Lessons Learned from a Decade as an Irish Permaculture Designer, Farmer, and Entrepreneur in Guatemala

My name is Neal Hegarty. I am a 42-year-old Irish man who has spent most of the last decade in Guatemala. As I write this article, I find myself on the deck of our farm-to-table restaurant,(Granja Tzikin, granjatzikin.com) overlooking the breath-taking Lake Atitlan. The sunlight dances on the water, a view that never fails to amaze me. To my right, one of our many thriving permaculture gardens teems with life, food, and beauty. On my left stands our bamboo guesthouse, a naturally built structure where visitors learn about sustainable living while enjoying organic food. Just behind me, up the road, lies our farm, Granja Tzikin—a harmonious, integrated landscape where goats, hens, chickens, and an array of crops, fruits, and native trees all exist in symbiosis. On the deck, my wife plays with our two-and-a-half-year-old child, while a dear friend entertains everyone with music. I am surrounded by blessings and love, and I can’t help but marvel at the incredible life I’ve been fortunate to live. An overwhelming sense of gratitude reaches deep into my soul.

However, this idyllic reality was not always the case. In fact, it has been an incredibly challenging journey, filled with moments so difficult and terrifying that I nearly didn’t make it through. What follows is an attempt to distil the most important lessons I have learned during my time in Guatemala.

Lesson 1: Follow the call of your heart

In 2008, at the age of 28, I arrived in Guatemala. I took up a volunteer position with an NGO and was sent to a rural village in the Guatemalan highlands called San Jose Poaquil. The village had been deeply scarred by the civil war that ravaged the country from 1960 to 1996. Although I struggled to comprehend their language, I listened intently to the stories of war and the dark times they recounted. I felt the weight of their experiences, and I diligently wrote down the words I didn’t understand, translating them later to learn Spanish.

During the day, I fulfilled my official duties at the local school, working on capacity building with teachers. But whenever I could find an excuse, I would assist the farmers with their daily tasks. I planted and harvested corn, familiarized myself with the local flora, and participated in coffee and firewood harvesting. The locals’ resilience and hard work fascinated me, igniting a burning curiosity within. Questions swirled in my mind: How could they work so tirelessly and still live in poverty? How did my Western lifestyle and consumption impact their lives? How could I genuinely contribute to their improvement?

These questions never left me.

At a personal crossroads, my father told me, “I’d like to see you go and have an interesting life.” This statement became my mantra. I worked tirelessly, studying and delving into topics that interested me: sustainable agriculture, permaculture, ecological design, and community development. I devoured books, attended workshops, and sought out mentors who could guide me on this path. It became clear to me that I needed to follow the call of my heart and dedicate my life to creating positive change in the world.

I wrote my thesis on “The relationship between Permaculture and Mayan cosmovision and land management”. In 2014 I got my dream job working for an NGO, run by Mayan Farmers in San Lucas Toliman. I worked for them for 2 years, during which I was privileged to find some incredible mentors, and work on a series of amazing projects. 

From there I was hired to design and develop a community agroforestry project once again in the highlands. The project was well funded and I got to work alongside some masters in their field. Life was exciting, life was easy. Teachers appeared at every turn, the more I followed my fascination with Permaculture, the more doors seemed to open. One of my best teachers was Shad Quadsi. A mad permaculture farmer and visionary. He asked me to come work on his farm, Atitlan Organics, in the beautiful lake Atitlan. I was ready for a change, the bubble of Tzununa, with its expat community and tourism seemed so enticing. A welcome break from the madness of the rest of Guatemala. (For those who don’t know, Tuzunana is a small town, located on the shore of lake atitlan, it has an population of around 5000 indigenous chachiquil maya, and has recently been irreparably changed by an influx of foreigners with capital, who are building houses and businesses) 

Working for Shad I got turned onto the idea of becoming a Permaculture entrepreneur. I was growing tired of the constraints of working on funded projects and wanted a change. My friend Jeremy Fellows and I bought a piece of land together and decided to start our own project. We built a shack that my now wife and I moved into, while Jeremy lived on his bus and we started working. We got goats, chickens, made gardens and built rustic accommodations. Our savings didn’t go far, so we started working as designers and project managers for other people. 

Both businesses grew. Within four years we built a farm, which produces goat dairy, eggs, greens, root crops and veggies for our farm to table restaurant. We also developed an educational program at our farm, where people interested in sustainability could come and learn. At the same time we designed and built a wide array of permaculture projects in our community and beyond. We designed edible landscapes, eco-retreat centres, and naturally built houses. 

I became obsessed with the idea of developing a style of permaculture farming that could be applied across the village, with our farm being one of several convergence points which adds value to the produce and sets up a circular economy. The intention became to work with clients and community members who wished to become self-sufficient and turn their landscapes into an extension of our farm. 

Lesson 2: Know yourself, look after yourself and learn to say no

Ten years of following my passion and loving what I do suddenly meant that without my fully realizing it, my problems changed. Where before I would wonder if I was mad, if I could really ‘make it’ as a permaculture designer. At this stage of my life, I said yes to every opportunity that came along, I was driven by my fascination and happy to work all day long to achieve my dreams. However, slowly things started to shift, suddenly opportunities were everywhere. Everyone I met wanted to work with me, or to collaborate. But while this can be wonderful, it can also be dangerous. I didn’t know who I was, at least not really. I’m a people pleaser, highly agreeable to use the OCEAN model (Openness, Conscientious, Extroverted, Agreeable, Neurotic). To be more precise, I’m high on openness, so I’m highly creative, I’m low on conscientiousness, so I’m not very orderly by nature, I’m very extroverted so I meet a lot of people and like almost all of them and I’m quite neurotic or prone to negative emotion. I’m bad at saying no to people and hard on myself when I fail. In an effort to become a better provider for my family, I took on more work than I could manage. Unfortunately my personality traits make me a great designer and planner of projects, but a terrible project manager. I took on jobs that I didn’t really want to do because I couldn’t say no. Projects went over budget, mistakes were made, my mental health began to suffer.

Lesson 3: Do it for the love, not the money 

Please, pay attention to your habits. My bad habits, like not setting up accounting systems or making detailed budgets, were always harmful to me, but when I grew my business, they became catastrophic. Compound interest is a naturally occurring phenomena at every level of existence. It’s how creation works, plants harvest and store water and sunlight in their bodies, when they die or shed their leaves they rot into the soil. The fertilized soil can grow more and bigger plants, this in turn means more water can be harvested, more sunlight captured, more soil built, and so on. Energy turns into matter and matter into life through compound interest, or upward spirals if you prefer to use new age nomenclature. Bad habits and bad decisions compound and create vicious circles. Deserts form because a bad decision or unfortunate event takes all the vegetation and life away from an area. The original event is compounded, future rains cannot be absorbed and so they run over the surface, taking more topsoil with them each time. Please, make sure your landscape is set up to receive water, and that you are set up to receive money, love and blessings.

Lesson 4: There is no such thing as failure, only learning.

About 12 months ago I suffered what some would describe as a nervous breakdown. Years of overworking myself, driving myself, managing a farm, hotel, restaurant, building houses, and permaculture projects while also trying to raise a family took their toll. As I began my recovery I knew that I would need to change my inner landscape, before I would see any change in the exterior world. I prayed to my ancestors. I prayed to Cuchullin, the hound of Ulster, to send me his ancient warrior spirit. I started a daily practice of breathwork, meditation and workouts. I committed to a new path, to consciously reconstruct myself. To become a man my son will be proud to call his father. I decided to internalize a new belief system, to create new mantras – that I love myself, that my journey and all that I have learned can be used to do good in the world, that we all make mistakes and we all fall down, what counts is what we do next. 

I vowed to build better habits, to do what I love to do, and endeavour to become the best in the world at it, to spend more time with friends and to enjoy my life. To create space for creativity, art and music. There’s already so much more space in my head. 

Lesson 9: ‘Small changes, lead to big changes”

It’s now just over a year since I fell apart. Since then I have not wavered in my commitment to my morning practices, exercise, and spiritual growth. I am ultra careful about what I say to myself, who I interact with and what I think about. 

I have begun a new career as a permaculture educator, designer and coach. I have created a platform called CreaSol Permaculture (creasolpermaculture.com) in which my clients receive a crash course in Permaculture design combined with integral theory. During the course I attempt to empower my clients with all that I have learned on my journey, so that they can design better lives and projects for themselves. I encourage them to combine permaculture with self care, community building, spiritual development and personality profiling so that they can truly reach their potential. At the end of the program I facilitate a design session with them in which we harness the power of collective creativity. Once the schematic design is done, my wonderful wife passes it to a digital presentation and provides technical drawings for houses, landscapes and all other installations. It’s a program and service designed around who I am at my core, a teacher. It is specifically designed to demystify and empower, to spread the knowledge and create permaculture practitioners all over the world. I am once again in love with life.    

Please, believe in yourself, love yourself and trust that the hard times, the bad times, the pain and the suffering are gifts, sent from beyond, to teach you something of value. 

Sign up for Neal's Online Permaculture Course and become a permaculture pro in 6-weeks.  

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