Holistic Management: How to Work with Nature for a Sustainable Future?

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Interview with Ann Adams

Holistic Management started several decades ago, when Allan Savory noticed that there was a connection between the expansion of the desert and the decreasing number of cattle per pasture in the Zimbabwean savannah. Since then, he has rallied many supporters and Holistic Management has become a powerful management tool that helps farmers make a profitable and sustainable living across the world. We spoke to Ann Adams, the Executive Director at Holistic Management International, a non-profit organization that teaches farmers how to increase their productivity and soil health while working in harmony with nature. In this interview, she tells us more about Holistic Management and its positive impact on rural communities.

1- What is Holistic Management and in what way does it challenge traditional farm management? 

Holistic Management is what we call a whole farm planning process. The idea is that it’s a decision-making framework in which agricultural producers set value-based goals that integrate all of their social, environmental and economic needs or concerns.

In the past, the main driver for any business management was the economic bottom line. What we are saying is that in order for a farm to be sustainable, there has to be a triple bottom line: the economics, the quality of life and the land base being sustained. Think of it as a stool having three legs. If one of these legs is weak or not being attended to, then that stool is going to collapse. It’s not going to be a sustainable situation.

Holistic Management is really looking at how nature functions as a whole. If you can really manage towards effective synergistic relationships, you’re going to be far more sustainable than if you’re constantly fighting nature. Since the 1940’s, the corporate attitude has been “We’ve got these chemical products, we’ve got this machinery that we’ve developed and that we can now use to tame nature.” We took the idea that we could use large pieces of equipment, chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to improve soil productivity and feed the world. I think that people are now realizing that we have the technology, which still is a wonderful thing, but we have to be careful how we use it in order for our food production to truly be sustainable.

2- Does Holistic Management always involve livestock?

A lot of people come to Holistic Management through the holistic planned grazing path but many of our programs are focused on areas in the country that are a one acre vegetable, fruit or flower production. They don’t have any livestock and they are still using this process because it’s about the management. Gabe Brown, a rancher in North Dakota, grows a lot of grain crops, particularly corn. In order to improve soil fertility, he started bringing in no-till and he saw the organic matter increase. He also planted cover crops and what they call cocktail seeding or poly seeding to get 16 to 30 different seeds all in one area of crop land. Again he saw another increase in organic matter, but it really took off when he added in livestock to come in and graze afterwards. He’s got so much more fertility that he is now able to grow more corn, more bushels per acre, than the county average and for a lot less input. He is not doing as much tilling, he is not putting as much fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide on the land. His overall growth profit per acre is 4 times or more than his neighbors because of that management practice. Grazing animals coming in as part of that fertility practice tends to really make the soil fertility go up.

3- Is Holistic Management limited to arid landscapes?

Herbivores have co-evolved with the grasslands, which is 2/3 of the world’s land masses. Holistic Management came from that arid environment and it was developed with the understanding of the need for livestock to improve arid landscapes. This definitely made people think that Holistic Management is about cattle and arid landscapes, but we have people in Finland, in New Hampshire, the United Kingdom and many other places that are not considered arid. There are a lot of people recognizing that it’s the management and decision-making framework that helps people improve their resource management – regardless of what crop they are growing or what the ecosystems are like in their area.

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4- Can you tell us more about the farmers you help? What is their profile?

It’s quite a diverse population because you’ve got people from all around the world growing all sorts of things. New farmers, especially those who grew up in cities and weren’t around farming operations when they were younger, find it extremely helpful to have the natural ecosystem functions explained to them so simply. The tools really help them get in there and become successful pretty early in their careers. There are also a lot of experienced farmers who begin to understand the connection between how to balance quality of life with financial goals and the landscape they want to create.

Gabe Brown is quite an example. He had been farming for quite some time and was really struggling with soil fertility and costs and being profitable. He went to a Holistic Management class and it really helped him see that he didn’t have to be fighting nature. He could be using these ecosystem processes and consider the soil life as an employee. No matter whether you’re a farmer or a rancher, you’ve got a lot more livestock under the ground than you do above the ground and you have to pay attention to it and feed it.

Many farmers are saying “I want this farm to be around for my children. I want my children to see this as an opportunity, rather than the first thing they run away from to get a job in the city.” I think there are a lot of people that say that this can be a really rewarding profession.

5- How do you help farmers at Holistic Management International?

We are an educational non-profit organization. We provide educational programming and we also train certified educators around the world so that they can provide training. We have a lot of on-the-ground training here in the US that we provide and we work with our certified educators in places like Australia, Mexico, Canada that do the on-the-ground training there.

We have online classes where 130 countries are represented. We do webinars and participants complete assignments and upload them. The instructors then review them, give comments and send them back. There is an opportunity for dialog between people. We’ve got people in Sweden talking to people in Canada about issues that they are facing. It’s an opportunity to develop the community. We have listservs, blogs, Facebook and Twitter to continue to engage the community, share the information and help more people to become successful on-the-ground.

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6- You offer women only courses, can you tell us more them?

In the US, a third of all farmers are women, in many states that’s the growing population. You have an older generation where the husband has died and now the wife is the owner. You also have a lot of young people coming into farming because I think they see an opportunity. They have been raised with this idea of environmentalism and sustainable agriculture. In the environmental movement, there are not as many ways to directly participate in the healing of land as there is in farming and ranching. That’s your day to day job, not only to raise whatever food you are doing but be a good steward of that resource. A lot of younger people are attracted to that industry and of course young women now see opportunities for themselves in a way that wasn’t the case 30 years ago. It still is male dominated profession and when we have women learning this process, they are better able to talk to their husbands or their partners because they feel empowered to be part of that decision-making process.

7- You must have helped many farmers and ranchers along the years. Is there a specific story that touched you in a significant way?

Gabe BrownThe story of Gabe Brown is one that I often tell because not only has he improved his soil fertility so that he has a profitable enterprise, but his son Paul is now able to come back and farm with him. He talks to a lot of different farming groups and every time he asks “How many people have somebody who’s going to be taking over your farm when you are going to retire?” he says hardly ever do people raise their hand. There are so many people leaving the industry. The average age of a farmer in the US is late 50’s and we need to get young people back but there are no opportunities. If you are 20 years old and want to farm with your family but your parents aren’t making enough to live on, there’s no way for you to come back and earn a living too.

In the case of the Browns, he said to his son that he could come back and bring new ideas about enterprises that will be his. Now, they’ve got not only the cash crop of the corn, but also the cash crop of the cattle. Paul has also brought in sheep because we know multispecies grazing improves the soil fertility even more. They’ve got pastured poultry, they’re raising guardian dogs and herding dogs. There are all these additional enterprises that Paul can bring in and can earn money from.

I’ve seen this with other farmers or ranchers who are practicing Holistic Management. There’s an interest about bringing the adult children back and having more enterprises. You’ve even got the grandchildren that are involved. It’s that synergy again. You’ve got more complexity, more relationships, more opportunities and a better quality of life. They consistently say that they can’t imagine farming any other way. It’s a family friendly farming approach and it feels very rewarding to them.

To me that’s what’s exciting: more people on the land farming and ranching again because it’s not sustainable to have a few large companies growing our food. We need lots of people involved from a biosecurity standpoint. We need to bring back the rural communities. They have been atrophied but now we are starting to see more people move back to the country. These are all reasons why I’m excited about the work.

Charles Spencer

About Charles Spencer

Community Manager at Agriaffaires! You will find here all the latest agriculture and farm equipment news!