Learning in the New Year: Women in Farming Whole Farm Management Course

This past October, I received the very excellent news that I had been accepted to participate in a course sponsored by a USDA-NIFA grant. In six northeastern states, the intensive Whole Farm Planning Course is offered to female farmers who have farmed for ten years or less, and who are committed to a career in agriculture.  Though farming has traditionally been considered a male dominated field, young women make up the fastest growing group of new farmers, in particular when it comes to small, diversified, sustainable operations.  The ten session course starts in November 2010 and continues through the end of the 2011 farming season.

An old photo from the days of the "Women's Land Army." During WWI and WWII, in the US, Great Britain and Australia, women were recruited to step in and grow food for their nations while many male farmers were away at war.

The systems-based philosophy that drives the course was developed by biologist Allan Savory in response to the chronic mistreatment of U.S. farmland.  Food production is one of the most ecologically destructive and resource consumptive activities that humans participate in, and at the risk of sounding dreary and doomsdayish, it has contributed in a very significant way to the collapse of entire civilizations.  Believing that ecological diversity is the one stabilizing wealth that civilizations hold, and recognizing that the predominant models of modern agriculture do not foster such diversity, but rather destroy it, Savory started to think about why farmers made the decisions they did when it came to farm planning and practices.

Savory realized that many farmers made decisions that only addressed financial concerns but did not take into account the ecological health of the farm, the richness and depth of the farmer’s connections to and impact on the local human community, the well-being of the farmer and her/his family, and so on.  All of these factors contribute to the overall sustainability of farming operations and communities.  He developed a systems-based model that USDA agents could use to assist farmers in decision making processes that took into account the complexities of these concerns.  The intention is that given a less linear decision making format, farmers can think to solve the root of their problems (and not just the symptoms) that inspire them to seek out the support of a USDA agent in the first place.

Wanted: Ten Thousand Pickers!

While all of the women in my course are managing small diversified farms, and not the huge industrialized farms that make up the large majority of our nation’s agriculture, the content of the course is entirely applicable to our daily lives and work as farmers.  Even small community farms like ours are susceptible to making decisions from within a bubble of economic concern.

Topics that are covered in the course include ecological soil management, financial planning, leadership, time management, resource assessment, and more.  The first class that I attended led us through a series of exercises where we inventoried our resources.  This included everything from farm infrastructure such as tractors, buildings/shelters, and our land base, to our community strengths, business strengths, any hidden employee talents, etc.  We then outlined what our visions, hopes and dreams are for the farm, and included those as resources as well.  Though these are all things I am always thinking about, it was inspiring and helpful to get it all down on paper and to have the structure that this exercise created for me.   Farming leaves little room for organizing all of our pondering and visioning, even in these slower winter months, so any help organizing our thoughts is welcome!

I am looking forward to so much about this class, especially learning from and with my peers and mentors.  I am excited to carry the knowledge and skills I gain forward with me and to implement a systems based approach in a more intentional way in both our big picture planning and daily management practices here at the farm.  More updates about my participation in this class to come…

Melanie Hardy, Farm Manager at Land’s Sake Farm.