Holistic Resource Management: Eastern NY Pilot Project
This project organized a series of workshops to introduce the
theory and practice of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) to
agricultural agency field staff and farmers in eastern New York.
HRM is a system for setting goals and making decisions that takes
into account profitability, natural resources, the environment,
and quality of life.
The project succeeded in introducing HRM to eastern New York state.
HRM programming promises to benefit farms by offering a more effective management approach.
Weak Link-a-Thons served as a non-threatening forum to share farm problems and obtain free analysis and advice from a group of peer consultants in the context of the farm host's holistic goal. Such farmer-to-farmer networks promise to set an example to the broader agricultural community _ both agency personnel and farmers.
The course exercises developed a new tool kit which can be adapted for farm enterprises, agency activities, or agricultural organizations.
The Holistic Resource Management: Eastern New York Pilot Project sought to introduce agricultural agency field staff and farmers to the theory and practice of Holistic Resource Management. HRM is a system for setting goals and making decisions that takes into account profitability, natural resources, and the environment, and quality of life. This value-driven management approach provides users with a new perspective and effective tools for making their farm a success on many levels. HRM assists farmers and agency personnel advising farmers in the setting of a farm goal that will inform all farm decisions. HRM testing guidelines and concepts provide a decision-making framework that can mean the difference between bankruptcy and turning a profit, between burnout and an energized family life, between depleted soil and regenerated land.
The project's primary tool was a series of courses taught by Ed Martsolf, the most experienced HRM instructor in the eastern U.S. These workshops took the students through a process designed to shift their paradigm about agriculture _ resulting in changes in attitudes and understanding. The courses also developed farm business management skills which were consistent with HRM principles.
Students started by identifying their core values and then moved through a history of agriculture in the decades since World War II. They contrasted biological and mechanical systems, learned about the solar chain of energy conversion into dollars, and gained familiarity with the HRM testing guidelines. In addition to presenting an alternative approach to thinking and managing farming enterprises, the courses showed how farmers, assisted by able facilitation and some structure, can come together to problem solve constructively.
As a follow-up to the workshops, we have established two farmer support networks which generally meet monthly to help put HRM in practice. Spring network meetings focused on establishing a holistic goal for one's farm and applying HRM testing guidelines to decision making. The holistic goal addresses quality of life, environmental stewardship, and profitability (economic sustainability). A farmer uses this goal in tandem with the testing guidelines to evaluate how well an array of possible options under consideration fit the holistic model.
Over the summer the networks held meetings on one another's farms. Informally facilitated by the host farmer, our Weak Link-a-Thons generally last for 3 to 4 hours and provide an opportunity to delve more deeply into the issues affecting that farm. They include a brief farm tour and have elicited lots of constructive input for the farm family or operators. These Weak Link-a-Thons serve as a non-threatening forum to share farm problems and obtain free analysis and advice from a group of peer consultants in the context of the farm host's holistic goal. In these networks, the depth of thinking, willingness to reveal problems, and concern for other farmers' challenges is demonstrably greater than in our non-HRM farmer network initiated around the same time.
What Was Learned
The original plan for this project was modified in several ways. We expanded the target farmer audience from dairy farmers to all interested farmers, due to the high level of interest expressed and the complications of dairy farmer recruitment. Also in response to demand, we consolidated the two half-day follow-up workshops proposed in our grant into a two-day advanced course in financial planning. We trained fewer agency personnel than anticipated, as a result of factors such as overloaded schedules, lack of supervisor approval, the overwhelming number of required or strongly recommended in-service trainings offered, inflexible work plans, and the fact that HRM training was not yet well-recognized in our region. One unexpected result was that course participants from outside our region plan to organize HRM courses in Massachusetts and Quebec extension staff were especially interested in using value clarification tools and the three-part goal development in their work with farmers. NRCS and Extension personnel seemed less clear about how they might use other aspects of the holistic management system in their highly structured work. Many of the farmers may be more ready to apply HRM principles and practice to their operations than agency personnel functioning under the existing paradigm.
Feedback from Farmers
Lyle Purinton, dairy farmer, and Cara Alexander, herdswoman, wrote: "We have been operating our dairy farm since the late 1970s and have been the way of the `bigger is better' and `technology has all the answers' route. In the last few years, we have begun to feel that we're being led down the proverbial `primrose path' by some of the experts and organizations from whom we garnered advice and ideas. On our farm, we have made some radical changes, moving unknowingly toward a more holistic program without the benefit of any kind of guidance or definite plan.
"The HRM course has given us a better understanding of what we have been trying to do, and has us believing that maybe we are not crazy after all. The ideas of goal setting and the problem solving or testing plan being written down in black and white and being right there in front of us help to make management and alternative ideas easier to develop and their impact more thoroughly explored before implementation.
"We feel the HRM course has merit for anyone wanting to develop a better relationship between themselves and their operation, family, and community."
Vegetable grower William Denner wrote "HRM calls into question many things that I would call the slippery slope of farming -- looking for solutions to problems from outside, taking on more debt from machinery, labor that goes unpaid, costs not identified as costs -- things that help farmers, little by little, to be driven off the farms. HRM asked me to think about why I want to farm, what I want from farming, what I want from life. It also helped me to see the way my decisions about my farm will shape my life and offered a way to test my decisions before I make them."
Reported December 1997.