Spencer and I manage our lives and our business holistically. Our family ranch is certified organic. We don’t spray weeds on the ranch to kill them. We do not use herbicides, pesticides and many other stipulations that allow us to be certified organic. The reason our family decided to go with this certification through the California Certified Organic Farmers is because of our personal and business holistic contexts–not because we manage holistically. There is a difference. Holistic does not imply organic. Spencer and my future resource base described in our personal holistic context reads:
“The land must have a presence–feel alive and wild: healthy water, mineral cycles and community dynamics.” This small statement and the meaning it holds for us led us to make this decision. We want to clarify, though, that managing holistically is not prescriptive. It is a process for considering the whole systems and making decisions using all the tools and resources available to the decision makers. This includes technology and tools–such as herbicides, pesticides and other agro-chemicals. We may be managing holistically based on our holistic context which leads us to become a certified organic ranch, but our neighbor may also be managing holistically and make completely different decisions–because their holistic context is their own. The decision to use herbicides and pesticides or to be organic is an action that must be tested using the holistic decision making framework. The cornerstone of this process is the holistic context.
The holistic context
A holistic context is a statement made by the decision makers for a whole under management. It is written down. It is discussed at length. Revised. Each word is chosen carefully. There are two main parts of a holistic context. The first is the quality of life statement. This describes one’s most deeply held values. Allan Savory says it is what you will die for (or live for). Spencer and my quality of life statement reads: “We want to live in a wild place where we can feel happy, free, independent and share our work and lifestyle with our children. We want to feel connected to each other, our family, community and the place where we live. We want to see our children pursue their interests and be happy, confident people. We want to live rich, full, stimulating and healthy lives.” This small paragraph has enormous power. It helped us decide to become a Savory Network Hub, uproot our lives in Reno, sell our home and move to Fort Bidwell, California. It also helps us make everyday, ordinary decisions like to grow a garden this year or not, to keep replacement heifers or sell them, to take a family vacation or save money and have a staycation instead.
The future resource base is a description of the land and other resources needed to sustain the quality of life statement. Ours reads: “The land must have a presence–feel alive and wild: healthy water, mineral cycles and community dynamics. There must be clean air so the sunsets are pure and stars are vibrant at night. There must be a healthy rural economy. A community with a sense of community. A place where families feel safe and children can have happy, healthy childhoods and grow up knowing their environment. They must feel a sense of identity and intimacy through their home/the land. A food production system that supports the production and consumption of locally produced, healthy food.”
It is this context that drives decisions in our lives such as the choice not to use tools that decrease community dynamics in the soil and life in the land.
Linear vs. whole systems thinking
The framework for considering the use of chemicals in our food and the merit of organic vs. conventional food production is linear. We evaluate the impact of the tool on one element of a natural system without considering the system as a whole. For example, agro-chemicals are applied with one goal–to eliminate one type of life and allow another to thrive. The problem is that these tools affect more than their target. We are applying linear thinking to a whole and complex system. The result: unintended consequences such as glyphosate in our water and bodies and not just on weeds. In this linear approach, I feel we’ve lost perspective of alternative actions. As Katherine Collins, states in her book, The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry, “I feared the tools we’d invented to help us invest wisely, were beginning to pull us off course.” I feel the same way about some of the tools we use (or over use) in agriculture.
Considering the issue of weed growth from a whole-systems approach starts with questions. We want to understand the root cause of the problem and solve it. Why are the weeds growing in the first place? Is it because the community dynamics in the soil are so low in succession (lack diversity) that only forbes with huge tap roots will grow? Has years of mono-cropping stripped the soil of nutrients and micro-flora so that it lacks the ability to hold water and grow plants? Would the application of agro-chemicals increase the biodiversity in the soil or decrease it? Is perhaps the application of this tool further contributing to the root problem instead of resolving it? There may be scenarios when the decision makers test the use of these tools and it passes their testing process, given their context. Perhaps they have hemlock growing in pasture where their livestock may ingest it and they have no better option at this point in time but to apply herbicides. Before making this decision though, all alternatives would be considered and discussed. Each decision and action should move the decision makers toward their holistic context.
Bare soil: beautiful or barbaric?
Spencer and I love to be outside. We love fields, pastures, gardens, wilderness, deserts, forests. This love is captured in our holistic context and helps us make decisions that improve the health of the soil, plants and animals. Through holistic management, we’ve learned how to think in wholes. We see the soil, plants and animals as one system. They are intimately linked. If one piece is removed, the system does not function properly. Our enemy is bare soil. Desertification. Now, when we see neat mono-crops (organic or otherwise) that go on for miles or tractors plowing up acre after acre of top soil, it is really hard not to cringe. Not that this is right or wrong–that’s not the point. These actions decrease life in the soil and now for us, it is hard to witness. It is a paradigm shift.
Our home sits on a small ranch in Surprise Valley. We rent from a friend who leases the pastures out to another rancher. There is a second house on the ranch that is also rented. There is a strip of bare land just to the north of the house, past the clothes line. I’ve always wondered about that strip of bare land. Why is it so bare? The rest of the property is filled with grasses, fruit trees, garden beds, pastures. Why not this strip? In July, we had huge thunderstorms that brought welcomed down pours. The water soaked into the ground as it should in most places around the house. Not on that strip. It ran like a river. When the storm passed that land was more capped and eroded. The rest of the land used the water it held in the soil and greened up.
One morning our neighbor came over for coffee and breakfast. We sat together at the picnic table outside enjoying the summer morning. He pointed to the strip of bare land and proudly told us how it was filled with puncture vine, but due to his diligent spraying, it was all gone. So now soil that grew puncture vine because it was already poor and compacted has been further depleted and compacted. Yes, the goat head is gone, but did we solve the root problem? We simply asked our friend not to spray around our house because we don’t want our daughter or ourselves exposed to hormone disrupting synthetic products. But each time I hang clothes on the line I look at that sad strip of bare soil. What could we do to bring more life to it without inviting the puncture vine? Human creativity is a tool in all of our tool boxes. Let’s use it.
Celebrating the micro-biota
Once we realized the complex relationship between bacteria, fungi, roots, plants, soil, animals, it was impossible to not change the way we look at our own bodies. Considering the micro-flora on or skin and in our guts and the vital role they play in our health, we made some drastic changes our personal practices. Now, this is because these changes led Spencer and me toward our context of being healthy, not because managing holistically dictated that we do this. Using the holistic decision making framework empowered us to make our own decisions instead of following popular culture. As someone with immune system and endocrine disregulation (I have an autoimmune condition) and an impaired detoxification pathway (I have a MTHFR gene mutation), I have to be really aware of the products I put in and on my body. We also believe that the way we live now as a society–with everything wrapped in plastic, living inside all the time, synthetic cleaners, pesticides, herbicides, processed foods, sedentary occupations–is not how we are genetically designed to live. For us, being healthy means decreasing the toxic load on our bodies, getting outside as much as possible, eating and living in a way that is more closely aligned with our genetic make up. We figure that our daughter is too precious to experiment with and we just don’t know yet the impact of this current lifestyle. Some say our modern lifestyle is the root of chronic disease, some say it is harmless. We’d rather play it safe with our most prized possession and rely on a lifestyle, eating and exercise pattern that has served humans for generations.
So we grow our own food or buy from neighbors including beef, pork, chicken, lamb, game, kale, chard, beets, potatoes, squash, turnips, parsnips, carrots, melons, lettuce, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. We make our own house cleaning products using natural ingredients, we make our own body wash, shampoo, conditioner, bug spray, we render lard and tallow for cooking. We eat kidney (ok, only I eat kidney), liver, heart, tongue and bone broth. It wasn’t always this way. When Spencer and I first were married and I was in graduate school, we lived on boxed cereal (Grape Nuts are healthy, right?), restaurant Mexican food, and gallons of black tea with more milk and sugar than tea. Then, we put that little statement about health in our holistic context and look where we ended up. What an adventure!