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An Introduction to Holistic Management

By Ann Adams

  • 300% increase in plant species
  • 100% increase in soil carbon
  • 400% increase in stocking rate
  • 40% decrease in labor
  • 50% decrease in bare ground
  • 800% increase in soil permeability
  • 300% increase in profitability (some as high as 1400%)
  • 500% increase in riparian bird population
  • 900% increase in rooting depth of plants

* Note: These results are compiled from multiple research sources (some on farm by the producers themselves). Not everyone who practices Holistic Management has achieved these results.

At Holistic Management International (HMI) we work to make our curriculum even more accessible and useful to farmers and ranchers, whether we’re working with beginning women farmers in the Northeast or experienced ranchers in Texas. As a Whole Farm/Ranch Planning process, Holistic Management helps farmers and ranchers better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic, and social benefits. This “triple bottom line” of benefits can be achieved by more effectively managing resources. There are two key principles and 6 key practices that help people manage holistically. These principles and practices, as a comprehensive adaptive management process, have helped thousands of people around the world achieve some pretty amazing results.

The Principles

Holistic Management is based on two key principles:

  • Nature functions in wholes
  • Understand your environment

The first principle focuses on the idea of holism, helping us to shift our paradigm to focus on building symbiotic relationships in all our management decisions. We have to pay attention to the relationships between the different aspects of the whole. Anytime you change one thing, it impacts other areas of your life. We keep that in mind with Holistic Management by using a holistic goal to help us keep focused on the big picture and reduce unintended consequences.

The second principle is to help people focus on understanding that all tools do not have the same effect in different environments. We must determine where the environment we are managing is on the brittleness scale (a scale linked to humidity and how quickly dead vegetation breaks down). In a rainforest (a 1 on the scale) there’s lots of humidity and vegetation decomposes quickly. In a desert (a 10 on the scale), there’s little humidity and vegetation decomposes slowly. With this principle we remember that there are no one size fits all solutions. What may be a “best management practice” in one area of the world could cause problems in another area.

6 Key Practices
  1. Define what you manage
  2. State what you want
  3. Aim for healthy soil
  4. Consider all tools
  5. Test your decisions
  6. Monitor your results

The Practices

Let’s take a closer look at the six key steps to practicing Holistic Management.

Practice One—Define what you manage

Define what you manage is looking at the inventory that you are managing. The two key areas of that inventory to define are your management team (decision makers) and your assets. When defining the management team you focus on who is making management decisions at the various levels of managements. Those people are the ones that should help create a holistic goal and who must have ownership in it. All your assets include what some people refer to as your “resource base,” which includes clients and vendors, tangible assets like buildings, equipment, and livestock, and money. Knowing what your inventory is then allows you to better manage it. This step can make you further aware of the influences impacting the inventory that you manage and how you affect them.

Practice Two—State what you want

Working with your other decisions makers on your management team, begin the process of creating your holistic goal—describing the life you want to live, based on your deepest values. To create your holistic goal, ask your management team to describe and create the following statements:

  1. Quality of Life: The quality of life desired
  2. Behaviors & Systems: What to create or produce to live that life
  3. Vision: What must exist to sustain that life in the future

These three different pieces of a holistic goal help the team define the quality of life they want right now which motivates them to manage toward the common ground articulated. It also helps them identify the behaviors, systems, and processes they must put in place to get there. Lastly, it helps them articulate their vision for the future with the legacy they want to leave in regards to their relationships with their communities and the land by describing:

  1. How you have to behave
  2. The future landscape
  3. The future community

In this way the holistic goal provides guidance for both short and long-term decision-making in a way that focuses on desired outcomes and less on problem solving that can lead to unintended consequences.

If you are part of an organization, department, division, or other unit formed for a specific purpose, you will also need to create a mission statement that articulates and clarifies that purpose. Doing so will improve internal alignment and decision making. You must answer the question, “What were we formed to do?” Individuals and farm families do not need to create a mission statement but may choose to do so. The mission should then be addressed in some fashion in your Behaviors & Systems statement to be sure you have a means to fulfill that mission.

Practice Three—Aim for healthy soil

This practice uses four fundamental ecosystem processes in Nature, so you can begin to assess the health of your land and consider it in your management decisions. The four ecosystem processes are:

  1. Water cycle
  2. Mineral cycle
  3. Energy Flow
  4. Biological communities

The earliest indicator of ecosystem health is soil cover and soil health. If there is 100% soil cover, made up of living and decaying plants and a great diversity of species, you likely have a healthy environment. You must have a good understanding of ecosystem health to be able to do the next practice effectively.

Available Tools
to Manage Land
  1. Human Creativity
  2. Technology
  3. Rest
  4. Fire
  5. Animals and Living Organisms
  6. Money & Labor

Practice Four—Consider all tools available

The tools for managing ecosystem processes fall into six broad categories from which we can select the most appropriate tools to create the outcomes we want based on our knowledge of current ecosystem health while keeping in mind the environment within which we are managing (what natural rules are at play).

Human creativity and money and labor are required in using the other tools. We have found that Holistic Management helps family farmers improve their creativity and explore how they can better manage resources. In land management, fire, rest, and technology are the most used tools to modify our ecosystem. However, the impact from animals and living organisms can help improve land health, water infiltration, and the land’s ability to sequester carbon through grazing and animal impact by many different species—thus providing multiple benefits with less negative consequences.

Tools are neither good nor bad and should be managed within the context of the whole under management. Consider your holistic goal and the degree of brittleness of the environment you manage, along with other factors before you decide whether or not a particular tool is suitable.

Practice Five—Test your decisions

The seven Holistic Management testing questions help us sift through the many factors and complex variables to get to the heart of the matter and help improve decision-making. Ultimately, we are looking at whether the action or decision meets the triple bottom line you have articulated in your holistic goal. These seven tests supplement other considerations when making a decision (research, intuition, cash flow, etc.). The seven tests are:

  1. Root Cause—Does this action address the root cause of the problem?
  2. Weak Link
    • Social—Are there any social concerns regarding this action?
    • Biological—Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of this organism?
    • Financial—Does this action address the weakest link in the chain of production? In my enterprise, what single thing will have the greatest positive impact on my chain of production?
  3. Comparing Options—Which action gets the “biggest bang for the buck” toward your holistic goal? Where is your highest return?
  4. Gross Profit Analysis—Which enterprises contribute most to cover the fixed costs (overhead) of the business?
  5. Input Analysis—Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal? Will the way the energy or money is to be used lead toward your holistic goal?
  6. Vision Analysis—Does this action lead toward or away from the Vision articulated in your holistic goal?
  7. Gut Check—Considering all the testing questions and your holistic goal, how do you feel about this action or decision now?

You may test decisions individually on a day-to-day basis or you will make higher level decisions as part of your strategic plan that will be based in your financial planning, biological monitoring, land planning, or grazing planning (or other production planning you do).

Practice Six—Monitor your results

Before you begin to implement a decision, consider any unintended consequences that could arise from your actions. Determine the earliest warning signs that might say you’re going off track. Monitor those indicators carefully; take action if things start to go wrong or circumstances change. This is a proactive feedback loop.

If you would like to learn more about Holistic Management, we encourage you to visit where you can get a free Introduction to Holistic Management Manual by clicking on the free downloads button.

NODPA, 30 Keets Rd, Deerfield, MA 01342 FAX: 866- 554-9483 PHONE: 413 772 0444