If you cultivate more food than you and your family can consume – perhaps due to a glut at harvest time, or because plants have proved more prolific than first thought – you have a number of options for how to deal with the surplus. For certain fruits and vegetables you could use preserving techniques such as canning, fermenting, freezing and pickling to transform the food into forms that will last longer than if fresh. You could also swap the surplus with neighbors who have more than they need of different crops to yours, meaning both parties benefit from a wider variety of produce in their kitchen. Or, indeed, you could give it away to a local charity or community group. Another option is to sell your extra crops.
Starting a small business, either as a sole venture or a side business to a person’s primary job, has several benefits besides preventing food going to waste. It provides the permaculture gardener with a source of income, it allows consumers to shop locally and so have a direct relationship with the person who has grown the food they are going to eat and to reduce their carbon footprint by purchasing fewer imported goods at the supermarket, and it means that the money remains in the local economy, rather than being taken into the profits of large multinational food companies.
Check with municipal and state authorities which regulations apply to the sort of venture your wish to establish. Laws will differ depending on your locality, but may include business licensing, food handling training, and restrictions on where fresh produce can be sold. For instance, in some areas you may be restricted to selling food in designated markets, and within certain hours. Don’t forget also that any income you make from your small produce business will need to be included in your annual tax calculations, even if you are operating the business as a secondary form of income.
Investigate options for selling your produce. You might first want to contact local restaurants that are always looking for top quality produce. The fact that, as a permaculture gardener, you have cultivated the food in harmony with nature and without artificial and chemical fertilizers or pesticides is a good selling point. This is also something to highlight in your sales technique if you choose another selling option, such as taking a pitch at a local farmer’s market or flea market. If your local area does not have a food market, it could be a good project to canvas the community – along with local farmers and smallholders – as to whether such a venture would be a welcome addition to the community. If so, you can then approach the local authorities for permission to establish one.
Whichever method of selling you choose, you will probably need to invest in some equipment. If you are simply selling from a stall at the local market, this can be as minimal as a display table, some bags and boxes to put goods in for the customer to carry away, some scales for measuring produce, and an awning to protect the goods from the elements. If you are transporting goods around several locations or at a distance you may need to invest in portable refrigeration devices to keep the goods fresh for delivery. If you are delivering you goods by vehicle try to minimize the energy expenditure by working out efficient routes and delivering every other day rather than daily.
Think about the functions you will need to perform to sell your produce and what you will need to fulfill them. For instance, are you able to lift boxes of fruit and vegetables or do you need someone to help you? If so, will they expect to be paid for the work? Consider how you will display your goods. Customers tend to like food that looks fresh and has been thoughtfully displayed – a good display reflects the care the gardener has taken in the cultivation of the food. You will probably need somewhere to wash the fruit and vegetables before you display them, so consider were the best place for this would be (always aware of not wasting water – perhaps wash them on your plot and catch the water for reuse as irrigation on garden beds). Also, remember not to deprive yourself of produce from your plot. While it can be tempting to sell as much as possible, one of the joys of permaculture is to eat food that you have grown yourself and become more self-sustainable; so only sell the surplus.
Besides the equipment for transporting and selling your produce, you will also need effective storage. You are unlikely to sell everything every time you set up your pitch, so good refrigeration or freezing equipment is required if you want to keep the goods in acceptable condition for selling another day. If you have a pitch at a market that runs on consecutive days at the weekend, a fridge will do, but if you are only selling weekly you may want to freeze some produce.
Talk to your customers to find out whether they are happy with the produce you are supplying or whether they would refer different options. A direct relationship between customers and producers helps to build trust and to make each party feel they have an equal stake in the exchange. Participating in community events is a good way to establish relationships with your customers. Keep a look out for local fairs and municipal open days and research whether there are ways of getting involved as a produce seller. You could also ask customers for their email address and use this customer list to offer discounts or special deals when you have surplus of a particular food. Customer feedback may also affect the decisions you make for next season’s planting if your small produce business is a viable ongoing entity. Who knows? You may be able to give up the day job and live from the produce of your permaculture plot entirely.