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SheepCowSeed Bank

95% of all terrestrial species on earth live in the soil. A handful of soil contains miles and miles of filament. We could sequester all of the carbon emissions attributed to human activity with 17% of the world’s arable land—if we managed it holistically.We need to pay attention to dirt!

Last week before the BALLE conference, I spent a couple of days at Paicines Ranch in San Benito County. Owned by Sallie Calhoun and her husband Matt, the ranch is big and sprawling and home to increasingly healthy soil, thanks to the dedication and common sense of Sallie and Matt. They recently hired Kelly Mulville to further their work in holistic management of the ranch (also see this TED Talk by Allan Savory), including education and outreach. Kelly provided the facts found in the first paragraph—little snippets interjected into his presentation with no particular drama but with monumental implications. We were eager students.

Building soil health involves a hands-on, intimate, relationship with the land. It involves a lot of upfront time to figure out what’s going on, what is needed and how best to accomplish a goal. It requires long-term thinking and planning. It almost always involves herds of animals on the land, pooping, peeing, and tromping with their hooves to feed and stimulate plant mass that then feeds and stimulates the soil. The payoff can be almost immediate in terms of water retention, soil fertility, and productivity. And the long-term implications are truly life or death. Soil, air, food, and health are as interconnected as those filaments in a handful of dirt.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if we approached finance and investing with the same curiosity and commitment that dirt evokes? And with the same kind of thoughtful approach that holistic management uses? It seems to me that the trick lies in taking our eyes off the (money) ball long enough to figure out what really matters. So how do we do that? Here are three guidelines I gleaned from my days at Paicines Ranch and on a lovely FiberShed tour I participated in later in the week:

1. Spend the time upfront.

In the world of investment management, most advisors and managers are compensated based on a percentage of the assets that are entrusted to them to oversee. This means that they have an incentive to “gather assets” and start managing them right away. If we think of gathering assets as fencing them in, then the process of visioning, planning, testing and evaluating would be akin to surveying and studying the land before making the commitment to build a fence.

Investors should spend lots of time upfront just as ranchers and farmers who practice holistic management spend time contemplating, considering, and weighing possibilities against a well-conceived holistic goal. If we are going to be urgent about anything, it should be about how we can use money to facilitate a long-term vision, not about how to “get rich” today.

2. Put a face on it.

There’s something about spending time with a cow or a sheep—not to mention a baby or a sibling, parent, friend, neighbor or the future generations—that gives us immediate perspective on our interdependence. We seem to have a cultural tendency to compartmentalize money from everything else that matters to us. The more we see the connections between ourselves, our money, and the well-being of the earth and its inhabitants, the better we will be at making good financial decisions.

3. Last things come first.

The game of “why” is revealing. If you ask me why I want to invest my money, I might say that I want to make more money. You might ask why I want to make more money, and I might say that I need to support myself. Again you might ask why, and I would present another motivation, deeper or more fundamental than the last.

After a number of iterations, most people arrive at commonalities—love, relationship, security, connection, well-being. And yet so many investment professionals stop at the first why. It appears to be sufficient to work with “making money” as the ultimate why. Instead, first and foremost should be that which comes at the end of our string of why’s. From there we can work forward to what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Here’s to soil and sheep, cows and compost as our natural guides on the path to integrated capital.

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