RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Rural Areas Need Holistic Thinkers

"I know one thing for sure," says my friend Robert, "if rural America's going to be saved, it's because the women have gotten involved."

We're standing in the middle of Robert's organic farm. His shade house full of gourmet snow peas is east of us. There are three greenhouses and a big bed of cutting flowers to the west. It's early spring; the day is cool. Still, when I hear his declaration, I get a hot flash. I've been thinking the same thing for a long time.

Robert goes on to describe the women he sees at the farmer's market every week, and how they have defined success. Gail, who bakes a distinctive kind of bread, had especially gotten his attention.

"She's there every week, with her card table and her loaves of bread, no folderol, and people buy and her stuff is good and by the end of the day she's sold out. She makes enough to pay her rent and her bills, and that's all she wants." He shakes his head at the wonder of it. "She just makes enough to pay her bills."

We name other rural women we know. They're in organic lettuce, or beef, or community-supported agriculture, where town-dwellers buy a share of the farm's produce, but the story is the same. They aren't out to build empires. They just want to pay the bills. They discovered niches they liked, and consumers recognized that their products were better than the foods of industry.

The women, as Robert considers it, pay their bills and then devote time to other things. They want more time for interests other than business. Families, hobbies, classes.

Robert says that men are always figuring out how to get more success. Always expanding and never quite catching up with the work or the finances. Every year another truck, another acre, another debt. While their net worth grows on paper, they're always scrambling.

I'm not sure it's a sex thing. I like Samuel Johnson's answer when asked whether men or women are more intelligent: "Which man? Which woman?" I think it's more a way of life -- a way of making choices. A habit.

Scientists have hooked people up to monitors and seen how their brains act when they try to solve problems. They say there are real differences. Some people go at problems in a linear fashion. When they do math, they work for the right answer.

Other thinkers believe that the right answer should only get partial credit. There should be credit for finding more than one way to solve the problem and credit for thinking about what makes the problem interesting. Those are the holistic thinkers.

Let's say you want to get to a goal called "C." If A leads to B, and B leads to C, then A leads to C. Linear thinkers pour a question into a funnel and see the answer come out in one clear stream. For example, in chicken raising, if the goal "C" is more money, then "A" might be confining thousands of chickens in a metal building and "B" might be dosing the chickens with hormones to make them grow faster. Or it might be screwing the chicken raisers so they barely make a living. Either way brings in more money.

This "bottom line mentality" involves selling the most stuff with the least cost. In order to achieve profitability, corporations must -- MUST -- overlook undesired byproducts -- environmental pollution, health hazards, child labor, the end of cultural traditions, and so forth.

A holistic thinker -- sees connections from A to B to C, but also sees that A may bring D or E or F. Antibiotics kill good bacteria as well as bad, and then they run into the creeks and rivers. More buildings mean more debt, more time, more stress.

Holistic thinkers pour a question into the small end of the funnel and see outcomes gush in myriad possibilities from the wide end.

Sometimes this skill of seeing possibilities is called "intuition" and associated with women. Gender anthropologists speculate that it may have something deep and ancient to do with women keeping toddlers out of the cooking fire while also occupied with cooking and chatting with our neighbors.

On the other hand, writer Dianne Hales has studied gender science intensely, says, "Because the brain is a work in progress, no one knows ... whether any sex differences are hard-wired at birth or a consequence of experience and education ... "

Whatever the outcome of this debate, we can learn much from the differences of linear and holistic thinking. Holistic thinkers think about several things at the same time. This part, then that, flashing messages back and forth. We can carry on a conversation, compose a memo, wonder where our car keys are and still save some synapses to fret over what color we should paint the front door.

So, I'm still standing in Robert's garden, and, realizing, hey, he's a holistic thinker. He's solving problems, working with multitudes of possibilities every day, and saving his family farm by raising vegetables for a farmer's market. And he has every indication of being a man. But I have to admit that he's an unusual man, one who left business to farm in a sustainable way.

He's likes making the everyday decisions that come with running your own life: Should I pull weeds, work on advertising, or make phone calls to find a source of manure? Or should I just spend the day with a book? What are the potential outcomes? If more people ran their own lives, we'd all know more people like Robert.

Holistic thinkers may never make it to the top in industry or government, but they are very valuable, and we need them, men and women, in politics and academia and business and in the urban and the rural community.

And that's what's raised on a family farm, and one of the reasons we should support our farmers. Farmer's markets are opening all over the nation this month. Support your local farmer.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Editor's Note: A toll-free telephone number for McDonald's Corp. that was included in Margot McMillen's 4/15/00 column on genetically modified foods apparently does not accept calls nationwide. If you want to urge McDonald's not to use genetically modified foods, write Customer Satisfaction Center, McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook IL 60523; phone 630-623-6198; or contact your local McDonald's manager. And, for good measure, tell your local Burger King you heard McDonald's was considering banning genetically modified food.

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