Laurie Bostic and Kim Martin from Barking Cat Farm just published this update in their newsletter. Laurie and Kim are participating in HMI’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher: Women in Texas program.
Holy Holistic Management®, Batman!
Probably the most important thing that happened to us in 2012 was that we were selected to be in the first class of Beginning Women Farmers and Ranchers in Texas conducted by Holistic Management International. Only 33 women were selected so we were extremely fortunate to have been among them. What is Holistic Management you ask? Well, it begins by teaching you that in nature, nothing operates independently. All ecosystem processes are interconnected, just as people have interconnections like family, friends, etc. Changing one thing can lead to unintended consequences if you don’t consider the whole system you are operating in. So to begin, they had us define what it is that we’re managing – basically a description of the farm, the nursery, the resources we have. Then we wrote our ‘holistic goal’ which is what we’re managing towards. This goal includes things like quality of life statements, behaviors we must perform to achieve those quality of life statements, and our vision of what the farm will be like in the future. After you have articulated your holistic goal, then you test your management decisions to see if they’re leading towards it or away from it. It’s deceptively simple yet complicated at the same time.
That was just the first class, there have been classes on: time management – focusing on switching to annual plans versus todo lists that don’t get finished; financial planning with a holistic approach where you plan for profit before expenses; marketing & business planning; biological monitoring for pastures & cropland; and finally land planning – training on how best to plan infrastructure. There is just one session left, but we’ve already seen good changes as we implement holistic planning. For example, we know that ‘resource conversion’, that is converting sunlight into crops, is a weak link for us. That means any money we spend should be focused on fixing that weak link before anything else. That leads us to examine why resource conversion is a weak link, and we’ve identified labor and a soil biology problem. The labor problem we’ve decided is two-fold. One part can be solved by hiring additional help. The other part is to make changes to reduce the amount of hand labor required. A simple example of that is that we’ve decided to reduce the number of rows inside the deer fence to allow us to bring the tractor in more often to clear crops. The soil biology problem is more complicated, more on that below.
Besides all of the training, we also now have a network of women in Texas that are doing the same kinds of things we are. We’re already starting to work together outside of the HMI classes to help each other. Having those connections will be invaluable as the years go on.
We’ve known for awhile that we were making improvements in our soil chemistry, but we felt like the soil biology was not where it needed to be. Through our connections with HMI, we met a lady named Betsy Ross. We were able to tour her ranch down near Temple back in November and see her pastures & grass-fed cattle (Betsy Ross Grassfed Beef) She also runs a consulting company, Sustainable Growth Texas. During our visit to her ranch with the HMI group, Betsy recommended a reading list for those wanting to learn more about soil biology. We had already read one or two of the books on the list and had a superficial knowledge of soil biology. Well, we started reading. Then we called Betsy and entreated her to come up to do a consultation for us. So just this past week Betsy, her son John and one of their new guys came up to see both places. We’d have to say, wow, we learned more in the time we spent with them than reading any book could teach you. Fortunately for us, Betsy has agreed to keep working with us.
What they found is that the ‘working biology’ in our soil is not working. We need to do some things to wake it back up and in some cases re-innoculate it. Betsy has suggested we start measuring the brix levels of our plants as a way to measure whether amendments are helping or not. So we’ve ordered a refractometer to measure brix. (Brix is a measure of the sugar content of the plant). There are charts that give ranges for where different kinds of vegetables should fall in a brix reading. And we’re in the process of shopping for a microscope so that we can monitor the biology ourselves. This is all related to the soil food web which you may have heard of before. If you want to read a good introduction, here’s a Soil Biology Primer.