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Making Sound Decisions Using
Holistic Management

By Susan Beal, DVM, Agricultural Science Advisor for PASA

I came to Holistic Management – or rather, Holistic Management came to me – out of the blue at an AcresUSA conference in the early nineties. Richard and Peggy Sechrist were presenting on financial management from the holistic perspective and I wandered in, interested to hear what they had to say.

That session shifted my world.

My past trail with financial management had been simply black and red – and whatever one needed to do to turn the red to black, one did – regardless of whether or not those choices resonated with other aspirations, dreams or priorities. Economics and financial management options of the past had felt to me to be, in many ways, punitive and judgmental - focused on how I was not fitting into the box of traditional approaches to, and successes in, financial management and economics that were being taught, particularly in the veterinary world – rather than helping me figure out how it might be if I were to plan from a place that included my perspectives and priorities and considered how I wanted it to be on the larger perspective.

Nothing I had heard up until that session with the Sechrists really integrated the things that I held dear – a vitalistic approach to the world and a lifestyle in which work and personal priorities were congruent – with a manner in which I could approach economics, finances and overall planning. The past red and black model had no columns for those other considerations that were really important to me.

While that particular session spoke to financial planning, their presentation showed me that there was a realistic and functional potential for a holistic business plan that was in concurrence with my strong vitalist tendencies. They showed me it was possible to marry what I now know as the triple bottom line into the choices I made in my world, be they personal or business. Here, in one fell swoop, I was being told that it was, indeed, possible (and potentially profitable, no less!) to integrate one’s priorities in ecological practices, in social and communities dynamics and in lifestyle in the context of a sound means of decision making, financial planning, management and monitoring.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since that day. The longer and more intentionally I work with the concepts of Holistic Management, the more I appreciate the fullness of the approach.

What’s all that look like on the ground, in the trenches, in the day-to-day? I can tell you about the side of the barn that I see.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that much of what folks (me, too!) have listed as goals are actually tasks - and many times those tasks have folks scurrying around doing a bunch of things without having a clear context, objective or overall intention (other than to work through the stuff on the list). So we tend to do a lot of busy work that leaves us feeling tired and depleted but not truly satisfied - and that does not really get us closer to how we really want it to be.

Realizing that the goal – the holistic context – is the touchstone around which one can determine priorities and thus decide which of those many tasks are really needed to actually keep moving toward the goal is a huge step.

My second significant realization concerns clarity around the whole one is managing. What is it, really, and who are the real decision makers who influence that whole? Without knowing that clearly – and marrying that to the holistic context – it’s really impossible to ensure that our actions and choices “fit” our goals.

That “whole” might be a family, a farm/farm business, one enterprise in the larger farm business, a board of an organization, a department of a company, etc. It’s important to realize that there are wholes within wholes and that these may partially overlap. Be clear on what you are managing and be clear on who the decision makers really are. Many woes and frustrations occur because folks try to influence things when they are not really a decision maker in that particular whole (or because there are others who are also decision makers who have not been consulted) and because they are simply not clear about what it is that is being managed.

In my work over the years with farmers and clients, I am more and more intentional about asking about these sorts of things; getting very clear about their goals and about who is involved in the larger decision making. I ask folks in one form or another (and rarely by explaining the Holistic Management paradigm or using the lingo we use in that context): “How do you want it to be? What’s important to you in this situation?“ From there it becomes far more obvious that the best solutions are not those that are imposed by some outside entity or individual but those that are chosen, particularly when the solutions further address the consideration “how do you want it to be”.

I’ve also recognized that I am a resource for farmers and clients – not a primary decision maker.

My interactions vary depending on the day and the situation because there are no rote answers and no one size fits all plan (and that frustrates some, for sure!). From where I stand, these concepts and practices fit well within the practice of individualized medicine that is part of holistic care, and specifically a part of homeopathic practice. While there are patterns that become apparent, one size does not fit all and each situation is unique.

In some situations it’s feasible – and desirable – to have folks go through the whole process in an overt and intentional manner, sitting down and indentifying the holistic context in which they are working, writing the goals, identifying the decision-makers and making the plans. After they do that, folks will know “how they want it to be” and what they need to do to get there. And they will have a touchstone against which to test and measure their choices and decisions, recognizing when adjustments are needed in order to keep things on course.
In other situations, that broad approach is impossible and we simply begin to work from where we are. In the trenches this approach unfolds in various ways. It may be making sure the whole family is really and truly on board (if only for the next two weeks, after which we reassess and renegotiate) when making a plan for a treatment and training program for a dog with serious behavioral issues. It may mean that I understand that the emotional value of that brown cow in those stanchions far exceeds her monetary value, and that I weigh that consideration when offering reasonable treatment options. It may mean that we all fully understand that, for this farm family at this moment in time, implementing a certain mineral or vaccination program is not the best use of their available time, energy and money – and seeing what they really need is to have some simple coaching about their paddock size and the timing of the pasture rotation that will result in larger volumes of more nutrient dense sward.

The family with the dog has identified the decision makers, a plan of work and the time of the assessment. The brown cow shows us that there are community and social aspects to consider in any decision-making processes – and that these may over-ride other aspects in a given situation. The farmers who alter their grazing management have identified the weak link in their chain of production. All these are foundations of Holistic Management – and all were used without ever saying the words.

I’ve yet to be in a situation in which folks do not appreciate the conversation around identifying the weakest link (even if we do not use that term) and the potential obstacle to moving toward that “how do I want it to be” place. There are many situations in which folks would like to separate the farmer or business owner from their money, or where farmers are feeling bad because they cannot get everything they want to do done. I’ve found that folks appreciate knowing that there is some way to intelligently indentify and triage the best way for them to spend time, energy and money.

Folks also appreciate how time, energy and money are thought of in the same manner. So doing can help give a sense of personal worth and value and help folks put a priority on the use of those resources.

Interestingly, there is rarely an argument about the “how do you want it to be” parts of things. In farms, families and businesses – and individuals - the debate and dissention typically comes from the “how to get there” portion of things – the tasks, not the actual holistic goal/the holistic context. So, folks argue about whether to have black cows or brown cows, about whether to dairy or raise hogs, about whether to certify organic, about whether to add heirloom tomatoes or chickens or soap-making to the task list. Folks rarely debate about the larger context, the “how do you want it to be” part of things.

Ultimately, there will be folks who embrace the full spectrum of Holistic Management: decision-making process, grazing/land management planning, financial planning, and biological monitoring. There will be those who need some time and space to consider the approach before they take more definite action around this decision making and planning process. And there will also be others for whom the timing is not right or with whom the approach does not resonate - but that decision does not negate the value of the experience they have had in coming to that conclusion. This is an exciting time for farming and for the place of Holistic Management in the larger world order.

Dr. Beal comes from a long background of holistic veterinary medicine, ranging from a mixed practice to emergency medicine, equine, and companion animal practices. Susan is particularly interested in whole farm/whole system pasture based ecology, and offers common sense advice and counsel with the goal of health from the ground up – thriving individuals and ecosystems.

Stay tuned for a future article where Dr. Beal will expand on how she uses the techniques of holistic management in her veterinary work and in her work at PASA.

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