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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Sustainable Farm Management

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

The basic principles of managing sustainable organizations are perhaps most clearly apparent in farm management. The selective boundaries of a farming operation are determined by the span of management control or influence over the various living and nonliving components of the farming systems. This means the sustainable farm manager must have the ability to select what is allowed or brought under or kept out of the span of his or her control. The farm manager also must be selective in what leaves the farming operation and what instead is used internally to sustain the farming system.

These decisions include whether to purchase commercial fertilizers and pesticides, or instead to manage the farming operation to regenerate soil fertility and manage pests. Whether to purchase machinery or new technology or rely on skilled labor and systems management strategies. Which products are sold and which become inputs for other enterprises. Which people to hire, buy from, borrow from, and sell to, and which people to seek and cultivate as collaborators and customers.

As explained in a previous post, the sustainability of a farm depends on effectively integrating a diversity of plant and animal systems to create farming systems that accommodate the preferences of farmers and their families, as well as meet societal and economic needs of the communities and societies within which and for which they function.

Also, the sustainable farm must be managed holistically, as an integrated system rather than a collection of specialized components and functions. Holistic Management, a decision-making process developed by Alan Savory, provides the most clearly-defined process for sustainable farm or ranch management that I have seen. The chart above provides an outline of the Holistic Management framework (From:

The management process begins by defining the “Whole Under Management,” or span of management control. The purpose of the particular farming operation is defined by a holistic, three-part quality of life, production, and resource goal—consistent with the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of sustainability. The basic principles or laws of nature that govern sustainable systems are reflected in ecosystem processes of community dynamics, water cycles, mineral cycles, and energy flow. These principles must be respected in all farm management decisions.

The management process then moves to various tools for planning and managing the farm’s agroecosystem and guidelines for managing the social and economic functions of the whole-farm system. Next comes specific guidelines for managing the spatial and temporal arrangement of the diverse components of the sustainable farming system. Spatial arrangements of enterprises are changed or rotated over time so that each enterprise benefits from and provides benefits to whatever preceded and follows it in the systematic rotation. Crop rotations, intercropping, cover crops, rotational grazing, multispecies gazing, are all examples of spatial and temporal relationships that can be managed for agricultural sustainability.

Ecological, social, and economic diversity is probably a farm’s most reliable single indicator of sustainability. Spatial and sequential diversity allows outputs and wastes from some enterprises to become inputs for others; the production, market, and financial risks of some enterprises to offset the risks of others; the spatial and seasonal needs for labor and management to be matched with available labor and management skills, the variety of products produced to respond to changing customer preferences, markets, and climatic conditions; and evolving personal and family values and priorities to be expressed through the farming operation.

The testing guidelines of Holistic Management ensure that management decisions are consistent with the holistic social/economic/ecological goal of the farming operation. The final process is one of continual monitoring, controlling, and revising the farm plan to ensure that the farm continues to evolve and move toward its holistic goal.

Those interested in learning more about Holistic Management may take advantage of an online offer of a “Free Agriculture E-Book—Holistic Management” at: . Most people I know who have used Holistic Management, started by learning the holistic decision-making process and adjusted it over time to fit their particular farm and farm family.

Permaculture is another holistic design-based decision-making process used for manage sustainable organizations: Permaculture includes a variety of production practices and methodologies but the holistic approach is a constant theme. The ethics of permaculture include earth care, people care, and resource share. Several other approaches include most, if not all, of the essential elements of sustainable farm management. Farmers should choose a holistic decision-making process that best fits them and their farming operations.

The sustainability of a farming operation depends the ability of the manager to choose what comes into and remains within the farm’s span of control and the ability to maintain mutually beneficial ecological, social, and economic relationships, across space and over time, among the diverse enterprises, individuals, and functional components of the farming system as a whole. The same is true for managing any organization. Everything of use to humanity ultimately comes from nature by way of society. Even human energy, imagination, and ingenuity are products of nature and society. The requisites for sustainable management are just more obvious in farming.

John Ikerd

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