Holistic Management: Techniques to Help Farmers Hold Steady Over the Rough Patches

By Ellen S. Gibson

In 2010, I took a 10-month training in Holistic Management (HM) along with other beginning women farmers in the Northeast. I continued HM training for another two years to deepen my understanding. HM strategies are designed to help farmers deal with unforeseen changes, such as those presented by the pandemic, with less stress and more clarity.

Holistic Management is based on two principles

  1. Nature works in systems. Everything you do and all decisions that you make are related parts of the whole.
  2. Know your environment. Environments differ. What is common practice in one part of the world can be entirely inappropriate in another area.

For example, the brittleness scale; brittleness refers to the amount of humidity in the air and how quickly vegetation breaks down. Tools and techniques used in a brittle environment will not have the same effect in a non-brittle environment. Brittleness is measured on a scale from 1 to 10 (non-brittle to most brittle). A rainforest is a 1, where there is lots of humidity and vegetation breaks down quickly. A desert is a 10, where there is little water and vegetation decomposes slowly.

There are six key steps to practicing Holistic Management

  1. Define what you manage. Know what you are managing: define who are the decision makers and make a list of your assets, land, buildings, resources, people, and money.
  2. State what you want. What are your goals? What kind of a life do you want to lead? What do you need to put into place to achieve the life you want, and what are the values that will guide you?
  3. Aim for healthy soil. Healthy soil is the key to everything else on a farm. The health of your land is tied to four cycles: how energy flows, the water cycle, the mineral cycle, and the growth and breakdown of living organisms.
  4. Consider all tools (available to you). These tools are human ingenuity, technology, time, fire, animals, the biological community, resting the land, money and labor. Often considered the most important, the most readily available and the least used? Human ingenuity. 
  5. Test your decisions. There are seven HM testing questions to help you look objectively at decisions you need to make and consider the complex variables. The goal is to avoid costly mistakes.
  6. Monitor your decisions. In HM there is a feedback loop, where you plan, monitor the outcome, adjust as needed, and re-plan. Monitor your decisions so you can take action if things don’t go the way you plan or circumstances change.  If things don’t go the way you plan or circumstances change. . . who was planning for social distancing and the need to stay at home? The shutdown of restaurants and the loss of wholesale markets?

HM practices will stand by you in times like these. They’ll help to reduce stress levels and help you make better decisions while keeping the compass firmly set on your values and goals.

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