9 Steps to Building a Permaculture Farm

William Horvath of permacultureapprenctice.com gives a 9-step description of how to start a permaculture farm on your own property

Updated: December 2, 2023
William Horvath


[Originally published on permacultureapprentice.com]

Now that I have several acres of countryside to steward, I’m feeling somewhat overwhelmed about where to begin. I’ve done my PDC and designed my permaculture farm, but now I have all these pieces that I somehow need to fit together and I need to prioritize my tasks.

The problem is that permaculture is a set of principles, not a framework. While it is certainly a process, it lacks a set of linear steps to follow. Clearly, what permaculture lacks is a clear decision-making process.

Taking a PDC doesn’t solve the issue, while it helps with the design phase and developing a site plan, what is frequently ignored is “how to install the design”.

It is most manageable when the design is implemented in stages which build upon each other. That’s why, having taken some time to read up more on the subject, I have created a multi-stage plan based upon the components of the ‘keyline scale of permanence’.

This helps me develop my design incrementally, envisage the ‘big picture’ and, most importantly, I have an order in which to establish my permaculture farm.

In this post, I’ll share some advice on beginning your farm development and on how to implement your design in stages. Even if you haven’t yet designed your property you can still follow the process. Let’s dive in.

Permaculture farm development and planning using the scale of permanence

One of the best tools for farm planning and development in our current permaculture toolbox is the Keyline Scale of Permanence. Developed by Australian agricultural designer, P.A. Yeomans, in the sixties, the scale facilitates prioritization and decision-making when planning fertile farm landscapes.

There are eight factors in the scale with climate, landscape, and water supply on the top, and roads, trees, buildings, fencing, and soils being at the ‘more flexible part of the scale’.

Yeomans used ‘relative permanence’ to discuss the time-scale element for each factor and how much energy we should expand upon them. For instance, roads will last longer and consume more energy to install than subdivisional fences, therefore fencing is lower on the scale.

Many revisions of the original scale on the left

Nowadays, there are many different versions of the keyline scale. For example, the Regrarian framework that Darren J. Doherty teaches has some changes to the headings and suggests another two factors: energy and economy. David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Permaculture One added microclimate, while VEG incorporates crops and animals into the scale.

The bottom line is that these are the components of the farm development you’ll need to consider. Let’s now put them in a logical order and group some of them for the purpose of establishing your permaculture farm.

1. Start with Good Maps and an Understanding of Your Local Climate

geography of my permaculture farm

Geography analysis of my farm

The most permanent agricultural factor is climate, and it is fundamental to every aspect of your farm. Temperature, insolation, wind, the annual distribution of humidity and rainfall – these are essentially ‘the rules of the game’, as Darren Doherty would put it.

Geography concerns the location of your farm within the region, shape and form of the land, along with underlying rocks. If climate sets rules for the game, geography is the board on which you play.

These two factors form the environment into which you must place your permaculture farm. These are your design parameters – study them, gather the historical information, observe…

To quickly assess your climate, I recommend looking at the data for your location on the Weatherspark website. Simply enter the nearby town or a city, and you’ll get a comprehensive climate report in seconds.

For a ‘good enough’ contour map of your property, you can use Contour Map Creator. Follow the instructions and plot the contours, then download the KML file that’s been generated. Open that file in Google Earth, and voila, you have a topographic map to analyse the landform and develop plans for the property.

2. Develop Water Supply First

Permaculture Farm Krameterhof

Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof

In essence, water and rainfall will determine your permaculture farm’s development. The harvesting, storage and distribution of water form the foundation upon which you will build, because all the water lines: diversions, swales, terraces, dams/ponds, channels, will become permanent land features that other infrastructure components will follow.

When developing your water systems you will need to consider the storage, harvesting, and reticulation of the available water. 

A) Water Storage

You can store water in ponds, dams, tanks, and cisterns. Which option will be feasible for you depends on your needs and the overall volume of water available from the watershed and other sources.

Regardless of the form, from a permaculture perspective, the best location for your water storage will be high in the landscape. To pinpoint if a site like that is available, you’ll need to use your topographic maps and analyze the contours.

With your water storage high in the landscape, you can deliver the water to your household or crops via gravity. With some plastic pipes going from the storage to various parts of your farm, you’ll create a water network that delivers water for free.

B) Water Harvesting

Once your water storage is ready, you need to develop and expand upon the methods of harvesting the water. Water wells can tap into underground aquifers; however, before going deep use the surface stream flows and rainfall-runoff to fill your water storage.

You can capture water with water harvesting drains that will divert the runoff, streamflow or pumped water into your ponds, and subsequently tanks.

Swales or ditches on contour can also overflow water into your ponds. And once installed, your roads themselves become a very important and efficient water harvesting system.

C) Distribution of water

You should always aim to slow, spread and sink the rainfall you receive evenly across the landscape. This can be achieved by using keyline cultivation, a unique cultivation pattern which is an artificial water line, or by using swales. Both capture water, which then slowly infiltrates and hydrates the landscape.

You can also use gravity-powered irrigation to release the water stored in ponds and water tanks when necessary. The best location for your irrigation reticulation pipes is on ridges because, in this way, you’ll achieve maximum coverage of the foothills. Once your irrigation is established, other elements such as farm roads, trees and fencing will follow.

3. Define Access Points

access on a permaculture farm

Access points visualization – credits: Regrarians.com and Humadesign.org

Next, you’ll need to put in access roads, tracks, and paths, all of which are permanent features in the landscape and very important to consider early in the process. The placement of access points will define your movement around the farm.

The location of the access points is influenced by climate, land shape, and the water supply network you developed in the previous step. On gentler slopes, the location of the permanent farm roads is more subjective. However, as soon as you get into steeper terrain, the siting of the farm roads is heavily dependant on climate and land shape.

The best location for the main road is on the ridge crests, which divide watersheds – this road will be high and dry, and, most importantly, easy to maintain. Some other potential road locations are along boundary lines and by water channels such as diversion channels, irrigation channels, and irrigation areas.

Farm roads will also change the natural drainage pattern and also serve as hard surface runoff. You’ll want to place your roads on the contour to prevent the erosion and concentration of the runoff.

4. Restore Existing Buildings and Introduce New Structures

Melliodora permaculture farm

Building should be placed to optimise the potential energy flows – David Holmgren’s Melliodora

Now you have dealt with water and access and can move around, you can start the placement of buildings and other structures. In most cases, you’ll already have a house with a shed and a yard so you’ll first need to retrofit and adapt them to your needs.

You should always look after what you start with, then restore what you can, finally introducing new elements into the systems. You can start slowly from your house and work outwards – renovate the house first, perhaps extend it with a greenhouse, introduce plant nursery and keep on expanding….

When introducing new structures, their placement should follow earlier factors on the keyline scale, as these have already indicated the most suitable locations for the permanent farm buildings. Water supply is determined in relation to land shape and climate, farm roads are guided by the positioning of the water supply, and so on. All of which will disclose the suitable locations for your farm structures, buildings or other elements.

With this in mind, your buildings shouldn’t be overly exposed and they should have good solar access and protection from the winds, ideally on a slope. If you’re building sheds or other structures, try to position them higher than the house in order to utilize their water tanks for a gravity-fed water source for your home.

Another aspect to consider at this stage is your energy needs; the generation and storage of that energy. Every household needs energy to provide heat, hot water, and power your electrical devices: i.e. to maintain a basic standard of living. You’ll probably require the building or introduction of some energy producing or harvesting structures to fulfil those needs.

5. Subdivide Your Permaculture Farm With Fencing

Fencing development on my farm

Fences can be also considered as a part of the infrastructure but they are less permanent than other infrastructure components. Although they come later in the scale of permanence, if you already have an idea where they should go, now’s the time to put down your permanent and fixed fencing.

You can consider flexible and mobile fencing later, once the animals are introduced into the system: you should be adaptable to take advantage of different opportunities as they appear. For the moment, just consider the fences that will be a permanent feature of your farm, along with boundaries that will be permanently planted, such as living fences and hedges.

The easiest way to subdivide your farm is to work in accordance with more permanent infrastructure elements. All such factors will clearly indicate the pattern of the subdivision. Your main fences will generally be closely associated with the roads and follow their pattern, enclosing the paddocks and planting areas. Your farm zones can also offer useful guidance for subdividing your property.

6. Improve Your Soil


Improve your soil depending on what you want to grow

Although soil is the last factor in keyline scale of permanence, because poor soil can be quickly changed into fertile soil, it’s of primary importance in any agricultural development. 

For this reason, when developing a farm, you should be building your soil as soon as you are able. The goal is to improve the fertility of the soil in order for it to provide the maximum benefits when first planting your crops.

Simple techniques can be used to build soil and you can begin the soil conditioning in the earthworks (infrastructure) stage. This can include keyline ploughing, cover cropping, mulching, erosion control, and even the starting of microbial inoculation through biofertilizers and compost teas.

This is a necessary step prior to planting because it will improve the growth of your plants. Later, when good grazing practices are introduced, subsoil can be transformed into topsoil even more rapidly and you can increase soil fertility with less energy input.

Soil life requires air, water and minerals, living biology in and on the soil and intermittent disturbance regimes. If you create these conditions the soil’s life will respond, and start creating humus. For a better understanding on how to improve the soils read my definitive guide on building deep rich soils by imitating nature.

7. Plant Trees and Crop

versaland permaculture farm

Grant Schultz Versland – trees are planted in contour strips, following the land shape

Now that you’ve got your soil and water supply ready and ensured an easily accessible property, the next stage is the planting and establishment of the main systems of the farm – savannahs, orchards, woodlots, farm forestry, pastures, market gardens etc.

In most cases, you should begin by establishing windbreaks for the protection of your plantings. Once you have this ready you can start planting trees, woody crops, and annual and perennial plants. In doing so, you might wish to focus on establishing pastures and annual croplands prior to planting tree-based systems. This will provide a source of income and a quick return on your investment in time and money.

When it comes to tree planting, in general, the pattern should be based on the shape of the land. For example, in the case of keyline plan, farm forests are contour strips that predominately follow the patterns of water harvesting/distribution channels, as well as the roads, all of which are determined by the land shape. For a typical keyline layout take a look at Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm or Grant Schultz’s Versaland.

In a nutshell, your desired tree density determines which of the tree-based systems you’ll adopt. Food forests are denser while savannahs are more open and, for each of these systems, you’ll need a different approach. I have previously outlined the approach for establishing a food forest and, in case you missed it, you can read my step-by-step guide here.

8. Introduce Animals


In nature soils are formed in conjunction with herbivores

Animals are an integral part of the agricultural enterprise and regenerative ecology. They are key to the maturation of any perennial systems because no ecosystem can reach its full potential without animals. The natural progression is to introduce your animals once you have established your seedling trees. Nonetheless, animals can be introduced at the same time as your plants, although this will place additional pressure on your funds.

When starting out, consider pigs and chickens. They are easier to care for, have a quick turnaround to get your cash flow going and they are omnivores – giving you more feeding options. Temporary fencing will give you the flexibility to move them around, to protect your trees and other plants, and you can also use them for animal tractoring for an additional boost to the fertility.

You can introduce the big herbivores later and, with good grazing practices such as planned grazing, increase your fertility even further. With properly maintained livestock and living soils, you can complete the cycle and be permanently transforming subsoil into topsoil.

9. Develop Permaculture Farm Economy

Jean Martin and Maude-Hélène at farmers market

Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène (Market Gardeners) at farmers market

Once you got your farm up and running it’s time to deal with the financial aspects and expand your influence in the local community. 

Making your farm financially sustainable is entirely dependant on your ability to create a narrative about your farm. You should always aim at developing a personal relationship with your customers. This has never been easier, you can utilize simple and free marketing techniques such social media tools to make those personal connections.

However, doing this is one thing, and producing a product that the consumer really wants and then delivering it is another. The markets are very dynamic, and are constantly changing and evolving over time. However, the good news is that market analysis, and your access to these markets, are also only a few clicks away. Setting up an e-commerce site such as Shopify and selling directly to a consumer really changes the approach to selling.


Establishing a permaculture farm is a long process and the stages of your farm development are entirely dependent on your economic conditions. You might be forced to skip some of the steps and return to them later once you have acquired enough funds to express your capital.

Please feel free to disregard whatever is inapplicable to your site and remember that this is just one way of developing your farm.

Make sure that you download the FREE checklist to aid you in the process.

P.S. Have you started setting up your farm? What problems have you encountered? Let me know in the comment section below.

Thank you for taking the time to read William's article on how to build a permaculture farm. Be sure to visit permacultureapprentice.com for more info.

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I’m William Horvath, geologist turned permaculture farmer. In the last few years I’ve transitioned from working for the man and being trapped in the consumer-driven system to spending my days on my permaculture farm and doing my bit in restoring the landscape to the beauty we once took for granted.
William Horvath
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