Managing the Ranch as a Business: “Holism.” Say what?

By Dr. Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume, President & CEO, Land & Livestock International, Inc.

Alan Savory and Stan Parsons dissolved their partnership in the early 1980s and went their separate ways. Stan founded the Ranching for Profit School and Alan began doing business under the moniker of Holistic Resource Management.

At the time, “holism” was a popular buzz word with Garrett Harden followers, back to the earth folks and various other forms of “flower children.”  It sounded much too “hippie” for my tastes.

But this time it was me that didn’t understand.  

Key Insight 1: The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

A holistic perspective is essential because only the whole is reality. This is contrary to the long held notion that the world is like a machine with individual, separate parts that can be isolated for study or management. It is not. The world is made up of patterns that function as wholes. These patterns cannot be deciphered or described by studying any single part in isolation. This is why defining the whole that you are dealing with is the first step in management.

Roger Bacon (c.1214–1294) is sometimes credite...
Roger Bacon (c.1214–1294) is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method inspired by the works of Aristotle. George Sampson (1970). #v=onepage&q=&f=false The concise Cambridge history of English literature. Cambridge University Press. p.174. ISBN 0521095816

The modern scientific approach originated in the 13th century with Roger Bacon’s idea which was developed into the formal scientific method. Using the scientific method one seeks to test a hypothesis by controlling all the variables of a phenomenon and manipulating them one at a time. However, when attempting to study our ecosystem and the many creatures that inhabit it, we cannot meaningfully isolate anything let alone control the variables. Isolate a single part and neither what you took nor what you left behind remains what it was when all was one.

And the word was not just made up by some “hippie” on a bad LSD trip. The view was given a name by Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) in the 1920s–holism (from the Greek holos). Smuts attested that the world is not made up of substance, but of flexible, changing patterns—i.e. it is arrangements and not stuff that make up the world. Wholes have no stuff. They are arrangements. Furthermore, individual parts do not exist in nature, only wholes, and these form and shape each other.

Further, due to this complexity (a single teaspoon of water can contain a billion organisms), the very limitations that would make a research project acceptable scientifically also make the results meaningless.

Furthermore, approaching management from the perspective of narrow disciplines has done nothing but aggravate the problems. No animal nutritionist, soil scientist, economist, or any other specialist alone has meaningful answers. There are numerous reasons why these “interdisciplinary” teams have not worked.

First, specialists usually communicate poorly, not only because they have different perspectives, but also because they speak different languages. As a result, opinions acquire weight and conclusions are negotiated according to criteria that may have no relationship whatever to overall need.

The problem is exacerbated when the interdisciplinary team is state sponsored and therefore socialistic by nature.  Back in the 1930s Ludvig von Mises identified the failure of socialism as being a result of “no means to calculate.” There are no market prices which can be used to allocate scarce resources. There are no profit centers to hold anybody responsible for. Thus, that leaves egos and personal agendas in charge of decision making. Interdisciplinary teams assigned to “study” a problem are the result of government attempting to circumvent this “calculation” problem [or cover up the fact that there is such a problem] and thereby justify its own existence.

Not only are there no parts in nature, there are no boundaries either—only wholes within wholes in a variety of patterns.

Scientific custom isolated the individual parts for study believing that if we could learn enough about each of them we would understand the whole. However, in nature this leads to nowhere. But of course, once you see the whole in the pattern, detailed knowledge of the individual parts does become useful. However, one can ask the right questions about the details only by having first seen the whole.

The fact that wholes have qualities not present in their parts causes the interdisciplinary approach to flounder.

All management decisions have to be made from the perspective of the whole. Therefore, first the whole must be defined keeping in mind that it is always influenced by both greater and lesser wholes. Then, in order to know what we want to do with it, we needed an all encompassing strategic goal. Then, we also need a means of weighing up the ramifications of our actions.

Given the complexity of the world, computers are more capable of weighing up the consequences of a particular decision. They can be powerful tools for solving specific mechanical problems. However, they cannot think holistically or evaluate emotions and human values which are vital components of the whole. On the other hand, the human mind can see patterns and make decisions out of a deep, even unconscious, sense of the whole. This is the function of a “free” market. No individual can possibly know everything there is to know at any given time but the “free market” can (and does) because it is the sum total of human wisdom at that given time.

Advice that appears perfectly sound from an economic or engineering or any other view is likely to be unsound holistically. This has spelled disaster for many a foreign aid project and national policy, but also for families, communities, and businesses large and small. Most, if not all, such disasters are a direct result of government “intervention” – people do not make policy decisions. Governments do. Then government forces the people to accept the decision at the point of a gun. Many a private rancher has gone bankrupt after committing scarce funds to government-sponsored irrigation schemes. There are always risks to tying up capital in government incentive programs.

Source: Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making By Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield

Dr Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume [send him mail] is President and CEO of Land & Livestok International, Inc.

About Land & Livestock Interntional, Inc.

Land and Livestock International, Inc. is a leading agribusiness management firm providing a complete line of services to the range livestock industry. We believe that private property is the foundation of America. Private property and free markets go hand in hand—without property there is no freedom. We also believe that free markets, not government intervention, hold the key to natural resource conservation and environmental preservation. No government bureaucrat can (or will) understand and treat the land with as much respect as its owner. The bureaucrat simply does not have the same motives as does the owner of a capital interest in the property. Our specialty is the working livestock ranch simply because there are so many very good reasons for owning such a property. We provide educational, management and consulting services with a focus on ecologically and financially sustainable land management that will enhance natural processes (water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics) while enhancing profits and steadily building wealth.
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1 Response to Managing the Ranch as a Business: “Holism.” Say what?

  1. Pete Hudgins says:

    Excellent Article. I was around Ranching for Profit and Parsons while several long term ranching friends were involved. The Savory Cell System was implemented successfully in some circumstances and an organized approach to planning for profit was novel because, as mentioned the extension services were so compartmentalized they had trouble integrating the “holistic” requirement of a ranching operation.


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