than to tear it apart and repair it in the future as labour/material cost only increases with time. Slow is fast. Fast is smooth. Learn from the military folks.
  14. Get ONE LEGAL worker (mine came onboard 1 August 2020 to my relief), and start watching your funds dwindle even faster (wages to be paid monthly) if all the construction costs above does not already suck you dry. You can never do everything by yourself, believe me. At this juncture, a supportive wife and a cheeky 2-year old is a blessing. I said ONE because we can only afford one. I said LEGAL, happily, because I can’t help but being thankful I got an Indonesian with red IC to work, without resorting through an agency whose paperwork fees would have caused untold haemorrhage. Never compromise when it comes to abiding by the law.
  15. Now’s the time to bring in the more sensitive cash crops like leafy vegetables, etc. amongst other things, or anything that requires constant care, because the worker can then care for them. In my case, now that I have a worker, my focus is strictly on the following 4 items (starting by order of most important first to less): Paku pakis, sweet potato leaves, malabar spinach and chillies and nothing else for 4 months! Sell them and hold on dearly to them as though your life depended on it. I am. Or just simply sell anything that you can think of coming from the land as you may be surprised at the non-crop things you can begin selling. Guess what? I’m actually selling black soil, fine sand (conveniently washed into my land) and mushroom compost from a nearby decommissioned mushroom growing facility! The key point here is, obtain an income to pull through. Slowly introduce other veggies (veggies shouldn’t be seen as the main source of income. However they help “get you by”. More importantly, focus on growing them for own consumption first as reduced grocery bills is a form of “income”. Sell only the excess. This priority mindset has to be understood well, lest we set our hopes too high and fall flat. Remember, I only have ONE worker. Veggies is loads of work). Then the big ticket items (the “real” income): chicken/duck eggs, fish/honey/goat milk (whichever first) and meat, in that exact order. Durians is a bonus, though an annual affair, hence not in the equation. Similarly for other seasonal fruits.
  16. Pray.
  17. Feedback, rinse and repeat.

Yeomans’ generalist approach may not cater to certain localised limitations and pitfalls but it’s a very good guide with the right technical foundation mindset. My opinion is that the components may not necessarily occur sequentially in succession as some may supersede the others based on varying land conditions and personal circumstances at that particular point in time. In short, the “social” and “economic” components, or simply put, the “softer” aspects of working towards the farming lifestyle dream are clearly not highlighted.


It’s often great and inspiring to read news pieces of people making the switch to natural farming, and rightfully we should be hopeful that there will be more who join the ranks in doing so. The increased adoption of natural farming would help make safer food accessible to the masses. Who knows, one day, your regular economy rice stall would be using chemical-free ingredients; that would be a benefit to us all eating out without getting worried. The natural farming community should work together to achieve this.

Waking up every morning to chirping birds, swaying tall grasses, rustling sound of leaves brushing in the wind, a rooster’s crow, the smell of rain, wafts of smoke, watching a flock of ducks waddle into a pond, freedom of the outdoors, etc. these are all rosy pictures of farming. However, what many people fail to realise is that all these come at a price. A huge price tag that is. A price so steep, and a barrier to entry so high that it’s beyond reach to most regular younger folks. Whether one makes big money or not in farming, that’s totally not the question here. I’m not even alluding to the returns. I’m talking about starting a decent small scale commercial permaculture farm. It’s just simply difficult to most regular folks. I’m afraid much emphasis is placed on the returns and the accompanying “prestige” and “privilege” it brings (the “what’s”) without actually addressing the how’s (e.g. acquisition, setting up, product pricing, selling, marketing, distribution, etc) in the processes involved.

There are people who consider farming as purely a lucrative business (nothing more), not as a way of life that concerns health and the environment. The former sees it as: what are the inputs to get the desired output in terms of the bottom line with little care for the environment. I’m for the latter, but yet practical enough to know that there are bills to pay. Because there are bills to be paid, a natural farmer needs to be paid well, accordingly. But how well? Everyone’s got to put food on the table. There are huge infrastructure costs to be recouped by a natural farmer. I believe the pricing strategy here has to do with how long a time a natural farmer can afford to wait before recouping the investment. It’s all about the question of economies of scale and marketing. However, I believe there’s more to it than just pricing competitively. Having this thought in mind, one should appreciate all the more a natural farmer’s hard work and their potentially premium-priced crops compared to conventional ones. Any excess in price paid should be seen as a nod of approval of a natural farmer’s stewardship over the land. That itself is a small price of acknowledgement to pay for what immense benefit we get out of the environment. Perhaps I shall leave the discussion of pricing between small-scale farmer and larger players for another post in the future.

In closing, I personally believe that financial health is key to moving things forward (at least comfortably) in natural farming for the below 40 urbanite (with modern day commitments and bills to pay) on a micro/small commercial permaculture farm (<= 2 acres) as per this case study which depends on no external investors and family assistance/inheritance. This is just my personal opinion and I believe many would agree to disagree. I stand pretty firm on this from the current experience of painfully spending money (while being heavily stingy on daily expenses) to establish key infrastructures that would help generate income in the future (e.g. goat house, BSFL housing, earthworks, labour wages, etc). How can young people afford all these?

I say “commercial” because my livelihood moving forward sustainably, depends on this. Many would be thinking I can just start small and scale slowly from there. But I don’t have time to be slow. Case in point, produce BSFL using 5-gallon buckets and not needing a dedicated structure/larger bin. Nail up a couple of chicken coops and hit the ground running with some chickens. True, on a dabbling scale that is. Actually, I would need more input to feed a larger flock to attain critical mass to sell and make an impact in my bottomline to make this sustainable. In other words, I have to either sink or swim. Remember, I have bills to pay at my age and a family to feed. And there’s no safety net.

My regular business in the city is as good as dead for now in view of the pandemic. Consequently, I cannot afford to be doing farming recreationally as I have commitments to tend to as a regular Joe (while hoping for a recovery in my sunset business). That’s the reality. I can’t be relying on minuscule outputs from the farm to sell. If I have to take farming seriously, the question is, how do I achieve agricultural output equivalent to that of a 4 acre piece of land from only 2 acres with ONE worker? How do I punch above my weight? How can micro/small farms do the impossible by achieving economies of scale with the right targeted customer base? That’s the challenge I’m attempting to take on currently with extremely limited resources.

I’ve taken the painful step of paying off for the land thus, leaving me with very little funds to build. It’s a choice I do not regret but it’s a challenging decision that I believe will only make me stronger, resulting in me truly understanding what hard work really is. With this mindset, I’m driven to be more appreciative and thankful for what little we have, and to strive to make the most of whatever resources we have around us just to keep moving forward and not lose momentum. In a way, I’ve a newfound respect for money (in a good way of course, lest I be cautioned in view of the age-old adage “Money is the root of all evil”) just as I would water. It flows freely in abundance and should you hold it with cusped hands without care, it seeps effortlessly through your fingers; or as the Malay proverbial saying goes: Bagai Menatang Minyak Yang Penuh.

In short, can younger folks who are financially-challenged succeed in natural farming? I believe so. I would want to hope so as a living case study myself. It’s difficult but I believe possible. Exercising prudence and frugality should get me some mileage ahead. Till then, whenever someone opines that “…only the super rich can do farming”, I shall roll my eyes and heave a quiet sigh of conditional agreement and exclaim in silence that “…while the regular poorer folks just need to take the longer and more difficult route and work 1,000,000 times harder if not 1,000 and relish the sweet success of victory with substance”.

The maxim holds: When you’re young, you have all the energy and time to do things but without money; when you’re old, you have no energy and time left to do things but often with sufficient money. Realising this and somewhat nodding in agreement, I beg to differ slightly on a few fronts. I don’t have much time left but I’m sure happy to be doing this “poorly” because this is the “kampung life” I desire. To hell with money! Let’s just take it at whatever pace I can afford to carve something out and get some bills paid by selling something, whatever for a start.

I shall await the outcome of #17 above, with great anticipation and bated breath. Happy farming!

How to Setup a Small Permaculture Farm Without Being a Rich Dude

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