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20 April 2023
20 April 2023

Applying Holistic Farm Management to Investment & Giving

Written by Rebecca Gorman
Rebecca Gorman is a farmer using the principles of Holistic Management to improve biodiversity and well-being on her family’s farm in southern NSW. She is a former journalist working both as a freelance foreign correspondent and across a range of ABC Radio and TV programs. In the family's philanthropic work, they seek to help improve the way we manage our land, grow our food and share it.

My introduction to holistic thinking did not come with a thunderclap. I was interrogating Nick Austin from a neighbouring farm, about how often we should be moving our cattle in a rotational grazing regime.

“Well,” he said, “It’s not really about how often you move your cows. It’s about how you make your decisions.”

Feeling privately that I could make perfectly decent decisions, thank you very much — I was pretty underwhelmed. But when I began the Holistic Management training created by Alan Savory, I discovered what he meant.

When you’re working as an ecosystem, supporting the needs of a family, a business, and the environment, a scaffold to manage these competing parts, is just what’s needed.

However, it took a while to get used to running decisions through the HM 7 testing questions. The framework especially asks us to examine the root cause of any intervention and this can be challenging, personally and intellectually.

Immersed in the community of ecological farming, I launched down the road of cross-referencing Savory’s ideas, exploring the great canon of ‘nature’ thinkers. From Rachel Carson to Charles Massy, Aldo Leopold to Nicole Masters, and even the then Prince Charles with his beautiful book, Harmony, I discovered that this vision of making decisions for the whole is indeed possible, in fact, it’s essential.

When the reading led me to David Fleming’s wonderful work, Surviving the Future, I discovered yet another layer to the testing questions idea.

Fleming’s subtitle, Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, tells a little of his vision, not as a doomsayer of the market, but as the vision setter for a collaborative, resilient, playful economy. Scoff now at the idea of an economy being more playful, but dozens of charities and government initiatives to address mental stress and illness indicate a need for it.

Fleming draws on a breadth of history and philosophy to define his vision, described by his editor Shaun Chamberlain as, ‘both grounded and inspiring’.

Immediately, I loved the compatibility of Fleming and Savory’s conclusions.

And I could see how well they combined as due diligence for investment or philanthropic ideas purporting to address climate problems.

Both visions include the notion of holism — the understanding that what you influence in one place has an impact on everything else. To put it slightly differently, there are no independent variables.

Mixing Savory and Fleming and with apologies to both, here are 8 questions that can act as a useful tool for the placement of money and effort.

  1. What’s your intention or Holistic context? If it’s regenerative agriculture, then somewhere in the vision we must see improved soil health, increased biodiversity, thriving native species, a well-functioning small and large water cycle, enlivened human communities and so on. Not everything has to be achieved at once, it just needs to be considered at once.
  2. Sustainability of the idea - Will this investment sustain this vision you’ve just described?
  3. Cause and effect - Does this investment address the root cause of the problem that it is seeking to influence? For example, technology that tries to be more precise in its application of pesticides is not addressing the root cause of why we have created a system that uses pesticides. Keep asking "why" to work backwards to the root cause.
  4. Is it built from ‘manners’? Does the investment encourage and enrich human interaction? Have you considered or addressed any confusion, anger or opposition this investment or action could create?
  5. Scale. Is the project human scale? Fleming writes, “It is widely supposed that large size confers advantages – more efficient economies of scale. And yet large anything including cities and animals need large amounts of stuff to feed them, large infrastructure to manage them and large amounts of waste out the back end. Small scale, on the other hand, is the opposite, allowing for more attention to detail, more flexibility and potential for empowerment...[leading to people being able to] create extraordinary things as their daily bread." Another way of thinking about this question is asking if something requires external support to function properly, and if so, how much? For example, monoculture cropping systems use biocides, technologically ‘sophisticated’ seeds, synthetic fertilisers, high-tech machinery, etc. Each of these inputs is fragile – exposed to disruption because of its connection to and reliance on the other parts. Systems that occur naturally, prefer diversity which allows them to be resilient to disruption and disturbance.
  6. Energy source and use - What form of energy does a system use? Does it rely on fossil fuels – ‘yesterday’s sunshine’ – or is it driven by ‘today’s sunshine’ of plants and animals, of human labour?
  7. Does it recognise the need for spare capacity? I.e. the ‘real’ economy of friends, neighbours, community organisations (the relationships that keep societies going) or its ‘unreal’ counterpart - commodity markets, international capital flows? To use Fleming’s terminology, is it “Taut” (competitive, brittle, vulnerable) or “Slack” (cooperative, supple, responsive)?
  8. Is it local? Does it enhance the idea of short supply chains that develop local employment, maintain food nutrition and build local relationships that have positive co-benefits?

Once you’ve made a call on a specific decision then it goes into the usual cycle of Plan, Act, Assume you’re wrong, Check, Replan and so on.

Using this framework has allowed us to see where in the puzzle to place our efforts and money. On the farm, it’s been very clarifying as I’ve come to understand the whole better, but off- farm it’s harder to know whether to contribute to the big picture of policy and government, or the grassroots where so much effective work is being done.

The framework has allowed us to invest in a range of projects at both levels and to monitor their effectiveness.

With the increased demand for ecosystem services, there will be plenty of growth to make money making regenerative agriculture effectively a new asset class.

But as an industry that literally manages the earth, agricultural initiatives need special thinking. We’ve already seen what poor agricultural management can do.

Perhaps the main difference between a regenerative investment and a typical money-making investment can be seen in this framework. Savory and Fleming acknowledge the importance of people, of presence, of connection to place and simplicity.

We must be wary of well-intentioned schemes that could do further damage. To return to the definition of Holism, there are no independent variables. What works in one place may work differently elsewhere so beware the urge to ‘Scale’. As Fleming points out, bigger certainly does not mean better, and more can often be less.

There is a tendency to think that big problems, of which we have many, require big solutions. In this framework, big problems respond well to many small, regionally appropriate solutions.
That is not an invitation to spread investment dollars thinly, or to be open to any and all ‘solutions’.
It’s an opportunity to embrace an orchestra of answers.
Hopefully, this kind of framework can help keep us in tune.

This article is an extract from Regenerating Investment in Food and Farming: A Roadmap.