From Pie-in-the-Sky to Pragmatic

My pig-headedness (I prefer to call it persistence) has been a useful life trait in some ways: it supplies me with energy to carry on when all signs suggest I should have stopped miles ago. But it can also get me into trouble, as when I set my sights on something that is not actually the right choice for me, but pursue it anyway. In our very first year at Shelterbelt, I learned a critical lesson that helped me know when to swap persistence for pragmatism. We were faced with an unruly 25 acres with no infrastructure, and desperately wanted to transform it into a working farm. I fixated on the idea of goats for brush-clearing, based on a deeply-held value of using biological means to achieve biological ends. I wanted to work *with* nature, dammit!  Those of you who clued in on the words “no infrastructure” a few sentences ago are probably laughing at me already.

I started researching goats: what breed I should get, where to buy them, what fencing to use… ohhhh, right. That brought to mind a quote from a farmer friend, “If water can go through the fence, goats will go through the fence.” This gave me pause. How were we going to power the fence? How would we even set up a fence, when our “pastures” were 6-12’ tall thickets of rugosa rose and honeysuckle? What if our first interaction with neighbors was an emergency call in the middle of the night that someone had hit one of our goats in the road?

Previously, my innate persistence would have muscled a way around these issues. But lucky for me (and my marriage) I had learned to use a tool that gave me a process for working through the complexities of this decision: “Holistic Management.” It was designed to help find the best way forward when facing a decision with social, ecological, and financial implications, and feel good about the result.

A few years earlier, before we faced this situation with feral brushy land, Craig and I had spent time talking about—and writing down—all the things that made us feel happy, content, or excited. Some of these were things we didn’t yet have but really wanted to create in our future, like more time for fun, a feeling of professional fulfillment, and a family of our own. We wrote and re-wrote this “Holistic Goal,” which represented our intentions for our life together. It sounded impossibly pie-in-the-sky, but having this document would help us navigate life together for years to come.

This Holistic Goal is only worth creating if you will actively use it when faced with decisions, especially major ones. Armed with your written vision and values, you creatively brainstorm all the possible ways forward, then whittle the list of options down to 2-3 that seem feasible, and research each of these. The final step is to apply a specific set of “testing” questions designed to help you think critically about the social, financial, and ecological implications of your decision as they relate to your “Holistic Goal”. Will the decision upset anyone whose support you need? Does it address the weakest financial link in your business? Is it the best use of your time for the greatest progress toward your Holistic Goal?

So, back to the goats: five minutes with those testing questions–and my Holistic Goal–told me what I probably would have known from the start if I wasn’t so fixated on goats as the solution. While I still preferred biological fixes generally, going through this thoughtful decision-making process helped us to see that the right choice was to hire someone to brush mow a few acres. Rather than continually need to mow it to keep it from returning to brush, we could then improve this mowed area with a combination of pigs and poultry. I was able to let go of my passion for goats and see that this was the best way forward for us *at that moment*.

Nearly 10 years have passed and we have continued using this process to make big decisions. I may still be incredibly stubborn, but this intentional decision-making process has made me easier to live with, and has moved us a lot closer to all those pie-in-sky statements we made years ago!

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