Bringing More Permaculture to the Farm, Real World Constraints with David Sachs (PVP064)

“Having a plan is important, having a vision is important, but you can’t script it all.” David Sachs


PVP064 David Sachs



Within the permaculture community we live in a bubble of hope. And sometimes looking out from that bubble we get blinded.

We see the many solutions that the permaculture toolbox offers to real world problems and we are very quick to say, hey, that thing you are doing, you should do it this way, it’s better.

We are very quick to criticize conventional farmers, Monsanto, and Wall Street. Sometimes too quick. I am not defending any practices in particular, but I believe that the majority of people are trying to do the best that they can.

For right or wrong, I believe that the chemists and engineers at Monsanto believe that they are helping the world.

The same goes with conventional farmers – the ones farming monocrop corn and soy. I think that they are trying their best within the system, a system that many have been involved with for a long, long time.

I think that too many people assume that it is easy to flip a switch and quickly convert over to a more permaculture based system. I don’t believe that it is easy as some people would suggest and I don’t think that everyone considers the challenges involved in the conversion.

Believe me I want to see more permaculture based perennial polyculture out there, but there are real world constraints at play here for most of the conventional farmers – families, debt loads, livelihoods, careers, A LOT.

No one is addressing this and this is something that I want to take on. Within permaculture we pride ourselves on reading the landscape – understanding the conditions of a particular site before we do anything. Yet we miss the human component; reading that landscape. We are quick to cast judgment on others who don’t see the world in a way that we do and just preach an easy conversion to ultimate abundance.

So the goal of this particular episode and some future episodes are to highlight some of what I am calling the alternative perspectives. Views from the other side of the fence. Views from people who want to do better and are trying to do more, but it is easier said than done.

The goal here is to get a better understanding of everyone’s situation; one where we can accept the reality of what is happening within the landscape of conventional agriculture. What real world challenge and constraints are these real farmers facing?

Conversion sounds easy, but again there are literally families at stake.

Think about that. Would you change something that you have done for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, and risk you family’s welfare on some ideas being pitched to you by someone who doesn’t actually farm or have portfolio of functioning models to refer to?

At the end of the day I want to see permaculture infiltrate agriculture as much as anyone, if not more. I want to see more regenerative agriculture taking place on the land. I want it to become the norm, not a fringe movement. But the only way I believe that we can do that is to understand what is happening on the other side, outside of our bubble.

I believe that it is only when we take the time to understand those real world constraints and challenges, from an honest and sympathetic position, that we can make progress and create inroads. We can do that by solving problems and providing solutions within the matrix of today’s current reality instead of imposing our ideological will.

I believe that permaculture has many of the solutions to the problems out there in the world, but those problems have to be addressed in a way that is receptive.

That brings us to today’s episode.

Today I am talking with David Sachs. David is working outside of the farming world and is trying to transition to working within the farming world. His family owns and operates a farm in Virginia; his dad runs the farm and David sees a future where he takes over the farm. David is a big believer in permaculture and sees his future on the farm involving more permaculture design incorporated into the farm’s operations. But it is easier said than done within a family dynamic. Because within the family they are trying to balance the running of the farm and paying the bills with potentially incorporating more permaculture strategies.

Not an easy to make decision. Add in the fact that the family is relatively new to farming and getting all sorts of advice from everyone out there – neighbors to the agriculture extension offices – challenging to say the least.

Never the less they are progressing ahead with the farm and doing some great things. In an area that grows a lot of corn, they are now the only organic wheat grower in their area. They are starting up a small scale mill to value add that wheat by turning it into flour. They are making a go of it and starting to look at a future that might involve grazing animals and strategically managed woodlots. They are approaching the transition strategically and systematically, working within the context of reality.

Hopefully something within this episode strikes a chord with you.

Bringing more permaculture to the farm, real world constraints with David Sachs.



David Sachs on the farm.


Key Takeaways:

  • Look to value add.  Selling milled flour over wheat berries.  But there is a trade of in start up costs.
  • Labeling local versus organic.  Both may be true, but one may carry more marketing weight.
  • Is organic certification worth it?  Or is it good enough to adhere to organic or better standards and not certify?
  • Calling restaurants in  an easy, cheap way to start connecting to your local buyers and build relationships.
  • The idea of restaurant and producer speed dating as a way to connect with a lot of people in a short period of time.

Converting over to using more permaculture:

  • How can it be implemented?  Is it disruptive?  Major infrastructure and equipment changes?
  • Can it be profitable?
  • Can you start with add-ons first?  Slowly integrating more and more permaculture design into the existing farm.
  • Can you tweak existing systems versus just completely overhauling.
  • Gradually convert and start building on successes.
  • Be cognizant of existing production and cash flow.  Don’t steal too much from existing production at first.



Organic fields in action.



Organic wheat.


Grapewood Farm Organic Logo

If you have constraints, what can you do now with what you’ve got?David Sachs


Mark Shepard – Introduction to Agroforestry

Mark Shepard – Introduction to Silvopasture

Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm

Silvopasture: 30 Years of Applying Research and Innovation

Podcasts Related to this Episode:



Restoration Agriculture on Amazon



You can contact David Sachs for more information via:

federalmills at gmail dot com

grapewoodfarmva at gmail dot com




Question, Comments, or Feedback?

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Comments 5

  1. Hi D.I.E.G.O.!
    Another excellent interview covering, as you mention, an angle rarely addressed. Honey always catches more flies than vinegar, and if we want conventional farmers to be open to alternative methods, we need to not be putting them down.

    David Sachs, and many of your listeners, might be intersted in the monthly magazine ‘Acres USA’ – the journal of eco-agriculture. The articles cover a wide range of approaches, and highlights a range of farms from a few acres to a few thousand, with an emphasis on commercial farming in an ecological/ organic/ sustainable/ regenerative manner. Anyone interested can order a free sample at http://www.AcresUSA .com.

    On the weed problem in the wheat, cattle may not work as well as either sheep, or a combination of cattle and sheep. Sheep naturally eat a lot of weeds cattle don’t like (or must learn to eat), and can graze more closely to the soil surface – which is an advantage when using them to control weeds! There are farmers in Australia who graze a largely clover pastures closely with sheep before no-tilling wheat directly into the pasture, post grazing. The clover supplies nitrogen, covers the soil, helps prevent weeds – and the wheat thrives. There are variations on this approach; details can be found at

    Other farmers area very successfully rolling down cover crops to form a heavy mulch, and drill their seed into the soil beneath the mulch.

    Another great resource is Jerry Brunetti’s book ‘Farm as Eco-system’. With nature as a model for permaculture, it becomes obvious that all farms need a balance of livestock: there are NO natural ecosystems without animals!

    On children – one measure of how good a permculture farm is may be how much of the operation young children can be involved in, at least joining their parents in. Allan Savory of Holistic Management has included the need to schedule family time as we would any other committment – but young children rarely enjoy anything as much as helping their mom & dad around the farm. Older children often retain the enthusiasm IF they are allowed to enjoy the work (at least some of the time), contribute observations and suggestions – and are given responsibility over their own projects (with appropriate assistance and oversight from adults). After all – children join our lives; we do not join theirs, (as a tv psychologist has said).

    On chemicals – using them may well make it look as though faster progress has been made on developing a farm, but that may be an illusion. For instance, glyphosate ties up minerals in the soil for no-one-knows for how long. Or how to reverse the process! Any eco-farmer, regen-agrarian, organic, sustainable, permaculturist understands how critical mineral availability is to healthy soil, healthy crops, healthy animals, and healthy humans, right?!

    We all live in a world saturated with man-made chemicals – our food, water, air – and clothing (fabric finishes, plastic fiber clothes, laundry products, dyes), furniture, carpets, mercury flourescent bulbs… almost everything in our homes, schools, and offices is adding to our chemical burden. Glyphosate/Round-Up has now been found in human breast milk, though the manufacturer claimed repeatedly that its studies showed that this chemical did not accumulate in animal/mammal tissue. When we factor in these costs, along with the cash costs of using ag chemicals vs the ‘benefits’, the equation may add up differently.

    That said, as full time alternative farmers, we understand the importance of being able to pay the bills!

    On ‘invasive’ weeds – This is such a loaded word, and is being used by chemical companies to help sell more toxins. (‘Save the eco-system from invasive weeds by slathering it in toxic chemicals!’ OK, not their exact words, but the meaning is the same.) Maybe ‘aggressive’ weeds would be a mor accurate, and less loaded, term.

    Similarly, with all due respect to J. Salatin, whose writing we have enjoyed for decades… ‘fifedom’ may not be the right word for semi-independant or independant operations on a farmer’s land; or ‘holons’ to the main operation run by someone other than the farmer.

    Just a few observations from someone who has long had a foot in two worlds…

    Best regards!

  2. Another challenge to agrarians making a living on a farm – at least in some areas, like ours – is the proliferation of non-profit farms that don’t have the same tax burden, recieive donations and/or financial support not related to the sale of farm production, and don’t have to earn a profit!

    In our area, there are several that compete directly with vegetable growers and CSAs. And some that sell small livestock.

    Similarly, when we asked a shearer in our area how he could afford to shear for less than what it cost in equipment purchase/ replacement, maintainence, sharpening, and travel costs over gas – his wife said, ‘Oh, he doesn’t do it for a living. He justs does it part-time.’ It turns out that he had also been given a lot of his equipment. Good for him, but he was undercutting other shearers who offer a service in exchange for their living, or a significant portion of it. And it never seemed to occur to him, or many of the flock/herd owners taking advantage of the low price, that when he realizes that he was essentially shearing for free – or even ‘paying’ people for the privilage of shearing their animals, at least once he has to start buying replacements for his equipment – and either quits or raises his price, that the other shearers offering honest pricing for an honest days’s work will be gone. Unintended consequences…

    This is a region where some farmers are accustomed to doing some types of farming on land they do not own for free, as well. Again, great for those farmers, but they do not typically care for the land as they would if it was their own; the owners usually have no clue about how the land should be cared for; and they may be able to afford the morgage and taxes with no return from their land (many live full or part time in a house on the land) – but others who would like an equitable arrangement or to form some kind of working partnership on a particular project on their land (like someone running cattle on David Sach’s family farm) can find it hard to compete with ‘free’ land. Yet the ‘free’ things often fall apart, partly because the person bgetting the free use of the land has no ‘skin’ in the game. This is in stark contrast to Joel Salatin paying the going rate for good tillable acreage in his area for overgrown scrub land to run his hogs on ()$200./acre, if I remember correctly) – and Salatin still made $60,000. net on the land that year.

    Don’t mean to harp on negatives, but just wanted to share a few obstacles… ur, challenges… that some face along the way to making their permaculture/ eco-farm dreams come true.

  3. I don’t know about leaving these Monsanto types off the hook. There is a reason they lobbied the US Congress to pass the “Monsanto Protection Act”. But I understand, you want to find middle ground. Just that the longer (plus the increasing doses) these soil killer methods are applied, the longer it will take to restore these soils back to sustainable practices.

    1. Post

      I am with you. I think the upper management of Monsanto is all about getting their cause across and doesn’t care. I am more referring to the researchers at Monsanto. I think they believe they are doing the right thing. And I want to stress that I think that they believe that they are doing the right thing. I DO NOT think that they are. I am in no way supportive of what Monsanto is doing and I am firmly against GMO.

  4. As I was listening to David’s quandary as to what to develop next. I as a person involved in marketing for around 45 years, there is an old marketing saying, “Find a need and fill it.” So simply take one or more of the ideas for your land, and FIRST, go to potential local customers, be it restaurants, grocery stores, residents, and say I am thinking of raising, whatever, honey, grass-fed and finished beef, medicinal herbs, fruits, nuts, chickens, eggs etc. Emphasise the benefits of the product, even if it would have to be sold for more than the “same” item they could get that is ag-business produced – yours will be hormone and antibiotic free, from pesticide free, with natural fertilizers, fresh-to-you, on and on. Then develop the one area that you get the best response from, particularly in your estimated ROI. Further, you could go one step further by having interested customers invest in that area by creating a CSA, even if they would not see the “return on their investment,” the monthly, or weekly delivery of whatever the product is for months or even a year later. If you do all of that, you are much better guaranteed to further develop your land in a logical most economically sound way that even your parents will feel comfortable with.

    Also, during the podcast, Diego was never able to get you to say exactly what the farm’s current net profit per acre was. While you still do not have to disclose that here, I who it is my business to research such do know the average. Last week, I had another farmer confirm the number. He is/was involved in his family’s Indiana family farm of some 2,000 acres raising the typical monocrops of Corn, Soybeans etc. When I told him my studies yielded the average annual bottom line was only $100/acre, he nodded in agreement. Your family and all farmers can do SO MUCH BETTER!

    Go for it,

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