If it sounds too good to be true, well, their arguments have been controversial for decades, and certainly since 1988, when Savory described his methods in the 564-page book "Holistic Resource Management." In a book review in the Journal of Soil & Water Conservation, a UC-Berkeley range ecologist named James Bartolome wrote: “Holistic resource management itself is a model for a management system with little novelty and severe technical problems …Those who apply Savory’s approach do so at their peril.” The Savory Institute has compiled a portfolio of supporting evidence, including peer-reviewed papers, but the debate rages on.
Howell, 44, comes from a family that has been ranching in Colorado since the late 1800s. He intends to bring further science and economics to bear on the question of whether ranching, done right, can help regenerate the planet, improve the farm economy and, as one of his investors, John Fullerton, puts it, “harness the power of capital and markets to shift the course of capitalism onto a more just and sustainable path.” A former managing director at JP Morgan, Fullerton is now president of the Capital Institute and an investor in Grasslands, along with Larry Lunt, a private investor and environmentalist who runs a family office called Armonia. The Savory Institute, a for-profit company that carries out Savory’s work — Howell’s wife is CEO — is also an owner of Grasslands. Other investors will be brought on as Grasslands grows, as its owners expect it to.
So how does holistic management work? In a word, it’s complicated. In fact, when we spoke by phone the other day, Howell said that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s not surprising since, like politics, all farming is local.
“Recipes never work when you are dealing with the chaos and unpredictability of nature,” Howell says. “Plan is not a four-letter word but a 24-hour job.”
Having said that, the core idea is to manage cattle to mimic the way wild herds — elephants or zebras in Africa; bison, elk, bighorn sheep and deer in the grasslands of the U.S. West — interacted with the landscape. Nature’s way of recycling plant matter is through the stomachs of big herbivores, who consume plants and return it to the soil in the form of dung and urine. The Savory Institute website puts it this way:
Holistic management embraces and honors the complexity of nature, and uses nature’s models to bring practical approaches to land management, and restoration. The planning procedures embedded in the Holistic Management approach are designed to incorporate this complexity and work with it. It does take time, skills and discipline to use this decision-making framework successfully — but the economic, environmental and social benefits are enormous.
Next page: Holistic herd management?