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Guest post: Jon Bakehouse on Holistic Management

Tina, Jon and Anderson Bakehouse.

Tina, Jon and Anderson Bakehouse.

Below, PFI member Jon Bakehouse shares his recent experiences with Holistic Management, thinking differently and putting those new, different thoughts into practice.

It has taken me a long time to put Holistic Management to work on our farm, but after taking a distance learning course through Holistic Management International I finally feel like I am really using it.

If you’re not familiar with Holistic Management, it is, in a nutshell, a framework for making decisions based on a person’s or business’s holistic goal. If you are familiar with Holistic Management, you know that it can be difficult to actually start applying what you are learning.

For my part, as I’m approaching midway in my farming career, serious doubts are popping up: I love no-till but loathe chemicals; I love farming but hate being an importer/exporter; I grew up with Roundup Ready technology and love auto-steer, but am increasingly alarmed by how technology is numbing creativity and innovation; I am steeped in agriculture but know dangerously little about the soil that sustains us.

At the same time these doubts started to arrive, I heard Gabe Brown speak for the first time and was blown away that he had already addressed these issues. It seemed the answer to my “how did Gabe do that?” question kept coming back to Holistic Management. So, despite its brutally mind-numbing title, I bought Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield’s tome, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making and its slightly slimmer companion, Holistic Management Handbook: Healthy Land, Healthy Profits.

Amazingly, after reading 75% of the former, I discovered Holistic Management does exactly what its title says: provides a framework to address issues exactly like the ones described earlier. The main problem, however, was wrapping my mind around 600 pages of a new way of thinking. While there are straight-forward “how-tos,” there are also many abstract concepts, the central ones being nature functions in wholes and the importance of understanding our environment.

Beyond these concepts, holistic management requires serious thinking about what I want as an individual, as a family member and as a farmer, and understanding that these separate entities must function as a whole to meet our holistic goal. It requires all of our employees to develop a long-term, holistic goal together and charges all of us to articulate what we want our farm to look like decades into the future—not an easy task when we are laser-focused on this year’s yields. Holistic Management also introduces the idea of the triple bottom line: financial, social and environmental. We are good at taking care of our financial bottom line, but there is mounting evidence that we aren’t doing so well with our social and environmental balance sheets. One out of three isn’t great.

I get that deer-in-the-headlights feeling when thinking about all of these problems at once. It’s easy to get discouraged with the holistic process or to think, “I’ll just adopt a few elements,” but it pays to treat this volume like the text book it is. My problem has always been discipline, so after 18 months of off-and-on reading of Savory and Butterfield’s text, I signed up for the first class in Holistic Management International’s Comprehensive Distance Learning series, which is designed to provide an in-depth understanding of how to practice Holistic Management.

To this end, HMI provided a binder, Introduction to Holistic Management, laid out five specific learning outcomes, and paired me up with Craig, a Holistic Management Certified Educator in New York.

The binder is a streamlined version of parts of Savory and Butterfield’s book, so it essentially served as a quick (and much needed) summary of what I had already read. The five learning outcomes helped me hone my holistic goal and define my management assets, test decisions using seven testing criteria, describe how the process of using these questions helped me make a decision, examine and analyze the health of the four ecosystem processes in an area near me, and analyze what tools have been used in the management of this area and how they have influenced each ecosystem process.

These learning outcomes guided my experience, but the strength of this program lies in the one-on-one conversations with a Holistic Management expert. There is nothing quite like being able to ask specific questions about how to form a holistic goal or how to look for specific evidence that indicates where on the brittleness scale our operation falls. Craig and I talked almost weekly for a few months, during which time we not only investigated the learning outcomes, but talked about how Holistic Management can apply to almost any area of life. Some of our conversations even wandered in and out of the philosophical realm.

Beyond those basics, Craig turned out to be a champion for thinking differently as well as understanding that changing one’s way of thinking is a scary and daunting process. He was always able to bring me back to earth when I skyrocketed into the atmosphere of fear and timidity, reminding me that Holistic Management provides answers in almost all cases if we are disciplined enough to step back into its framework. How do we know if we are moving toward our holistic goal? By implementing monitoring protocol. How do we address specific problems on our operation? By running through the seven testing questions. How do we create a healthier landscape? By studying and understanding the tools available for managing ecosystem processes, and the list goes on.

HMI’s distance learning courses are not a cheap proposition. I paid $600 just for the introduction, and HMI offers four additional courses that I plan on exploring. They do offer a small discount if you sign up for all at once. The main advantage of these courses not having to drive to a classroom, and the pace is very much student-oriented. I was impressed by how well Craig tailored my experience to make sure I got exactly what I needed to advance my understanding of Holistic Management, and I have a continuing resource in him.

Are HMI’s distance learning courses worth it? Yes, even if you aren’t already familiar with Holistic Management and especially if you have already started down that path. It was a whole new experience for me to view 2015’s corn and soybean harvest through the lens of Holistic Management. One of the biggest red flags I noticed this fall was our lack of ground cover, even though we are 100% no-till. It is a daunting proposition to get our soil covered 365 days a year, but I know it’s possible with the guidance of Holistic Management and its new framework for decision making.

Jon and his family hosted a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day on Aug. 26, 2014. Field Day Recap: Maple Edge Farm.