January 30, 2010

Sponsored by HMI and CISA
HM Certified Trainer, Phil Metzger – NY RC&D/NRCS

17 female farmers from throughout MA got up early on this brutally cold bright sunny morning to travel to Northampton to start a 10 session, year-long Holistic Management Training course. The course is available over the next 3 years through a federally funded grant obtained by Holistic Management International and sponsored in MA by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

My role in the course is to serve as a mentor to a group of women farmers who are starting out their journey in Holistic Management. Over the next 10 sessions and lots of self-learning in between, these woman’s lives will begin to change in some important ways. They are starting the process today of learning how to look at their farms, businesses and lives through a more holistic lens.

The day started out with paired introductions. The group is very diverse with women from all kinds of backgrounds and very different types of farms. Some are start-ups, others have been farming their whole lives. All share the desire to build networks, gain new ideas, and learn new ways to better manage their busy lives and complicated farm decisions.

The first step was to take a look at a case study “Decision Case: To Add Cows or Not to add Cows…”and review a write up of the “Whole Under Management” and “Holistic Goal” for the Sulco farm family described in the case study. We read the case study aloud, and then moved into filling out some worksheets to identify our own “Whole Under Management”. The room was completely silent as the women in the group focused on the task at hand.

The process starts out by identifying each component in the “whole under management.” The result is basically an inventory on paper of the whole farm, personal and business scene – all the resources available including the family’s collective creativity, skills and experiences. Once you clearly see it all laid out in front of you, you begin the next step of creating a holistic goal. It is the direction you want to manage everything on that list towards. It includes a “quality of life statement”, the “forms of production” needed to produce that quality of life, and the “future resource base” that the quality of life will depend on over time.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and we had a chance to talk amongst ourselves. Some of us braved the frigid temperatures to get a brisk walk-in, others headed to Starbucks to get a jolt of caffeine – after the break, we were armed with our temporary “holistic goals” our tentative forms of production, and a good list of our “Wholes Under Management”. At that point, we were fresh and ready to delve into the HM decision testing questions.

We looked at the individual questions from:
Cause and Effect – Does this action address the root cause of the problem? all the way down the list to
Society & Culture – Considering all the questions and my/our holistic goal, how do I/we feel about this action now?
Phil handed out a handy mini- laminated and portable testing questions list to each participant with the advice that we all begin to use these on a regular basis to practice testing decisions whenever they came up in our day to day lives. I told the group that I actually keep the list in my wallet which astounded many, “I’m not joking” I told their wide-eyed faces, “It really helps.”

At that point, things began to get a little livelier. Phil ran through a decision testing case where he used his holistic goal and the testing questions with his family.

We ran through the list quickly, gathering a big picture view of the pros and cons of the two different options the family had to consider
1) – take a last minute family vacation together to have Christmas at a family reunion, or
2) continue with existing plans for Phil and his wife to vacation in Ireland, something they’d been saving for and dreaming about for many years.
It was really helpful to everyone to see how the HM system works in real life. We realized we still had some time left before the end of the day, so the group asked to do another real-life decision. This is where things got really lively, and the importance of understanding the whole HM process and all the tools became really apparent in my mind.

Martha, owner of a diversified CSA operation with veggies and meats, threw out a decision she was struggling with on her own farm – to expand her chicken and turkey operation by using the new mobile poultry processing unit or not. Phil looked hesitant, we pushed ahead. We eagerly started through the list of testing questions and too soon there were multiple people talking at once, Phil trying to keep us on track, but now we were in the thick of it. Many had gone through similar decisions at their farms, they wanted to share what they’d learned, help others from making the same mistakes. Soon comments and worried concerns about this that and the other issue, offers of advice, and all kinds of information was tumbling out at Martha from all directions, at once. Phil said, “this is why I don’t like using real examples.”

This was a complex question, there were so many avenues to consider,so many pit falls, so many local and regional differences to take into account. It was hard to stay on topic, and we quickly began having trouble moving through the testing questions in a quick and useful manner.

It was great. I remember being in the same quandary during my HM course about a year ago. I know that the instructors hate to go there with real world examples, because it gets messy quickly. It may seem like things get out of control, or that the HM process breaks down. For me, it’s where a training needs to go however, because life is messy. What is the value of something if it doesn’t work when we get home and try to use it on our own? I have the secret of knowing that we will figure it all out over the next 9 classes, especially if we get to do the hard work of using our real life examples so we gain confidence in working through our real problems using this amazing system. We aren’t going to be able to do it easily at first, but we will get there.

Even though we weren’t able to get to the bottom of the testing questions list with a solid answer, I think everyone who participated realized that there were a lot of other questions that Martha still needs to investigate – from the financial implications, to what it was that she really wants out of her life. HM, once we get through the whole process, will give her some useful new tools to help her answer alot of these questions, I am confident of that.

Now I am excited, and happy to have the opportunity to get actively involved with HM again. I know these women are really going to appreciate the insights they gain as they move forward through the next year and 9 more days of instruction in this complex material. It will all make sense eventually. For now, there is excitement, questions to be answered, and enthusiasm for the opportunity to sit down with other women farmers and talk some of these frustrations and hopes and dreams out in a supportive and fun environment.

Our assignment between now and the next class is to read the first two chapters in our hand out. I have skipped ahead already taking a closer look at the marketing section – this binder is different than the one I got in my course and the materials look really helpful. We’ve all been invited to participate in an online regional Beginning Women Farmers discussion group- through Yahoo groups, and the three mentor’s (myself, Pat and Linda) will start to make connections with the five mentees assigned to us.

I myself am looking forward to revisiting the HM financial planning process in our next session because it’s tax time and I am revising my own annual financial plan that I created last year in my course. It’s been one of the most helpful tools that I got out of my training. I am also excited to have the chance to get to know some of these amazing women farmers better over the next year. It’s a real treat to have the chance to connect with other women who have similar interests as me. Thanks HMI and CISA!

morning view from my lil'farm in Ashfield