Creating Greener Pastures through Holistic Management

By Don Loock

As part of PEC’s growing Agriculture and Rural Economy Program, we are proud to help support and promote many producer-led initiatives aimed at increasing the productivity, sustainability and economic vitality of the region’s communities.

One such initiative, the Future Farm and Ranches Upper Piedmont program, is currently reaching out to farmers in Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Fauquier, Loudon and Clarke with the goal of guiding farmers who want to improve their farming operations to increase their profitability, productivity, and quality of life.

Cattle graze at Mount Vernon Farm in Rappahannock County, where farmer Cliff Miller is spearheading the local movement toward holistic farming. Photo by Rose Jenkins.

Up to 24 farms will participate  in a 12-month intensive program run by Holistic Management International (HMI). This is an outgrowth of a pilot program that started last year with eight farmers from farm operations in and around Rappahannock County, which was initiated by Cliff Miller, owner of Mount Vernon Farm. His hope was that the Holistic Management model would be the tool to transform farms towards profitability and sustainability. He asked PEC to be involved with this HMI effort in the hope that a network of grass farmers and pasture-based farmers will come together around common goals.

On May 31st, 60 farm owners and managers listened as last year’s pilot program participants proved that this vision is rapidly materializing. As the multi-generational group shared their experiences with the HMI program, it was clear that strong bonds had formed as they learned from and challenged each other. Through on the ground workshops, group webinars, and countless conversations, the participants worked on  goal setting, financial planning, grazing planning, infrastructure and crop planning, and biological monitoring, as well as pulling the whole system together through a “holistic approach” to decision-making.

Through this approach, which looks at the whole farm operation—including the people, the community, the environment, and farm profitability—the participants had been able to evaluate not just what they were doing but why. In many cases, they were able to  come up with better questions and better answers.

One of the participants, Dick McNear, who runs a farm on protected land in Rappahannock County, describes the Holistic Management approach this way: “It’s a three legged stool which includes the health of the people, the health of the environment, and the health of the finances. Not only do you need to have all three to succeed, but they also need to be balanced.”

Dick credited the program for helping him to “get out of a rut, to stop doing things just because that’s the way we did them and to start asking whether that’s what we should be doing”.

If you would like to participate in this year’s Future Farm and Ranches program, please contact PEC’s Director of Agriculture and Rural Economy, Dr. Sue Ellen Johnson, at 540.347.2334 or sejohnson@pecva.org.

The 12 month program will consist of two 2-day workshops, four 3-hour webinars, and 12 months of peer to peer support. The cost of the program is $500 per farm and the deadline to enroll is July.  Some scholarships will be made available directly through HMI.  We also invite anyone that would like to donate toward a scholarship to contact Trish Carter at tcarter@pecva.org.

Don Loock is a Land Conservation Officer with the Piedmont Environmental Council.