I was very impressed with Richard Perkins yesterday, after I posted my review/thoughts on the film of his farm he sent a fair bit of time and answered my questions in a very thorough way. I decided that I would post it here so that anyone who had the same questions about interns working on his farm could see his response.
Thanks for your interest and support. These are important and complex questions, but I can speak to them a little here as it comes out naturally….
I have made videos about the numbers/ human-hours of our farm in the past, which you can see on Youtube. Current rates of production represent 4 full time positions. The farm pays 4 full time wages. We are heavily focused on edu work, as there are very few places like this where people can immerse themselves in scaling up permaculture to the farm, in a supportive learning environment with time, space and support to design their own properties and all the back end business planning to get started on the right foot. This is evidenced to me in that our Internship program, running right now, was quadruple booked this year. People are seeking longer term mentorship and practical experience in regenerative ag and don’t have many options, certainly here in Europe. We always have a bigger core team than needed to allow the space for deep learning to evolve for people, and judging by what some folks get up to leaving here, I see it’s going very well. We want to have a lot of fun together, as well as work hard and efficiently. We’ve become a bit of a springboard/ ‘reality check’ for folks just about to leap into making a career in regenerative enterprise, and this place/ context/ environment excels in that (the general consensus of folks here). For context, I’ve been engaged in intensive education for a long time and whilst I could, I wouldn’t just move to Sweden to farm poultry and grow veg. I’m interested in the whole we are creating here, which is what (in some ways) I wish I could have found on my learning journey.
Now, we do a bunch more than we would if we were just 4 peop’s working the farm, because we can. If it was the case of just employees, we might not have pigs, would not have cows, wouldn’t do things like plant hops, make free youtube videos, collect data, write books to try help more people,etc, etc. We are trying to use the additional brains and skills to share the benefits with as many as we can in a skilful manner. One example (as we make excess capital from trainings, books, consulting, etc) that we are doing soon is nutrient testing eggs and poultry against other products on the market. Whilst this obviously benefits us from a marketing perspective (if the results are good!), it’s not exactly cheap that many could afford it, but I see many will benefit from this when we publish that. We feel it’s the responsibility of any ‘demonstration’ site to actually demonstrate, hence we put so much care and effort into sharing openly and transparently.
I am currently planning on changing my business considerably next year, bringing in a few of the key people who have been with us multiple years (and demonstrated the drive and capacity to manage such systems) as partners in the business, and strive to grow the farm without increasing the size. Stacking out to the max. I think we’re at 50% production in most enterprises currently, and yet already this season we’re already well over the figures presented in older videos. For example, I see we could double Layers, double broilers and double the No-Dig Mkt Gardens production with no increase in size. I’m now curious how far we can push ecosystem processes in a healthy way. Scaling up is very feasible with few people if we shave off some of the distractions that we do for the benefit of the learning context of the farm. For example, I think I will invest in a new sheep flock and lose the cows to make this a more useful enterprise. I might lose the pigs altogether to allow the other half of the farm we don’t really use to regenerate into silvopasture. Other than that we’d be rotating through Broilers/ Hens/ Sheep and then spending most of the day in the Mkt Gardens together, sharing the bookkeeping/accounting/deliveries. We’d all have 3-4 months off (paid) and those 6 winter months would be 2-3 hrs work for whoever’s ‘on’. For context, 10,000 broilers in 6 months gives 4 Swedish salaries, the enterprise investments were all paid off in yr 1. Our Mkt Gardens are planned at 36Eur/m2 net, but I think this year with the change of plan and focus on restaurants we’re kicking 50. I think it could be running at 70 with a couple of caterpillar tunnels for growing on transplants. We could already sell double the eggs tomorrow. People need to see it working, they need to see the figures and need to feel the possibilities and really understand the back-end that makes it all work. The numbers here are really good by any standards, and so I think it’s models worth pushing further and continuing to share openly. ( I’ll be documenting this on our Youtube channel throughout the rest of the season, including summarising the season, finances, etc) Everything we deal with here is all process based, context based, it takes months of carefully targeted support (in my experience) to lay the foundations to really start people off on their entrepreneurial journeys. It’s also why we run such long-term trainings (both internships and our Core-Team). We don’t pay our Core-Team as they are on a long term intensive education program of a nature you can’t just go out and find easily. A LOT of thought and care goes into all aspects what we are doing here, people side included. Our interns pay a chunk, but in context of the timeframe, hours with me and whats on offer here, you realise its very good value when you see it’s cheaper than the cost of backpacking here. We’re having an awesome time, and with this longer time, learning can go very deep from design/ business planning to deep personal development. Short trainings cannot address that stuff effectively, if even at all. Short trainings are much more profitable and require little in the way of responsibility, engagement, people skills, etc, and hence most trainings are short term. We are specifically looking to support more people into farming full time, and hence our choices. The online training we are developing has a very long waiting list already, with feedback that people are really wanting longer term process based learning and mentorship. Looking around there’s not much out there and yet there’s huge demand. I highly recommend Joel Salatins Fields Of Farmers as a book for anyone considering running projects or farms and working with people.
To be honest, I actually want to spend my days farming. I come to all this a bit the opposite way to many. I ran a much more lucrative business designing/ teaching for many years, as I had no costs/ responsibilities. I actually like to graft hard and work with ecosystem processes in a system I craft and steer, so for me I’m choosing to farm for my living and meet my educational objectives by supporting others to get going too. We do make money from books/ trainings/ consults, etc, but it’s like 30%. I’m dedicated to farming smart and taking it further because I’m passionate and energised for that. No-one farms to make excess money, let’s face it; we do this because we’re super passionate about the lifestyle we design for ourselves, the learning, the joyfulness and meaning in all we do.
It is rather a wild myth to think that any labour is free. When you have 30 people using tools/ equipment things degenerate 50 times faster than you working alone with your own gear. What I’d expect from a Swedish wage employee is well above the bar of most. To be honest I’ve had half a dozen folks come through that I’d consider employing. I don’t say that to be harsh, I’m being realistic. I can’t help feeling like I’ve grown up in a generation where a large % of folks lack tangible manual skills, physical strength and endurance, mental clarity, drive and commitment, embodied responsibility and the ability to communicate skilfully. Running a Market Garden is one thing, and complicated enough for many. In our setting, the skill base/ knowledge needed to be a useful employee is quite a lot wider, but then we’re not exactly a ‘normal’ farm. In a place like this, with many hands around, costs really adds up, and it would probably shock folks who don’t do this themselves. We only serve the very finest grass fed meats, pastured that and fully organic/ beyond organic/ biodynamic food. We eat better here than in any place I’ve visited, and living in Sweden that stuff ain’t cheap. This summer I will spend 2000 Eur on butter alone in 5 months! I think it’s too easy to say ‘free labour’ and I’m aware most people who say that do not run farm production businesses or have much experience hosting large groups for extended time periods over many years. Just saying. Many things are faster with people, like mulching all the trees, but actually, most things are very much slower when you have too many. I service egg mobiles alone in 21 mins. During the internship it takes 5 people 45 mins in the beginning. I’m just pointing out that many hands make many responsibilities, and its way more complex than that….
What makes farm-scale permaculture different to permaculture (in my mind) is that we suddenly have economy and regulation to deal with. That’s why some of the idealism has to be dropped in favour of pragmatism. We’re competing in a globalised market place with cheap oil, out of site slave labour, and local agribiz often running on free ag school student labour. If someone is not farming for a living then they’re not really in a clear position to speak to how farms should be run, are they? Luckily, people speak and people lacking integrity ’cull’ themselves, i.e., abusive characters/ places get flagged and highlighted to some degree, and within the professional networks I move within I think a lot of people know whats happening, who/where to recommend or not, etc.
We really do need places like this, because the learning happening here is not stuff you can get in ag school (speaking from my own direct/ other ag school students that come here experience). You can’t get in in short courses, so where to go? You could get it as an employee somewhere like this, where we take a lot of time in learning, but for every such job there must be thousands wanting this learning and experience. If we want a new generation of innovative farmers getting going soon, there’s really no time to mess about. It’s obviously all down to context, which looks different for all of us. We must use our strengths, gifts and talents to step up and contribute in whatever way we can be of benefit, if we decide we want to play a part in the picture.
On another note, reading your blog I saw one of your readers comments, and just want to be clear that I make no financial gain whatsoever from the film. If you do your research you see the funds pay for Olivier and his colleagues work and physical goods. I believe it’s true to say that in his other films there has been some kind of financial arrangements with the other party, but I wanted to openly share another side of the farm to people and do not need to be paid for that.
I guess I waffled on quite a while now. It’s a big topic, and a very important one. Thanks to detailed record keeping here I have much to share on these questions, which is a big part of what we do with the interns here. But in short, our farm is moving towards shared enterprise management/ responsibility/ profit (bringing in equal decision makers as opposed to me having employees). It’s a big step/risk on my part, but I see the opportunity created for incredible folks I love will be life-changing and powerful, and help to take this all to another level in terms of what is possible in small-scale regenerative ag.
Thank you for your engagement and passion to understand these complex yet vital contextual points. I very much look forward to continuing to meet more and more fine folks from around the world who are getting powered up and starting out on this fruitful and rewarding pathway…"
My reply to this was:
Just came back and read your comments. Thank you for replying and being so open about what you do.
I hadn’t got round to going back on my own blog but I was going to say to Dawn that the money was to fund the film making and all that entails. And like I said I was very impressed with the film and don’t regret my small investment in getting it made.
I feel you’ve answered my question very well, it was never about not having somewhere like Ridgedale that was a training farm as well as a working one, it was more asking if it was still viable without the interns. I 100% think that places like yours need to exist, and you’ve justified what you do and the whys of pay very well, do I agree with the pay issue for long term interns? No, but I can see why you do it and you are investing back into areas that would be a benefit to many rather than the few. And I commend you if you are looking at partnerships and profit shares in the future.
I really liked how the film didn’t skirt around this issue and it’s a subject you’ve obviously given a lot of thought and consideration about.
My use of the term “free labour “ was rather lazy, and as a carpenter who’d rather work alone than have the customer “help” me I understand that free labour isn’t always the case. I’m also not in any way criticising the way you keep your interns, to be honest if I was younger (or had less children) it’s certainly something I would consider, your food always looks amazing and they all seem to be very happy and like a family unit. I also place a high value on any learning that I can gain so I can see why you are getting over subscribed.
I also have to confess to being a little obsessed with your videos on YouTube and have to say there’s not many I haven’t watched and I really appreciate them, between you and Curtis Stone that’s all I have time to watch at the moment.
I grew up on a conventional farm where the words “get a real job instead” were used to me, and any farm less than 200 acres wasn’t seen as profitable. But I’ve still maintained my passion for wanting to be a small food producer in a community that wants it, your farm is showing it’s possible, slowly I’m taking steps to get there and I’ve even signed myself up for mentoring at a CSA near to me so I can begin to set up my own very small scale one here.
Could I use your comments here in my next blog post (or to update that one) to show your answers to the questions? I think that’s much better than leaving it open ended.
Thanks again for taking the time to reply, I can see how busy you are!"