Photo of hand holding translucent earth globe with a headline reading "Soil Health Principles with Context: The Importance of 'connecting all the dots.' By Ray Archuleta, Understanding Ag, LLC.

What would a world without context be like? 

Navigating a world without context is like trying to find your way out of a dark room. It’s disorienting, confusing and problematic. 

Information is important, but knowledge is “information in context,” giving us a way to accurately and effectively “connect all of the dots” in any given situation. Context is everything that exists outside of a specific idea, thought, event or situation. Context includes the circumstances—the situational factors—that can help us form specific ideas, solve problems or recognize situations that may spiral out of control. 

Unfortunately, most of us ignore context in our day-to-day lives and management decisions. It is easier to maintain a sense of simplicity and order that way. It is easier to reduce our information and circumstances into smaller, singular events versus viewing our world in holistic, multi-dimensional, interconnected ways. We often ignore the bigger picture because by doing so we believe we can “solve” a problem quicker, move on and forget it ever happened. However, this kind of thinking stifles our thinking and blurs our perspective. 

While some behavioral scientists have labeled it a fundamental human tendency, more recent research suggests that the failure to take note of context is particularly pronounced in American, European and other Western cultures. Eastern cultures tend to be better in considering and viewing context before westerners. 

In his book, Situations Matter: Understanding how context transforms your world, Sam Sommers writes, “Context has a dramatic influence on how we think, how we act, who we are as people and how we impact our environment.” 

It is important for farmers, ranchers and all humans to recognize that our actions are influenced by our ecological, cultural, social and financial context. 

Giving Soil Health Principles Context:

In the last two decades, soil health educators have taught five basic ecological soil health principles that are based on Biomimicry (to mimic life). All-natural, healthy soils function with five principles that: 1.) limit chemical, physical, and biological disturbance; 2.) keep the soil covered; 3.) add diversity of plants and insects; 4.) keep a living root in the soil as long as possible; and 5.) integrate animals into your system (see graph below). These self-healing, self-organizing and self-regulating principles enable ecosystem health and functioned long before humans were on earth. 

As farmers/ranchers become more conscious, more observant of the ordinary, and more self-aware, the more critical “context” plays a role in understanding our relationship to the natural system. From a human perspective, without the principle of context, the other five principles have no purpose. Humans are deeply interconnected to the natural system—a relationship that cannot be separated. 

Yet our western mindset wants to isolate, delineate and reduce our relationship with nature—absent context. This axiom brings out this point more clearly: “The problem with ecologists—they separate the human from the natural system. The problem with economists—they separate the human from the ecology.” This thought process creates a world of confusion.

For this reason, the Soil Health Academy and Understanding Ag, LLC recently added “context” to the original five soil health principles. The principle of context gives farmers, ranchers and agriculturists a framework to understand human nature and to be more situationally aware overall. Context helps us understand our ecological, economic, community and spiritual situations that may prevent us from healing our soils on our farms or ranches. 

Timeline

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While not intended to be definitive or exhaustive, the following list provides an overview of some of the ways you can consider context in your farming and ranching operations:

Ecological Context:

  • How much rain or humidity you get in a year? Without moisture, soil biology does not function, no matter how healthy your soil is.
  • Nature uses the energy it needs and relies on freely available energy. Does your ranch or farm capture enough sunlight, or does it run on ancient sunlight (gas, diesel, etc.)?
  • Do the crops or animals fit and function to the local environment? Example: Are you farming out of ecological context? Are you growing dryland corn in Western Kansas with very limited rainfall? Have you adapted your animals to your local environment? Can the type and shape of animal function in your local environment?
  • Nature recycles all materials. Does your farm or ranch? Example: Take a waste product like grain screenings to feed hogs.
  • Nature rewards cooperation. Is your farm or ranch function in cooperation like nature? 
  • Nature functions through diversity. Does your ranch or farm maximize diversity? 
  • Is your farm or ranch locally attuned and responsive to your area? What local vegetation or animals do well in your area?
  • Nature builds using abundant resources, incorporating rare resources only sparingly. Nature is efficient and does not waste energy or resources. Every organism has purpose. Does your ranch or farm curb excesses within? 
  • Nature uses chemistry and materials that are safe for living beings. Does your farm or ranch?
  • Nature is locally attuned and responsive. Is your farm locally attuned and responsive? Are you adaptive in your management?
  • Does your ranch or farm run on information? Do you have a basic understanding of ecology? Do you observe and understand the patterns and principles of nature? DNA is information. Are you using the correct breed and type of animals in your operation? 

Community Context:

  • What are the cultural and social norms for farming or ranching in your area?
  • Is farming or ranching in nature’s image your goal or does the local community form your mindset and set your goal unconsciously for your operation?
  • Are you socially conditioned by your local education and experience?
  • Did you learn a majority of what you know about farming and ranching from your family and friends?

Economic Context:

  • Do you operate on borrowed money? To what extent do your creditors restrict or adversely affect your decision-making ability?
  • Nature is resilient to acute disturbances. Is your ranch or  farm resilient to ecological and economic disturbances? 
  • Nature provides mutual benefits. Does your ranch or farm have multiple streams of income? Do you provide just one product or service?
  • Nature tends to optimize rather than maximize. Do you focus on yield or profit?

Spiritual Context:

  • What is your spiritual understanding about earthly stewardship?
  • What is your “Why?”
  • What is the spiritual mindset of your local community?
  • Did you grow up in Amish, Mennonite, Christian, Native American, Islamic, Hindu, or a non-religious context? What you believe impacts your context.

Summary

In life, context informs everything around us. Understanding how the world works and how people act comes down to context. A world without context is meaningless and lifeless. Context, on the other hand, provides design and purpose.

In short, context is critically important, and it comes into play in more areas of our lives than one might initially think. By paying more attention to context, we can better perceive the world around us, connect ALL of the dots and make better decisions in our lives and in our farming and ranching operations. 

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