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Permaculture course too expensive? Let’s add up the real costs

Permaculture course too expensive? Let’s add up the real costs

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 design courses was so high they were unaffordable and that because of this permaculture has become the province of people seeking ways to make money.

Ignoring the assumptions embedded in the statement above (that the cost of permaculture courses is due to the motivation of permaculture educators to make money), 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. And you would have heard it since. Like a platypus surfacing for a gasp of air every so often, the allegation of profiteering comes and goes through the decades.

Permaculture profiteers?

That doesn’t get away from the possibility it might be true. 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.

It is not as if educators have chosen to ignore this. It is a dilemma that has troubled many but that they find difficulty in addressing 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 receive from established and experienced educators. Inexperienced educators offering courses have simply re-taught what they were taught by their teacher without the benefit of 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, of course, and there may well be some that are more expensive.

Landscape architect, Steve Batley, teaches aquaponics at Randwick’s Permaculture Interpretive Garden.
Landscape architect and permaculture educator, Steve Batley, teaches aquaponics at Randwick’s Permaculture Interpretive Garden.

As mentioned above, some of those cheaper courses have been 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 wiser 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, offer a cheaper rate commensurate with the anticipated quality of the learning experience. Let me say that this is a good 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 finding courses too expensive and 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.

Here I’m not talking of those very cheap design courses such as a community permaculture association might offer. They might be good or bad depending on the quality of teaching. I’m talking about those of educators offering the permaculture design course as a means of deriving at least some of their regular income.

To do that you need a legal structure such as a small business or social enterprise model, or that of sole trader. You need to register these to obtain your ABN (Australian Business Number). Doing that is free, but for educators that is where free stops.

Costs mount up

To teach permaculture as a sustained income stream — you can only do it cheap or free for a very limited time — we need to realise that we live in a litigious society. That means we need insurance, possibly public liability, malpractice or other business insurance. One reason for this is something all too often ignored by permaculture educators whether offering courses and workshops on a commercial or non-commercial basis. It is this: 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:
    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 and food rather than have students find their own, then that’s a cost that quickly adds up; the educator will have a hard time teaching and preparing food, 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 sweet biscuits — this is another cost
  • then there’s all the equipment educators need — gardening tools in sufficient quantity for all students, perhaps a projector, most likely 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 the service, 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 anyway, though doing that is free; 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 design certificate level, is a competitive and limited market. To make ends meet financially, even to achieve cost recovery, relies on attracting a minimum number of students.

You can see how the costs start to add up. Some, like insurance, are annual costs (and they are not cheap). Others, like advertising, are recurrent with every course.

You can also see that your expenditure starts well before your course start date. Advertising requires lead time, especially if going into print publications with their deadlines or for Facebook ads. Food planning is done well in advance, as is finding someone to manage it and buy the food shortly before course commencement. The same for hiring a venue which must be done well in advance of the course. These are some of the costs you face before the first day of your course.

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 or you and reducing your financially viability.

There realise that 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 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.

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

Comments (3)

  • Kim Hart
    September 24, 2015 at 7:51 am

    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

  • Russ
    October 1, 2015 at 1:43 am

    Here’s some responses to the article that were posted as comments to the Facebook distributions of the story link:

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

    Christophe Pouplard
    Christophe Pouplard Very academic way of teaching… very expensive.

    Heli Iso-Aho
    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… 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 its self 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 (my numbers mi…See More

    Alexandra Steiner
    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
    Steve Hanson We are all free to learn from nature for free, but our refusal to do so and disconnection from her is what lead 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
    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.

    Graham Burnett…/

    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!!!

    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 think 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 with 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, two-session workshops through the local government that employs her as a sustainability educator to build community resilience. See the new, mostly recycled-materials classroom she had built here:

    A story told with Slate.

    Soph Ain
    Great discussion, thanks. smile emoticon

    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… smile emoticon

    ACFCGN Sydney region…

    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.

    Pc Victoria…
    Ed Kenyon
    Give me a $1000 and I will tell you.

    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.

    Russ Grayson
    Thanks for your comments Karen. I’ve heard of other community organisations offering cut price PDCs in an effort to make them more affordable. Ian Lillington and his team in central Victoria come to mind, they operate through a community centre.

    While Ian’s and others offer quality training, I have seen cases where community organisations make use of newly-trained educators to deliver courses. This is done with the best of intentions but the educator’s lack of experience can lead to a poor quality education.

    It’s a dilemma that with the commercialisation of TAFE education (in NSW at least) and with the high cost of their courses the risk is that fewer people will enrol in courses that are unlikely to offer a return in the form of income. This would presumably include APT courses. NSW TAFE used to offer a PDC as well as an elective for students of horticulture and landscape design (which I taught at one time). Penny Pyett used to offer the PDC. I don’t know if TAFE still offers it, or for what fee or how many students they attract what the impact of high course fees have been on it.

    Your experience with funding being denied in subsequent years is not an uncommon one for a range of community projects. I suppose funders see it as a way of spreading a limited grant pool through a greater number of applicants. It sure makes continuity and building up a cadre of trained practitioners difficult, though.

    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

    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 havent charge 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 limit 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.

    Roberto Perez-Rivero
    Having said that, i think that all needs to be in context, and the trend is to standarize the costs of pdc worldwide what makes very hard almost impossible for poor people from poor countries to get access to training, nevertheless 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 orices 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 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.

  • Miriam
    December 21, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    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.

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