An experimental food forest project in a Mediterranean climate
At the end of June 2022, on the day of my birthday, Hsiao and I visited a 1.8 ha forest plot for sale in the Gard district, South of France. Following this visit, the owner, who would become our neighbor if the sale was concluded, invited me to describe more precisely our project if we settled on this land so that she could better understand what we had in mind.
Yes, because Hsiao will be working in Montpellier starting next year. So we have launched the search for an agricultural or forest land around that city!
We are dreaming of a piece of land not too far from the city, where we could install a lightweight home and where I could develop an experimental food forest…
But what is an experimental food forest?
It’s a small food forest, a micro-farm, where we enjoy exploring different associations of plants, different ways of managing trees, different ways of associating animals with crops, but also different ways of eating the forest, living in the forest, developing autonomy, and even different ways of welcoming visitors.
And to learn even more, I’m sharing below the project I sent to the landowner! It’s quite detailed, and I went as far as writing a 3-year budget forcast. This project is adapted to the specificities of the plot, but the outline should be adaptable to other Mediterranean lands.
At the time of writing this article, we have no answer from the owner… We are interested in any suggestion to improve the project, especially if you have experience in launching a Mediterranean food forest ;-)
Finally, I hope that this draft can inspire you if you also wish to develop a food forest.
Have a nice reading!
- 1. The 2 project leaders
- 2. Project description
- 3. Experimental food forest development plan
- 4. Plants, animals, visitors, and management practices
- 5. Development strategy (years 1 to 3)
1. The 2 project leaders
Lénaïc Pardon is the main initiator of the project. He is an agronomist specialized in agro-economics (2009), with a Ph.D. in agriculture and environment (2017). He has been growing vegetables as an amateur since he was a child in different climates (continental, Mediterranean, subtropical: example in Taipei). He has done some agricultural internships: organic dairy cows in France (2005), dairy cows and small livestock in Ukraine (2009), horse breeding in England (2010), and vegetables and fruit trees in Taiwan (2021). In 2022 he learned how to build small, light, and movable wood frame eco-homes and how to design and build landscapes where human uses are harmoniously combined with the ecosystem. He has been developing a blog for the past few years to share his explorations and experiments. His current experiments include collaborating with chickens to maintain a vegetable garden, exploring ways to compost human manure, and creating crop mounds based on the model of syntropic farming. He will be present in the field about 5-6 days per week and will be in Montpellier the rest of the time (computer work, internet).
Hsiao-Hang Tao is a co-leader of the project. She has a Ph.D. in ecology (2017), and is a specialist in theoretical ecology and statistical analysis. She completed a Permaculture Design Course (2012) and did a few weeks of internship in vegetable and fruit growing in a subtropical climate in Taiwan (2021). She will work in Montpellier for at least 3 years starting from September 2022 as a researcher and will be present in the field about 2 to 3 days per week.
2. Project description
2.1 Motivations and objectives
The main motivation for this installation is to take care of the Earth, to live with nature.
This project is therefore simply a proposal that will be adjusted by what the land and nature will dictate.
Being passionate about plants and agroforestry since I was a child, developing a food forest by combining layers and synergies is an obvious choice for me. Being also driven by a free and curious spirit, it was natural to imagine a project of an experimental micro-farm to allow me to develop food autonomy while experimenting with different techniques to work with nature. Finally, mutual aid and cooperation are important traits of my character and I will always be keen on sharing knowledge and welcoming visitors. My blog will be an ideal platform to share the results of my research. I practice Vipassana meditation and meditative retreats, and for a few years now, I have been hoping to offer a place for those who wish to do meditative retreats in nature.
On the other hand, city life and office work are challenges for my body, and recently sedentary life and electromagnetic pollution showed to be harmful to my health. On the contrary, living closer to nature offers me a much more suitable living and working environment, the benefits of which I can see even in the more harmonious functioning of my digestive system! It is therefore also for me just a question of health, an urge from my body, to focus on the development of a project in the heart of nature.
There are 3 different aspects to the project: (1) to reach food autonomy (at least in fruits, nuts, vegetables, tubers, eggs, etc.), (2) to experiment and share the results of my experiments in the form of farm tours and small paid e-books to reach financial viability, (3) to welcome people wishing to recharge their batteries, to meditate in nature, in the heart of a sustainable forest in exchange for a contribution in the form of donations.
2.2 A forested land of 1.8 ha
The project is based on a plot located in the Gard department, in France, in a Mediterranean climate (~800-900 mm of annual precipitation, hot and dry summer, significant rainy episodes in the fall).
It is a forest plot of 1.8 ha, accessible from a departmental road and bordered by a small hiking trail on its northern and eastern sides.
The land is composed of a low section of 8000 m2 relatively flat (~10%) at 80 m altitude and a section of 10000 m2 steeper (~25-30%) and rising to an altitude of 120 m (total elevation difference ~40 m).
The slope is mainly oriented East-North-East.
2.3 The 5 advantages offered by this land
The 5 main advantages of the land are (1) the topography (slope + flat), (2) the dominant orientation of the slope, (3) the presence of an already dense and stratified vegetation cover, (4) the presence of a trail running along the land, and (5) the proximity to an already well established agricultural project.
(1) The combination of a sloping area with a slightly flatter area at the entrance of the land will give us many opportunities to organize logistics (parking, storage, etc. on the flatter part), for water management (e.g. possibility of reservoirs), and the creation of microclimates by playing with the slope, the sun exposure, etc.
(2) In this hot and dry climate in summer, the orientation of the slope is rather advantageous to limit the solar radiation in the afternoon.
(3) The fact that the plot is already completely wooded is also a huge advantage that will allow us to observe the structure of a forest already established in these pedoclimatic conditions, take advantage of edible plants already present, and start plantations under a tamer sun while benefiting from the biomass already present and prunable to accelerate the aggradation of the soil.
(4) The fact that the plot is bordered by a footpath is an elegant opportunity to design a project oriented towards knowledge sharing and hospitality towards travelers.
(5) Finally, the parcel is adjacent to a forestry farm that has been in place for 13 years, which is a significant advantage in helping to quickly understand the pedoclimatic context, and the socio-economic context, by exchanging with the project owner, and this also opens up possibilities for helping each other, tool sharing, exchange, etc.
2.4 The 4 challenges related to this land
The 4 main challenges for the project are (1) the dry and hot climate in summer, (2) the shallow soil, (3) the significant presence of wild animals (wild boar, deer, rabbits, etc.), and (4) noise pollution due to the presence of the fairly busy departmental road ~200 m from the plot.
(1, 2, 3) The aridity of the climate in summer, the shallow soil and the presence of wild animals can jeopardize the start of young tree plantations. However, rainfall can be very heavy, especially in the fall, which is both a further difficulty if water runs off and erodes the soil, and an opportunity if water can be successfully retained for drier periods. The hot, dry climate also creates a threat in terms of fire risk.
(4) Noise from cars can be a problematic element for the reception of people, especially when silence is important in the case of meditation for example. But the wind in the thorns of the Aleppo pines, the crunching of cicadas on summer days, and the singing of birds are also sound elements that tend to soften the noise of motors, and the increase in biodiversity should gradually allow these natural sounds to be denser. Finally, offering overnight stays in cabins for travelers or hikers could be an alternative hospitality option for which noise pollution would be less critical.
Therefore, the main objectives of the first year of the project will be to (1) improve water infiltration and storage on the plot, limit evaporation by maintaining the canopy, and limit evaporation by slowing down winds through the densification of a vegetation corridor surrounding the plot; (2) stimulate soil aggradation through pruning and the addition of organic matter and manure from outside or inside the plot (dry toilets, mini-herd) ; (3) live on site and validate different strategies to protect the seedlings from predation before starting to plant massively; (4) learn about different natural methods for fire risk reduction and start implementing them (infiltration and water storage are already going in this direction); and (5) identify the hosting method that could be the most adapted to the land, by collecting ideas and feelings from friends passing by.
2.5 The 3 main phases of the project over 10 years
Autonomy and sustainability (years 1 to 3): reach food and financial autonomy after 3 years, focusing on soil aggradation and focusing on one source of income: the sale of topic-specific ebooks online on my blog (www.elegantexperiments.net), for a French- and English-speaking audience.
Diversification of income (years 4 to 6): diversify income by selling seeds, seedlings, and by hosting meditators or hikers for 6-7 months per year (hot period, April-October). Gradually develop a polyspecific mini-herd of about ten animals.
Diversification of plantations (years 7 to 10): accelerate the plantations thanks to the aggraded soils and the presence on the ground of many specimens to be multiplied, and widen the diversity of plants thanks to the emergence of new microclimates.
3. Experimental food forest development plan
In broad terms, the project’s clear objective is to fully preserve the forestry nature of the plot.
The idea is to implement plantations, and even a lightweight micro-habitat, without any artificialization of the soil, and even without this being visible from outside the plot. It is a question of aiming for the most harmonious integration possible of human uses in the forest, as would be a garden forest in the heart of the Amazon rainforest or in Pygmy territory.
The figure below represents the long-term target situation on the land. This development will only be implemented in small steps over several years (or even decades!), but the very first steps of the project will already prepare for its realization.
The plot contains (1) a 700 m2 canopy-covered entrance, (2) a 700 m2 hexagon-shaped “farm core” also covered by a canopy, and (3) 5 edible forests of 2500 m2 each. All these elements are separated by (4) 400 m of hedges of various kinds, that is to say, 1500 m2, and the whole plot is surrounded (5) by a corridor of spontaneous endemic vegetation of at least 2 m in width and 600 m in circumference, that is to say, 2500 m2 in total.
(1) The entrance to the site allows for parking a potential 15 cars, easy gathering of a group of visitors, grazing of a few animals, temporary storage of materials, etc. A canopy of trees protects this area (mulberry, Aleppo pine, oak, arbutus, etc.). They may be selected, and other young trees planted or spontaneous may eventually renew the canopy. All of these trees could be managed as high-stemmed trees, in order to preserve the canopy while facilitating passage and/or grazing under their branches.
(2) The farm core is another area under a canopy of tall trees. It contains (a) a tool shed, (b) a composted dry toilet, (c) an outdoor kitchen, and (d) an outdoor shower associated with a closed-cycle phyto-purification system so that water use is minimal (water is recycled and reused after passing through a phyto-purification basin, similar to the shower loop principle). These 4 spaces are light constructions in wood framework, without foundations and movable. Rainwater is collected above each of these constructions (~30 m2).
(3) The 5 forest gardens are independent of each other, all accessible from the heart of the farm. Eventually, each forest garden will contain a variety of edible plants on mounds managed according to syntropic agroforestry located between the endemic trees (mounds and trees not shown on the diagram), (e) at least one rainwater retention basin (shaded as much as possible to limit evaporation and maintain a cool mass in summer), (f) a micro-housing or hut of ~5 m2 for one or two people (no foundation, wood frame, movable), and (g) a shelter of ~5 m2 that can be used as a stable for a small polyspecific herd.
(4) Each of the 5 forest gardens is delimited by an experimental “fence”. Here are a few examples of “fences” to be chosen according to local conditions: dry stone wall, feeder hedge, bamboo, living hedge (eg. weaved alive shrubs), spontaneous endemic hedge, swale in a contour line always in water 6 months a year, etc.). These hedges will allow to reinforce the development of different microclimates, to guarantee privacy and proximity to nature for a visitor who would stay in one of the micro-houses, to choose to open or limit access to wild animals for each forest-garden independently, and finally to allow the possibility of establishing a rotation of a small polyspecific extensive herd between these 5 zones.
(5) The spontaneous vegetation corridor will be minimally maintained, except for occasional pruning if necessary. It will allow the movement of wild animals around the micro-farm, the visual separation from the adjoining plots, the realization of curves in the design to soften the rough angles and straight lines imposed by the shape of the cadastral plot, the maintenance of a zone of endemic “control” vegetation (this famous zone 5 in permaculture) important as an eternal source of inspiration for the contemplative gardener, but also necessary to make scientific comparisons with the experiments of the forest garden. The corridor will instead be 4 m wide along the footpath, in order to install a kind of “conviviality hedge” (h): informative panels on the local flora, edible berries on the model of the Incredible Edibles, and a public dry toilet (i). In addition to their user-friendliness, the dry toilets will hopefully collect human manure locally to accelerate soil aggradation!
4. Plants, animals, visitors, and management practices
Except for the occasional landscaping and terracing done with a mini-excavator, most of the work will be done with hand tools and with the help of the work that the animals provide spontaneously (e.g., the chickens prepare the soil before planting, the sheep “mow” the undergrowth, prune low branches, speed up the recycling of the pruned branches, etc.).
In this section, I present the choice of species to be planted, the way to plant them either in hedges or in round mounds, the reasons and the way to develop little by little a polyspecific mini-herd, and the first ideas of how to welcome visitors on the farm.
4.1 Choice of species and planting chronology
Initially, at least in the first year, it is important to identify interesting species already naturally present on the site and to facilitate their development (e.g. Aleppo pine for the canopy, oaks, arbutus, juniper, rosemary, etc.). This will avoid destroying a plant population that already provides many services while being fully adapted to local conditions. Maintaining and reinforcing endemic species will thus save time and maintain and reinforce the resilience of the forest, a useful step before attempting to implant less adapted species. In a second phase (years 2 to 6), we will diversify the plant species by planting non-endemic species, but which are well adapted to the Mediterranean climate and can begin their growth in ideal conditions, i.e. on improved soil and under light filtered by the canopy, which is both dense yet prunable if necessary (e.g. medlar tree, aloe vera, agave, prickly pear tree, almond tree, pecan tree, lavender, etc.)
In a third phase (year 7 and following) more varied microclimates should have developed thanks to the water retention basins, the 1000 meters of hedges, and the development of non-endemic Mediterranean species. Thus it should be possible to try to acclimatize species normally less adapted to the Mediterranean climate, such as more continental or subtropical species (e.g. giant bamboo, basket weavers’ willow, banana, date palm, dragon fruit, rustic taro, ginger, Chinese yam, etc.).
Some plantings may then be risky, but it will be more reasonable to take that risk then than at the beginning, and even failures can then be shared advantageously as experimental results. In the context of climate change, it may be particularly interesting to try to establish species adapted to drier climates.
The choice of species to be planted will focus on varieties that can be used for different purposes: food, but also medicinal, energy (wood energy), or even craft uses (timber, basketry, rope, etc.). The idea will be to spread out the harvest period as much as possible to avoid work peaks and reduce the need for food storage. Finally, the objective will be to prefer seeds and plants that are free and easily reproducible.
4.2 Planting in hedgerows
For the 600 linear meter corridor surrounding the micro-farm, it will be a matter of letting the vegetation develop while checking from time to time if pruning is desirable.
The 400 linear meters of hedges are important elements in the development of this project, especially because they draw the different spaces of the micro-farm. It, therefore, seems logical to consider their establishment as a priority in the first years. But the preparation of the soil, the planting, and the protection of the young plants over several tens or hundreds of meters can constitute a very consequent workload and investment.
It, therefore, seems reasonable to start by tracing and planting a hedge around only one of the 5 forest gardens during the first 2 years. This will allow us to reduce the work required, test and validate the most suitable techniques, to prepare a first space in which to install our microhabitat. For example, the soil preparation work could be done with a mini-excavator and completed by a participative work camp for planting.
4.3 Planting in syntropic agroforestry mounds
Apart from the hedges, I plan to plant the plants in guilds, in round mounds of 1.2 m in diameter, raised at least 50 cm. Each mound will consist of a densely planted unit: 3-6 trees/shrubs/bushes, 3-6 perennial vegetables, and about 40 annual vegetables to be harvested gradually. This mound system is inspired by Miyawaki’s restoration techniques to promote forest growth up to 10 times faster than when plantings are made without prior soil preparation (key points: prepare an uncompacted soil rich in organic matter to a thickness of 50 cm, and plant densely, i.e., 3 trees/m2 in a temperate climate) and Ernst Gotsch’s syntropic farming techniques (in French with English subtitles) for the choice of plants (to plant in the same spot perennial plants and annual plants to spread the harvests over several years, to plant very densely and then to prune in order to catch sun rays, limit weeds growth, and stimulate humus formation). The 1.2 m diameter allows access to the center of the mound without ever having to walk on it, and the 50 cm elevation, for example with a stone wall, should help limit predation by making the young plants less accessible to animals.
After determining a location for a mound, I will roughly prune the area and install a small mobile chicken house for 3 hens. I will let the chickens graze the area every morning for about 1 week. I will then move the chicken house to a second area to be prepared, and while the chickens begin to prepare the soil in this future area, I will finalize the soil preparation in the first area. To do this, I will remove the first horizon of soil loosened and enriched by the chickens, loosen the lower horizons by 20 cm, and prepare the new upper horizon by combining the first horizon with organic matter collected elsewhere on the land, manure and compost if possible, etc. Either in layers or simply by mixing the different elements, but with the goal of obtaining a mound of at least 50 cm of very rich soil capable of retaining water, providing an abundance of nutrients to plants, and already inoculated with forest mycelium. Finally, I will plant a set of plants working in synergy, allowing a complementary use of resources, and providing harvests spread over several years. In total, I estimate 3-4 days of work to prepare the plants beforehand, do the rough pruning, prepare the mound, build the stone wall, and plant, all with hand tools only. This may seem very inefficient to finally obtain such a small planted area of 1.1 m2. But the idea is to carefully prepare and protect the guild for the best possible development, and in this way prepare for several years or even decades of harvests (e.g. if the guild is built around an almond or medlar tree that will produce fruit), while reducing future work to mainly harvesting the annual vegetables and pruning. Indeed, the risks of predation will be limited by the low wall, weeds will be slowed down by the tightly planted annual vegetables, the need for watering will be minimized thanks to the important quantity of organic matter, etc.
For watering at planting time, which may sometimes be necessary, I imagine a manual watering with a watering can, getting the water from the nearest retention basin. Gravity watering could also be considered, possibly with a drip from a retention basin upstream (gravity watering, therefore without a pump). But ideally, I would prefer to limit watering as much as possible, or even stop planting during the driest months, which is easier to achieve for self-production than for commercial vegetable production.
In addition, raising the mounds will protect them from potential domestic animals, and will define a clear boundary for visitors walking through the forest. Finally, planting the mounds one after the other, at the rate of one mound per week (~ 40 mounds per year if I take time off!) will allow me to spread the workload over the year, and refine the technique week after week, according to the trials and errors.
The two main risks I can think of with this mound system are: (1) the risk of the mound drying out during the summer because it is raised (getting inspiration from Philip Forrer’s semi-buried mounds (in French) might be more effective), and (2) the risk that a 50 cm high low wall might not be enough to protect the plants from predation by deer or small animals such as rabbits (in which case woven bamboo borders, or even removable netting, might be alternative options to test).
4.4 A multi-species mini-herd to assist me in forest management
I plan to gradually build up a small polyspecific herd: 3 hens fairly quickly, for their great help in preparing the soil before planting, regulating gastropod and insect populations, and for egg production; 2-3 sheep for their great help in maintaining the walkways, accelerating the decomposition of pruning branches by debarking, for wool, and possibly milk; and 3 pigs for their great help in preparing the soil. The goal would be to host local breeds adapted to the climate and/or small or dwarf breeds to ensure sufficient forage availability and limit the risk of predation on the mounds.
All of these animals also produce manure, which can greatly facilitate the work of adding fertility to the mounds. The manure will allow for the addition of nitrogen to balance the mainly carbonaceous inputs from the leaf litter that I will collect on the forest ground. I also find that the animals give us a very special feeling when they are directly surrounding us, as will be the case if, for example, visitors come to spend a night in a cabin in one of the 5 forest gardens where the small herd is precisely grazing.
Integrating animals into a food forest is not very common, given the apparent competition between young plants and animals. However, I think it is a key element of the project, to test to what extent it would be possible to replicate what nature does, where animals are not separated from the forest, but instead play various roles, from transferring fertility to regulating insect or plant species.
The main challenges of having a small herd are: (1) not getting enough fodder in the summer or winter, (2) not getting enough water in the summer, (3) not being able to effectively protect raised mounds or hedgerows from predation, (4) having to be on the land all the time to take care of the animals.
I think a reasonable way to approach these challenges is to carefully observe the behavior of wild animals already in the forest, and introduce livestock gradually, to test solutions as problems arise. For example, it seems pretty clear to me that I will start with 3 chickens, as I have already gained experience in raising chickens, that they do not need to enclose the plot as they should not venture further than the plot boundaries, that they provide very interesting protein in a food forest, and that their work in preparing the soil can be very useful.
4.5 Receiving visitors: sharing knowledge and closing the cycles
As a first step (~ year 1), I would like to briefly develop the north side of the land along the walking path. This will allow me to begin to familiarize myself with knowledge sharing without the need to organize visits, at a time when I will be very busy with the first stages of observation, earthworks, installation of a micro-house, and planting of hedges.
In a second time (~ years 2-3), it may become spontaneous to start welcoming visitors to the farm, who might be interested in discovering edible wild plants or in the preparatory work of “designing” and terracing a Mediterranean forest garden.
In a third phase (~ years 3-4), when I will have created several hundred meters of hedges, several dozen mounds, it will become interesting for visitors to come and harvest some fruits or berries themselves, to picnic one afternoon under the trees, to follow a guided tour of the food forest, or to listen to a classical music concert in the farm core under the canopy…
Finally, when the hedges will more or less completely surround the 5 forest gardens (~ years 5-10), it will become natural to invite some visitors or hikers to spend a night in the hut. This will require, however, that effective systems for fire protection, kitchen, and toilets be in place, and to have built the cabins. Not to mention the legal issues to be resolved in time!
I imagine being able to build one micro-house per year, starting in years 4 or 5, after I have achieved financial viability by focusing on one source of income. Starting too early to diversify my activities would risk losing focus and burning out, as I have experienced in different situations in the past. I will be able to re-use my skills in building mini-wooden structures and in building bamboo structures harvested from the forest garden. And I would also like to experiment with living plant architecture, inspired by architect Luc Schuiten. Hosting for nights in cabins only during the warm season also allows me to greatly simplify the project: cabins with little thermal insulation and no heating system are sufficient, as well as outdoor sanitary facilities and a kitchen.
A particular aspect that I like in the idea of welcoming people is the possibility of proposing dry toilets to collect the stools of the visitors and hikers passing by. This would boost soil aggradation by providing me with a rich resource directly “deposited” on the micro-farm. Visitors could come to harvest berries, they could help themselves in the food forest during a night in the hut, but they would then leave their large or small contributions to the forest as a thank you, thus closing the nutrient cycles in a simple and elegant way, as it should always have been!
5. Development strategy (years 1 to 3)
5.1 Year 1: Observation, soil aggradation, first plantings
In the first year, I will focus on (1) observation, (2) making contact with the broader neighborhood, (3) doing some earthworks to optimize water flows, (4) starting pruning and manure application to accelerate soil aggradation, (5) testing different strategies to protect seedlings from predation, and (6) setting up a light, self-sustaining micro home.
(1) Observation of flora (edible endemic plants, bio-indicator plants), fauna (e.g., location of preferred wildlife routes), soil (identification of major soil types, location of clay-rich sites potentially useful as building material or for lining ponds), climate (installation of a minimalist weather station, identification of potential runoff points, crucial in this context where summers are hot and dry and precipitation is high in the fall).
(2) Contact with the social context and identification of opportunities for mutual aid and exchange of materials and services (neighboring farms, the passage of the footpath along the property, etc.).
(3) After observation of the water dynamics during the fall of 2022, possible minimalist earthworks at the end of winter 2023 to favor infiltration and storage of rainwater on the plot while preserving a maximum of vegetation and trees and trying to take into account the itineraries of the animals, guided in particular by the keyline principles and the knowledge about water recently popularized by The Water Conference (e.g. importance of vortex movement, the role of geometric shapes, etc.). Creation of swales, terraces, basins, and flat areas, depending on the situation. Rental of a 1-ton mini-excavator of 1 m wide to pass between the trees, for 5 days, then 5 days of manual raking to finalize the earthworks and extract the revealed stones. After observation of the new water flows at the time of the spring 2023 rainfall, possible earthwork in the summer of 2023 to refine or correct the arrangements (5 days of mini-excavator + 5 days of handling). It is during these two periods of earthwork that I will use the mini-excavator to prepare the implantation of the hedge surrounding a first zone of garden forest to install our micro-house.
(4) Continuously pruning of the trees, little by little, over the year 2022-2023. The pruned biomass will be returned to the soil. This will enrich the soil with organic matter and minerals from deeper layers, thus stimulating fungal and micro-organism development, and increasing the thickness of organic matter for water storage. This pruning also stimulates plant production and root growth and thus enhances biomass production and ecosystem resilience through the development of the root network and the increase of mutual aid effects between plants through the nutrient exchange. Of course, this pruning will also allow for the appearance of a few gaps to prepare for the establishment of new mounds of edible plants.
(5) Test plant protection against animals. To do this, start by testing the densely planted raised beds.
(6) Set up a first light habitat in wood frame, integrated into the landscape, small, movable, and autonomous (< 20 m2 on the ground, recovery and filtration of rainwater, small solar panel for phone, computer and some electro portable tools functioning on 18V battery, no internet at the beginning). This eco-construction will be used by the project holders and will be located in one of the 5 forest gardens.
5.2 Year 2: Business model testing
In the second year, I will focus on testing different ways to reach financial autonomy. My main objective is to sell theme-based ebooks on my blog (e.g. edible wild flora in the garrigue of Gard, minimalist terracing in a forest to optimize water storage, setting up raised mounds to protect guilds from predation, focus on an example of a guild to be set up in the Mediterranean and the synergies used, etc.)
My blog is currently visited by ~3000 visitors/month (+50% per year), and about 130 people are subscribed to my newsletter (+2 to 3 new subscribers per month). Over the years I have gained some experience in writing and publishing blog posts. Taking advantage of this audience and my experience seems to be a good strategy to share food forest experiments. I have also started some monetization experiments that show me that a well-researched 10-page ebook on a specific topic could sell for about 4 euros.
During this year, continuing the implementation of the management plan and the planting of hedges and raised beds will allow me to always have new experiments and testimonies to share with my readers, which will synergize the development of the farm and the sale of ebooks. Other sources of income could be tested in parallel at that time, such as sponsorship on platforms like Tipeee (note: actually, only a few weeks after writing this project proposal, I decided to set up already a Tipeee and Gumroad accounts to propose my readers to support my work).
If the market for digital knowledge does not prove to be promising, I could start testing alternative activities. The activities that interest me the most and that seem to me to be the most realistic would be on the side of perfume, medicinal and aromatic plants (cultivation of medicinal mushrooms under the canopy, harvesting, drying, and powdering of wild plants, etc.). The added value per unit of mass is high, it is possible to sell in a deferred way if the plants or mushrooms are dried, and it is possible to sell remotely which could be an option by connecting this activity to my blog. Finally, the project holder in the adjacent plot could share with me her 13 years of experience in the production of aromatic plants. On the other hand, such an option would require the construction and/or the investment in a series of production tools (solar dryer, manual mill with stone wheel, hermetic bags in kraft paper, labels) and develop a production flow chain.
5.3 Year 3: Specialization in one revenue stream
The second year will ideally have allowed me to test different business models and choose one. The goal of the third year will be to keep only the model that works best in order to gain efficiency and keep focused. If the ebooks sold online prove to be successful, I will then be able to continue implementing the experiments in the micro-farm, and share these experiences in new publications. One of the interests of this type of business model is that publications constitute a kind of annuity, a capital, because they are written once, but can continue to be sold year after year as long as they are relevant. A bit like a mound that is lovingly prepared once, but produces fruit over several years.
During this year, if opportunities arise to try to plant riskier species already, to start hosting tent travelers, to start selling seeds or seedlings, I may seize the opportunities, but rather as interesting signals for future diversification, while staying firmly focused on the income stream to be strengthened.
Based on my past experiences of writing blog posts, I should be able to reach over this year 3 the cruising speed of about one ebook every 2 or 3 weeks (each ebook would be based on my own unique field experiences, but also well-documented, and in two languages: English and French). This would correspond to about fifteen ebooks per year sold at 4 euros each (if I take two months off in total per year).
5.4 Budget forecast
I have made below a first rough financial analysis of the project for the first 3 years, to give an idea of its feasibility.
In summary, it seems realistic to reach a full return on investment before the end of the 3 rd year. At that time, the net income would be 1100 euros per month which will be too low for 2 people, but a quick calculation shows that according to these assumptions it seems realistic to reach an income of 2000 euros net per month at the end of year 4, due to the capitalization of the ebooks coupled with the linear increase of the blog visits.
|Sections||Items||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3|
|–||Purchase of land (including demarcation and notary fees)||8000||0||0|
|–||Earthworks (1t excavator, 10 days, 250 euros/day). Source : https://www.loxam.fr/p/minipelle-1t/057-0001-010742||2500||0||0|
|–||Micro-house (cost of materials)||3000||0||0|
|–||Trailer (1.8 x 3 m)||3000||0||0|
|–||Plants and seeds||1000||1000||1000|
|(2) Monthly expenses||––||1700||1700||1700|
|–||Insurance (home, trailer, car)||500||500||500|
|(3) Sales (including self-produced food)||––||4200||7000||17600|
|–||Self-produced food (equivalent to 300 euros/month, for 2 people)||3600||3600||3600|
|–||Number of newsletter subscribers||200||400||1000|
|–||Number of ebooks written (10 pages, 4 euros each)||5||5 + 10||5 + 10 + 15|
|–||Sales of e-books (rough calculation to have a realistic order of magnitude: 10% of readers buy all e-books)||400||2400||12000|
|–||Donations, free price (guided tours, small food surplus)||200||1000||2000|
|(4) Intrinsic profitability (sales - investments - expenses + profitability of previous year)||––||-16200||-12000||2800|
|(5) Taxes (does not take into account self-produced food and donations/open price)||––||550||800||2100|
|–||Property tax (estimate)||500||500||500|
|–||Income tax (13%, microenterprise selling ebooks)||50||300||1600|
|(6) Net income (including self-produced food and donations/open price)||––||-16750||-12800||700|
The initial investment includes mainly the purchase of the land (~8000 euros), the earthworks (~2500 euros), the construction of a micro-home (~3000 euros), the purchase of a trailer to transport materials, micro-homes, plant material, etc. (~3000 euros) and the plants, seeds, various tools etc. (~2000 euros).
I make the assumption that I focus on the sale of ebooks as a microentrepreneur (13% tax), estimating the writing of well-documented ebooks, of 10 pages, sold at 4 euros each, and considering that I already have my blog as a distribution and marketing platform, and my newsletter as a means of promotion. I also count as income the potential donations made by visitors to the farm, and the monetary value of the food produced on the farm and consumed by myself since this corresponds factually to a lower food expense (~300 euros/month for 2 people).
The fact that we already have a running marketing and promotion system makes it easier to start the project. The fact that one of the project leaders has an assured salary during this 3-year period is also a determining aspect in favor of the project’s success.
Finally, it is interesting to note that in the event of a problem and if a resale were to take place, the land value should be maintained given the current trends and even increased due to the earthwork, and the value of the plant capital should have increased thanks to the first plantations. The other investments in the micro-housing, the trailer, and the tools could be easily taken back and moved elsewhere or sold but at a lower value than the purchase value.
Dear reader, I hope that reading this project has been inspiring!
Any suggestions to improve this project? Thank you for your feedback!
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