Ever heard that? I have heard & seen comments to this tune around the web here and there over the years, and have found myself on the short end of that stick a lot too as I have always valued making trainings I offer as accessible as possible. It’s a bold blanket statement that needs some context, reflection & unpacking. I reflected today that with a relatively high amount of direct experience offering intensive education in this field, sharing some of my perspectives could perhaps benefit others.
Personally I am less and less interested in my indulging points of view rather than sharing my direct experience, so this is a rare post where I'll just let it fly. The www is seemingly saturated with what I feel are fruitless discussions that come about from this way of relating, but I’m choosing to share some of my experiences and points of view because I feel like there are a lot of mixed up ideologies represented in this field and that other "regenerative educators" may feel the same and not speak out so much. I brought this up as a discussion topic with our awesome crew at the farm because I feel like they are in a very good position to reflect upon this. (Having invested a substantial sum to come here for intensive education) Basically, the resulting conversation could be summarized as “it’s all down to Context”, and I wholeheartedly agree. Blanket statements are never usually beneficial in my experience. There is as much variation in content & caliber within Permaculture trainings as there are species on my farm and I see that this sort of statement probably has larger ideas behind it. We’re always interested in addressing the root causes…
Someone suggested that perhaps a bigger underlying question was probably should all education be free? Good question. An important point is that if education is offered “free” then it’s usually funded by the state and educators still get paid, just from taxes. The Permaculture movement is too fringe for this to be the case universally, so it’s not so relevant at this point. You could argue that unless it’s free not enough people will be exposed to it. That’s possibly true too. But, hey, we have to work with the reality, or context, we find ourselves in. Idealism has led this movement all over the place for better and for worse I would say.
This post has been stimulated by a message where someone proposed to work in exchange for a long internship program at the farm. We get a lot of emails like this. This doesn’t really work out well for us for 2 main reasons. Firstly, the income derived from our intensive long-term internships doesn’t even cover the activities we plan as learning experiences during this period (we’re designing juicy learning experiences whilst installing long term systems at the farm). Secondly, we plan our whole year ahead of the season, and at our farm we have assembled a Core Team ahead of time who we have selected to assist us in the maintenance and hard labor at the farm as we run full time educational programs during the summer and also project manage and train folks in all aspects of what’s going on at this small but very diverse and rapidly implemented project.
For this reason we are not looking for volunteers at this point, as we have already planned effectively to know that we have the resources needed to make this place thrive. We see from our longer term intensive Internships that it takes people several weeks just to understand the basic systems and maintenance required in this place, during which a lot of time and micro management is invested in managing the details. Taking on people for a short time can bring a lot of benefits to folks, of that I have no doubt, but it needs people here dedicated full time to managing that. That’s not a resource we have, and not something we are looking to invest in at this time as we see the learning benefits of our long-term internship training outshines anything else we’ve ever done or participated in.
Unskilled help is mostly useful for basic labour based tasks, and someone with the intention to swap work for learning is likely not exactly hoping to come and focus on these mundane everyday kind of chores; they’re pumped to take part in juicy tasks and learning opportunities which we have actually meticulously planned and timed to meet the objectives of our specific trainings which take place over a carefully constructed time frame. This has been designed within a very carefully planned process where we can lead people from scratch through very broad information and exposure in a beneficial way. Dropping into that just doesn’t yield actionable outcomes from our experience. We meet a lot of folks who have taken short trainings, watched a lot of videos, read a lot of books but have a hard time knowing how to begin for themselves. We have designed our trainings to facilitate this logjam and so we don’t feel so interested in investing our limited energy in folks wanting to drop in without a fully loaded sense of commitment. The feedback from the people who show up here and experience this place is what guides us. I’ll happily hear someone’s direct experience over indulged points of view any day…
After an18 hr day grafting hard and risking a lot financially to really live into our commitment to make this a place that stands out as somewhere that can visibly demonstrate soil & ecosystem regeneration with a viable production based on good design whist providing a very high level of focused training these kind of requests can be a little provoking at times. We are specifically excited to support people wanting to go into professional design and people wanting to start their own regenerative enterprises (which we’re also very clear about in our website and info packs). This is certainly only a small proportion of folks connected with the Permaculture movement, and it’s whom we are specifically willing to go out of our way for as we see opportunities are very limited for these folks in this neck of the woods (and further afield). Sometimes some the requests we get feel a bit like, “hey, will you support me by freely offering your time, experience and financial investment so I can come learn at your super inspiring place?” I can’t think of any day-to-day circumstances where people would go to shops or pay for services with this mindset. Not really sure what the criteria are that makes folks think Permaculture education should be free, but feel like they may not really have a complete picture of what goes into being able to offer life changing trainings let alone shining examples of regeneration in action.
We try to benefit as many as possible with our work, sharing what we can online in articles and daily updates on our FB page. Frankly we’re too busy to be able to give as much attention to this as we would like, and so recently have begun laying out the framework of a comprehensive book documenting our design approach through the lens of (mainly) this place. That’s another way we can see we can be of benefit to a wider audience.
Really though you have to be here to take in the magic of this place, to see the work and preparation that goes into every single day, the sharing of the intimate “behind the scenes” aspects that we see are vital context & information for our budding interns. This can’t be shared so easily out of context, there’s just too much wrapped up in that. It’s a process that unfolds here over many weeks, deep & wide, and we have tailored it on many levels to prep dedicated folks with the information, strategies, decision making framework, design & planning tools (as well as a bunch of targeted hands on field experience) to go off and start their own enterprises with a wheelbarrow full of confidence and a clarified context for themselves.
I’ve been dedicated to my learning journey since leaving home and living with travelling folk who taught me a lot about pragmatic approaches to meeting my basic needs. At 18 I studied Organic Crop Production at Ag College and have been dedicated to all aspects of regenerative design since that time (not finding many useful answers in conventional ag school). I’ve invested a lot of money, time and sheer effort in my learning journey; with (un)institutions, travelling, experiencing, designing, building and now am investing every ounce of my energy and fiscal resources in creating the sort of place that I wished I’d found on that incredible journey. A place doing what they’re chatting about. A place documenting, analyzing, recording and sharing it all wide openly. A place producing viable amounts of high quality food. A place managed holistically & efficiently. A place where people are empowered to be of benefit and valued for their unique strengths, gifts & talents. To make a place like this, where the learning experiences are carefully crafted by months of meticulous planning, financial risk and lack of sleep means they ain't gonna be free. Period.
I have made a living educating, designing, building and installing for a long time now, building up a good reputation and successful business that has taken me to a lot of interesting places and brought a lot of people a lot of tangible benefits. This has taken extremely hard work, creativity, flexibility and patience. After many years I have built up the resources to start this farm, which has been dedicated in a large way to helping others. We haven’t exactly made it easy for ourselves by settling in one of the most expensive, heavily taxed & regulated countries in the world (where incredibly few young folks are moving out into the rural lands to set up small scale enterprises!) but hey, if we can make this fly then we really have a very good case to share!
And so should I offer the trainings I have put together for free? Is that of most benefit? Not usually. That’s usually a one-way drain, and unsustainable frankly. I’ve been there and tried that and most often, to be frank, I’m the one losing out. At times I’ve earnt other folks a bunch of money when I’ve done the hard graft. Other times the work exchanges I’ve agreed on haven’t been honored in a very satisfactory manner. I’ve even had to go to court to claim payment when I went well out of my way to help someone far beyond my contract. I’ve also been well out of my way to help others who got stitched up, part of a longer story why Ridgedale even exists. For a couple of years I offered people who’d write who didn’t have so much cash the choice to tell me the lowest and highest amount they were willing to pay, and we’d work out what felt comfortable. As a very keen observer I often saw those folks turn up with new smart phones, fancy laptops and a lot of things I couldn’t afford and think… hang on a minute… Priorities.
As it is we offer our trainings as cheaply as we know how. Nowadays the prices for our trainings here at our farm are much higher than when I set out, mostly because of the economy of the location I find myself settled in. Look up Swedish taxes. Could you make it work? My rates are higher than some and lower than others with similar level of experiences. I feel confident of the value I can offer when I look at the relative price of our trainings to others in the region and the relative design & practical experience offered, as well as the venue offered as a training location. Sure, you can find cheaper trainings, but with what experience, at what venue, eating what food? Consumers always have a responsibility. Do your research. Our trainings are cheaper than the price of backpacking in this beautiful country. Just the food we serve would cost more than the training if you ate the same fare in town (if there were any venues that sold this kind of quality!)
We really understand that some folks just can’t afford trainings, which is why we have offered a very heavily subsidized spot on all our courses this year. This doesn’t really even cover the whole cost, ie, it costs us a little bit, but it’s a small way in which we are willing to extend our desire to be inclusive. When you direct someone to this option who is expressing a lack of funds and they don’t respond you start to understand patterns a little deeper. We also direct folks to the crowdsourcing site set up by our dear friend Christian, WeTheTrees, where I act as a course provider. Hey, why don’t YOU take responsibility and use your resources and networks creatively? I feel clear I’m doing my bit to benefit others…
I’m not sure where this notion that Permaculture training should be free comes from, because whilst I can only speak for myself I’m sure it’s true for others too that the folks most worth learning from have spent a huge amount of money/ time (or both) in their own learning, experience and project development and are very busy so this must be reciprocated if you want that person’s time, attention and input. Simple.
I think it’s probably fair to say that most folks have really no idea what it costs to run a really functional project/ farm if they have not done so themselves. For this reason I can understand where the idea of free trainings comes from. Whilst I’m moved by that basic yearning to be of benefit I cannot support it financially myself! All them little things add up very fast, particularly with a lot of people around and diverse enterprises like you will find on our farm. I spent 1500 Euro on screws in 6 months last year, ever done that? Add that up across the board and you soon find the income generated from offering incredible learning experiences doesn’t nearly cover the cost of creating them, and my time is not even factored into that. I give it my all, as any of my past course participants would surely agree with, because I know the future I’d like to grow old in depends on a lot more folks powered up working for the benefit of all. Sure, we benefit from the longer-term investments on our farm, and that’s the trade off, but it also isn’t as simple as that. Giving people the freedom to take on responsibilities and make their own projects usually costs us a LOT. Timing practical implementation with fixed training dates doesn’t always pay off our end! Making interesting things that cost us a lot of small parts and break after a few months is far from ideal. Broken tools, worn parts and decreased life of infrastructure. It’s super hard to factor in the impact of a large amount of people in a place, but one thing is clear, it costs more than you’d hope. We came to the conclusion last year that things cost around 30% more than planned for, however well they were seemingly planned. And we’re pretty good at planning/ managing if I say so myself. But it’s these things that need to be factored in to fulfill our specific objectives; making a thriving and profitable regenerative agriculture simultaneously alongside a rich & supportive learning habitat.
Increasingly today with online trainings, more and more books and online resources, there is so much people can take freely. There’s nearly everything you need freely available out there already. Use the resources at your fingertips. These make up all the nuts and bolts, the ingredients and components in design. The most important aspects cannot be shared in this manner. The things that happen human to human, within clear contextual surroundings are really the impactful things. The human sharing, the careful measured advice & mentoring, the sharing of the intimate details, the planning, the decisions, the finances. These are the things that actually make a big difference. Land based design is essentially the easy bit, lets face it. Management of people/ finances/ resources, decision making, context; this is what actually makes it work and holds it all up. This we share so openly and honestly with all that come here, and whilst its perhaps not the aspects most folks get excited by when they get engaged by Permaculture or Regenerative Agriculture, it’s the weak link in most chains I’ve ever seen. It’s the intimate sharing that has often saved clients and participants of our trainings a lot of time, money & effort. Anytime that happens we see big value in our work. That makes us clear why we put in such long hours with so much care and attention in so many places. I don’t think I’d recommend anyone setting out as farmer, project manager and educator simultaneously unless you really know what you’re in for. I do it because I just love it and I’ve currently got the energy for it. I see so much benefit pour forth daily, and that’s all I want for myself, and all I want for anyone. So I’m here, showing up, ready.
For the folks that do come here and participate in our trainings (as well as when we offer trainings abroad) we have very highly consistent feedback that we offer very good value for money. This has often been calibrated with feedback from folks that have attended other trainings beforehand and thus we see a wider picture and frame of reference for what we’re doing.
There are long established ways to learn for free; WWOOFing and the like. People relate VERY mixed experiences, but one thing for sure is that you couldn’t get the level of intensive education we offer here if you’re not paying for it, I have never heard of anyone anywhere on the planet doing that. You can take working Internships at incredible places but you certainly won’t get class time focused on design and your individual needs, you’ll work like a farmer. This is invaluable and definitely a great option, but it brings me back to Context. It totally depends what you’re looking for. If you want me to sit with you and fast track you through using digital design software, ponder over your designs and give feedback all afternoon and teach things in a structured coherent way tailored to your learning style then it’s only going to work if the exchange is reciprocal.
So what are the current options for folks lacking financial capital who want to come and learn here with us? Well, we have 6 month Core Team roles every year, open to anyone to apply. We offer incredible food and your own room and a chance to take part in some of the trainings in exchange for managing particular aspects of the farm. To see the whole “active” season in this way is a deep & rich learning experience where folks naturally get exposed to everything going on here. You can look on the website and what we offer and what we expect and see if this is an option for you. We may take on a couple of winter managers this season, which is a very different role, but a learning opportunity in it’s own right. We’ll let you know…
You can also keep up to date with our blog/ facebook page where we offer a heavily subsidized spot on every training. If you are genuinely lacking funds and really want this then take responsibility! We’re always most likely to offer our time and energy to folks we see will benefit most from it. We’re not into spoon feeding someone who just isn’t stepping up.
Something that has been super useful to empowering my own relationship to capital is the fluid and dynamic clarification set forth by Ethan & Gregory in their work defining Regenerative Enterprise (http://www.appleseedpermaculture.com/8-forms-of-capital/) We are all trading different forms of capital in everything we do, and we are super happy to remain flexible and open in every moment to whatever feels of most benefit. What I have witnessed in my journey is a lot of distress around money in this movement. How do we empower our relationship to money? That is a much more potent question to me than how do we design a new system that may or may not take it’s place. Money is like water in my experience. I’m not going to get into that here, just planting the idea that we can all choose how we interact and respond to whatever arises for us moment to moment.
For those of you burning up for deep & insightful education who don’t have fiscal resources to spare, you’ll be happy to know our current aim within the next couple of years is to transition towards a 6 month long free internship here at the farm. This will take the place of having a Core Team here supporting us and Interns coming for intensive education mixed with field experience implementing systems. This is partly because we value being able to offer that, and partly as we will have installed the majority of the systems and be looking more at maintaining and running the various enterprises end to end. I feel like I will always value a good amount of time in the “classroom” getting deep into the nuts and bolts of design, because I just love it, and so this time and financial investment will have to be offset with farm labour. Real farm labour. I imagine at that point we will have trial weeks and folks will commit their time and travel costs not knowing whether they’ll make that seasons cut. Whilst that won’t work out so great for some, it will likely bring some mutuality in return for all we invest, and a once in a lifetime learning adventure for those that are fully committed and responsive. If you want something “for free” you gonna have to take full responsibility. That’s one thing that for sure needs to be reciprocal. There is no free lunch.
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