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Holistic Goals and Decisions Shape Resilient Futures

Posted by Owen Hablutzel about 12 years ago

An intentional community (and client group)makes a critical decision that will impact their group and lands far into the future... previously published in the Holistic Managment journal, IN PRACTICE

Whirlwind Community Farm encompasses 240 acres (96 ha) of desert in southwest New Mexico, a scant three miles from the Mexican border. It was purchased in 2006 by author and teacher Sankara Saranam. The intention was for this property to serve as a location to establish a community of like-minded people interested in pursuing pranayama yoga and a sustainable lifestyle in this rapidly changing world. This case-study details how using Holistic Management helped these new agrarians make an important decision about their land that will shape their livelihoods and directly impact land health far into the future.

In the years since the initial 2006 purchase the community land holdings in the area have grown. Among these, a 200-acre (80-ha) property nearby, called Deepwater, was selected to host the main hall and gardens for the community. At this time the original Whirlwind property began to be conceived of as a site for agricultural production capable of contributing to the financial livelihoods and ecological health of the community.

In early 2008, a property consultation took place involving Mr. Saranam with regenerative agriculture consultant Darren Doherty, and myself. The Holistic Management framework
was recommended to Mr. Saranam as a direction to explore while planning further for the unfolding community.

By 2009 Mr. Saranam, his family, and others with interest in the emerging community had studied enough about Holistic Management to know that they wanted to learn a lot more. They hoped to begin putting the framework into practice as soon as possible.
Attempting to form a community for sustainable living in a relatively remote area, beginning with practically no existing infrastructure, adds many layers of complexity atop the already potentially difficult project of successful whole farm planning in an arid/brittle environment (brittleness in this area is high, around 8 on a 1-10 scale). Given the context of these conditions, the use the Holistic Management framework—with its decision testing, planning procedures and anchoring holistic goal—would be a crucial help for developing members shared vision, for making better decisions together, and for progressively moving the whole project forward deliberately while minimizing potential false-steps.

Improving Land
In our early sessions together we gathered those presently living in the community along with others planning to move there at a later date. This group, the Whirlwind Community as such, began by defining for themselves their whole under management, their statement of purpose and their holistic goal.

A couple of key issues for the Whirlwind community are involved in the decision case example described here. To begin, the need to improve all ecosystem processes on the Whirlwind property are regarded by members as paramount. In particular, the water and mineral cycle (soils) are in great need of further rejuvenation in order to support the conversion of sunlight, water, and soil resources into viable products that can generate return.

A return is needed specifically due to the current debt load on the community. These two issues are related. Improving the ecosystem processes is made both more possible and more urgently necessary as a result of a previous decision to install a drip system on over 160 acres of the Whirlwind property. Design and installation of this irrigation enables reliable production in an erratic rainfall environment. This makes profit far more possible and reliable.

At the same time, although the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is sharing the cost of the drip system, the purchase and installation required the Whirlwind Community to take on a significant debt load. In order to maintain and operate this system, additional monies and infrastructure expense will be required. This may include drilling and installation of additional bore-wells, purchase, maintenance and operation of pumps, a compost tea brewer, rabbit-fence, and perhaps other compost-making equipment.
The recommendation from the NRCS has been to put the entire acreage to alfalfa and then sell alfalfa hay to cover the debt expense.

Holistic Financial Planning
The primary concern of the decision makers in this case was immediately to achieve the most return and highest profit from the drip-irrigation investment as possible, while remaining true to their holistic goal. Beyond this financial concern, and more fundamentally in light of their holistic goal, the objective is to greatly increase the health of the land and soils at Whirlwind as the source of their long-term sustainability.

While the NRCS recommendation was to put the Whirlwind property into alfalfa, the community members and I explored other options together, including silvo-pastoral scenarios establishing treebelts throughout the property with short-duration/high-intensity grazing and perhaps some cropping between. Another proposed option was putting Whirlwind to mixed perennial grasses. These could be hayed, or grazed directly, or even used to produce perennial seeds. There had been additional suggestions to crop peppers, melons, or onions.

The decision-makers elected to choose the mixed perennial grass as an alternative to the alfalfa option to actively test toward their holistic goal, using the decision-test process of Holistic Management. Here’s how it tested out:

1. Cause and Effect Test.

The problem is?
Prior land abuse is a root cause of the present state of relatively poor (though improving due to Keyline pattern cultivation with the Yeomans plow) soils. The drip system and well-bore--themselves a consequence of an earlier decision, based on the desire for a reliable income from this land even with its’ low and erratic rainfall environment--are the root
cause of the debt.

Does the proposed action address the root cause of the problem?

Both options could possibly or possibly not PASS this test
– more research needed

2. Weak Link Test

Social Weak Link: Have we considered and addressed any confusion, anger, or opposition this action could create with people whose support we need in the near or distant future?
Some potential for opposition:

* alfalfa not a native
* alfalfa is a high water use plant
* high electricity cost / use to irrigate
* alfalfa monoculture is low biodiversity and therefore
prone to problems of monoculture (ease of disease, target-rich-environment for pests,
* electricity use also adds to pollution of mercury
and possibly sulfuric acid in air
* alfalfa stand has limited life span 3, maybe 5-7
* these extra costs may not sit well with our
funding sources
* grass option does not have most of these concerns

Alfalfa NOT PASS - Grass PASS

BiologicalWeak Link: Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of this organism?

Test is Not Applicable to this question – Not dealing with a specific organism

Financial Weak Link: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production? (‘chain of production’ with examples = resource conversion (converting sunlight to grass) – product conversion (grass to cows) – marketing (selling the beef or
dairy). At any given time one of these will be the weakest in the chain and usually should be addressed first to make best progress towards goal)

Right now, resource conversion is our weakest link in the production chain. We need to be
converting our sun, soil, and water resources into grass and biodiversity resources. In this case, both options will at least begin converting the sunlight, water, soil resources.


3. Energy-Money, Source and Use Test
Is the energy and money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate
source in terms of our holistic goal? And, will the way in which the energy and
money is used lead towards our holistic goal?

Energy Source? Electricity, polluting - NO PASS
$ Source? – External loan, debt - NO PASS
Energy Use?– Grows roots, improves soil - PASS
$ Use? – Generates financial profit and ecological improvement - PASS

Mixed Grass test results are the same as Alfalfa, for the same reasons.

'Source' NOT PASS, and 'Use' PASS for Both

4. Sustainability Test
If we take this action, will it lead towards or away from the future resource base (our people, land, and community resources as we would like them to be far into the future) described in our holistic goal?

Alfalfa monoculture is not sustainable.
The alternative of mixed grass, may be sustainable, but we will need more research.

Alfalfa - NOT PASS. Mixed Grass - MAY PASS.

5. Marginal Reaction Test
Which action provides the greatest return, in terms of our holistic goal, for the time and money spent?

Alfalfa vs. Mixed Grass

* With alfalfa there is a risk of losing crop to flooding. With grass adapted to
flooding it may even do better
* Alfalfa uses far more electricity and water and acid (for cleaning drip system) than
* Mixed grasses will build soil more rapidly, with more diversity and more soil cover
than monoculture alfalfa
* Grass cover would protect drip system better if ever grazed (more flexibility)
* Grass can go longer without water if wells are not functioning for some reason (less
* Grass can also pay the debt (profit, we need a Gross Profit Analysis to figure
relative margins)
* Grass option is native, a polyculture, less pollution, and longer lived than alfalfa
* Using grass opens possibility of using it for grazing (enterprise stacking)
* Mixed grasses nicer aesthetically, to walk on, etc… (better quality of life)
* Also, peak oil preference will be for grass since electricity and transport to market
will cost more (less input costs)
* Grass is far more flexible for possible future life and use

Grass PASS and Alfalfa NOT PASS

6. Gross Profit Analysis (GPA) Test
Which enterprises contribute most to covering the overheads of the business?

Back-of-napkin version

INCOME: $150/Ton * $300/Ton
ANNUAL VOLUME: 10 Tons/Acre * 10 Tons/Acre
ANNAUL INCOME: $15,000/Acre * $30,000/Acre

Note that this version shows the Mixed Grass option to be potentially twice as profitable, prior to consideration of expenses.

* Alfalfa inputs are far more expensive (more
water, electricity, fertilizer, and sulfuric acid in drip system, etc.)
* Local market requires more grass hay and has
plenty of alfalfa supply already. This suggests grass can be sold both more
readily and with a more premium price in the area
* This means less marketing costs, far less wear
and tear, less water, less electricity, less acid, less fertilizer inputs for

Grass PASS

Subsequently, a more thoroughly researched gross profit analysis was performed by the
decision-makers. This compared the enterprises further, to get an improved sense of detail regarding financial aspects of the decision. The data collected was also useful in developing a business plan for the mixed grass enterprise. Annual production per acre estimates were purposefully somewhat conservative.

GPA DATA GATHERED: Bolded items signify advantage

Seed Cost: $12,100 * $11,200
Seed Delivery: $700 * $700
Seed Drilling: $2,000 * $2,000
Water (electric): $2,800/month * $2,200/month
Cut/Bale/Distribute: $50/acre/cutting * $45/acre/cutting
Value 1: $6/small bale * $15/small bale
Value 2: $45/large bal * $105/large bale
Value 3: $18,000/year - seeds * $40,000/year - seeds
Volume: 2 tons/acre/year * 2 tons/acre/year
Duration: 5 years * Indefinite
Grazing: not feasible * Feasible
Grazing Volume: 0 * 50 head cattle
Value 4: 0 * 60 tons beef
Loss Risk 1, Flooding: $32,000/year * $8,000/year
Loss Risk 2, Pump down more than a week: $5,000 * $0
Loan: $3,500/month * $3,500/month
Labor: $3,000/month * $3,000/month
Materials: $500/month * $500/month

ANNUAL INCOME: 2 t/acre, $240/t, $67,200 * 2t/acre, $600/t, $168,000
Custom Cut/Bale/Distribute: $7,000 * $6,300
Seed, Delivered/Drilled: $12,800 * $11,900
Compost Tea: $7,000 * $7,000
Irrigation: $28,000 * $22,000
TOTAL EXPENSES: $54,800 * $47,200
GROSS PROFIT: $12,400 * $120,800

The initial back-of-napkin gross profit analysis did not suggest a financial gap nearly as wide as this more detailed one. The gap that has emerged is a surprise and very substantial. There remain many other financial and risk related aspects that are not directly accounted for in the gross profit analysis which only serve to confirm this difference further. After completing the gross profit analysis Mr. Saranam observed:

The gross profit analysis shows that while in the short-term alfalfa is a feasible cash crop, in the long term the versatility of grass outweighs the short-term benefits offered by a monoculture of alfalfa. The loss to flooding is particularly of interest as the farm is located in a flood zone, where up to 35% of the arable, irrigated area can be inundated with water at over 6 inches for several days. This kind of flooding easily kills alfalfa, while grass can withstand it. It is hoped that the soil structure will allow for greater rain harvesting and water penetration.

Grass PASS and Alfalfa NOT PASS

7. Society and Culture Test (gut check)
Considering all the questions and our holistic goal, how do we feel about this action now?

Alfalfa NOT PASS and Mixed Grass PASS


Additional Benefits
As a result of the testing, the decision was made to implement the mixed grass plan. One reason for this outcome was found in doing the research. While exploring the potentials in the local market for hay, it was discovered that alfalfa was chronically in oversupply in the area, and therefore drew a relatively low price. At the same time, the local experience with grass hay involved a usual shortage and a local demand that exceeds the available supply. Given this condition a good price was to be had for grass, as well as a ready and undersupplied local market niche.

It is also the case that the greater diversity offered by the mixed grass allows for a greater diversity of possible uses. For example, were seeds to be harvested this could be done from several species rather than a single species. The diversity also creates different options and potentials to add value to the grass resource, through grazing for example. In short, this improved flexibility and nimbleness is of significant value in a changing world, especially in a brittle environment.

In addition to these points, fundamental to the decision was the perception that the grass system will be significantly better for a sustained improvement of all ecosystem processes. In water cycle terms the grass will use less aquifer water, meaning less salt, less anaerobic conditions, and more soil life creating more water storage capacity in the soils. The mineral cycle will benefit much more from mixed grass due to more carbon and organic matter in the soil, a much more diverse range of plant rooting strategies and depths, creating more diverse niches for a more diverse soil biology, as well as distributing and accessing minerals and nutrients to and from a much greater variety of sections in the soil profile. The energy flow through the whole system will be significantly increased also due to the increased diversity and variety of plants, gathering sunlight energy for more time over greater horizontal and vertical area, filling as well as creating a wider range of available niches, all more adapted to the local conditions. The ecological community dynamics will certainly be far more complex and diverse, and therefore more stable and resilient to changing conditions through time.

While the financial differences expressed by the Gross Profit Analysis made a decision in terms of finances alone an obvious one, many further dynamics beyond the financial numbers were considered to consider the whole picture. In the end the decision for grass was taken because it bore the best overall relation to all aspects of the Whirlwind community holistic goal.


Monitoring the Decision
Whirlwind Community has chosen three areas to monitor in order to ensure this decision
takes them towards their holistic goal. These are land health, financial soundness, and social effects.

In order to ensure that all four ecosystem processes at Whirlwind are moving in the desired direction, Whirlwind Community will create a series of monitoring sites on the Whirlwind property. Each year a qualitative biological monitoring of these areas will be performed. In addition, soil tests will be done (using the Soil Food Web labs) as needed and in conjunction with the compost tea program, to monitor variables such as soil carbon, organic matter, and others.

To monitor the financial soundness of the decision to use mixed grasses on Whirlwind, the expenses and income from this enterprise will be recorded and closely tracked during the year. In the process of annual holistic financial planning the overall financial performance will also be assessed.

Measuring whether this decision is helping Whirlwind Community achieve its human and
quality of life goals will be done through tracking both the amount of time and labor that goes into the grass enterprise each day (as a proportion of total work), as well as the amount of vacation time for members each year.

The ways in which their dedication to learning and practicing Holistic Management
has affected the Whirlwind community can be seen through this decision. The initial plan—to follow the NRCS agency recommendation for an alfalfa-only approach—was in part due to a feeling that, because they were people just starting out in the agricultural realm, the most prudent thing to do would be to follow the advice of the established agency experts.
Both the Whirlwind and Deepwater properties had found significant successes by earlier using approaches and consultation based on the non-conventional frameworks of Keyline and Permaculture. The Whirlwind restoration from near bare ground to 80% plant cover had even been one of the criteria on which the NRCS agreed to proceed with a cost share for the drip irrigation system. But whether or not to proceed contrary to their more conventional advice in this new higher stakes enterprise for Whirlwind was not a simple question.

Once this group began their learning and use of the Holistic Management® framework in earnest the situation really began to shift. Learning these practices was changing their
actions. Going through these processes ensured that decisions were considered more
carefully and systematically, that all angles were considered, and that research and learning occurred in needed areas at needed times. The whole process helped to generate more knowledge within the group about more of the options that might be available, and of the relative trade-offs between different approaches.

For the Whirlwind community the end result of this decision has been a far greater
confidence in both their future as a community and their capacity to effectively engage with the many challenges that are sure to arise along the way.


Owen Hablutzel is a Consultant working with integrated regenerative frameworks (Keyline Design, Broad-acre Permaculture, Holistic Management, Resilience Assessment) and teaches these frameworks as a Holistic Management Certified Educator… Other services include Group-Process Facilitation for organizations involved in land and natural resource issues.
He can be reached at 310/567-6862 or [email protected].

Photo 2 caption:
The use of a Keyline plow and Keyline pattern cultivation has helped to jumpstart the ecosystem processes at Whirlwind with a shift from virtually 100% bare ground to 80% covered ground.

Photo 3 caption:

(Whirlwind property with Landowner, photo from 2010)
Monitoring the health of the ecosystem processes and how the land is trending is a top priority at Whirlwind Community Farm. Baseline monitoring transects are being
established for that purpose.

Ww%20before Ww%20after Imgp1342

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San Concrete : These two issues are related. Improving the ecosystem processes is made both more possible and more urgently necessary as a result of a previous decision to install a drip system on over 160 acres of the Whirlwind property.- fleet repair
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San Concrete : The primary concern of the decision makers in this case was immediately to achieve the most return and highest profit from the drip-irrigation investment as possible, while remaining true to their holistic goal. - engine diagnostics and repair
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