Food Based Permaculture Business: Turning Problems into Solutions

A business in local food production truly embodies the permaculture principle of “turning problems into solutions”. As I travel to teach permaculture classes, I have seen a common billboard that states that one in six Americans is hungry. This situation is due to poverty and inadequate distribution of food ( ). As I pass these billboards and drive into neighborhoods, I am struck by all of the underutilized spaces, including front and backyards, parking strips, parks, and common spaces that could be used to grow food and solve this problem. Even the smallest piece of land could potentially be contributed to be a piece of the mosaic of land in suburban and urban communities used for local food production.

Local fruits and vegetables tend to provide the highest in nutritional values for consumers.   The fruits and vegetables that are highest in nutrition and easily incorporated in the daily diet are the best choices for the home and neighborhood garden.    Produce grown on large farms is selected for ease of marketing, rather than for nutritional content.  Produce degrades in nutritional quality from the time it is harvested until it is eaten, and various handling methods can cause a degradation of nutrients (   Fruits, vegetables, and eggs tend to have the most volatile prices (Source:  ERS calculations using Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index data).    As the price of food rises, these food items become increasingly unaffordable for low-income individuals. A solution to this situation is to increase local food production in communities.  Often called  “food deserts,” many low-income communities have more convenience stores and limited locations that sell fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables.  However, locally grown fruits and vegetables are affordable as they have minimal transportation cost.  Local food production in “food deserts” can be increased with community groups stewarding abandoned lots, green spaces, front yards, and available public lands with fruit trees and vegetables.

Patricia Menzies  helping to maintain an Urban Food Forest in Portland, OR.

Patricia Menzies helping to maintain an Urban Food Forest in Portland, OR.

Our global food system becomes more precarious as climate extremes have been reported in communities all over the world.  Unpredictable climatic conditions make it difficult to depend on single crops as commodity.  Increased natural disasters, record highs and lows, and record rainfalls have all been reported in many bioregions. Growing your own food and supporting local agricultural businesses are  solutions for deepening your community’s resilience. By developing local skills in food production, you can increase the knowledge of how to grow food in a changing climate.  Heirloom is a term for vegetable varieties that have been developed over hundreds of years in specific bioregions.  These types of vegetables tend to be adapted to the climate as it changes over time and better suited for local production. Most importantly, a gardener can save seed from the heirloom crops that perform the best in their unique microclimate, use less water, need less fertilizer, and use that seed for the garden in the following year.  Through this process of growing heirloom crops and saving their seeds, the gardener gains valuable knowledge on how to grow that variety and saves money on purchasing seed the following year.  As a bonus, the gardener has extra seed to share with their community.  Perhaps a business in providing seeds will be created from this endeavor.

In many communities, there is increasing interest in eating organic, local foods providing the perfect opportunity for local food entrepreneurs (   Local agriculturists tend to diversify their crops, reducing their dependence on a single yield.  Marketing opportunity for local foods tends to favor diversity, as well.  Farmer’s Markets, Community Supported Agriculture  (CSA) farms, Farm to Table Cafes, and locally processed food items are experiencing an increase in sales across the country (,).   All of these markets benefit from the local food entrepreneur who can provide multiple crops to their customers. Diversification solves the problem of specializing in a particular crop in a changing climate.

People who rise to the occasion to develop a niche market for their local foodbased business may have a surplus to share.  Produce or products that are not top quality are often discarded, rather than being sold to customers.  These items can be donated to local food banks.  Many communities have gleaning organizations that will harvest any surplus produce from orchards and fields and deliver it to a food pantry.  Recently, food banks and food pantries have been receiving less fresh produce while experiencing a greater demand (  Entrepreneurs who choose to pioneer an enterprise in their local food system create meaningful skilled employment for themselves while being able to invest unmarketable surplus to contribute food towards the hunger problem in the United States.

If this sounds appealing to you, the most important thing to assess is the type of business that best suits your talents, experience, and enthusiasm.  What are the needs in your community?  Are there any underutilized resources that you can incorporate into your business?  What type of market do you prefer?  Would you like to be working directly with customers or do you prefer to work in food preparation?  What hours of operation would you like for your business?  Permaculture design is based in creating beneficial connections in local environments that reflect caring for the earth and the people.  Any surplus generated through permaculture design is reinvested in the local community.  These ethics are reflected in businesses endeavors responding to the problems of food insecurity with solutions for a resilient local food system.

Food based permaculture business will be a key topic at the Financial Permaculture and Local Business Summit, January 21- 25, 2013 in Miami, FL. Keynote speakers include  Jude Hobbs, Eric Toensmeier, Jonathan Cloud, Emily Kawano and David Rose.  For more information, visit or email  If you plan to attend, mention this code and get a discount:  HRBNW.  Hope to see you there!