Savory Institute Co-Founder, CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell Shares Insights into How the Organization is Bringing Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers Together
It is not often that someone who is not a billionaire decides to take decisive steps toward solving a global problem. It is even less common for anyone, even and perhaps especially billionaires, to have ideas about how to do it that not only work but point the way for others of like mind. Daniela Ibarra-Howell is one of these rare people. She is a co-founder and the current CEO of the Savory Institute, the nonprofit wing of the Savory operation based in Boulder, Colorado, (her husband, Jim, heads the for-profit wing). Beginning in 2009 and now boasting over 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) under holistic management in every continent except Antarctica, the Savory Institute is becoming a force to be reckoned with. As scientific evidence accumulates, adding to an enormous fund of narrative accounts, holistic management’s value becomes ever more undeniable.
As Ibarra-Howell recounts here, she declined to follow the well-worn paths offered to her as a girl in Argentina. She wanted to make a difference. Between meeting Allan Savory in 1994 and the beginning of the Institute, she and her husband devoted a number of years to consulting and running a notably successful ranch near Boulder. Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December.
Interviewed by Chris Walters
Developing Savory Hubs
ACRES U.S.A. How did a city girl from Buenos Aires get into working with soil, cattle and the like?
DANIELA IBARRA-HOWELL. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, a beautiful city, but I always dreamed of going to the countryside. Three of my grandparents were farmers from Europe — we would visit their estancias in the pampas, and I just loved riding horses and being in the countryside. When the time came to choose a career, I chose agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires. At the time the world of agriculture was a very male-dominated one. By the time I left five or six years later, the percentage of women had increased, but still women were not supposed to be in the countryside. I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture in the areas of desertification and land degradation. I always had a love for Patagonia and worked there not only for the ministry but for the United Nations, and there was a lot of effort being done on land degradation in Patagonia. I realized there were no answers for what was going on and how to change it. The solutions being proposed all the way from Rome, and even from Argentina, in terms of how we do this were ecologically not working, and socially were really not viable. Things like moving people off the land. Economically, the proposals were not viable either. I didn’t want to become just another bureaucrat, I wanted to really do something, so I set out to learn more about it.
ACRES U.S.A. What was the nature of the threat?
IBARRA-HOWELL. You have two issues. At the time I was there, agriculture was mainly focused in the humid pampas, which were always productive. All of Patagonia in the time when the Spanish came into Argentina was grasslands, and they brought the sheep with them. They were quite severely stocked, and over time the land degraded. Most of the native people there were killed by diseases the Europeans brought or were actually killed by the Europeans. The whole of Argentina from a cultural and social point of view is very European. Close to the Andes, the west of Argentina in the foothills, there is more moisture and more fine foods. That is where the Germans and the Welsh and the English went with their cattle operations. But all the rest of Patagonia is harsh country. During the late ’80s and early ’90s they recognized that we had 20 years left of Patagonia as we knew it. It’s not the Patagonia that people dream of, that moist and beautiful type of ranching. This is really rough, windy, cold, hard-to-live-in Patagonia, with low precipitation and very prone to degradation when it’s not managed properly. A lot of places are abandoned, no one wants to go live there, not many people and not much infrastructure. But we have a hub working there now, and it is just fantastic, the things we are seeing just managing animals, mainly sheep, holistically. We are seeing plant species that haven’t been seen in 25 or 30 years coming back. So we know the potential is there. Now, of course you can overstock a place, and ask from a piece of land more than it can give you. But most of the issues come with management of time, timing and frequency of recovery periods. So even if you’re not fully stocked or overstocked, you can also damage the land. Even after sheep had been removed years ago and the carrying capacity lowered and lowered, the core management had never been addressed, which is that whole biological sizing of the plans, feeding the soil and then moving away to allow the plants to grow again. That process was never allowed to happen because of the way animals were run for so long.
As You Read: Listen to the Tractor Time Interview with Daniela Ibarra-Howell from 2018
ACRES U.S.A. Was Patagonia one of the first places the hub idea was successfully deployed?
IBARRA-HOWELL. Yes, one of our first hubs, in 2013, was in Patagonia. It was around 10 years ago that we were first there, perhaps a little longer. My husband, Jim, who manages the for-profit arm of the Savory Institute called Grasslands, visited Pablo Borelli and his group of producers in Patagonia who were very well known for fine Merino wool genetics they’d brought from Australia. They said, “We’ve gone about as far as we can go with genetics. If we are going to improve the quality of our production, we need to look at the health of the land. That is our limitation, that is our logjam. We cannot move further with our ability to produce more and further.” Jim and I had met Allan Savory in 1994. We worked with him in New Mexico, so we knew the potential of holistic management. We introduced holistic management to Pablo Borelli who is now at the helm of the Argentine hub, the other producers, and officials from the government. They liked it, so we started a program to train the ranchers, and we said, “Let’s learn by doing.” I think they started with six or seven estancias, big ranches, and they went through all the aspects of holistic management, from setting the holistic context to decision-making to the financial planning to the land planning — all the aspects of really looking at the land holistically to see what could be done. They engaged Brian Marshall, who is an amazing educator from Australia who is part of our network, and they worked for five or six years. They started to see all the metrics of productivity, amount of perennial species — all the metrics of ecosystem health, how to get trends going in the right direction. They were challenged in the first years by animals adjusting to the new management, and so performance dipped, but they pulled out of it and they haven’t stopped yet. When the opportunity arose to become a hub, they said yes.
ACRES U.S.A. What are the central characteristics of a Savory hub?
IBARRA-HOWELL. A hub is basically a partner of Savory, a locally led, locally owned, locally managed initiative with leaders who want to influence their region. They want to support the farmers and ranchers in their region to do things better with the knowledge that holistic management can offer. It’s really like an accelerator and a support mechanism for those understanding the context and the challenges and the opportunities — as well as the uniqueness — of any one region. Now they have close to 60 estancias working with them. All of them have been measuring and monitoring the biological and ecological metrics, and all of the holistic management folks are improving their land base. Using all that data, a paper is about to come out authored by Pablo and Jason Rowntree at Michigan State. They have worked together at understanding all of the correlations and understanding if the data is truly pointing to holistic management folks doing much better than conventional folks. The paper that Pablo and Jason have been working on will begin to put some relevant science behind the claims we make about holistic management — because we know it works! We’ve been doing it forever, and we know how much potential is released when you plan. This paper will give our experience the backing of science. It’s one more paper in the right direction, with relevant science — real people doing it in real conditions, not just trying to evaluate a variable, say, stocking conditions or animal density or soil density. It’s about holistic management of a specific piece of land in a specific year in a specific social situation.
ACRES U.S.A. By now there are millions of acres or hectares under holistic management in many countries. How do you reconcile the need to maintain consistency with the core principles while accounting for the dizzying variation in regional conditions, local cultures and economies?
IBARRA-HOWELL. One of the beauties of holistic management is that it is not a practice, it’s not telling someone what to do top-down. It’s really acquiring the deep understanding of your own context and then making the decisions that are socially, ecologically and financially sound. The framework of holistic management allows you to do that. Anybody working in a specific context has that deep understanding. Based on that, we plan for specific things, for profit for example. We ask ourselves really basic questions. Are there adverse factors? Are there logjams? Are there weak links? Where is the weak link in my production, all the way from sunshine to dollar? Is it in the resources; is it in the product; is it in the market? We ask these questions to know where to allocate money and put the money into removing those adverse factors, in removing the logjams, in strengthening the weak links so we can be more profitable. We plan for profit rather than seeing what our income is and seeing how we end up the year. We’re planning, we’re saying, “This is the revenue left, let’s get creative about it. What is socially appropriate? What are the enterprises that we want to launch here?” Then you start implementing, and after you implement, you monitor very closely to make sure you are all the time adjusting. You don’t wait to see if things have worked or didn’t work.
ACRES U.S.A. What are the key factors for success for implementation of the plan?
IBARRA-HOWELL. There is a lot of observation and monitoring. If one of your enterprises is livestock, the beauty of holistic planned grazing is that it allows you to look at where are you operating, which eco-region, what are the species on your ranch, plant or animal, that you need to take care of? You really get to understand deeply the place where you are working. Based on that, you follow a process that is of aggressive complexity, but is very orderly. You go step-by-step, asking questions and addressing questions and bringing the answers into a plan. Then that plan is something that is used to guide management, but you are all the time monitoring and adjusting it. Not just something that you put to work and forget about it. When it comes to grazing, the biggest factor that we talk about is recovery of plants, but in the context of a lot of complexity. For example, we work with the Nature Conservancy in Colorado at the Fox Ranch. They were concerned about the prairie chickens, concerned that too many animals or too many bunched together might endanger the prairie chickens, step on the eggs and so on. So the question was, let’s learn all we can about the prairie chickens: Where do they live; where do they hatch their eggs; what is the perfect height for different types on the ranch? We took all that information and included it in the plan. It’s a chart that we use that has all the dimensions of space and time. You can look at it and tell what time of the year they need to be left alone, what time of the year we need to graze to create less cover — all the conditions those birds need. There are so many considerations you need to take into account when you manage animals, and all that goes in the plan. Knowing recovery times for specific plants at different times of the year, given the growth rates of the plants, allows you to then start to plan backward, plan how much time and space with each animal do you have? It’s almost like art — you put all this complexity, including your birthday, when you want to go on vacation, etc. so the animals will be somewhere they don’t require so much oversight. All that information goes into the plan, and then it is an intelligent plan that allows you to create all the outcomes for all the aspects of management, not just for your livestock. No one better than a local farmer understands that context and how to support farmers in their regions as they deal with those specifics of complexity.
ACRES U.S.A. Who makes up a hub?
IBARRA-HOWELL. The hub strategy is a partnership, with leaders and entrepreneurs and people who want to be the movers and shakers in different parts of the world. Some of them are farmers or ranchers, some of them are not farmers or ranchers. Some of them are teachers or people in finance or agronomists or marketing folks. We have micro-investment in Pakistan with a gentleman who was running a micro-investing initiative. He thought that since most of their investments were going to people involved in agriculture, smallholders, these people needed to know how to craft their future and manage accordingly. He approached the Savory Institute and went through the training. When we began the Institute, we decided that to move fast in terms of regenerating land and empowering farmers, the way to do that was to do it simultaneously all over the world. We couldn’t do it from Boulder, obviously, or even from the United States. We needed leaders in those particular regions. They came to us, actually. They came to us and said, “We want to teach Savory holistic management in Turkey — I just came back from Turkey — or in France, Kenya, Patagonia or Australia.”
ACRES U.S.A. How do you identify leaders from far-flung parts of the world?
IBARRA-HOWELL. They come to us. We have criteria to decide the likelihood of an individual succeeding. We select a handful every year, and then we go through around 18 months of on-boarding process. Here is where the quality assurance comes in. Two leaders from every hub come together — usually we have from five to 10 hubs at one time — so we have from 10 to 20 people coming together, and they go through a training process starting with intensive training in holistic management. Some of our sessions happen in Zimbabwe, and some of our sessions happen in Colorado where we have our headquarters or in other hub regions. Most hubs have these requirements: you have to have a demonstration site — that means a ranch or a farm that is contextually relevant to the region. In Patagonia that would be a large estancia. In the northeast United States it will be a smaller farm, like a 500-acre farm. It all depends where you’re operating. You need to have a plan that is representative of the farmers and ranchers in your region, and you need to have management control over that land. Here is where we are going to push the limits and manage holistically and be a place of learning and research and demonstration. The other requirement is that they go through the holistic management training, beginning with what we call boot camp. Boot camp is 10 days of training in which hub leaders come together and go through their business models, their plans, how they are going to reach out to the farmers and ranchers in their regions and describe the market situations that can help create incentives for the type of management they will be teaching. In some cases we are talking about pastoralists, where they don’t have a market, like the Masai or districts in South Africa where they work at subsistence. So how are we going to work with them? Who is going to pay for their training, whether it is government money, grants, other NGOs or philanthropy from donors? In some cases there is a market component and there is a commercial infrastructure, so maybe a brand will pay for the training of a farmer. Each hub identifies the unique situation they will be working with. Then, once they meet all the requirements and are accredited, they become part of the network and they start doing their work — offering workshops, offering training — they become part of the family, so now they are connected not only with Savory but all the other hubs.
ACRES U.S.A. How do you maintain these connections?
IBARRA-HOWELL. We come together in different ways. We connect through a digital platform, which is very cool, almost a social platform like Facebook but which is professional, on which we share resources and ideas — the Savory Institute shares all the tools they will use in their own contexts. We share the curriculum. If there are translations, we share the translations. We share pictures from around the world. Everybody puts their resources into that platform so we can use them for all the people on the network and then customize them for the region in which these hubs are operating. We are in constant communication with them. Then, once a quarter, we have continuing education, so that anything new that we’ve learned, challenges that farmers are facing, we work together to remove those challenges. It’s really like a big think tank, and everybody brings their insights from all over the place. Then once a year we come together in person.
ACRES U.S.A. What are the advantages of decentralization, as opposed to a lot of organizations, even global organizations, where people report up the chain and decisions come down? How did you come to embrace the idea of widely dispersed, distributed knowledge as it’s often known?
IBARRA-HOWELL. We were part of the holistic management movement since 1994, when I moved to the United States and had the honor to meet Allan Savory and work with him. At that time the model was more like what you mentioned, more the hub-and-spoke model in which the organization was a nonprofit that Allan founded for training individuals. So we all became educators, and as educators you would then go and do what you had to do. What happened then is that you had a bunch of people around the world. Some of them came all the way from Australia; the great movement of holistic management in Australia happened because of two people, Brian Marshall and Bruce Ward, who studied with me back in 1994. They were fantastic in creating awareness, and I think Australia is one of the biggest expressions of the power of holistic management, with many thousands of farmers that practice it, as well as many, many educators. But overall we had a lot of people distributed around the world, and they were sort of atomized, like points in space. We didn’t have much traction as a movement because we were not relating to each other, not talking to each other. We trained farmers but then they disappeared, and we didn’t know what happened to these people. There was a lack of local support mechanisms for these farmers who had been exposed to holistic management.
ACRES U.S.A. How did you overcome these challenges?
IBARRA-HOWELL. We needed several things: the local solutionary, the local support mechanism, someone who could be there to hold the hand of a farmer, someone who had also learned something about holistic management. The typical thing that happened was that a farmer would go back home, put in a fence and start rotating animals. It would be a disaster, and they would leave it behind. That was because they were so alone in trying to move it forward. Then we experimented with management class. A few farmers would get together and support each other through the challenges. Then we talked about how wonderful it would be if each area would be like a node in which there would always be a support mechanism — these ongoing relationships that would continue to train, continue to support, especially in those two or three years of transition into doing things differently. We believe the sweet spot is around two to three years of doing it with someone helping you through the tough times, so you don’t go back to old habits and you stay with the planning. We thought it would be great to have many, many nodes of support around the world. The second thing was, it would be great if all these nodes were connected to each other, so we are all unified as we try to change the way agriculture is going and address its impact on soil and degradation of natural resources. Instead of having many points in space, we decided to have a net so the message would get more traction. Then we thought, well, how do we make sure everybody is connected, talking to each other and supported through the whole process so that they are recognized in the marketplace for the good things they are doing? We had been monitoring for a long time the outcomes of our work, so let’s take it to the next level of scientific validity. Let’s show that we have something different in different regions of the world, so we know that it’s not that it works in one place but not in another. But let’s have that conversation happen. We always look at nature, and we saw in nature the way things are always distributed, and the more that model is refined then there is more resiliency. That way, we believed the Savory Institute would never be a bottleneck. We will be a node in the network with a specific function, and the function is the curriculum, and the support and the formation of new hubs. So we thought, let’s give it a try. And if we are going to influence a large amount of land in a short time, we are going to do it with almost a super-franchise approach — many Savory Institutes around the world, all talking to each other, all with the same DNA that is passed on to our producer network. We then see what we learned from implementing in different places, and as all that feeds back into the clearinghouse at headquarters we can send it back to the whole network. We thought that could work, and we set a goal of a billion hectares, which is one-fifth of the grasslands of the world, including savannas and shrublands. Then how do we do it? We’re not going to do it from Boulder, Colorado. So let’s have 100 partners around the world with the same mission, the same vision, the same tools, equipped to influence their region, so each one could influence 1 million hectares. Knowing, of course, that in some cases that would be feasible and in some cases it would not. At 10 hubs a year, we would have 100 by 2025. So that was the idea — a big, audacious goal. With each year and each iteration, we did it better. We are now at 35 hubs, and on-boarding new ones. We are very excited. I just came back from Turkey where we met with hub leaders from Turkey, Pakistan, the U.K., Sweden and Spain.
ACRES U.S.A. That is a disparate group, to put it mildly. What clues did the meeting give you about the future?
IBARRA-HOWELL. It was just fascinating because at the end of the day, as different as they are culturally, economically and ecologically, the challenges we face are so similar, so common, and so we explored what’s next, how do we do it better? What are things that can be put in place? It’s like a big community thinking around the same challenges and bringing solutions that can be deployed around the network — so we are not reinventing the wheel in each node. The learning goes on and lifts us all to the next level.