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Teaching Holistic Management so learners succeed

In 1991 I began teaching Holistic Management to farm and ranch families as a full-time occupation. I had received a Master of Agriculture degree that year, as well as becoming a Certified Educator in Holistic Management.

During my training as a certified educator, I noticed that the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque was doing a lot of 'disjointed' training: they would offer an introductory workshop in one state, a financial planning workshop in another, and a biological planning in yet another. People would often take an introductory workshop, and then not take any more. After while their fervour for Holistic Management wore off, and they went back to conventional management.

I also noticed that because Holistic Management is simple, but different, people practicing it needed to have some kind of support group to help them adopt the new principles, and face the criticisms of their neighbours. One such support group, the 'Devon Club' in eastern Alberta, was a tremendous resource to its members. It had formed more or less by accident when a group of people from the same local area near Lloydminster, Alberta, travelled to a course 125 miles away, at Devon, and decided to form a club when they got home. This management club is still meeting 15 years later.

I also noticed that although the Holistic Management Center said the Holistic Goal was critical, it had no goal-setting workshops. It also had no workshops for applying the whole process and testing decisions using the Testing Guidelines (the analytical questions used to evaluate whether a proposed action is moving the family or business toward its Holistic Goal).

The 10-day workshop

I decided to design a ten-day program that gave participants the 'whole shebang', and helped them form a Management Club at the end of the course. The program consisted of five 2-day workshops spread over four months:

Introduction to the Management Principles (2 days):

This workshop initiated the group-building process, and introduced the basic management model including: defining the "whole under management", the importance of the goal, the ecosystem blocks, tools for production, the management testing guidelines, and monitoring. It also emphasized the need to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking in solving old problems. Participants applied the decision-making process and group brainstorming to improve the management of case-study farms.

Evaluating Management Decisions (2 days):

Participants got more in-depth experience using the management testing guidelines to ensure that the time, energy and money being expended on the farm operation was allocated in a way that provided the greatest financial return, maintained or improved the whole ecosystem of the farm, and fit with the family's values and quality of life goal. They applied the testing guidelines to a variety of management scenarios, including situations from their own farms.

Financial Management and Generating Wealth (2 days):

Participants learned how to manage toward a planned profit, use creativity and group brainstorming to identify new ways of generating wealth, and allocate expenditures to maximize the generation of new wealth while creatively cutting costs in maintaining their existing enterprises. By the end of this workshop they would understand how to use the Holistic Management worksheets, planning sheets and control sheets to plan the cash flow and product flow of all enterprises, and how to use creativity and discipline to achieve the planned profit. They would have a substantial start on creating their own detailed financial plan, which they would finish before the final workshop.

Biological Planning (2 days):

This workshop focussed on managing in order to sustain the ecosystem, including a more in-depth look at the four ecosystem blocks (succession, water cycle, mineral cycle, and energy cycle), and the effect of various management practices on the ecosystem. If they had livestock, they would develop a grazing plan for their farm or ranch.

Communication and Goal Setting (2 days):

Participants learned the role and function of clear communication and written goals in farm management. Through a series of individual and family-group exercises, they learned specific skills to improve their ability to communicate, and established their own goal for their desired quality of life, forms of production and landscape description. As this was the last workshop in the series, some time was allotted for discussing the future goals of the group.

Marketing the 10-day workshop

I used a 'two-step' approach to marketing this 10-day program:

  1. I sent an unaddressed flyer to all farms and ranches within a 25-mile radius of the town where I wanted to run a course, inviting the recipients to a free, 3-hour seminar that would tell them how they could make more profit, and have the time to enjoy it.
  2. At the seminar, I explained the causes of many of the problems they faced, and showed them the principles of how to address those causes, which would give them more time and profit. I invited them to register for my 10-day course.

This approach was very successful, as direct marketing programs go. I sent an average of 2000 mail pieces to farms and ranches in the area of each town I chose to run a course in. (Canada Post will deliver to 'farms only' in their unaddressed admail service. US Postal Service does not, so one has to find other ways to reach the farm/ranch audience. Renting a mailing list from a farm paper's subscription base, or from a list broker is the logical approach. I do not know what postal services in other countries offer.)

Of the 2000 farms that received the flyer, about 20 - 25 families (usually couples) came to the overview seminar. That is about a 1% response, which is adequate in a direct marketing campaign if you have priced your product well. (I held these seminars in the afternoon. I could have at least doubled the attendance if I had offered them in the evening, as many farm people work at other jobs during the day. As I was offering the courses during the day, I did not want to have people come to the seminar that could not attend the course.)

Of the 20-25 farms and ranches represented at the seminars, about 80% would sign up for the courses. They paid $695 per farm unit, which allowed up to six people to attend. I received another $900 per farm unit funding through a federal/provincial program designed to improve the management skills of farm and ranch families.

I ran this program from 1991 to 1997, and was told mine was the most successful farm management training program in Canada to receive funding for several years.

Successful -- but how effective?

By 1997 I was feeling it was time for a change. It took about eight months each year to market and deliver this training program. It was also somewhat risky, as the success of the program depended largely on receiving funding through the government each year, as I would have had to charge the farm families at least $1500 each without the government support. Although I am a pretty good marketer, I was not sure I could get enough registrations at that level. I had to apply for the funding each year, and it was a given that at some point the funding would run out (which it did by 1999).

I was also seeing some flaws in this 'bums in seats' approach. Although my six facilitators and I were effective workshop leaders (we had all taken training in how to lead workshops with a high level of participation), and our participants were very happy with the training they received, the amount of time and money required to teach about 50 families a year seemed high. I did not think we were getting a big enough 'bang' for the time and money involved. (In Holistic Management terms, this approach to training did not pass the Marginal Reaction test.)

Time for change

In 1997 my personal circumstances changed. I was invited to join the management team of a start-up company in Vancouver, BC that we had invested in, so we left our farm, and moved to Vancouver, which meant the end of the Holistic Management training program I had been running.

We have now moved back to Edmonton, Alberta, and I am looking for the next approach to teaching Holistic Management. As my background and training is mainly in agriculture and adult education, I will probably continue to work with rural families, which means distance is an ongoing problem. My focus now is in designing training that can be delivered at a distance using a combination of the internet, the telephone, fax and email. Snail mail might even fit in there somewhere!

During the past five years I have taken training as a teleclass leader, through; an internet-based trainer, through; and a personal/business coach, through the Coaches Training Institute (

I am convinced the 'wired world' can be a tremendously powerful tool for training people in rural areas. I just have to develop the programs, and then figure out how to market them!

-- Noel McNaughton
4 February 2003

Noel McNaughton is a journalist, personal coach, Holistic Management Educator and grass farming enthusiast based in Edmonton, Alberta.

Posted 4 February 2003