Issues in permaculture…

Are permaculture courses too expensive?

I am republishing a story I wrote in a now-defunct website in the September of 2015 when questions about the cost of the Permaculture Design Course were being asked. The cost of design courses is one of those issues which periodically rise and subside in permaculture. That is why I republish this article.

Students present their final team designs at a PacificEdge Permaculture design course at Penrose Rural Co-op in the 1990s.

READING THROUGH COMMENTS on a Facebook post recently I came upon one familiar to providers of permaculture education — the high price of permaculture design courses.

The commentator was a little disparaging, saying that the cost of the courses was so high they were unaffordable. High prices for permaculture design courses are how permaculture educators make plenty of money, they said. The allegation is an assumption made in ignorance of the true costs accrued in organising and running a permaculture design course.

Let’s be clear that this is not a new allegation. Were you around the permaculture milieu in the 1990s you would have heard it then. Like a platypus surfacing for a gasp of air, the allegation of profiteering comes and goes through the decades.

PDC students with their design for a permaculture installation at a primary school.

Permaculture profiteers?

That doesn’t get away from the possibility the allegations might be true in some respects. Yes, a four figure sum is unaffordable to many people and can be a barrier to obtaining a permaculture education if you are living on a government allowance or a pension, are a tertiary student or on a part time income as one of Australia’s growing number of casualised workers in the gig economy.

It is not as if educators have chosen to ignore this. It is a dilemma that has troubled many but that they find difficulty to address in a way that would provide cheaper courses at the same time that it provides them an economically sustainable livelihood.

To sidestep the high cost of design courses some educators have offered discounted training. What is interesting is that these have usually been one-off courses. The reason for that may lie in the hidden costs of offering the permaculture design course, costs those trainers didn’t take into account. Sometimes the trainers were offering their first course and in those situations offering a cheap course makes sense because students would be unlikely to receive the thorough education they get from established and experienced educators. Inexperienced educators offering courses have simply re-taught what they were taught by their teacher without the benefit of the experience that comes from implementing permaculture works.

So, are design courses too expensive? Let’s take a look at what it takes to offer a well-organised permaculture design course taught by people qualified by knowledge and experience to offer a quality educational product.

True costs

The going price for a permaculture design course spans the region from AU$1500 to AU$2500. There are cheaper courses and there may be some that are more expensive.

Permaculture educator and landscape architect, Steve Batley, teaching at a Randwick City Council course organised by council sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell.

As mentioned, some of those cheaper courses have been led by people graduating from a permaculture design course and proceeding to offer their own without the learning and insights that come with experience. Others have been people wanting to make a start in permaculture education and, knowing they are still learning and that their first few courses are where they will learn to teach, offer a cheaper rate commensurate with the anticipated quality of the learning experience. This is a strategy that can only boost the educator’s reputation as it is based on honesty, and because students are forewarned.

You can see why people who have little spare change in their pocket but who are looking for better ways to live might be put off by the cost of design courses. For educators, it is a challenge to keep prices low enough not to put people of limited means away and high enough to sustain their continued teaching.

It is not as if someone can just decide to teach and go out and do it. You need a legal structure such as a small business or social enterprise model, or that of a sole trader. You need to register these to obtain your ABN (Australian Business Number). You will also need a lot more.

Costs mount up

To teach permaculture as a sustainable income stream — you can only teach cheap or free for a limited time — we should realise that we live in a litigious society. That means we need public liability insurance to cover accidents on our property, if that is where we teach, and damages arising from what we teach. Educators, permaculture advisors of any kind, really, are legally liable for the consequences of what they teach.

Insurance is just the start of the costs cascade. There are additional costs that accrue in becoming a permaculture educator:

  • will the educator earn sufficient to have to pay GST?
  • if you hire a venue for your course then you have to pay for that
  • if you offer accommodation rather than have students find their own, then that’s an additional cost
  • the educator will have a hard time teaching and catering, so educators may have to hire someone to take care of feeding students
  • even if you don’t offer accommodation and meals you will probably supply morning and afternoon tea, and a permaculture course will presumably offer more than instant coffee and an Iced VoVo — this is another cost
  • then there’s all the equipment educators need — gardening tools in sufficient quantity for all students, perhaps a projector, a laptop, construction materials and tools, reference books, seeds — more costs
  • before the first student sits down you have to let people know that your course is on offer — this means an advertising budget or, at the very least, time spent maintaining your website and promoting your course through social media; even if you don’t really like Facebook, the fact that 95 percent of Australian social media users make use of it, and that it is the location of most online discussion around permaculture, means you need to set up an account to advertise your course there; Facebook offers paid ads that some permaculture educators have made use of.

The importance of promoting your course is emphasised by the reality that permaculture education, especially at the certificate level, is a competitive and limited market. Making financial ends meet or even achieving cost recovery relies on attracting a minimum number of students. There is a hidden time-cost in becoming a teacher—the time spent finding reliable teaching material.

You can see how the costs start to add up. Some, like insurance, are annual costs. Others, like advertising, are recurrent with every course. Expenditure starts well before your course start date. Advertising requires lead time, especially if going into print publications with their deadlines. Food planning is done well in advance, as is finding someone to manage it, buy the food shortly before course commencement and then prepare it during the course and clearing up. The same for hiring a venue which must be done well in advance.

Before you even get to this stage, however, you might have checked the course schedules of other permaculture educators so that you don’t offer your course at the same time as theirs. Doing that creates competition in a limited market, potentially reducing the number of students for both and reducing your financially viability.

There is the risk that just because you plan and advertise a design course doesn’t mean you will attract sufficient students to break even financially, let alone come out with a modest surplus. Surplus? Yes, it is necessary to those seeking to make a livelihood through permaculture education because of an additional layer of costs — those of equipment and tool maintenance and replacement and new software, for instance. And, of course, like everyone else you need to pay for your living expenses such as food, accommodation and other personal costs.

When potential students consider the affordability of a design course it is a good idea to compare the cost to similar courses in other fields that offer equivalent inclusions like catering, accommodation and so on. Is it equivalent/cheaper/more expensive for what we get? Then we have a basis for deciding whether our investment is worthwhile.

So, to set up to teach permaculture and establish yourself as a reputable educational provider calls for a little entrepreneurial spirit and an acceptance that you are going to risk your money. We have seen that becoming a provider is expensive and that it is this expense — all of those itemised above and perhaps others I have inadvertently left out — that adds to the cost of permaculture design courses.

So, when those who are tempted to say that design course education is too expensive, let’s add up all of those costs first.

Chemical testing of farm dam water at Calmsley Hill City Farm in south-western Sydney during a PacificEdge Permaculture design course.

Comments

September 24, 2015. Kim Hart.
Well yes — all these things will add cost. I believe that the growth of permaculture is so important in light of the dire future facing the Earth and our children that it should be readily available to everyone.

I am concerned that permaculture instruction may be attracting people wishing to cash in on the current trends to green living etc. — let’s face it, green is a marketer’s dream at present.

I have a number of formal quals including science and business, and have completed a permaculture design course. I found this to be the beginning rather than the end of my investigations into self-sustainability. I’d like to see some high-level practical instruction available to the general public, paying or non-paying, possibly government funded if necessary, but most permies I know are happy to share for no or small cost. I don’t think you have to do a paying course to get going in this field, and to be frank, your clients will not care about your costs. Such is the nature of a service business. And yes — I’ve also been a professional consultant so I know what I’m on about.

Good luck with it all. Best regards, Kim Hart

October 1, 2015. Steve Hanson.
Nicely framed article thanks for taking the time to put forward such a considered informative opinion, obviously comes from experience.

Christophe Pouplard
Very academic way of teaching… very expensive.

Heli Iso-Aho
If the course is done thoughtfully and professionally, I think the course fee could be even more. “Price is what we pay. Value is what we get. ” — W.Buffet.

As a student I would ask, how can I afford? Here in Australia average household has over $2000 worth of ‘stuff’ that never get used or is not needed anymore…..no need to say more.

Steve Hanson
Steve Hanson I considered my course fee an investment in my future and the future of my family and their children, and the wider community. The investment has repaid itself and returned a profit which is still creating yet more return on the investment year on year. I would argue it has been the best investment I have made to date or could envisage making in the future. One twentieth the cost of my degree. “Live like a peasant eat like a king.”

Vanessa Bonnin
At the IPCUK Robyn Francis was giving a talk about the origins of the PDC and that one of the original tenets she and Bill Mollison came up with was that everyone who runs a course should offer a free place for every five paying students.

Alexandra Steiner
The earth has always given for FREE! so, how can people who re-connect and re-mind others charge? this doesn´t make (common-)sense…. it is like with shamans and healers….they don´t charge because they know the Great Spirit works through them…and they themselves do nothing.

Steve Hanson
We are all free to learn from nature for free, but our refusal to do so and disconnection from her is what leads to the need for a design system to reconnect us.

Most people in the developed world have access to books for free and there are plenty of free resources available to learn permaculture from. The structured course cost money to make available and time to deliver, as the article points out.

Linda Screen
Permaculture is such a straightforward concept I’m not really sure why people choose to learn from a course rather than through reading and practice or working on a permaculture holding? Its a bit like yoga or martial arts — the practice is where you learn your skill.

I qualified in landscape architecture & horticulture including ecology and then worked for the wildlife trusts. I found some of the permaculture practitioners I met to be more focused on crystal gazing than practical permaculture. That said, the real thought-leaders like Patrick Whitfield have/had knowledge that is priceless (though meeting him you realise that his generosity in sharing knowledge was also part of his Permaculture practice)

Graham Burnett
Good article, about time there was a counter voice to the ‘PDC’s are too expensive, all the teachers are on the make’ chorus.

And of course we recognise that the costs are hard to find for some folks, which is why I direct those who are struggling to find the costs to sources of creatively covering their costs in the first instance, shifting the onus of responsibility back to the would be participant (their first ‘design challenge’ if you like…) rather than it being by default the course organiser or teachers responsibility, which actually means that there is an expectation that we take a hit that impacts on our livelihood.

Stephen Jones
Before I paid for my PDC I thought ‘Christ that’s expensive’ After finishing it and making our way back to Bolton from the Forest of Dean I realised how cheap the PDC was in terms of all of the learning, the learning resources, visits to projects, food, board, not to mention 10 days in some of the loveliest countryside in the UK. smile emoticon.

Elizabeth N
Can’t put a price on changing my life for the better, wow!

Vanessa Bonnin
I agree, the course I did was worth every penny and I appreciated that the place offering the course wasn’t making money from it. The fee simply covered their costs and they were passing on their knowledge for the betterment of all.

Graham Burnett
Bless you Stephen Jones, Elizabeth N, Vanessa Bonnin et al. It is really nice to get some appreciative feedback! (Speaking on behalf of the general permaculture teachers community here rather than personally), dog knows, we could collectively do with a bit of encouragement for our efforts sometimes!!!

Soph Ain
Great discussion, thanks.

Alan Charlton
Thank you… this is a valuable piece of shared learning here… especially for one who is currently in the early years of being committed to deriving some income from delivering accredited permaculture design courses.

Colin Byrne
They are financially too expensive for me as I am currently on DSP (Disability Support Pension). After all my automatic deductions go thru and then I shopping for basic food items and I do all my own cooking (never have sufficient to purchase takeaway), I have approximately $4 remaining from each two week payment for courses.

David Connell
Good article.

Karen Fitzpatrick
Good article. Even the “local community permaculture group” type of PDC is expensive to run, as we here at Ballarat know from experience.

Paying presenters a reasonably rate is the largest expense but we are committed to that as they need to make a living. In 2014 we were able to offer a lower cost PDC (two of them) with a very low concession price because we had ACFE funding through a local Community House. In 2015 they decided we’d had our share and didn’t fund us. We are having to look at a different model for 2016.

Permaculture ANZ. Grant Lee Kenny.
I think people are drawn to permaculture and other things for some kind of purpose and these are many.

Though desire to free yourself of struggling times would be one of those and in these times there would be many people with this desire and not much money to spare. To those that already have a couple of acres and want to set it up in way to proved food security, it would be the best money you will ever spend, so it would seem like great value for money for these courses.

Annette Connor
The expense for me is in travelling to where these courses are. Finding the money and time to go to a course is too difficult when I can learn a lot online or from books, even though a practical course would be worthwhile.

Roberto Perez-Rivero
For many years we haven’t charged for permaculture course in Cuba, a matter of the principles of the country that all education should be universally free. This sounds good but the result of that is that we have to fundraise for the courses, which limits the amount of courses we do so the number of people trained is lot less and limits the growth of the movement, then we can get to choose the students hoping for choosing the best and sometimes prioritizing the ones that can help multiply the experience.

But without any doubt there are some people that do the course and then nothing, there is pressure and expectations from the students. At the end some people are very suspectful of free things and think what is free don’t have a value and is not good. Yes I know that Cuba is very different and the contexts are not the same but wanted to put all the opposite side example of all free thing.

Having said that, I think that all needs to be in context, and the trend is to standarize the costs of PDC worldwide is what makes it very hard or almost impossible for poor people from poor countries to get access to training. Nevertheless there are very good examples, sliding scale prices, barter, people paying with work and other things, because money is complex and is part of something very unequal. So the local analysis of courses should be fair and adequate. Mixing international students to subsidize locals have worked for us in the past.

Thomas Bell
In my opinion.. courses that are ~ ‘so called’ ~ expensive, have one common major thread — The BEST PDC Teachers (around). Experience(s) with multiple micro and macro global projects, boots on the ground of actual real life examples you simply can’t get through/by any combination other than watching the brilliance of a Legendary TEACHER aka *storyteller in a peaceful, indoor/outdoor classroom setting with newfound permaculture friends .. for 2 weeks.

Krystelle Ellaby
There are some courses that offer concession prices, early bird offers, and scholarships. Some courses held in overseas/remote areas charge full price for visitors and lower priced or free places for locals.

Sometimes you can trade labour for training/mentoring which may not get you an official pdc but will definitely be instructional and worthwhile.

As a volunteer, you will learn basic practical skills and the permaculture education happens by observation and osmosis.

Transition Australia. Duuvy Jester.
Great article. We run earth building/land design courses. From time to time you get people suggesting ‘it should be free!’ Or ‘how can you charge so much for building with dirt!’ Good to see someone put it together so eloquently.

December 21, 2015. Miriam.
This is a fairly accurate assessment of what an educator’s costs might be (another one is other teachers).

I have been promoting the idea we need scholarships for years to the Permaculture Melbourne/Victoria hierarchy for years. Sadly, the difficulties of deciding who gets one has been a stumbling block.

For those truly struggling to find the money for a course, I encourage you to contact a couple of educators to see what private arrangement might be possible.

Russ Grayson
I’ve been impressed with the number of respondents commenting on this post who say that doing a permaculture design course has changed their lives and that the course fees have been an investment in achieving that.

I’ve heard the same comments here in Australia. I’ve also heard a few critical comments about educational organisations and individual educators over the years, none of them solicited. But I take these in proportion to the positive comments and realise that they represent the portion of dissatisfied students you would expect in any normal distribution of responses to the courses.

People still ask me with whom they should do a PDC. My attitude is to be fair in answering. Rather than suggesting any particular educator I suggest questioners:

  1. Think about how they will use the permaculture they learn (rural? urban? inner urban? farming? community development? international development? etc).
  2. Write down a list of questions for educators, asking them if and how their PDC would meet their learning needs.
  3. Look at educators’ websites to assess course content, fee and other details (such as full or part-time, live-in or off-site, whether food is provided, how long they have been teaching, their background in permaculture design etc).
  4. Email their questions to the educators.
  5. Sit down with a good, nutty coffee or something stronger and go through the responses from educators using a systematic approach that scores how the courses would meet their criteria.

One reason I do this is that I know some of the providers either personally or through the Australian permaculture network. Do you think this is a fair and viable approach to suggest to would-be students? Do you have a better one?

My partner, Fiona, and I used to bring together the Sydney permaculture teaching team and offer a part-time, urban-focused PDC over three months. After we had to step out to care for ageing parents we decided not to resume permaculture education and to leave it to a new generation of educators. Fiona still teaches short permaculture introductory workshops through the local government that employs her as a sustainability educator to build community resilience.

More looking inside permaculture in Permaculture Journal…

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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.