Texas Investment Network


Recent Blog


Pitching Help Desk


Testimonials

"This is the best money I've spent so far trying to attract qualified investors. I've attended several VC and Angel Investor events over the past year to attract investors and this site has attracted the most relevant and qualified investors so far. Thanks! ~ James Fitzgerald - ChainStar USA"
James Fitzgerald - ChainStar USA

 BLOG >> Agriculture

Observing Flow [Agriculture
Posted on April 13, 2018 @ 08:42:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog is a continuation of my recent blogs on rivers and flow patterns (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

I didn't have a chance to go for my river walk for a few days so was restricted to only thinking about flow. The last couple of days I have resumed my walks and vividly observed an interesting feature of water flow called backflow.

If you watch the water in a river go past you, you probably noticed areas in the stream where water seemed to swirl away from the main body of the river flow and go backwards. It can be difficult to visualize what is going on in these areas just from observing the water ripples. Fortunately, the last couple of days there have been ice plates floating on the river that can be used to help visualize these backflow forces. In this video, you can observe the ice plates whirling back into the eddy pool.

An observation is not really an observation until you make a statement about that observation that you believe to be true. For example:

The residence time of water in a stream is increased in backflow sections of a stream.

Water stays in the river longer where there is backflow because it cannot escape the backflow forces. This seems to be what is going on based on seeing the release and continued recruitment of ice plates into the backflow section of the river.

The art of observing is also the art of making observation statements that have some generality and importance. I could formulate the observation statement "there is a yellow rock protruding from the stream" but who cares about that observation statement? It is, however, important to make mundane observations in certain contexts. If you are designing a garden or landscape for a client, it would be important to note things like "ditch is overflowing", "client has 2 dogs", "sun at noon is over the bird feeder from center of deck", etc... In the case of my backflow statement, it is a useful reminder that water does not flow at a uniform pace down a stream, the residence time of water may differ in different sections of the stream.

In Lean Startup Theory the goal is to learn about your market as quickly as you can by interacting systematically with it. There are some specific recommendations from lean startup theory about how to measure this learning progress, but one simple metric might be how many significant observation statements you are able to come up with about your market and the running of your business.

These observation statements do not have to lead to immediate benefits in performance but the idea is that as you build up observation statements, and a truer picture of the world, that there would eventually be benefits in terms of better design or better running of your business.

We are not passive observers of nature and the observations that we make are often to see what effect various manipulations might have. These active observations are also an important part of the observations statements you might generate.

One way I intend to learn more about rivers to by making more observation statements. The backflow observation statement is a starting point. It leads me to wonder if I would be more likely to catch trout in backflow sections of a river than in other sections. If true, this could be regarded as the payoff for making these observations, but the payoff for me is to enjoy my river walks more by observing and learning from nature. A more general point is to suggest that a good way to measure learning (business or otherwise) is through the number and quality of observation statements generated from passive and active observation contexts.

Bill Mollison's 1983 Permaculture Design Course offers a good discussion on observation and making observation statements. Alot of his course consisted of making observation statements, debating them, relating them to other observations and to theories, and making design suggestions based on the observation statements. Bill advised new landowners to spend some time observing and making observation statements about their property (e.g., 15 Things to Observe Before Starting Your Permaculture Design) prior to making any design changes to it as this is likely to generate better designs.

Permalink 

Explaining & Predicting Flows [Agriculture
Posted on March 7, 2018 @ 08:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher

On my morning walks by the river I take note of how much water appears to be flowing in the river. Lately the flows have not been that high because most of the snow has already melted and there has not been that much rain or snow for the last few weeks. Previously, when the snow melted the riverbanks overflowed onto roads and it was a very different river.

How do you explain and/or predict the flow of a river?

To predict flow you need to start by having a good measurement of existing flow. A standard technique is to measure the width of the stream and the depths of the stream at various regular intervals then sum over these trapezoidal area estimates (A = Σ ai). You would then have to measure the velocity v of the water perhaps by floating a cork in water between two markers and timing how long it takes. Once you had area and velocity measurements you could compute a flow volume (Q = A x v). This flow volume would vary from day to day.

What factors might you use to explain and predict a river flow?

Explaining a river flow is different than predicting a river flow. A big factor in explaining a river flow volume is the number and size of tributaries leading into it. This factor stays fairly constant from day to day so is not very useful in predicting the daily variation in river flow. Other factors like precipitation, ground saturation, ground permeability, evaporation, etc. might be more useful in predicting the day to day expected flows.

Most cities are built along a river. Around half of those cities withdraw a major part of their water supply from upriver. Depending on the size of the city and its seasonal demand for water, this extracted volume could be a significant factor influencing flow rate.

A home property can also be the focus of an investigation into daily flow volumes. What factors explain and predict the amount of water you use on your property on a daily basis? Those on metered water have an advantage over non-metered users in that they can figure out those factors better because they have accurate flow measurements to go by (depending on how that usage is reported).

Cashflow is another type of flow that concerns entrepreneurs and investors. What are the factors that explain and predict the cashflow of a company? What is the time frame of concern in our cashflow projections - a day, a week, a month, quarterly, etc... The time frame determines how frequently we would have to measure cashflow to determine if the cashflow model is correct. Comparing cashflow models to riverflow models offers potential insights.

Stock and flow diagrams are commonly used in systems theory to model systems dynamics. The simplist stock and flow diagram looks like this bathtub model used to explain and predict the level of water in a bathtub:

Donnella Meadows in her book Thinking In Systems: A Primer (3rd Edition, 2008) uses a slightly more complex stock and flow diagram to explain and predict the volume of living wood in a forest and also the lumber inventory associated with that forest:

There are many mathematical and graphical techniques you can use to explain and predict flows. The study of river flows offers a useful foundational metaphor for thinking about other types of flows (e.g., the flow of electricity is often understood in terms of water flows). The techniques needed to explain and predict stream flows might also be used to explain and predict these other types of flows as well. Something to think about the next time you are walking beside a river and looking for something to occupy your mind.

Permalink 

Neversink Startup Lessons [Agriculture
Posted on February 1, 2018 @ 12:52:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Neversink Farm has been releasing lots of new YouTube videos. Because of my interest in farming YouTube recommended I watch their videos. I took the bait and am glad I did.

The two main claims to fame of Neversink Farm are:

1. In 2017 they claimed to be grossing $350,000 on 1.5 acres of land. That puts them into the top 1% of farms in terms of farm productivity. See this popular video that goes into detail on their approach to farming.

2. A large part of their farming success is due to what they call a systems-based approach to farming. Part of what this means is that each vegetable is grown according to a particular system and they are always looking for ways to improve that particular system in the most impactful way. This leads to ever higher productivity on the same amount of land. A system-based approach also integrates growing with how you intend to retail your crops so it takes into account factors beyond the farm as well.

In some of Conor Crickmore's recent videos he reflects on his first year in farming and what he learned. I think they contain useful lessons for startups in industries besides farming.

Permalink 

Learning From Bees [Agriculture
Posted on January 30, 2018 @ 07:02:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I am 2 chapters into a book by Bernd Heinrich called Bumblebee Economics (1979).

bumble bee economics book cover

I knew Bernd from some of his other popular science books but was curious about what the concept of Bumblebee Economics might consist of. Bernd invokes a combination of economic, energetic, and societal factors to explain why, for example, a colony splits to form two colonies. When a colony reaches a certain size, the bees can become more aggressive with each other. The area around the colony can become too large to be efficiently foraged from one location or it may not have sufficient nectar sources. The objective of the queen is to reproduce her lineage so starting a new colony is generally part of the yearly mission. Factors such as these eventually lead a colony to the decision to start a new colony.

This may be an overly complex analysis of the factors driving the decision to start a new colony. Perhaps some chemical compound in the colony hits a certain concentration and this signals that it is time to split up the colony. In the absence of said chemical compound, however, you might have to resort to more complex socio-economic factors to explain why things are as they are in bumblebee land. Hence the need for an economic type analysis of bumblebee behavior.

If bumblebees can be said to have what amounts to an economy, then what is the currency? Pollen is necessary for reproduction of the colony and the reproduction of flowing plants. Nectar is used for energy and is stored in the form of honey after it is regurgitated from their honey gut. Perhaps bubblebees have two currencies, pollen and nectar, that are traded for different purposes. You might be able to construct a measure of colony growth by measuring the amount of pollen stored and traded among plants or the amount of nectar consumed and stored as honey by the colony and its descendants.

Natural economics deals with how economies worked before the invention of money, or when the use of money was a negligible part of the economy. Perhaps thinking about pollen and nectar as currencies is misleading because bees live in a natural economy rather than the artificial economies that humans create in which money is central. It is nevertheless interesting to think about the role of pollen and nectar in the bumblebee economy and the extent to which they might be considered units of trade.

Bumblebees are social insects that join together into colonies. A colony might be equated with a franchise business model where the goal is to create new instances of itself in order to exploit new niches.

Bumblebees are part of a network consisting of flowering plants that they get energy from and help to reproduce. Different varieties of birds consume the seasonal fruit set of the pollinated plants. These birds also help to propagate plants through the undigested seeds they release. The macro-economic system of bumblebees is affected by the abundance of flowering plants and birds in their ecosystem. Each actor in this network plays a critical role and if one is harmed or enhanced the others are likely to be harmed and enhanced as well.

Comparative economics studies "different systems of economic organization, such as capitalism, socialism, feudalism and the mixed economy". If bee behavior can be explained from an economic point of view perhaps we can add bee economics to the list of economic organizations that human economic organizations could be compared to. Why would we want to? It might allow us to come up with new ideas about how economies and firms could be organized.

Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. You can visit the examples section of biomimicry.org to read about such nature-inspired solutions. You could also read the book Honeybee Democracy to understand how honeybees collectively decide on where to locate their colony.

The author argues that honeybees provide a useful model (or reminder) of how democracies should be organized. You could also study bumblebee anatomy or physiology for ideas about how to design an engine or a new type of drone aircraft. Bumblebees anatomy and physiology is particularly interesting because bumblebees are active in colder temperatures that most other insects.

Deduction doesn't create anything new. You work from existing ideas, apply logic rules, and arrive at new ideas that were already implied by your existing ideas. Analogy is therefore necessary to arrive at new ideas. Taking an existing system and comparing it to another system can help you to think about the second system in new ways. If bees can be said to have an economy, a language, and democracy then they might offer us opportunities to think differently about economic organization, language, and democratic institutions. This means that we can study bees not simply because they are fascinating creatures but also because of the ideas they might inspire about how to solve complex human problems.

Permalink 

SMART Christmas Trees [Agriculture
Posted on December 12, 2017 @ 08:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This morning I read an article about Dr. Raj Lada's research on SMART Christmas trees. A primary goal of his research was to slow down how long it takes for Balsam Fir trees to lose their needles. This is a problem for consumers that don't want Christmas tree needles all over their living room, and for the producer who wants to ship their product further afield without worrying about needle drop.

Many factors control post-harvest needle drop from how well hydrated the tree is, what type of hydration is used (don't use clorinated water), where it is positioned (away from a heat source), how it is transported (covered with burlap if travelling a longer distance) and so on. Genetically, however, there are also factors that can prevent needle drop such as how much of the plant stress hormone Ethelene the tree produces. Ethelene ripens fruit and also has an effect on how quickly needles drop. Dr Lada has developed a variety of Christmas tree that produces less Ethelene and is able to retain its needle 2 to 3 times longer (potentially up to 3 months). This is a big deal in the world of Christmas tree retail and production.

The term SMART is an acronym for Senescence Modulated Abscission Regulating Technology. The first SMART seedlings were planted this year so we'll know better in a few years whether such trees will command the premium price developers and growers are hoping for.

Better color, aroma and pest resistance are other attributes that SMART Christmas Tree developers are looking to add to the Balsam Fir gene pool.

This research illustrates a few points:

  1. Don't take anything as a given. Many of us endure fallen needles without thinking this attribute might be improved.
  2. What makes things SMART is not just electronics based. In this age of global warming, we may need alot of our plants to become SMARTER in order to adapt. See Kernza for an example of a SMARTER grain seed.
  3. Industry, Government and Academia can work together well when there is a clear problem to be solved (e.g., needle drop problem) but industry alone lacks the expertise and capital necessary to properly address it.

Ironically, the Christmas Tree Research Centre is slated to shut down after Christmas of this year due to lack of ongoing funding. Dr Lada believes that there is alot more work he could be doing to improve Christmas tree traits. My conjecture is that after hitting his home run on addressing needle drop, other attributes are not considered as important to solve. You apparently cannot rest on your laurels for very long these days.

Part of the Christmas Tree research project involved touring around to find the best Balsam Fir tree specimens to select from. Needles were donated by the owners of this Christmas tree to the research project.


Source The Chronicle Herald

Permalink 

Scale Planning [Agriculture
Posted on November 30, 2017 @ 08:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently decided to scale up the water holding capacity of my farm property by purchasing a used 2000 gallon plastic tank. Here is what the beast looks like:

This was not a carefully planned purchase. There was a good deal on it ($250) and I envisioned a few possible uses for it on the farm so I purchased it before someone else got it. Now that I have purchased it, the concept of scaling up seems much more visceral and real and is the inspiration for my thoughts about scaling up today.

1 US gallon of water (3.785 L) weights approximately 8.34 pounds or 3.78 kilograms at 62 °F (17 °C). 2000 gallons of water would weight 16,680 pounds or 8.34 US tons. When I said this to my wife she said it would take ALOT of water to fill it up. That is true, but we have a big roof on our farm property to potentially collect the water from.

In the left side of the photo you can see a 1000 liter water tote (264 US gallons) that is currently collecting water off a side roof on the barn. That tote can be filled within 4 hours in a heavy rain event. I'd estimate that I could fill the 2000 gallon water tank at least half full (1000 gallons or approx 8000 lbs) in one such rain event by collecting water from one side of the main roof - the right side. When I drop off the tank, I may end up placing the rain collector around there for now. I'll wait til next spring to hook it up.

So one principle of scaling up is that you should have the capacity to scale up before you do so. I could have filled the big tank with runoff from the farm house more slowly but I was mainly thinking of using my barn roof when I purchased this tank. A 2000 gallon tank seems to me to be the size of tank appropriate to collecting rain off a much larger roof surface such as a barn. I can cycle through emptying and filling the tank more quickly with barn roof runoff. The equivalent idea in business might be to make sure you have the person power in place before you start scaling up a line of business. Match scale to capacity.

Another aspect of scaling up is that there are multiple consequences of scaling up, not just one. I am scaling up my water holding capacity, but I am also scaling up my water pressure in ways that I haven't tried to calculate yet. All of the vines and trees I've planted are located down hill from the farm. When I tried to gravity feed irrigation from my 1000 liter water tote I was disappointed with the non-existent pressure I was getting. I eventually had great pressure when I attached a transfer pump to the water tote.

I don't know right now what water pressure I should expect from a discharge valve at the bottom of an overflowing 2000 gallon tank. The normal state for my smaller 1000 liter tank is to be full. When rain events happen on a full tank an overflow pipe positioned at the fill level keeps the tank from filling the tank any higher. There is alot of downward force involved in a full 2000 gallon tank. I'm sure some Texas or Alberta oil field worker could enlighten me quickly. They could probably also enlighten me on the ground preparation work that should be done and perhaps the best way to elevate the structure if I decided I wanted even more pressure.

The point is that when you scale up, you don't just scale up on your desired dimension (more water) you also scale up in other dimensions which may (more pressure) or may not be (more groundwork required) positive outcomes but which will need to be addressed in your planning. The more you can quantify the outcomes across all dimensions the better your scale planning is likely to be.

Another aspect of scaling up is having a use for your scaled up capacity. I must admit that I currently don't make much use of the water I do currently collect so why should I bother collecting even more water? One answer is that it would be better NOT to use a transfer pump as a long term solution to pressurizing my irrigation water. The larger water holding capacity will allow me to pressurize my water more and perhaps allow me to realize my original gravity-based irrigation plans for the vines, fruit trees, nut trees and my home gardens. If that is true, I will be able to take advantage of the increased storage capacity and gravity pressure to help my plants grow better.

Finally, suppose that I start collecting water and find a use for the larger capacity of available irrigation water. That might be a good time to make the decision to scale up further by adding another 2000 gallon tank. In other words, don't prematurely over scale your operation. I would like to have more water holding capacity but there is a sensible limit right now as to how far I should increase my capacity. Likewise, when scaling up a business operation, is there some natural limit to how far you should try to scale up in this iteration of your business?

To conclude, scale planning is important for any business that plans to grow which I have tried to illustrate with the example of scaling up my farm water holding capacity with a bigger water tank. This is a relatively simple example of scaling up but it nevertheless illustrates some of the issues involved.

Permalink 

Increasing Production [Agriculture
Posted on November 7, 2017 @ 06:36:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'm currently auditing an online edX course called Sustainable Food Security: Crop Production. It was developed by faculty at Wageningen University under their online brand WageningenX.

I am taking the course because of my interest in food production and the promise of a more scientific approach to doing so. The Netherlands is arguably the world leader in agricultural production: they produce the highest amount of agricultural products per acre anywhere in the world. I figured if I want to learn about a scientific approach to crop production it might be good to learn what a university in the Netherlands has to say.

One interesting factiod about agricultural production is that from 1950 to 2012 global agricultural production has more than tripled while only taking up 10% more land area. Can we continue to intensity production in a sustainable way to meet the demands of an increasing population which is projected to be 9 billion by 2050 (currently estimated at 7.6 billion)? That is the main issue that the course tries to address.

The contribution of land area to crop production is not expected to increase significantly during that time so most of the increases will be due to other factors like technology, knowledge, and innovation.

The faculty at Wageningen have developed a framework called Theoretical Production Ecology that they hope will contribute to the required productivity increases in a sustainable way. I'm not an expert on this approach but I do know that it involves simulating crop production based on the main parameters that drive the production of that crop. It is a quantitative approach involving the use of animated charts so you can interact with the parameters, see the effects, save the results and compare that with crop model results using different parameters.

The two takeaways for me so far are:

1) There is a Moore's law type of innovation happening in agriculture (not at the same explosive rate but still impressive). Instead of packing ever more computer performance onto smaller chips, we are packing ever more growing power into smaller spaces. That might be an underappreciated fact about what is happening in agriculture today. Whether the current approach is sustainable is another issue but we should at least acknowledge that agricultural productivity has been increasing and take note of what is on the horizon that might lead to greater productivity and that is also sustainable.

2) The mindset behind theoretical production ecology might be used to think quantitatively about factors of production in other contexts. Entrepreneurs may not be growing tomatoes, but they are growing businesses and perhaps there will come a day when we have models that allow us to vary the main growth parameters of a business and envision how that set of parameters generates different types of yield (number of units produced, profit, expenses, carbon credits, etc..). We can then compare that to another set of selected parameter values and visualize the different types of yield that configuration produces. Based on these comparisons we would select the optimal set of parameter values for our production plan. This would be a more theoretical approach to business planning. The business models might be specific to the type of business we are engaged just as crop models are often specific to the type of crop being grown.

Permalink 

Blueberry Winemaking [Agriculture
Posted on October 3, 2017 @ 08:09:00 AM by Paul Meagher

A major pre-occupation for me lately is gaining experience with blueberry winemaking.

Over the weekend I crushed six 5 gallon pails of blueberries at my farm property. This yield was added to four 5 gallon pails that were already crushed. Total yield was 45 gallons of blueberry pulp and juice. Plus 5 gallons of plum juice and pulp from a plum tree on the farm property. I will be harvesting grapes from my vineyard in about 3 weeks so this gives me some early winemaking practice.

The video below shows my process for crushing and preparing blueberries for wine making. I do a double crushing of the blueberries because the berries are smaller than a grape berry which the crusher is more adapted to. Small scale winemaking can be a heavy lifting workout as I demonstrate in the video. You might notice that I don't remove leaves and grass from the blueberries (unscreened). It would be alot of extra work and it is mostly leaves (and a small amount of rye grass) which could be considered a herb flavoring.

I expect the 6 pails I crushed to convert to 7 or 8 pails of fermentable wine once I remove some must from each pail so I can add sugar to create a wine or port style.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the small scale winemaking that I am practicing right now. The main advantage is that because I am making small 5 gallon batches of wine I can experiment with different variables to try to figure out an optimal set of conditions for producing a blueberry cooler, wine or port (e.g., add acid blend or not, add oak shavings or not, control the starting specific gravity through sugar addition or not, etc...). The number of possible permutations is exponential. The disadvantage is that with so many different experiments going on at such a small scale it is hard to guarantee consistency of your product. If I dumped all my berries into a great big vat that is temperature controlled with proper air headspace then I might be able to create a consistent offering from year to year.

It is what it is. Each batch will be unique. For now, I've got to make lemonade out of that lemon reality.

The blueberry cooler style (6% alcohol) is something I will approach from two directions to see which one turns out best. The first approach is to not add sugar, or add very little, to the juice and when it is done fermenting backsweeten with a blueberry jam type fruit pack made from the blueberries. The second approach is to dilute a blueberry wine or port that is done fermenting with water and then back sweeten with the fruit pack. Usually when you make a cooler from a kit you back sweeten with a fruit pack so that is why I think this might work. Here is the preparation process for the blueberry fruit pack that I made by simmering the blueberries for a couple of hours and adding some sugar to taste. Willy Wonka this fruitpack has flavor!

I am ramping up again tonight to process more blueberries into cooler, wine and port styles that I will be fermenting in my garage mini-winery. It would have been nice to go to wine school to learn winemaking skills, but I'm hoping that deliberate practice over the long term will eventually make up for this lack of formal instruction. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool's book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016) offer motivational research on the power of extended deliberate practice to deliver expertise in any skill area.

Permalink 

Farm Construction [Agriculture
Posted on July 7, 2017 @ 08:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Busy on the farm property doing construction work. I'm getting ready to remove and install a window in the 170 year old farm house.

We finished getting the old rock basement ready to store some wine from last year's harvest and this morning I built a pad and loaded the wine cases onto it. This area stays humid and cool over the summer which is great for storing wine. I blended all of my red wine with a liter or two of plum port and will need to allow it settle for a few months to get a good gauge on the taste it will ultimately have. I needed to sweeten the wine as the grapes do not develop as much sugar content in this climate and the unadjusted wine is too sour. I used some plum port I made from a plum tree on the property to sweeten (after the red wine was fermented to completion).

My brother is spreading rock behind the barn to get the floor of a lean to shed ready for cement. Might be the future home of the winery.

I did manage to frame in the new window and temporarily screwed it into the frame. I'll have to rebuild the header (need more height), double up the thickness of the outer frame (to get proper alignment with exterior siding), and weather proof it tomorrow. The window is wider and taller than what was there before so lots of tweaking to get it right.

Permalink 

Increasing Yield: Part 5 [Agriculture
Posted on June 22, 2017 @ 09:47:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Jean Martin Fortier, in his excellent book The Market Gardener (2014), explained and illustrated how he and his wife make 100,000$ per acre. There farm is an example of a very high yielding enterprise measured by the quantity of produce grown or income generated.

A critical aspect of their argument as to why the farm was high yielding was because he did not use a standard tractor and its accompanying implements to cultivate the land. Instead he relied on smaller scale equipment that was appropriate to the permanent bed system he setup on his 1.5 acre gardening area. He argued that this helped also with the financial yield of the system because he did not have associated machinery debt and maintenance costs. He was not afraid to spend money on tools that improved his productivity, he just made the decision that he didn't see a role for a standard tractor in maximizing yield.

The metaphor of the market gardener is that there are alot of potentially good paying niches our there were our focus might turn to improving quality and getting better at production, rather than getting bigger. Investments into quality and efficiency can still increase yield without dedicating more physical area to production. By focusing on quality and efficiency, we might increase yield by getting more production using less work and inputs and higher prices for better quality. Fortier's argument is that getting bigger in physical scale is not the best route to increasing yield.

That being said, Jean Martin had a generous benefactor invest alot of money into scaling up the market gardening approach to more than 1.5 acres (to 8 acres). This latest video shows how he is scaling up in a way that remains true to many of his market gardening practices, but he now has the room to incorporate new animal and permaculture systems to potentially produce even greater per-acre yields. That is still to be determined. As far as his benefactor is concerned, the most important yield of the system might be the trained market gardeners that the larger scale operation can foster. There are multiple types of yield a business can try to optimize for and which defines what the enterprise considers success.

Permalink 

Increasing Yield: Part 4 [Agriculture
Posted on June 13, 2017 @ 06:47:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In previous blogs (part 1, part 2, part 3), I have argued that the term yield is most useful as a measure of productivity per unit area. Some usages of the term yield are simply productivity measures without any accounting of the area involved (e.g., stock and bond yields). Here we will delve deeper into the spatial aspect of yield and talk about yield mapping. Yield maps are visual depictions of how yield varies as a function of GPS coordinates.

There is a convergence of technology in agriculture that enables on-the-fly calculation of yield as an operator is harvesting a field. Yield mapping technology is built into some combine harvesters now so the operator can gauge or verify that a certain part of a field is yielding more than others and to compare to historical yields from that area.

The 4 ft x 8 ft garden I planted in my cold frame exhibits a similar variability in productivity per unit area with yield being quite high in most areas, but with a noticeable gap in one area where I have planted basil (at the same time as the other crops).

The power of yield mapping comes from comparing it with other maps that contain information about the presence of other variables. A combine harvester might also contain sampling tools that record the level of nitrogen or moisture in the soil as it progresses through the field enabling the operator to see how the yield map might be explained by the levels of nitrogen and moisture in those areas. The yield maps might also be compared with maps produced by flyover drones doing multi-spectral imaging as a basis for measuring different field characteristics. The point is that to increase yield we can't just measure yield itself, we also have to measure other characteristics that might explain the yield patterns and, in the case of farming, would allow us to make precise interventions to improve yield.

So the concept of yield mapping includes not just mapping the levels of productivity over an area but can also be extended to mapping associated variables that might be used to explain and improve yield (e.g., where it might be lacking in, say, nitrogen in a certain part of the field).

In a store front, we could measure yield per square foot or cubic foot of space. We could do yield mapping of each shelf in the store and compute the relative yield derived from the different locations of the store. We might measure yield by computing the amount of income generated by a given area of shelf space. Perhaps we could optimize store front yield by co-relating the yield map to the presence of other variables that might co-vary with such yield. Yield in agriculture is also affected by ambient conditions like the weather. Similarly, yield in a store front would be affected by factors such as types and levels of traffic, socioeconomic status of the catchment area, and the competitive landscape. Something like yield mapping might be useful to do in bricks and mortar establishments.

The term yield mapping was briefly mentioned in the interesting book Push Button Agriculture: Robotics, Drones, Satellite-Guided Soil and Crop Management (2016) by K.R.Krishna. The author argues that the next level of productivity improvement in industrial agriculture is now happening but will become more pronounced as robotics, drones, and gps technology makes further inroads into farming. The level of productivity per unit area of land will increase because we have more precise control over what needs to be done to maintain or increase yields (via maps created using drones, gps, and onboard sensors) but also because robotic innovation will continue to reduce the need for repetitive work to be done by humans. A lesson from industrial agriculture is that precision and robotics are two major factors that are now being targeted to increase yields even further.

Permalink 

Increasing Yield: Part 3 [Agriculture
Posted on June 6, 2017 @ 07:23:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I had some additional thoughts on increasing yield this weekend that will be the focus of today's blog (earlier thoughts at part 1 and part 2).

Just to refresh, I use the term yield to refer to a measure of productivity per unit area. Productivity might be measured in dollars or in bushels of corn. Often dollars are used as a surrogate measure of yield but it is not perfectly correlated with physical yield because the yield in dollars is also affected by supply and demand. That being said, we are often interested in yield measured both in dollars and bushels as they both provide useful information.

The calculation of yield is also affected by two major complicating factors.

One complicating factor is that yield is a multidimensional concept. You can increase yield across several dimensions at the same time and a good designer often is.

In 2011 Ethan Roland & Gregory Landua wrote an influential essay called The 8 forms of capital. This diagram gives you a quick overview of the categories they posited.

Where Ethan and Gregory use the term "Capital" I might use the phrase "Types of Yield" and regard each of these as types of yeild a project might address.

Another complicating factor is that yield can be hard to assign. For example, I sell square bales of hay from my barn to clients consisting mostly of horse owners. One horse owner confided to me today that she keeps her horses in the barn during the hot part of the day when the flies are bad. She likes to have some hay available for them to eat. The hay that we sell to such horse owners is stored in the barn and sold from there.

What is the yield of the barn measured in dollars? Besides the tricky, but interesting math involved, we also have the problem of deciding what percentage of the final price obtained should be attributed to the storage aspect. There were also the costs of mowing, teddering, raking, baling, moving it into the barn, and beer to quench the workers. You can assign a percentage but to find solid grounds for doing so may also be tricky.

Ultimately, we always have to come back to the fact that yield is meant to be a practical concept that we might use to assess performance on a per unit area basis. These complications make the calculation of yield more difficult but possibly also more meaningful and relevant.

Permalink 

Increasing Yield: Part 2 [Agriculture
Posted on May 30, 2017 @ 06:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog I discussed some ideas related to increasing yield. The topic is rich enough that I want to continue exploring the concept in today's blog.

The concept of yield is fundamentally a spatial concept - how much productivity can you get out of a given area. Farmers are very concerned about the yield from their land as it correlates strongly with their level of profitability.

When yield is used in finance, this spatial aspect of the concept is often lost. Consider the Wikipedia definition of yield:

In finance, the yield on a security is the amount of cash (in percentage terms) that returns to the owners of the security, in the form of interest or dividends received from it.

The financial use of the term yield refers to productivity in the form of interest and dividends, but disavows any connection to how much space is used to do it. I think we should have a concept of productivity that takes into account the amount of space used and yield usefully serves that purpose. In finance, the term yield can be equated to other terms such as ROI and IRR so does not serve as much of a purpose.

The yield of a system is often tied to how many functions we stack within a given physical area. Consider a bike stand I built yesterday for a couple of bikes that I own. One bike did not come with a kickstand and my son broke the kickstand on the other one so I've been precariously leaning bikes against the garage as an alternative. The idea gestated in me that I could use a garbage bin I built a few months back as the base for my bicycle stands and this is what I came up with.

I made the stands from the last of some left over pieces of 2x6 lumber (sawed down the middle) from my cold frame project. I didn't have much for input costs other than my time. It was simple in design because I wanted it that way and because I didn't have much scrap lumber on hand. The space occupied by the garbage bin and around it now has an increased yield. It still offers garbage services but in addition it now offers bikestand services. Functional properties of the garbage bin were utilized, the fact that it was made of wood and heavy, to integrate the bike stand into the garbage bin. We are able to stack functions when the output or properties of one element can be the input to another element of the design.

All bricks and mortar businesses should be concerned with yield. How much revenue is the business making per square foot and how does that compare to similar businesses and other businesses in general. The storage business can be quite profitable when looked at through the lens of relative yield and the seemingly ever increasing need to deal with the amount of stuff people don't have the space for.

If a farmer grows alot of crop but it takes alot of inputs to produce that crop then that farmer's yield can be less than a farmer who produced less crop on comparable acreage but who had fewer input costs. The calculation of yield should take into account input costs. So if you want to increase the yield of a store by investing X amount, that should be justified by the increase in business activity relative to the investment. Yield isn't just about increasing business activity for the sake of business activity, but doing so in a way that increases yield, aka the profit, of the enterprise.

A book that has recently come onto my radar that may be relevant to the discussion of high yielding systems is a book called Compact Farms (2017) by Tyler Volk.

Permalink 

Increasing Yield [Agriculture
Posted on May 26, 2017 @ 09:00:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the things I love about gardening is the experimental nature of it. It is a great venue for applying experimental methods to the world. Every time you plant a seed you have the opportunity to plant a similar seed under a different condition and see if that matters. For example, I just finished planting some tomato and pepper seeds that I will start under some grow lights. I have some left over seeds from the packets that I can also plant outside in my backyard greenhouse. I can then observe what benefit there is to starting seeds under grow lights versus direct seeding into greenhouse soil. I can potentially observe germination rates, the relative mortality of germinated plants, the effects of hardening off/transplanting for seedlings started under grow lights, days to harvest for the differently grown plants, etc...

Experimentation also means trying something out that may be kind of bizaare to see if it works or not. In this regards, I built a cold frame this year and started different varies of lettuce, carrots, kale, sweet basil and chives in it this spring. I also planted something else. In the late fall of last year I processed some plums into plum wine. I dumped the extracted plum seeds into the soil where I built my new cold frame. Instead of removing the plum seeds before I planted, I decided to spread them around and covered them with 3 to 4 inches of new soil. I planted my veggies into the top layers of this soil in the early spring. Yesterday I observed what I believe is the first plum seedling sprouting up amidst the lettuce.

This can perhaps be viewed as an example of vertical stacking; but instead of stacking one row of veggies above another row of veggies to maximize growing space; I am stacking seeds in the soil at different layers to grow quite different types of plants in the same growing area - veggies and plum trees.

Bill Mollison, the father of Permaculture, famously said:

The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or, limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.

He often enjoyed showing how you could keep stacking functions within the same limited area to get more and more yield out of that area. An important goal for alot of (sub)urban gardeners is arguably to maximize the yield of their growing area. It requires experimentation in both the methodical and crazy senses to find new methods to reliably increase yield.

Last night, I started watching Elon Musk's recent Ted Talk where he talks about ways to increase mining, traffic and energy yield (among other topics). Perhaps one of the secrets to Elon's thinking is his ability to see how yield can be increased beyond what others can imagine.

Permalink 

Seed Investment [Agriculture
Posted on February 24, 2017 @ 08:39:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This weekend I will be going to a Seedy Saturday event where I will invest in some veggie seeds to plant out this year. It is my plan to try to get an earlier start on the growing season this year by transplanting veggies into a cold frame I started building. I got to this stage before winter fully set in.

The cold frame sits on the site of a previous failed attempt to build a cold frame using hay bales in an 8 foot by 4 foot layout. I decided to build a more traditional cold frame this time. I dumped alot of plum seeds here after I processed them to make 5 gallons of plum wine and 5 gallons of plum port (see the reddish dots in the soil). One option would be to see if I can get plum seedlings to start growing in the cold frame and, if any of them take, plant them out to the farm this summer and give some away. I'm quite impressed with the productivity I got from 1 plum tree (10 gallons of drinkable wine) and the natural health and vigor of the tree (left to grow on its own) so I am interested in planting out plum seeds that come from this plum mother tree. I also started a more formal experiment on the farm where I planted 30 plum tree seeds harvested late season from under the plum mother tree. I hilled two rows of soil, made a trench in the middle with my hand, planted the seeds roughly equidistant from each other, then put soil back over the seed. When you are growing trees from seeds in cold-temperate climates, your tree seed planting ideally takes place in the late fall so the seeds cold stratify properly.

On the topic of planting seeds, Urban Market Gardener, Curtis Stone, has a new video on using the Jang Seeder to plant out a bed of radishes. That seeder looks pretty impressive as is Curtis' technique in seeding out a bed.

Seed investors might want to look into a new type of grain seed called Kernza that could be coming to a town near you soon. Check out the Land Institute Vision for perennial agriculture. The Kernza seed is in the initial stages of commercialization.

Maybe not what you were expecting under title of seed investment but the financial use of the term "seed" is a metaphor for the functions and roles of actual seeds.

Permalink 

Joel Salatin Keynote [Agriculture
Posted on January 17, 2017 @ 07:24:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the most influential voices in American farming, Joel Salatin, gave the keynote presentation at last year's Permaculture Voices conference. This is a man who knows how to pitch ideas and is obviously doing so at certain stretches of his presentation. Joel's presentation reflects years of honing his ideas and expressions over the years.

The reason I came across this video is because I thought it might be dealing with topics he discussed in his book Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating (2013).

Permalink 

Garage Mini-Winery: Part 4 [Agriculture
Posted on November 8, 2016 @ 08:39:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My Garage Mini-Winery project is now into production so I though I would provide an update on where things stand and what my vinification plans are. For some project background, you can consult part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.

My total farm wine production for this year is shown in this video. The video shows the current state of my wine making room and the process I use to "punch down" my red wine during primary fermentation. Some vinters also refer to this activity as "maceration".

Overall I'm quite happy with the harvest-to-fermentation steps so far. I don't think there were any major faults except perhaps that my grapes didn't come in at 22-24 brix, but mostly in the 17-18 brix range. That is to be expected given that I am growing on the northern margins of where you can grow grape vines. While they may not have achieved full brix, I do think they reached physiological maturity and when this happens you get a tasty balanced grape even through it may not be as high a sugar content as they get in California.

A decision could have been made to ferment without adding sugar but I opted to add sugar to bring the wine into normal levels of alcohol content (12-14) for red wines. I also added as small an amount of water as needed to achieve the appropriate volume of wine needed to maximize wine production in each 5 gallon fermenter.

When you decide to standardize on 5 gallon pails then you can refine your protocols for dealing with that specific size batch. You know how many campden tablets to add to each pail, how much pectic enzyme, how much yeast nutrient, how much potassium sorbate, sugar, water and yeast. There is no reason you can't do this process as good as a big winery with more expensive equipment and facilities.

Future vinification plans involve keeping the fermentation room at 23 C / 73 F for another month, then adding potassium sorbate to stop any further fermentation and as a preservative. The room will be kept at this temp for a few more days so the sorbate can coat the yeast with a covering to stop reproduction. The room will then be non-heated and will go into cold stabilization for a couple of months with a racking in between. The cold-stabilization will be used to deacidify the wine which is in my opinion one the most serious wine faults that can happen to wine in this climate. After cold-stabilizaton the wine will be moved to a cellaring area that I will have ready in the spring (basement of our 170 year old farm house). Temperature in the rock cellar will be around 4 C / 39 F all the time without any attempt to use energy to achieve those temperatures or the appropriate humidity levels. The only temperature cost during this process is to keep the winery heated during primary and secondary fermentation.

What guides me in my wine making is not a vision of making a perfect wine, but rather a wine without any serious faults, a wine that is drinkable. I am not going to take any risks in the process, no funky departures from established protocols at my level of knowledge and wine making ability. Solid execution all the way through, and getting stuff built as lean as possible, is what I'm after. This will be an organic wine as far as I'm concerned because the farm the grapes are growing on was organic before I bought it and I've done no spraying or fertilizing or soil tillage to maintain the grape vines. A small glass of this wine would ideally be a sociable health drink.

My vineyard production this year is not that impressive. I expect production from the vineyard to double next year and then double again as the 2 to 4 year old vines mature and become more productive. I will also have apple trees coming online in the next couple of years that can be used to make apple cider. As a licensed farm mini-winery with the required amount of producting vineyard acreage (2 acres), I can then buy local fruit like blueberries from local growers and vinify that. My garage mini-winery is a critical learning step before I build my next winery at the site of the farm. I'm hoping it will also help with the winery/wine certification process which I might start in the next few months (another set of milestones).

It has been a 5 year process to get to the current stage of this venture and there are many more steps required before I have an official mini-winery license and an ability to sell wine at my farm. Lots can still go wrong. What I do know is that my goal seems more doable as I keep achieving new milestones (cost effectively) and the goal closes in.

Permalink 

Precision Viticulture [Agriculture
Posted on October 25, 2016 @ 08:05:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Lately I've been dealing with the issue of not having a good system for identitying rows and vines in my vineyard. I finally came up with this system:

A-[01..11]
B-[12..19]
C-[20..28]

The letters A, B, and C designate the vineyard parcel. The oldest parcel is labelled A, the second oldest parcel B, followed by the youngest parcel C.

Within each parcel there is a row number. A-01 refers to the first row in parcel A. It also corresponds to the first row I ever planted. Likewise C-28 corresponds to the last row of vines in parcel C and also the last row ever planted.

If I didn't want to keep increasing my row numbers, I could organize the numbering like this:

A-[01..11]
B-[01..08]
C-[01..09]

It is possible to extend the system like so:

A-[01..11]-[01..200]
B-[01..08]-[01..200]
C-[01..09]-[01..200]

A-01-15 would identify the 15th plant in the first row of the vineyard.

In the future, I might do a lookup to find out that it is in the second section of the first row between post number 2 and post number 3. In that section I might also note there are 8 vine plant slots, with 2 needing replacement. They will need to be replaced with 2 more Marechal Fosh grape vines. One didn't make it through the cold season and the other died of gall.

There is alot of power latent in well organized labelling schemes. Precision viticulture can involve drones, multispectral sensing, advanced mapping, soil samplers and so on but it is all just data if you don't have a good organizing system for it to go into. Maybe that system is the map itself, or maybe it is something a bit more abstract like a meaningful labelling system.

Another important aspect of a labelling system is that it can help you make better observations.

I can observe that a certain vine is not doing well and I can just as easily forget that observation or do nothing with it because I don't reference it to a precise positional labelling scheme for storage.

A labelling scheme can also help to organize work when you can provide specific instructions on what to do and where to do it. One can walk the vineyard and make job notes on what needs to be done and where in a very precise way if need be.

One way to be more lean is to be more precise.

Permalink 

Rainwater Harvesting & Irrigation v0.2 [Agriculture
Posted on July 30, 2016 @ 07:11:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Added a pump to my rainwater harvesting and irrigation system. I thought I would use gravity to take rainwater from the water tote to the gardens but I'm not satisified with the pressure. Could raise the water tote and get some more water pressure that way but it was easier and more assured to add a 1/2 horsepower self-priming pump to the system. Here is what version 0.2 of my current system looks like:

School of Permaculture from Plano Texas has a useful recent video on their rainwater harvesting and irrigation system (RHIS). The video focuses on the design of a first flush system which is an important consideration in urban environments. They have a more sophisticated setup than mine for sure, but the simplicity of the hookups to get my system working effectively will make it attractive to some. Lots of interesting design ideas in version 3 of their RHIS that might help to inform the next iteration of my RHIS.

Permalink 

Simple Rules History [Agriculture
Posted on March 31, 2016 @ 10:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog I introduced the idea of simple rules and much of that blog focused on Herb Simon's thoughts on why simple rules are necessary (e.g., bounded rationality, limited cognitive capacity, pervasive uncertainty).

What can be confusing for people studying simple rules, or cognitive heuristics, is that you will encounter two different research programs on the use of heuristics in reasoning that offer different assessments on the value of heuristic reasoning.

One research program starts with Nobel laureate Herb Simon and his views on the importance of heuristics for achieving adaptation to the uncertain environment we find ourselves in. This could be called the "Ecological Rationality" research program.

Another research program starts with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky and focuses on another aspect of heuristics, namely, that they can be fallible because when we use them we don't perform as well as normative rational models confronted with the same information. This could be called the "Heuristics and Biases" research program.

So in one research program (i.e., Ecological Rationality) you have heuristics portrayed as adaptive, and sometimes optimal, way to deploy our limited cognitive resources to address everyday uncertainties.

In another research program (i.e., Heuristics & Biases) heuristics are portrayed as a major source of fallacious reasoning that we might be able to correct by becoming aware of these heuristic biases.

These are very different ways to regard the value of heuristics and recent successful business books on behavioral economics have been more focused on showing the downsides to heuristics rather that the upsides. They teach us about heuristics so that we can be wary of supposedly common heuristic reasoning biases.

The notion of Simple Rules is potentially a way to avoid some of the baggage associated with the term heuristics but it is clearly a research program inspired by Herb Simon's framing of the role of heuristics in problem solving as more adaptive than flawed.

The book Simple Rules (2015) is an important contribution to the "Ecological Rationality" research program, especially as it pertains to business and entrepreneurial challenges. Always looming in the background when I read this stuff is the research program of Gerg Gigerenzer who has been one of the main torch bearer's for Herb Simon's bounded rationality research program. Their recent paper Heuristics as adaptive decision strategies in management (2014, PDF download) offers a nice account of how the Herb Simon research program has played out in the field of management.

So the point of this blog is to highlight the different influential research programs that have grown up around the notion of heuristic reasoning and which research program the Simple Rules approach best relates to (i.e., the bounded rationality or ecological rationality research programs). You can get very confused if you search out research on heuristics and you don't know this history.

It should also be noted, however, that in alot of the cognitive literature on heuristics these reasoning strategies are often viewed as baked into the hardware of our brains whereas Simple Rules are more like high level rules that we consciously formulate and chose to follow or not. They are also often more domain specific than the notion of cognitive heuristics is. There are interesting aspects of the Simple Rules notion that makes them not quite the same as the traditional notion of cognitive heuristics and that is one reason why the notion of Simple Rules potentially interests me - it may provide a more expanded way to account for productive competence in business than just relying upon Gerd's notion of fast and frugal reasoning strategies that are not as domain specific or consciously adopted.

I'll bring this discussion down to earth in my next blog when we discuss the use of Simple Rules as a way to approach thinking about how a business strategy should be formulated.

Permalink 

Ecolabel Marketing [Agriculture
Posted on February 1, 2016 @ 07:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Over the weekend I was in a large grocery store looking for coffee with this ecolabel on it.

Unfortunately, they had no bird-friendly coffee for sale. I became interested in bird friendly coffee as a result of reading the first couple of chapters of Coffee Agroecology (2015).

The book enlightened me about the different agricultural approaches to growing coffee. The terms "sun coffee" and "shade coffee" refers to the two ends of a spectrum of coffee production methods with sun coffee being the main method of production these days because they can produce more coffee per unit of land by growing coffee trees without much shade cover. Coffee, however, is traditionally an understory tree and grows well in the shade. Shade coffee can be produced without cutting down rain forests and without chemicals because the biodiverse forest habitat includes pest predators and natural sources of fertility (e.g., leaf and branch litter, animal droppings, dead animals). It is arguably the closest you can get to organic coffee and is in many ways superior to organic because shade coffee systems support a large amount of biodiversity that organic labeling does not specifically address.

Most coffee is grown in tropical regions of the world and you might wonder why you should care how they grow it down there. One reason is because many birds of North America migrate to the tropics during the winter months and the type of habitat they encounter there affects their populations in North America during warmer months. Hence the ecolabel for bird-friendly coffee. It should be noted that bird friendly coffee, or shade coffee, supports much higher levels of biodiversity generally than sun coffee and if you are looking for high quality organic coffee that is fairly traded, the label might signify that as well. Unfortunately, bird-friendly coffee does not appear to be something I can buy locally. Not even one of the major brands appears to support it. Why is that?

This raises the issue of ecolabelling communication and how effective it is. Even if some company did put the Smithsonian bird friendly certified label on their coffee, would this add sufficient value to that product to make people want to buy it or perhaps pay more for it? Most people would not know what it meant and would therefore probably not care. For ecolabelling to be effective there has to be some outreach and education about why we should care that a product is sustainable in the ways the ecolabel certifies. I think this label would be more effective if it included a url where people could go and learn more and feel like their efforts are making a difference.

The Ecolabel Index website is currently tracking 463 ecolabels. Some of the ecolabels such as EnergyStar are well known whereas others are not. There are gaps where I think ecolabelling could be better such as indicating the longevity of an appliance and not just its energy consumption. It is an interesting exercise to walk through a store and imagine the type of ecolabelling that could appear on various items. Is there a label in this index that could be used or would a new ecolabel have to be created? Exercises such as this might help you imagine a new product or a new approach to marketing your product.

In North America the most successful ecolabel is arguably the "organic" ecolabel. While many people argue that the label has become increasingly meaningless with the entry of large corporate organic farms, the fact is that it is still a label that "adds value" to the food that it is attached to. For many companies getting certain types of ecolabels is now a cost of doing business. Most large forestry companies, for example, are expected to be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Here again we might wonder whether there should be better ecolabelling as some of the forestry practices of such companies could be better. Would we buy or pay more for wood that was harvested to ensure forest qualities like supporting biodiversity, selective logging, uneven aged stands and so on?

Will ecolabelling need to become more prevalent and more meaningful if we are to address some of our sustainability challenges? Will social media and the internet provide a better way to make ecolabelling more meaningful, effective and participative? How general does an ecolabel have to be in order to be worth promoting? There are lots of issues to think about when it comes to ecolabelling and the purpose of todays blog is to begin exploring some of them. There is also a significant amount of marketing research on ecolabelling and what makes it effective that this blog does not discuss which might be the subject of a future blog.

Permalink 

Constraint Satisfaction: Part 2 [Agriculture
Posted on January 29, 2016 @ 08:08:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog on constraint satisfaction I illustrated what constraint satisfaction is using a mathematical example, namely, solving a set of linear equations. In this blog I want to talk less formally about constraint satisfaction and other less formal approaches that have been suggested to solve such problems.

Constraints come in many forms, have different priorities, are more or less negotiable. When engineers are designing a building they have general constraints in the form of available funding and a time frame for the project. In addition that may have architectural drawings, building codes, zoning, neighborhood covenants and a host of other constraints that they must adhere to. On top of this they may also be constrained by ecological design principles to produce a building that works with the natural landscape, uses eco-friendly materials, and is energy efficient. From this large set of constraints emerges a design and a plan to erect a structure that meets as many of the constraints as possible.

It is well documented that engineers do not simply accept all the constraints that are handed to them, but often consider what happens if a constraint is relaxed, removed, or reinterpreted. The process of constraint satisfaction is a process of arriving at the set of constraints that appears to be feasible to work within. Solving a constraint satisfaction problem in such circumstances may be more about changing the working constraints than coming up with an elegant solution to existing constraints. The numerical example of constraint satisfaction might leave one with the impression that constraint satisfaction is a simple 2 stage linear process when the reality is that posing and solving constraints is often a back and forth process.

What is oftentimes puzzling to me is the observation that increasing the number of constraints that apply to your work can enhance creativity rather than restrict it. It is as if creativity is channeled more productively when the number of constraints is increased. Freedom from constraints can sometimes be the enemy of creativity. If you are building a house and add the constraint that it has to be eco-friendly or green, then this constraint might encourage more creativity rather than less in the design of that building. It is also documented that innovation in the construction industry goes up significantly when new building code regulations come in.

Creativity is one approach to coming up with a solution given a set of constraints. The problem with relying upon creativity alone is that there is often a vast history of experience in tackling similar problems and it may be foolhardy to believe that you will out think all who have come before. Some areas of design have come up with design patterns that are proposed as solutions when you encounter problems of a certain type. One of the most famous examples comes from the architect Christopher Alexander who proposed 253 design patterns for towns, buildings and construction. If this is the type of problem you are trying to solve than this is a template you might want to use for building it. You can adjust the template to fit the particulars of your situation. Likewise in software development, there are a set of common software design patterns that you can use when confronted with a particular set of problem constraints. If you are unaware of these design patterns, then there is a good chance you will cobble something together that will fail in ways that could have been anticipated by those aware of these design patterns. Finally, there is ongoing work business design patterns that anyone starting up or running a business might consult to come up with strategies and tactics. Business Model Generation (2010) by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur would be an example of such work.

Some say the value of design patterns consists mostly in giving a name to problem-solution pairs so that we can be more aware of them, can discuss them more easily, and potentially use them in our designs. The design pattern literature is one that I hope to examine in more detail in the future to get a better sense of how useful it might be. There are many in the fields of architecture, software design, and business strategy who believe design patterns are worth learning and using to solve problems of various sorts. In many cases there is not much new under the sun so if you are going to solve a common problem it makes sense to be aware of common solution tactics for that type of problem.

Permaculture Voices recently profiled an extreme example of a person who was up against the wall financially with his business and pivoted to work within a new set of constraints (and new business model) that allowed his business to thrive from that point onwards. This was actually the example that got me thinking more about how we often fail if we work within the wrong set of constraints and how we can succeed when we adopt a different set of constraints. The constraint of working with very little capital is one that many people fear but when we face it head on and adapt to it, then sometimes we might be more profitable because we are spending less capital on our operation than before and making way for more profit.

For this blog I consulted the book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (2015), specifically the section on Made & Found Constraints (p. 139-146) for some useful discussion on the nature and role of constraints. They conclude that section with this comment:

Constraints of all sorts offer both guidance and goads. How we use, choose, or iteratively make and revise constraints profoundly propels the generation and refinement of innovative ideas. ~p. 146

I hope this blog series has helped to highlight the importance and role of constraint satisfaction in design, creativity and innovation.

Permalink 

Better Than Organic [Agriculture
Posted on November 3, 2015 @ 08:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One problem with organic certification is that it does not speak to the issue of carbon farming which is becoming a big issue in farming these days. It is possible on an organic farm to lose soil organic matter through tillage practices and still call yourself an organic farmer.

For farms to become better than organic, they would need to be doing all the organic stuff plus adding soil organic matter back into their soils. The good news is that this can be done in a very profitable way.

One outfit that is doing this is a 4 acre farm in Sebastapol California called Singing Frog Farms. They practice no till farming in which they add lots of compost and plant an understory of plants under their growing vegetables so they have a continuous cropping system going. The end result is that over 4 years they have gone from 1% organic matter to 8% organic matter.

I predict that carbon farming of this sort will be increasingly recognized and supported by local consumers and possibly by governments in the form of tax credits. Subsidized carbon farming has the potential to change farming in some major ways as the current subsidies on corn, for example, are encouraging some fairly bad carbon management practices in agriculture. Imagine what might happen if the subsidies shifted explicitly towards supporting carbon farming practices instead?

Putting carbon into the ground rather than the atmosphere is the major key to managing carbon greenhouse gas levels. To get there we need to be better than organic and start supporting and adopting carbon farming practices.

Keep in mind, however, that urban lawns are also a target for better carbon management practices. There is over 40 million acres in the US devoted to lawns. Can we speed up the sequestration of carbon in urban and suburban lawn areas? More trees, more plants, less mowing and keeping organic residues in the local landscape are some ways to do this. Don't throw that pile of leaves out to the curb, figure out some way to get it into the soil. We could turn city lawns into "better than organic" landscapes.

There is actually no accepted definition of what it means for a lawn to be organic. Because it typically doesn't produce edible goods for sale we don't really care enough to come up with an organic certification protocol for lawns. Perhaps if lawns could have organic certification we would have companies that would treat them with less chemicals than we currently do. Instead of pursuing organic lawn certification, an alternative route would be to certify lawns as being carbon neutral or carbon sequestering and manage them accordingly. You could be offsetting carbon in your own backyard.

There is some debate as to the effectiveness of compost in sequestering carbon because as piles of compost reduce in size they are also giving off carbon back to the atmosphere. Putting organic residues onto the soil or into the soil in a timely manner in the form of mulch or buried mulch might reduce the amount of composting work required and delay the release of carbon sufficiently that your carbon budget is on the positive side for your accounting period.

What shall we do with wastewaters and sewage in a carbon neutral landscape? They both have the potential to positively impact soil carbon and nutrient profiles rather than being treated as waste. Should a carbon farmed lawn deal with issues of waste water and sewage/manure handling as well? To dive deeper into backyard carbon sequestration read Why Not Start Today: Backyard Carbon Sequestration Is Something Nearly Everyone Can Do.

This blog was inspired by the beginning of a talk by Toby Hemmenway to promote his new book The Permaculture City. He used the phrase "better than organic" to refer to carbon farming. My last blog included a video by carbon farmer Gabe Brown and Toby's talk got me thinking about this topic again and connecting some more dots.

Permalink 

Diversity Matters [Agriculture
Posted on October 30, 2015 @ 09:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The 10th principle of Permaculture is to Use & Value Diversity. According to the website "Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides".

Angelo Eliades is the main guy behind the excellent Deep Green Permaculture website. He has an equally excellent backyard garden that illustrates well the value of diversity. In this video on advanced companion planting Angelo illustrates the value of diversity in keeping pests away, producing a variety of foods and medicines, and create beneficial relationships among plants.

Companion planting is a tool we can use to increase diversity in our gardens and residential landscapes.

Gabe Brown is doing some amazing stuff on a larger scale in his 2000 acre farm where he maintains a diverse polyculture of plants without pesticides and fertilizers because the diversity above and below ground takes care of these functions for him. Harnessing diversity can also be very profitable as Gabe claims to be doing the most profitable farming in his part of the world.

Diversity is all around us but often we are unaware of it or why it matters. As another example, research on bacteria in your gut suggest that diversity of bacteria in your gut is important for good health. The main way you can achieve a diversity of gut flora is by eating a diversity of fruits and vegetables. Diversity of natural foods begets a diversity of gut flora.

If diversity is so important in the natural world, what about in the world of commerce? There are many arguments to be made for diversity in the workplace but we don't have to limit ourselves to thinking about diversity only from a human resources point of view. Diversity may also be important in terms of the number of technologies you have available to solve a problem, the number of ways you can reach your customers, the number of suppliers you rely upon and so on. Instead of picking the best and discarding the rest maybe the rest have their own unique strengths and contributions that makes it worthwhile to keep them around?

Diversity just for the sake of diversity is not as useful a diversity that incorporates some notion of companion planting into the selection process. The companion planting that Angelo is doing is guided not simply by the direct effects a particular plant might have on another plant, but on how a plant might attract beneficial insects and repel nasty insects. This will in turn affect how his plants perform. Each plant has some role to play in the garden and all the plants together playing out their roles can result in something that is abundant and productive. The ability to use diversity successfully is an acquired skill and begins when you start to take note of and appreciate the benefits of diversity.

Permalink 

Mushroom Foray [Agriculture
Posted on September 30, 2015 @ 05:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last weekend I went on a mushroom foray that was put on by the local mushroom society. We walked through wooded areas as a group and collected specimens along the way. We didn't have to go off trail much to find different mushroom varieties as they were appearing on the sides of the trail.

After we collected lots of different types of mushrooms we came back and spent the evening identifying the genera and species categories the mushrooms belonged to. We had around 8 expert mushroom identifiers so they facilitated the process during the foray and after when we came back and broke out our mushroom field guides in an effort to identify them.

Of the 40-50 people in attendence there were around 10 professors so the foray attracts a large number of well-educated people along with many other interesting types of people.

The event started on friday night with a discussion of society finances and plans for next years foray and then we socialized with lots of mushroom-based food dishes, beer and wine. The next day was the mushroom foray for around 4 hrs and then time dedicated to identification in the evening. I frankly didn't participate too much in identifying what I had collected as it is a subtle art, I didn't have a good fieldbook, and I found interesting people to talk to.

On sunday morning the results were further organized into a table of mushroom species organized alphabetically by genera. The video below shows the final result of our efforts, but especially the activity of the experts. This final mode of organizing the knowledge helped me get a better sense of the relative abundance of different genera. The genera are the hooks I will need to use to identify mushrooms on my own. The final mushoom in this video is Animata Virosa or Destroying Angel which is innocent looking but the most deadly of mushrooms.

On the final day we had the opportunity to go out on another foray. This was attended by most of the experts and the hardcore mushroom amateurs. I and some others opted for some workshops on growing mushrooms and using mushrooms to dye fabrics. There was also a workshop on using a microscope to examine mushrooms.

A very interesting weekend in which I learned alot of new information and met alot of interesting people. I now find myself avoiding some mushrooms while I am mowing because I feel the need to try to identify it before I mow it down. These are some forest edge mushrooms and are often symbiotic with particular types of trees growing on the margins of the forest. Also, there is alot of rain in the forcast which is a bit of a drag but the needed moisture will also inflate the mushrooms currently existing as pre-formed primordia in the forest soils. The woods may become more target rich for a mushroom hunter in the next few days.

There are lots of business opportunities in the mushroom world in the form of mycoremediation, mycoforestry, growing/harvesting mushrooms, new medicines, dying fabrics, etc... Pauls Stamets is one of the great popularizers of the untapped potential of the fungi kingdom. You can follow some of his recent thoughts at fungi.net.

Permalink 

Lowbush Blueberry Lawns [Agriculture
Posted on September 22, 2015 @ 08:12:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Lowbush blueberries grow natively around our farm. I'd like to encourage their growth but I didn't have the knowledge on what is required to grow them. One of the Youtube videos I found on the topic was this very fascinating video by Maine extension services on lowbush blueberry ecosystems.

There is a nice symbiosis between blueberries and bee pollinators such that an abundance of pollinators will produce an abundance of fruit (on 2 year cycles) and an abundance of flowering blueberries can also produce an abundance of honey. Also, an abundance of wild blueberries might also attract and feed pollinators if your concern is simply to help the bees out.

Different strains of blueberries can be grown in diverse states and provinces in the United States and Canada. This means that blueberries can be grown on many landscapes if we so choose. But why would we choose to do so?

One reason why we might want to do so on suburban lawns is because it is one of the ways we can put lawns to better use and also sustainably manage it in a way that does not require constant mowing and watering. It is a ground cover that is both ornamental and productive that can displace grass from our lawn areas.

How might we grow lowbush blueberries on our lawns? One technique that I will be experimenting with is as follows:

  1. I have blueberries that I harvested with a rake about a week ago. I haven't had the time to clean all of them and the remainder are now getting too old and squished at the bottom of my container. So I have a source of blueberry seed I can use.
  2. I have a small raised bed in my backyard that does not seem to want to grow much of anything. The acidity of the soil is higher as indicated by sphagnum mosses growing there which tends to occur in acidic environments (i.e, indicator plant for acidic soil). Blueberries like acidic environments (i.e., pH from 4.0 to 5.0) so should do ok here.
  3. I covered the top of this bed with a compost mix that included peat moss (a more acidic pure sphagnum moss substrate would be better but it was not readily on hand). As blueberries would typically be starting to fall off their branches this time of year anyway I'm hoping that depositing blueberries into this mix and covering them over reproduces the natural cycle of growth from seed. Normally, you are advised to freeze the blueberry seeds for 6-8 weeks and then plant out your seeds, but natural blueberries would rot in the ground a bit before the fall and winter temperatures stratify the seeds. The latter natural process is what I'm trying to reproduce rather than bothering with harvesting the seed and freezing it for 90 days before attempting to grow it.
  4. If the blueberries sprout next spring then I'll begin to have some vegetative material that I can also plant out more widely. A lowbush blueberry plant grows vegetatively through its root system in an expanding wavefront from the original plant. You can plant them out 1 to 2 feet apart and they will eventually form a mat. The further apart you plant them may determine how quickly they form a mat covering.

This is not as quick a process as some might like but if you have some blueberries that are past their due date are are looking for something to do with them, you might want to try it out. As long as most lowbush blueberries remain as a wild cultivar, you should be able to take any store bought blueberry fruit (advertised as wild or lowbush) and try a similar experiment.

So if you want to make your lawn area more sustainable, help the pollinators, and produce some delicious fruit try planting out some wild blueberry seed in your lawns this fall and see what happens.

For more qualified advice on growing lowbush blueberries using various techniques, you can read this Wild New Hampshire Blueberries from the extension division of New Hampshire University.

In Permaculture we are often looking for ways to convert lawns into more productive and sustainable uses while maintaining or increasing the aesthetics that a home owner wants. Cultivating lowbush blueberries in an area of your lawn is one strategy.

Here is a photo of some blueberries in the process of being covered by soil in a bed that nothing we grows in (perhaps because too acidic) except a small spruce tree.

And here is the final versions with some chicken netting added to the top to keep out birds smelling a meal and our cats who also expressed interested in this project. A thin layer of aged sawdust was added to mulch out any weeds that might grow and to mimic some burned forest conditions that it is adapted to.

In 6 or 7 months we'll see if this experiment pans out.

Permalink 

Trellis Wiring & Anchoring [Agriculture
Posted on September 15, 2015 @ 07:49:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'll probably just blog about work on the farm and my leisure pursuits this week. Not much time for research work.

Yesterday I worked on stringing the main training wire through the trellis posts. The photo below is my setup for running wire.

I also have ground anchors in the yellow boxes that I installed behind each trellis end post. I drilled out a hole at the top of each end post and wired the top of the end posts to the ground anchors. The training wire gets fully tensioned when I anchor in the end posts.

I caught a nice sunset in the vineyard last night.

Permalink 

Trellising and Harvesting [Agriculture
Posted on September 14, 2015 @ 10:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Early this week I'll be busy setting up the trellis for around seven hundred 2 yr old grape vines. In the video below I'm doing one part of the process, namely, drilling a hole into the center of each post about 3 feet up so that I can eventually string my main training wire through it.

The video also includes some footage of my potato patch. There are alot of potatoes that need to be harvested this week which I hope to break up into several episodes of digging. We harvested some potatoes yesterday. The longer potatoes are called Fingerlings or Banana Potatoes and they are very tasty potatoes boiled or baked - my wife prefers to bake them and sprinkle them with some oil and herbs. Yum!

Should be interesting to see what the potato yeild is at the end of the week. I'll probably start harvesting tomorrow when the weather is supposed to become sunny again for awhile.

Lots of people harvesting food around here now. I hope to have a good store of potatoes, carrots, beets, and onions from this vegetable growing season.

Permalink 

Vineyard Intermediate Technology [Agriculture
Posted on September 9, 2015 @ 04:09:00 PM by Paul Meagher

This year I invested in a Stihl Hedge Trimmer. I thought it might be a useful to have another option for managing vine growth in my vineyard. I ended up using it to hedge all the 4 yr old vines this year so I was quite happy with the purchase decision.

This time of year in my vineyard the vine canopy has to be cut back to create better sun exposure for the grapes so they will ripen better. Previously I used Felco hand pruners to do the job and it took alot longer to "hedge" the vines. Using a hedge trimmer is a more brutal way to manage the canopy but it is similar to how larger vineyards manage the canopy except their hedge trimmer consists of three hedge trimmers in tandem riding on wheels that mow down the top and sides of the vines as it travels overtop the vines. For a smaller vineyard that can't afford such machinery, the hedge trimmer may be a good intermediate technology. If I had to prune my vines using hand pruners I feared it wouldn't happen this year. The gas powered hedge trimmer meant I could do the job of hedging 5 rows of vines (approx 450 vines) in a day rather than occupying myself for a few days with the job. Plus it made the job more enjoyable because progress was faster, it is a good aerobic workout, and the technology can be mastered better with practice.

The Stihl Hedge Trimmer is a bit over 9 lbs in weight so you can work with it for awhile without getting tired out. By the end of a day of hedge trimming my forearm was cramping up so I don't recommend picking it up and hedging for a day if you don't have to. The hedge trimmer uses a sickle mower type head for hedging. Because it is a sickle mower you can also use it to mow down grass and weeds if you need to although a whipper snipper is a much better tool if you plan to do alot of grass/weed trimming. I ran into a big area of thistles as I was hedging and used the hedge trimmer to take these out. You can use the hedge trimmer to clean up vine and vegetation when you run into vegetation clumps that a whipper snipper would have a hard time with. It is a vegetation cutting multi-tool.

In the video below I am demonstrating how I use the hedge trimmer to hedge some grape vines. I don't profess to be an expert as this is my first time using it. I'm also winging most of this vineyard stuff. There was only 1 YouTube video on using a manual hedge trimmer on grape vines and it only shows him cutting a bit from the bottom of the vines. Maybe this humble video will help small-scale organic vineyard owners decide whether a hedge trimmer is a worthwhile investment. I should note that a problem with this approach is that I cut into the trellis wires quite a few times and had to splice them back together. Because my trellis wires are fairly loose this gave me an opportunity to tighten them so I generally wasn't that bothered by this but some vineyard owners might find this unacceptable. If you work more slowly and carefully and are not too tired while working, this problem can be reduced but probably not eliminated.

Hedge trimmers, whipper snippers, and power saws are examples of intermediate technology that I use quite a bit on the farm. These are pieces of equipment that are affordable (don't have to take out a loan to purchase), require manual labor to operate, increases self-reliance, and can be used to create income if you are so inclined.

The term "intermediate technology" was coined by Fritz Schumacher and was popularized in his classic book "Small is Beautiful". Nowadays we generally use the term appropriate technology to refer to the same types of technology. I find myself using Schumacher's original "intermediate technology" terminology because it doesn't carry the same moral connotation that "appropriate" does and it better situates the technology as intermediate between personal use and industrial use, the realm of intermediate technology.

I'm glad this intermediate technology investment worked out. When they do work out they reduce work load, make monotonous jobs easier to do, increase productivity, increase self-reliance, and make larger projects more feasible. I'll suggest a more general conclusion and claim that successful entrepreneurship involves making good intermediate technology investments. Intermediate technology investments are affordable, productivity improving, involve a manual component, improve self-reliance, and can help you generate income. Entrepreneurs need to be investing in the equivalent of hedge trimmers to cope with the demands of a growing business, otherwise you may get overwhelmed as the workload associated with growth increases. As a startup you don't want to go overboard and take out large loans to operate (unless you have the growth to justify it) so intermediate technology type investments can often give a startup more bang for their buck until further growth necessitates larger investments for more industrial scale technologies.

Permalink 

Green Math [Agriculture
Posted on August 31, 2015 @ 09:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I want to give two thumbs up for a useful math book for agriculture/horticulture/landscape practictioners. It is called Mathematics for the Green Industries.

The subtitle of the book is called "Essential Calculations for Horticulture and Landscape Professionals" and that is what you will find in this book. The calculations are grouped into major areas of concern such as estimating and computing landscape areas, fertilizer calculations, pesticide calculations, turfgrass calculations, irrigation calculations, greenhouse area and volume calculations, and so on. If, for example, you need to figure out how much fertilizer or soil amendment you might need for a particular landscape job, you can find some discussion to frame the problem and then solve it through a step-wise set of calculations. Or, say you want to build a green house and have to figure out how much material to buy to cover it or how much heat it might require to maintain a temperature. To figure out how much cladding material you will need you can lookup techniques for calculating the surface area of triangular or domed greenhouses.

To compute the surface area of your greenhouse you can proceed by breaking down the problem into computing 4 separate surface areas:

  1. Compute the surface area of the roof (triangular or domed roof shapes).
  2. Compute the surface area for the front and back wall sections that are part of the roof (e.g., the gable area).
  3. Compute the surface area for the front and back walls minus the gable area (usually a simple rectangular area calculation - length x width).
  4. Compute the surface area for the long walls (usually a simple rectangular area).

To get the overall surface area you simply add up all the component areas. So the book gives you ways of breaking down problems into component calculations and then bringing them all together to get the answer you are looking for.

The book does not assume too much mathematical sophistication of its readers. There is introductory material on computing the area and volume of various common shapes (e.g., squares, boxes, circles, spheres, triangles, prisms, etc...), basic geometry, and working with fractions. Working with fractions is essential because you are often converting from a quantity measured in one format (gallons/acre) where you might need it in another format (ml/cm) for the purposes of, say, adjusting a spray nozzle. The book comes with lots of appendices with useful conversion factors and equivalents.

The book is definitely useful as a reference to have around in case you have to do any green math. I think it might also be a good book to use in high school classrooms. There are many practical geometry techniques that are used creatively to solve complex practical problems that arise in green industry jobs. Some students might appreciate mathematics more when embedded in these practical problem solving contexts - especially students in rural economies who would practically benefit from such knowledge. I think it could form the core textbook for a "Green Math" cirriculum that might be supplemented with other calculations like wind turbine power and size calculations, solar efficiency calculations, hydroelectric calculations, EROI calculations and many other interesting calculations that might form part of a green math cirriculum.

Permalink 

Internet Farmer [Agriculture
Posted on May 25, 2015 @ 05:29:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This was one of the more interesting YouTube videos that I watch over the weekend. This guy is creating an alternative method of farming, one that would allow him to remotely manage a significant urban farm with as little physical work as possible. I'm not sure it would be a good thing if we all tried to follow his lead, but I do think it is worth exploring these alternatives and learning what there is to learn. Perhaps there are parts of it that we might want to keep.

One Permaculture principle I have not discussed yet is the 11th one which is to "Use Edges and Value the Marginal". Part of valuing the marginal is to see the potential in fringe activities like what this fellow is doing. This guy is also working with alot of edges in his design and his mastery of edges speaks to his skills as a designer. He is trying to grow more in a small space by creating edges that are vertical growing tubes, he is dealing with the edge between aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals, he is working on the edge between physical attributes of his gardens and the electronic representation and manipulation of them. Finally, he is trying to build everything under extremely limited size constraints of his home so has to plan everything for maximum efficiency in the use of space. This is done through the deliberate placement of edges in a design. A large part of what a designer does is edge design.

Permalink 

Obtain A Yield: Part 2 [Agriculture
Posted on May 1, 2015 @ 11:32:00 PM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, Obtain A Yield, I discussed this Permaculture principle.

I found a good video on YouTube that gives further insight into this Permaculture principle, and two other principles I haven't discussed yet, and also explains the basis of these principles and the scope of their application.

In my opinion, one of the current shortcomings of Permaculture is that it needs more women in leading roles. Anneke offers valued diversity to the movement.

Permalink 

Obtain A Yield [Agriculture
Posted on April 29, 2015 @ 06:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The third of 12 Permaculture Principles is to "Obtain A Yield". In previous blogs I discussed the first principle Observe & Interact and the second principle Catch & Store Energy.

The imperative to "Obtain A Yield" is probably obvious to most people visiting this site, but there are many subtleties.

For example, you might create a beautiful garden and feel you have obtained a yield simply from the beauty of it. That is certainly one yield. From a practical perspective, however, you have not obtained much of a yield if you are not also going to eat some of the food produced by that garden. Many people do not obtain a proper food yield from their garden. They might not know how to cook or prepare the food in a way that makes them want to eat it on a regular basis, they might not know to preserve their food for storage, they might not be able to handle the abundance the garden produces in a certain window of time, they might be too busy to harvest, or they may simply be too lazy to harvest when the fun of planting and watching them grow is over. In order to obtain a yield you need to be able to manage the abundance that nature provides (i.e., catch and store energy) so that you can subsequently obtain a yield from that storage. Obtaining a yield requires managing the full cycle properly.

Yield is also more general than money but certainly includes it as one of the valued outputs of a production system. If you do not obtain a yield that is sufficient to maintain and improve your system then that system will not be in existence for very long. The need to obtain a yield is basic to that system's continued existence. The yield of the system can be money, social capital, natural capital, fitness, beauty, etc... So when designing a farm or garden we should be conscious of the need to obtain a yield from that landscape, the types of yields we might be looking for, the and the full cycle required to obtain these yields.

I was recently listening to lectures from Bill Mollison's 1983 Permaculture Design Course. Parts of it are hard to follow and a bit boring to me, however, there are parts that blow your mind with possibilities for obtaining yields. Raising Anacondas for meat, farming snails, Chinampa systems, and "City as Farm" are some non-standard examples he discussed that come to mind. Bill (the co-founder of Permaculture) talks about many different production systems and the various yields they can deliver.

The "City as Farm" system is quite interesting. He discusses the case of a fellow from Melbourne, Australia who made a business out of getting people in the city to grow chestnuts for him for a price of $ 3.00 per lb. This fellow noticed that there were many chestnut trees in the city that were not obtaining a food yield for their owners. Some chestnut trees can be very productive, producing as much as 1500 lbs of nuts on one tree. So he contracted with these home owners to buy their chestnuts at a price of $3.00 a lb from them and enough home owners agreed to do so that he had a viable business. This chap went even further and also started to propagate chestnut trees and gave away the grafted chestnut trees to home owners who would agree to grow the trees in an organic way. He offered them a guaranteed commitment to taking their product (if he was still in business). So he had a plan for how he would grow his business further by giving away propagation material to his growers and creating harvest contracts. The "City as Farm" follows a pattern that Bill Mollison called the "Gleanings Model". You start by gleaning what is available in your city in some abundance that is not being utilized. You then form a company to organize people to supply you with that resource. You then figure out how to reproduce the resource and give the knowledge or propagative material away to the same or different people to produce more of the resource. In this way you can have a "City as Farm" for many different types of products. The urban farmer Curtis Stone (blogged about him in Lean Urban Farming) is using a gleanings model to obtain underutilized yards from home owners to grow his food crops. I don't think he is educating or assisting those home owners to grow crops themselves, but that might be a future avenue of growth for him if he has sufficient market for the produce.

Another part of the "Gleanings Model" is that people can make a "living" by supplying you with the resource. If someone has a couple of chestnut trees and collects 2000 lbs of chestnuts, then that is $6000 in the families pocket. That money will pay family bills for a few weeks or a few months depending on your lifestyle, but the important point is that you are making a "living" of that tree for a non-trival amount of time and that will make you want to participate. The "City As Farm" is capable of offering many "livings" to many people and you could measure the yield of the system by the number of "livings" it produces.

In conclusion, once we have applied the principle of catching and storing energy, we are ready to draw down the value on those storages in the form of various yields. We can model this situation with "Stock and Flow" type diagrams where various inputs contribute to the formation of storages and various yields come from those storages as the value is drawn down. In the vineyard example below the inputs contribute to building up vineyard storages from which various yields can be derived. The width of the pipe leading into the storage represents the amount of work invested while the width of the pipe leading from the storage represents the amount of that type of yield. Because my vineyard is still young, my grape berry yield is not expected to be largest yield this year, instead the greater yields will come from the vineyard as an attraction for guests to stay at my farm accommodations and also the health and fitness that vineyard work promotes. This is a starting point for an analysis of vineyard yield and I expect it to evolve over time.

I'll leave the last word on obtaining a yield to Bill Mollison who advises:

The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited (or only limited by the imagination and information of the designer).

Permalink 

Saving Seeds [Agriculture
Posted on March 2, 2015 @ 07:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last Friday I attended a full day workshop on saving seeds. We went through some concepts such as annuals, bi-annuals, open-pollinated, minimum separation distances, and minimum viable populations (latter two required to ensure seed integrity). We applied these concepts to how we might design the grow out of different species of vegetable plants for seed production. Then we discussed seed processing methods for different types of seeds and finally methods of seed storage.

There were around 20 people in attendance. All were experienced gardeners of one sort or another. We were quite a diverse group of people coming together to satisfy a niche interest. Some were wanting to bathe in thoughts of growing plants again, some were community gardeners, two were operating a CSA, one was operating a market garden, one had kids that were happily involved in her gardening and she wanted to learn more so she could teach her kids more, another couple believed harder times were coming and wanted to be better prepared, one was managing a seed saving library and wanted to enlist us, and there were others, like me, who are interested in becoming better gardens and wanted to learn more about an important topic in master gardening, namely, saving your own seeds.

The population of gardeners is quite diverse. People come to it from a variety of backgrounds and motivations. We all perform many of the same actions but when we consider why we perform these actions there are a huge variety of reasons.

The diversity made me think about how I might segment home gardeners into different customer groups. Imagine that I have a new gardening product or service and was wanting to target the market of home gardeners with my product or service. The size of this market in North America might be around 25 to 35 percent of households. That could also include those just growing flowers; neverthess, it is a good size market. If you mow your lawn are you still a gardener? That might raise the household gardener estimate even higher.

According to Peter Thiel (see strategic small monopolies), it might be a mistake to initially target the home gardener market as a whole with your product or service. He would advise some further segmentation of that market so that you can establish a small monopoly in some segment of it. Ideally you would also not face too much competition for your product or service. When I consider the diversity of reasons people come to home gardening, I don't think it would be hard to imagine that the market of home gardeners can be segmented into finer tuned categories.

One category of gardener you could focus on would be the seed saving gardener. This might only represent 5% of all home gardeners but given the size of the overall home gardener market, that would still be a large target market as home gardening is the most popular hobby in North America.

If you decide to target seed saving gardeners with your product or service, you might continue to ask whether this category can in turn be subdivided in finer categories that you should target first. For example, there might be seed savers who are mostly concerned with maintaining a healthy and diverse seed supply given the many threats to it from large industrial seed producers who mostly sell hybrid seeds that, by design, can't be harvested for seed plasm that will be true to type. So you have your germ-plasm seed savers who are into seed saving for the good of the planet or perhaps just to ensure their own families food supply into the future. They might also want to get more in touch with nature by saving seeds. They are not into it to make money and perhaps believe that to be in it for that reason might be corrupting.

Another group of seed savers are into it for commercial reasons (which does not also preclude them from being in it for other reasons). Open pollinated seed research stalled after the 1970's and hybrid seeds came into popularity for a variety of reasons. Today many people view open-pollinated varieties as outdated compared to newer "hybrid" methods of plant breeding. That, however, is not necessarily true. Open pollinated seed varieties can potentially be bred to adapt faster to local climate, soil, and pest conditions than hybrid varieties. To retain intellectual property on these open pollinated varieties, smaller seed growers are increasingly using open-source forms of licensing to seed distributors. All of this is to say that an open pollinated seed breeder might be a market an entrepreneur could target for a gardening product or service.

When segmenting your customer into a niche you want to target, the process often consists of a filtering operation where you start with a large category and then apply filters to that category that make sense in order to get down to a target market where there there might not be too much competition for your product or service and you might be able to make some inroads quickly.

You might also consider inverting the process of product development by finding a customer segment that you think is growing and potentially profitable to target. You could then design a product or service for that market rather than trying to find a market for your product or service. If my research indicated that interest in seed saving among home gardeners was going to take off, that they might be willing to spend a good amount of money on a seed saving product/service, I might think about solutions I might provide to them for pain points they might experience as they get into it.

I'll probably experiment with saving some seed this upcoming growing season. I've tried it before with barley seed but my seed got contaimated by weed seed that I wasn't able to properly thresh and winnow out. Some of the weed seed also came from soil that was not properly prepared to be free of weed seeds. I gave up on that experiment but I think I might have better luck if I focus on a couple of vegetable plants first that won't be so hard to properly monitor, harvest, and process for seeds.

Seeds should be saved in the exact opposite conditions they need for growth: No light, no moisture, no heat. Putting you seeds in a properly sealed glass jar in the fridge (not freezer) is often a good spot to store them. Having a store of selected seeds that you can use to plant out productive and nutrient dense vegetables in your climate and conditions is a good insurance policy to have and saves any home and commercial grower a large input cost.

Permalink 

Marijuana Industry Services [Agriculture
Posted on February 20, 2015 @ 06:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is providing some lessons for what we might expect in other jurisdictions that are liberalizing their marijuana possession laws. The Reason.tv video below discusses one problem that the industry has to deal with - the amount of cash transactions involved and trying to get banks to accept all that cash without triggering laundering laws or or the ire of the US federal government who is not fully on board with these liberalized state laws.

Many private investors are interested in getting a piece of the legal marijuana action and when you see the mounds of cash in this video you can see why. Of course there are many legal and financial risks that these companies face but dealing with these risks is also an opportunity for service providers that are popping up around the legal marijuana industry. One of these service providers, Blue Line Protection Group, looks like it has an equally bright future as the Brinks of the legal marijuana industry - handling delivery of cash and marijuana in a safe, secure, and compliant manner.

Another group of emerging service providers are sites dedicated to tracking the marijuana industry as a financial market on par with any other financial market. You can, for example, go to the MarijuanaIndex.com to get up to date news on Cannibis-related stocks, news, and investing.

As this young legal marijuana industry starts to become more established we can expect to see a host of service providers coming in to target the needs of the industry. When considering investing in legal marijuana it is easy to think that all of the money is in the production and distribution of marijuana, but if the Oil & Gas industry is any guide, there is alot of money to be made in the provision of services to the legal marijuana industry. They have to spend all that cash on something.

I'll conclude this blog with the observation that purchasing legal marijuana appears to mostly done on a cash transaction basis as those wanting to purchase marijuana product do not want to be tracked. Will this industry remain as a mostly cash-based industry or is the industry in need of a better transaction system - one that ensures privacy while also giving the user the convenience of a credit card.

There are many pain points in a new industry and a corresponding number of opportunities for entrepreneurs to start up new businesses to address those pain points.

Permalink 

Urban Farming Reimagined [Agriculture
Posted on February 3, 2015 @ 09:16:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I went surfing for info on small scale anaerobic digesters and came across a popular video on the topic by The Urban Farm Guys (UFG).

UFG is a non profit organization based out of Kansas City that has done alot of amazing stuff since releasing this early video. Urban farming for UFG is a platform for much more than growing food. They are changing the economic and social fabric of their local community through their good works and the skills they are sharing and helping to develop in their local community. Below is a crowdfunding video that explains some of what they are up to now.

Creating a farm in urban areas is probably never simply about growing food. UFG is reimagining what services urban farming can provide to local communities. You can watch more of their videos to see what community services might be provided as part of an urban farm concept.

Permalink 

Merry Forest Days [Agriculture
Posted on December 24, 2014 @ 09:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

When I take the time to get out for a walk in a forest, I often have to pause while I notice how easy it is to breathe, how clear my nostils and chest feels. Walking through a forest gets the body working and helps clear passage ways, but over and above that I'm pretty sure the forest is helping because of the higher oxygen content of the air, as well as a nice humidity. If you are walking through the forest near a stream, then you might even be getting higher doses of oxygen in each breathe you take as dissolved oxygen is released in the stream bubbles.

In areas where forest and stream meet, there is an especially high concentration of negative ions. Exposure to negative ions has some mood altering effects so one form of therapy for people with negative affect is to spend time in the forest. Here is some info on what negative ions are and their health benefits.

So here are two potentially powerful reasons for spending a bit of time in the woods over the holidays if you can arrange it. My own view is that the negative ions are a more hypothetical benefit, but the air quality part is not. If you don't believe me, just go for a forest walk and evaluate the quality of the air. How moist is the air? Do you feel more alert than usual? How do your lungs and passageways feel?

Another fun and useful thing to do while you are ambling through the forest understory is to measure wind direction with your face. Feel the air as it presses your face from many directions at the same time. From this mass of air pressures, try to assign it a direction. Not necessarily a direction as in east, west, north, and south, but where is it flowing from and to in the landscape. You can use this information to help read a landscape, to understand, for example, why snow tends to accumulate on the forest floor in the pattern that is does.

May you all have a merry holiday season and I hope you get a chance to inhale some forest air over the holidays. May you enjoy the grace of the forests now and in the new year.


Some Cattails I encountered this morning in my walk.

Permalink 

Dairy Cow Investing [Agriculture
Posted on December 22, 2014 @ 08:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I read a story last night about a dairy farm that is next door to the farm I grew up on. We eventually got out of the dairy business during the "get big or get out" phase but our neighbor (my uncle) stayed in the business in part because he had sons and daughers who were more enthusiastic about the dairy business. My father liked construction and moved more into that field, but always made some side income of the farm to help raise 8 kids.

The neighboring farm in question is located in the middle of rural nowhere so I was impressed to see that our neighbors were breeding some prize winning Holstein cows at a higher level on the international stage than before. They have been breeding prize winning Holsteins for around 15 years now and got into some advanced artificial breeding techniques early on (e.g., insemination, transplants, cloning, etc..). I don't know the details. What I do know is that they have one 4 hr old Holstein cow that they have fully sold off (no more shares in it) that is one of the top showing dairy Holsteins in the world. As it progresses through the ranks in judging competitions, new investors come in and buy out shares in the cow. There are a suprisingly large number of investors involved in this one Holstein cow (between 10 to 15, not sure how many are still in).

They did quote one dollar figure in the article. If you have some prize winning Holstein genetics and sell it as a two year old that shows well in competitions, then that Holstein cow could be worth between 200 and 250 thousand dollars. This might be formatted as a corresponding number or shares available to investors. The owners of the genetics might opt to sell only a fraction of the shares to investors so they might enjoy a larger share of any potential jump in market value beyond 250 thousand dollars.

I also find it interesting that these rural farmers don't spend much time on the internet (they put in long hours in the barn) and don't get to show their cattle as much as they would like to because of their remote rural location. They are nevertheless leaders in the information technology business, but the information they are selling are genetic programs that produce award winning holsteins. While they are very humble and unassuming farmers to talk to, they are gradually honing in on the prize - to be a top-tier supplier of dairy cow genetics to farmers around the world. Their brand/motto is to be "the future of dairy".

I should mention one more detail that might be important in the whole dairy cow investing business. To produce an award winning Holstein cow you want to use the best combination of genetics you can find. My neighbors made a point of complimenting the local dairy farming community for producing high quality Holsteins so it is my theory that they are mixing some of their own genetics with the genetics of top Holstein cattle in the local area. It would be interesting to know more about their artificial selection processes.

Permalink 

Forest Farming Entrepreneurs [Agriculture
Posted on December 3, 2014 @ 06:40:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I came accross this video which consists of interviews with various successful forest farmers. The video provides some ideas for how forest farming entrepreneurs are making money along with some of the business wisdom they have accumulated along the way. Informative and entertaining.

If you are interested in learning more about Forest Farming, then you can watch this lecture by Ken Mudge who has done considerable research in this area.

Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel have recently released a book on forest farming called Farming the Forest (2014).

Permalink 

Selecting For Cooperation [Agriculture
Posted on December 2, 2014 @ 10:28:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Ford Denison, in his book, Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture (2012) discusses some interesting research on breeding for cooperation among chickens which is reported below. Richard Dawkins recommended this study to him which was originally reported in William M. Muir, 1996, Group Selection for adaptation to multiple-hen cages: selection program and direct responses. Poultry Science, 75, 447-445.

Over much of their evolutionary history, hens have competed among themselves. Those who were more aggressive tended to get more than their far share of food, allowing them to lay more eggs and have more descendants. Although success in fighting increased the relative egg production of the most-aggressive hens, it decreased egg production by the losers even more, thereby reducing total egg production.

So Muir took a novel approach to selecting for increased egg production. Rather than breeding from the individual hens that laid the most eggs, he bred from the groups - four hens per group, raised together - that laid the most eggs. The most-productive groups turned out to be those where hens had less genetic propensity to peck each other. In only six generations of selection, there was a major decrease in fighting-related injuries and a 30 percent increase in the percent of hens laying an egg each day, from 52 percent of hens to 68 percent.

Selection based on group-level traits, like egg production per group, are know as group selection. Group selection deliberately imposed by humans (as in the chicken example just discussed) can have major evolutionary effects. p. 140

The study offers us a nice parable regarding the virtues of cooperation. It also provides a good example of what group selection refers to in the context of evolutionary theory. Group selection is not believed to be a very big factor overall in the evolution of plants and animals as most biologists view evolution as operating at the individual or gene level rather than the group level; however, group selection can be carried on by humans over the plant and animal world as exemplified by this study. The study provides some insight into how production can benefit (e.g, total eggs) when management selects for group-level attributes in addition to, or instead of, individual-level attributes.

Permalink 

Darwinian Business [Agriculture
Posted on December 2, 2014 @ 08:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my limits of biotech blog I reported on some of what I had learned from Ford Denison's book called Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture (2012). I have to return the book to the library so finished it off this morning as I felt it was worth completing. I am doing a mini review on the second part that I read in the last few days.

The book is a nice combination of scientific and imaginative exploration of where plant breeding is and could go with, and without, the assistance of biotechnology. It discusses agriculture at a very philosophical level, often in the context of the theory of natural selection, and includes both critical and supportive discussion of conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, and biotechnology. He discusses many interesting topics and research in support of his various arguments regarding the limits of biotechnology. I learned towards the end that he is not happy with the way biotech funding has usurped funding for other programs in an agricultural program. Apparently, programs like ecology and evolutionary biology (and applied cousins agronomy and plant breeding), are having a hard time because biotech projects are getting most of the life sciences funding from government these days. I can't confirm this or not, but the book does have this political aspect that I was not aware of until the very end.

Ford Denison sees the natural world as emerging from a seive that operates on the basis of 4 principles - competitive testing, bet hedging, tradeoffs, and plasticity. Species that emerge and persist are the result of brew consisting of competitive testing, bet hedging, tradeoffs, and plasticity. Regarding competitive testing, you don't get to exist just because you have always done so, you have to keep evolving to remain in the game. Regarding bet hedging, that is difficult to explain but I'll point out that diversification is key to hedging bets. Nature needs mutations and diversity to keep evolving. Regarding tradeoffs, we need to view anything that exists as the result of tradeoffs in the design of the plant, animal or microbe. The reason a wheat cultivar yields well under drought conditions but average under moist conditions may be because it needs a slower metabolism to be able to do so and this keeps yield in a conservative range even when water is available. You can't have everything - drought tolerance and high yield at the same time. The best selection is the one with the best set of tradeoffs, not the one with the best score on one dimension. Finally, regarding plasticity, species and businesses exist because they can respond to change. Some species reach the limits of their plasticity and cannot survive any longer. Others may have adaptations that provide the ability to survive under lower or high temperature limits, more or less water, more or less sun, etc... Businesses need to be plastic like plants and animals in order to survive.

If you want to evaluate a business using a Darwinian test, you might rate that business using scales designed to measure:

Competitive testing.

lens, the 4 dimensions that you would peer into would consist of competitive testing dimension, bet hedging dimension, the tradeoffs dimension, and the plasticity dimension.

of your viewplane would consist of competitive testing, bet hedging,

Permalink 

Farm Products [Agriculture
Posted on November 25, 2014 @ 09:16:00 AM by Paul Meagher

When we purchased the farm 5 yrs ago I never thought that hay would be a main product. Over the first couple of years I got other people to make it and take it away. They had big equipment, made round bales, and could get the job done in fairly short order. I wasn't comfortable, however, in just giving the hay away often for deals that never fully materialized. I slowly began building up old second hand machinery so that I could make square bales and store them in the barn. The barn has a large hayloft but when we purchased the ashphalt shingles were starting to leak. I invested money and time into reshingling it and now it can hold around 2700 square bales.

Today, me and my hay making partner, sold another load of 130 bales to a guy who had 4 horses. They apparently like our hay based on his last purchase and he and his wife were leary of purchasing hay that the horses wouldn't like. Most people who own horses are very particular so it is somewhat rewarding to know that we are making horses happy and well fed on the hay we provide.

If you don't have major equipment breakdowns and don't have to pay too much for labor, then making and storing hay bales for later sale can be fairly profitable as judged by the rate of return. We invested around $1200 hundred dollars into making it this year (e.g., fuel, baler twine, labor, hoses, grease, bolts). The labor turned out to be fairly cheap because three families worked together to put the hay in. As long as you supply the beer, they will supply the labor although a 1/3 of the workforce were not of drinking age. For the most part, when there are lots of people helping out, putting hay involves jovial outdoor physical exercise using muscles that you don't often enough get a chance to exercise and test the limits off (how high/far can you throw a bale, how long can you do it for) combined with some sweating in the barn followed by cooldown/watering breaks before you go out into the field for another load of hay.

We still have around 1900 bales in the barn to sell which will help finance the purchase of fruit and nut trees in the spring, fuel, new tools, new equipment, equipment and building maintenance and so on. The farm is close to being financially sustainable with the help of the hay product. I also dabble in agritourism in a small way so far. Next year I may have some wine grape product to sell as 3/4 acre of planted vines produced it's first crop this year (resulted in around 18 gallons of juice). In the next two years I will have more vines coming online as I have planted around 750 each year for the last three years.

I wouldn't say the farm is financially self-sufficient at this point. Me and my wife have to put money made through other jobs into the farm to fund ongoing improvements. It is my hope that the farm will become profitable with the addition of a better agritourism package and with the production of grape juice and apples. I'm always on the lookout for other farm products that I might offer but right now these four products, hay, agritourism, wine grape juice and apples, are the main products I'm focused on producing/selling.

Trying to make a go of a farm property is similar in many respects to trying to make a go of any business. You have to figure out what products you are going to attempt to sell and then make the investments in time and money to get to the point of production. Products without production are just costing money so the sooner you can get into production the better. In alot of farm startups they start with planting annual vegetables because you can generate a return within a one year period. That was not a committment I had the time or desire to make. Instead I invested into perennials (grape vines and apple trees) which I mistakenly assumed would be less work then they are, especially the grape vines. Sometimes I wonder if wine grape juice was the right product to get into because of the amount of money and tending you have to put into growing them. So one caution when choosing a product to sell is to navigate the price/effort tradeoff to find a product at the right price with the right time/effort involved in selling it. If you have a high priced item to sell (e.g., wine), maybe that involves more time/effort to produce/sell than a lower priced item that involves less time/effort to produce/sell.

It is a nice warm day at the farm today and I'm going to take a break from the computer to head out to the woods at the edge of a field to cut some posts. I will use the posts to trellis the grapes I planted this spring. I'll be trellising them next spring but will cut some posts off my land now while the weather is nice. I'd also like to have an excuse to work/play in the woods today.

Permalink 

Limits of Biotech [Agriculture
Posted on November 18, 2014 @ 09:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I am halfway through a book by Ford Denison called Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture (2012).

So far the book does not offer much guidance on how to farm better using Darwin's ideas and theories which is sort of what I expected it to be about. Instead it has thus far focused on using ideas about natural selection to theorize about where biotechnology might be successful or not in improving crop yields - the limits of biotech vis-a-vis agriculture.

Denison's argument in a nutshell (so far) is that natural selection and artificial breeding have operated on our crop plants for a long time now and if there were any simple improvements we could make to the genetic material of plants (i.e., increasing or decreasing the expression of a gene) Mother Nature would have already tried it out by now. Many biotech companies have claimed that they are working to improve upon the basic ability of plants to utilize sun, water or nutrients. Denison suggests that we should be very skeptical of such claims because the few generic variations that a biotech company might try out are no match for the trillions of experiments that natural selection has already performed to find the genetic variants that are best able to utilize sun, water and nutrients.

This is not to say that biotech as applied to developing better crops has no role, but to date most of the increases in yields it has produced are due to the addition of genes to crops to make them herbicide resistant or insect resistant. In fields without weed or insect pressure, the yields from these "improved" crops are often no better that the yields from "non improved" crops. The biotech improvements are not to the basic machinery of crops such as their ability to utilize sun, water, and nutrients; it is to ward off threats such as weeds and insects.

Denison is not coming at this issue from an anti-GMO viewpoint and would probably welcome any biotech discovery that would improve drought resistance, result in more efficient conversion of sunlight to biomass, or reduced need for fertilizers to allow crops to thrive. He has been looking for refutations of his viewpoint since 2003 and has not seen much evidence to counter his viewpoint that genetic engineering has not improved the efficiency of basic plant processes. This is not to say that a breakthrough might come in the future, however, based on natural selection and the trillions of natural experiments to date, he speculates that the breakthrough will not come by simply tinkering with genetic material in ways that natural selection would have already tried. Instead it will require real genetic engineering where more complex variations are created that have no intermediate path that natural selection would have tried (because the intermediate path would have produced less fit offspring that would not have reproduced).

Another aspect of Denison's argument is that there are generally tradeoffs involved in any proposed improvement to basic plant processes. So if you created a more drought resistant strain of corn that corn might not grow as much biomass as normal corn or it might not perform as well in non-drought conditions as standard corn. Denison advises us to keep our eye on the tradeoffs that also attend any claimed biotech improvements to basic plant processes (i.e., sun, water, or nutrient assimilation).

Denison's book would be useful to an investor who might be looking into investing into biotech companies involved in improving agricultural yields. It would give that investor another perspective by which to evaluate whether a particular investment might be worth making. This perspective would be informed by some evolutionary theory, genetics, and ecology that would allow an investor to see beyond the marketing material that biotech company might use to justify an investment. If the claim is made that the biotech improvement will improve yields then by what mechanism will it do this (e.g., basic plant process, herbicide resistance, insect resistance, late shattering, etc...), what tradeoffs might attend those yield improvements, what risks might we be opening up, and how long will these yield improvements last before some countervailing adaptation kicks in. Darwinian Agriculture was probably not aimed at investors in biotech companies but I would suggest that it is a very useful resource for anyone interested in such investing to read as it provides useful guidance for evaluating the technical difficulty of what a company might be trying to accomplish and consequently their likelihood of accomplishing it. Biotech companies are always pushing the limits on what a plant might do but some of those limits are not so easy to improve upon, and if improved upon, may involve tradeoffs that mother nature has already tried and discarded.

I'm still reading the book so this is not the final review. I will likely write another blog on this book but so far what has interested me is the idea that there might be limits to what biotechnology might accomplish in terms of improving basic plant processes. An investor should always be aware of the current limitations in any technology they are investing in so this book offers useful guidance with respect to biotech investing for improved crop performance. Improved crop performance will be essential to deal with the need to produce 30% more food by 2050 and to anticipate the effects climate change.

Permalink 

Precision in Crop Farming [Agriculture
Posted on November 7, 2014 @ 08:28:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I recently borrowed a book from the local agricultural campus called Precision in Crop Farming. I took the book out after scanning through it and feeling impressed that the area of precision farming is maturing and there is starting to emerge a curriculum of studies on what concepts and technological principles a precision farmer needs to be aware of to get a certificate or degree in precision farming.

Precision crop farming is about being more precise in measuring the variability in conditions within crop fields and correspondingly more precise in how you respond to that variability. It is an area at the forefront of integrating sensor technologies, GIS technologies, geo-positioning technologies, wireless technologies, and robotic technologies. The end game is something like a robot or automated vehicle traveling the fields seeding, fertilizing, watering, and weeding according to the variable conditions of the field. The robot would also be involved in the harvesting and post harvesting operations as well. Researchers justify precision farming on the grounds that it can be economically, ecologically, and agronomically beneficial for larger farming operations. I leave it up to you to judge.

In someways this is a dismal vision of the future of agriculture where we become another level removed from physical contact with soil and sunlight, another exodus of the workforce from the countryside to tend to computers programs monitoring distant crop fields.

You don't have to buy into the vision however to be interested in what precision farming is up to or how the field is evolving. I also think that parents of high school kids should start to rethink some prejudices they might have about farming as consisting of low paying jobs with alot of drudgery. It certainly can have this aspect too, but by the time your kids graduate from an agricultural program that has a good set precision farming courses, I think you might be surprised at the number of opportunities available to them not just in farm contexts, but also in golf course management, residential and commercial landscape design and management, public works, monitoring soil conditions around oil fields and pipelines, and other areas. Some of the transferable skills you learn would be the ability to setup and interpret sensor readings, to geo-locate those sensor readings on maps of the landscape, to fuse those maps with other sensor readings and GIS databases, to setup sensor networks throughout landscapes using wireless technologies, to know how to setup and monitor machinery and equipment to address conditions identified in field maps (or by on-the-go sensors), to know how to automate vehicle operations, etc.... These are just some of the skills you would explore in a precision farming curriculum as outlined in the book Precision in Crop Farming.

The video below illustrates what is potentially good and bad about precision agriculture. The technology is certainly interesting to observe and study, but as one commentator noted, it appears to be wrong farming done better (the "wrong" part being spraying of herbicides to control weeds). I fully expect that precision farming will deliver correct farming done better as well.

Learn more about this video and possible futures for farming by visiting Robots Podcast with Peter Corke.

Permalink 

Innovative Weed Control [Agriculture
Posted on October 27, 2014 @ 06:27:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last week I browsed some agriculture-related journals at the local university and came across a new method for weeding vegetable plants that I thought was promising. The method is called Propelled Abrasive Grits (PAG) Management and the idea is to blast the area around your vegetable plants with a combination of air pressure and "grits" flying out the end of a nozzle. The nozzle gets pointed at the base of your plant so the propelled grits also hit the stalk of your vegetable plant, however, the idea is that certain types of vegetable plants (e.g,. corn, tomatoes, peppers) are demonstrably hardier than the emergent weeds so can survive the PAG onslaught. Frank Forcella is one of the main and early proponents of this technique and has developed the prototype PAG weeder shown below.

Using a PAG weeder to manage the weed load on your vegetable plants can be used as an organic technique for managing a vegetable crop. If you are propelling corn grits through your nozzle then the technique would be considered organic. If propelling conventional fertilizers, then the technique would not be organic.

The corn grits provide the "abrasive" element required to knock out emerging weed seedlings. The technique has been shown to be better than hand weeding for corn, tomatoes, and peppers so far. There is still alot of research to do into what vegetables it can be used for, whether vegetable specific techniques should be used, what types of grits work best, what the grits do for the soil, using grits that also fertilize, how the costs stack up against other weed control techniques, and so on. That being said, I think we'll see this technique leave the lab fairly quickly to be experimented with by small organic farmers using jerry-rigged grit feeders and hoses attached to air compressors.

The case of using propelled corn-grits to manage a corn crop is quite interesting because it begs the question of how much corn to you need to set aside for the purposes of managing weeds on your corn crop and is this cost competitive with buying herbicides to control your weed load? This comparison assumes the issue is only one of economics and not based on considerations of sustainability that a farmer might give more weight to than just the cost aspect. In a corn-grits to manage corn weeds scenario, you are potentially closing the loop, creating a system where and output of the system is fed back into the system as an input. This is a biodynamic loop that is nice to have when it works. Especially for corn when you consider how huge our dependence is on this particular crop for food and bioenergy. The economic and environmental importance of finding more sustainable ways to manage weed load on corn should not be underestimated.

Also interesting is the question of what these grits might be doing to the soil. PAG researchers are experimenting with propelling organic and non-organic forms of fertilizers onto/into the soil and recording what happens in terms of growth. Corn-grits can be considered an organic fertilizer but there are other types of organic grits that might be better in certain situations (see below). I'll end this blog by reproducing the abstract for a recent research paper by Sam Wortman on the PAG technique that looks interesting. Sam is another leading researcher in this area and this paper provides a sense of where the research on this technique is currently at:

Title: Integrating Weed and Vegetable Crop Management with Multifunctional Air-Propelled Abrasive Grits

Author: Sam E. Wortman. Assistant Professor, Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.

Abstract

Abrasive weed control is a novel weed management tactic that has great potential to increase the profitability and sustainability of organic vegetable cropping systems. The objective of this study was to determine the effect of air-propelled organic abrasive grits (e.g., organic fertilizers) on weed seedling emergence and growth and vegetable crop growth. A series of thirteen greenhouse trials were conducted to determine the susceptibility of weeds to abrasive weed control with one of six organic materials including: corn cob grits, corn gluten meal, greensand fertilizer, walnut shell grits, soybean meal, and bone meal fertilizer. In addition, crop injury was quantified to determine the potential utility of each organic material as abrasive grits in tomato and pepper cropping systems. Of the six organic materials, corn gluten meal, greensand fertilizer, walnut shell grits, and soybean meal provided the broadest range of POST weed control. For example, one blast of corn gluten meal and greensand fertilizer reduced Palmer amaranth (one-leaf stage) seedling biomass by 95 and 100% and green foxtail (one-leaf stage) biomass by 94 and 87%, respectively. None of the organic materials suppressed weed seedling emergence when applied to the soil surface, suggesting that residual weed control with abrasive grits is unlikely. Tomato and pepper stems were relatively tolerant of abrasive grit applications, though blasting with select materials did increase stem curvature in tomato and reduced biomass (corn cob grit) and relative growth rate (corn gluten meal and greensand) in pepper. Results suggest that organic fertilizers can be effectively used as abrasive grits in vegetable crops, simultaneously providing weed suppression and supplemental crop nutrition. Field studies are needed to identify cultural practices that will increase the profitability of multifunctional abrasive weed control in organic specialty crops.

Link: http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1614/WT-D-13-00105.1

Permalink 

Automated Agriculture [Agriculture
Posted on October 14, 2014 @ 06:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my research on the topic of weeds, I came across some interesting ideas about how the process of weeding might be automated. It is difficult to imagine how it might be automated, but there are some interesting attempts to see into the future. I want to share two of these with you today.

The first vision of automated weeding (see Future Directions for Automated Weed Management in Precision Agriculture by Stephen Young, George Meyer, and Wayne Woldt) sees a rover-type vehicle with a body that straddles the ground and contains different weeding devices that cultivates the soil between the rover tracks. In this depiction it has a flame weeder, a herbicide applicator, and two different mechanical devices for physically removing weeds. While the rover is going through the field crops, it is also communicating with an overhead drone perhaps to remember where and when it has completed an area and allocating it efficiently to those areas of the field that need the most immediate attention. In this vision of agriculture, the selling points are automation, precision, efficiency, and data gathering and analysis.

Not only is the vision compelling, with an air of inevitability about it, but the market for such technology could be large. Current visions are for these rovers to manage field crops occupying huge tracts of land. I wonder, however, if it will be the home garden where the technology is launched first? Why? A few reasons, but one would be battery life. It could be that we can offer batteries cheaply enough that the rovers could take care of the weeding chores at the scale of a home garden. You might be sitting in a lounge chair, sipping your favorite drink while observing your robot gardener working through your specially designed garden to help grow some of your favorite vegetables and flowers. Or maybe you are a serious gardener, a market gardener, or a disabled gardener and the agricultural robot is your best buddy helping you with a garden beyond your personal ability to manage.

These speculations seem too futuristic and perhaps not worth thinking about. We do, however, have a working agricultural rover prototype, Prospero the Robot Farmer, that successfully planted a corn field. In this video by David Dorhout, the developer of Prospero, he suggests a paradigm shift might be coming to farming.

David's idea for universal robot farmers communicating with each other is very interesting from a research and development perspective, but I think the immediate industrial market is for more specialized robots - robots that can pick grapes, apply herbicides, harvest lettuce, etc...

I do not know where the future of agriculture is headed, but automated agriculture is likely to be one of the significant directions. We already have plenty of automation coming into agriculture in the form of automatic milkers, automatic feed delivery systems, self-driving tractors, and so on, but these on-the-ground agricultural robots might be a new market opportunity given the rapid advancements in the relevant technologies (e.g., robotics, battery storage, pattern recognition, ai, precision agriculture).

Permalink 

Learning From Weeds: Part 6 [Agriculture
Posted on October 7, 2014 @ 08:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In todays blog I wanted to reflect upon what a thistle plant might teach us about how to start, grow, and sustain a business. This is the 6th installment of my Learning from Weeds series (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5).

What distinguishes a thistle plant from other plants is that it has pickles all over its body that are considered an adaptation against herbavores grazing it down. A thistle plant spreads through its rhizomes (underground root system runners), and, like the field bindweed, can grow back from severed roots so is difficult to eradicate once it puts in a deep root system. It also relases seeds on little parachutes that aids in longer distance dispersal. It is a productive bearer of seeds but vegetative spread through its root system is still its main method of propogating itself.

Thistles come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. All of them have prickly surfaces and some other commonalities. They can be very beautiful (e.g., scotch thistle pictured above) with a nice flowering head to attract pollinators. While it might be nice looking, unless you are a bee, you probably don't want to mess with a thistle.

Finally, thistles have a wide distribution and are considered an invasive weed in many locations. So it is one of the more successful plants around and thus potentially instructive on what it takes to survive and thrive in business.

The thistle has many things going for it even if it did not have prickles over its body. It might still be capable of invasiveness, but the prickles make it even more of a contender for invasiveness. The prickles, in a sense, help you to maintain your ground once you start putting your roots down. They are a defensive strategy that is also a good offense.

Another aspect of the thistle is that it offers a prickly surface to certain types of predators (i.e., herbavores) while maintaining an attractive display for those it wants to attact (i.e., bees). This is a duality that successful businesses might also exhibit - tough to deal with if you want to compete against them, but attractive at the same time to those it wants to do business with.

Probably the best example of a thistle strategy in business is the use of patents to protect inventions. The invention itself may be very attractive to consumers but if you try to mimic the invention in its significant aspects, then you might be faced with a lawsuit for patent infringement. The patent is a defensive strategy that is also used as an offensive strategy whereby the invention can be sold to someone on the basis of the patent. It is not a great offense, however, in terms of actually getting the invention manufactured, distributed, marketed and branded. The thistle has more strategies than just a patent to ensure it's successful spread.

So the question is, do business have to be like thistles in some respects in order to start, grow, or sustain themselves over time. Do they need a good defensive strategy as well as an offensive one in order to survive or thrive?

A thistle is the patron plant of Scotland, supposedly having to do with an invasion that was thrwarted when a Norse man encoutered a thistle and, in his distress, alerted them to their presence.

A thistle is emblamatic of the protector of the business, the defensive strategy that helps protect it from credible threats.

On another note, last night I was test driving my new Canon Powershot SX50 digital camera and spent some time photographing the spectacular moonscape that was on view last night. Tonight is supposed to be even better with the moon potentially turning red due to an eclipse event. Some are calling it the hunter moon. I'm hoping to get a photo of that event tonight if I'm up and the skies are clear, but here is a photo of the moon as it appeared last night at the farm. I can zoom a bit closer with the camera but then I don't get the whole moon. It is tricky to keep the camera steady for the shot. I use a tripod but even with that it is hard to get it centered just perfect with high resolution. The camera manual offers the tip of putting the shot on a timer to minimize movement at the point when the picture is being taken.

Permalink 

Profitable Micro-Farming [Agriculture
Posted on June 11, 2014 @ 12:03:00 PM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, The Market Startup, I discussed Jean-Martin Fortier's new book, The Market Gardener (2014), which explains how he is able to generate $140,000 in revenue from 1.5 acres of land producing and selling vegetables.

Last night I surfed onto Chris Martenson's Peak Prosperity YouTube Channel and found a large number of interesting videos to watch or listen to. One recent video is an interview (Mar 29, 2014) with Jean-Martin Fortier on profitable micro-farming. For those of you that don't have the time or inclination to read Jean-Martin Fortier's new book then I recommend you listen to the interview below. Interviewer Adam Taggert is an excellent interviewer and Jean-Martin does a great job of conveying how micro-farming can be profitable, sustainable, enjoyable, accessible, and competitive with the current paradigm for producing and purchasing vegetables. The podcast covers some introductions at the beginning, then discusses how Jean-Martin does micro-farming, then gets into some of the financial details of his micro-farming business, and concludes with a wide ranging discussion on why micro-farming could become a significant trend in agriculture.

Permalink 

Aquaponics is Growing [Agriculture
Posted on March 5, 2014 @ 09:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In the Permaculture course I am taking online, I recently covered the section on "Water" in which Max Meyer from NorCal Aquaponics discussed a variety of types and scales of aquaponic systems (systems that grow vegetables and fish at the same time). His discussion opened my eyes to some of the potential and opportunities in this industry. While aquaponics has been practiced in eastern countries since a long time, it is a currently a growth industry because new approaches and technologies are rapidly being assimilated into newer aquaponics growing systems. It is also a growth industry because it is arguably one of the most efficient ways to produce food and the quality of that food can be very high. Vegetables are not subject to many of the conditions that produce blemishes and can be produced organically under the right conditions. Demand for seafood is also high and increasing around the world, but the ability of the oceans to supply that food is become less likely as stocks are over harvested. Aquaponics therefore has a bright future as a method of producing plant and animal-based food for the future.

A couple of young entrepreneurs have decided to try to cash in on this emerging market by developing a small-scale aquaponics system that integrates with a traditional home aquarium. Their video below also gives a basic idea on how aquaponics works as well as how these young entrepreneurs hope to grow their AquaSprouts business.

Many of the aquaponics systems being developed now are at a larger scale than this aquarium system but the aquarium system is a good starting point for raising awareness of the potential of aquaponics growing systems. Keep in mind, however, that in most aquaponics system you are growing fish to eat as well, whereas in this system they are mostly concerned with growing plants. I don't think they are going to eat the fish in the aquarium although that might be possible as well.

Below is an example of a well-known outdoor (versus in a greenhouse) closed-loop (versus open-loop) aquaponics system developed at the University of the Virgin Islands which is a leader in aquaponics research and design.

Permalink 

Investing in Hay Production [Agriculture
Posted on March 3, 2014 @ 06:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Me and my wife purchased a 62 acre farmstead property in our home town about 4 years ago. Much of the land consisted of hay fields. Up until last year, the hay fields were just an expense for me. I had to hire someone to come in once a year and drop the hay just to keep the hay fields in good condition. I had started accumulating second-hand farm equipment since we purchased the place. Last year I needed a second hand hay rake and baler to round out the equipment I would need to make square bales of hay myself. I decided to go for it and partnered 50/50 with my brother-in-law to make and sell the hay (he also had the full compliment of square-bale hay making equipment so we had two mowers and balers going as we were making it). The farmstead came with a big old barn whose massive roof I had reshingled the previous year so it was being underutilized. We decided we would make the hay and store it in the barn until we got sale for it. Here is us filling up the barn with hay bales.

I'm videoing the event. My brother-in-law is the guy at the top of the mow throwing the hay to the back of the barn. Because I don't live at the farmstead now (mostly a spring/summer/fall residence) my brother-in-law, who lives in the area, is handling the calls for hay. We sold some hay to date but were starting to get concerned that we would have quite a bit left in the barn by spring (which would make it harder to sell and create storage issues for any new hay I would make this year). I was just informed this morning that we now have sale for 1400 bales. My brother-in-law ended his email with "We should have made more". I'm quite emboldened by the success of this hay making venture. I'll recoup my machinery investments, labor investments, and make a small profit. The hay was money in the bank as far as I was concerned. I had already paid out all my expenses to make it. When it was sold it would be like I was cashing out my investment. Cha-ching!

The moral of the story for me was that I was correct to recognize the opportunity and to make the necessary machinery investments to realize that opportunity. Farming is a hard business to make money at, and many farmers go broke buying too much equipment, or equipment that is too expensive, but the reality is that I couldn't make a sellable product, hay bales, without buying a rake and baler last year. I could have lost a good amount of money in this venture if the hay did not sell, but I'd never know if I would or not if I did not make the investment. The barn would have also been a useless asset if I did not start using it for it's intended purpose - to store hay. I'm not going to get rich making hay, but it is an important stream of income for the farm that can be used to fund other farm projects. Maybe the farm will show up as source of revenue rather than a tax deduction on next year's tax return. For that to happen, I may have to ramp up hay production this year while some of my other farm product investments (1600 grape vines and 180 apple trees so far) mature enough to become additional sources of farm revenue. My long term plan is for around 6 streams of income from the farm, two of which are now being realized (hay production, farm vacation accommodations).

In my theory of entrepreneurship I discuss the importance of developing multiple lines of business. This is what I'm doing with my farming venture. I'm not necessarily looking for the next big innovative idea, I'm looking for the next revenue stream that might pan out. For me, hay production is one new revenue stream that appears to be panning out. It is also good productive physical exercise to counteract the effects of too much time spent indoors in front of a computer monitor. On the farm, I also use sheafs of hay for thick mulch around my grape vines (to suppress weeds and winterize), as a growing medium for potatoes (embed seed potato between sheafs), and when it rots out it is a source of soil fertility for the grape vines and my garden. The square bale format is ideal for these purposes and is another reason to make them beyond any direct income they might generate.


Hay Production Investments For My Farm Startup

Permalink 

Fall Farm Work [Agriculture
Posted on October 8, 2013 @ 11:11:00 AM by Paul Meagher

On friday, Oct 4th I drove down to our farm and returned late monday. My wife and I have had the farm for around 4 years. I'm experimenting with trying to grow various plants. I've had some success so far with growing grape vines (after a couple of years of failure) and this weekend I wanted to get the soil ready for planting around 1000 more vines into next spring. For me, this meant plowing new strip tills that I'll be planting into (see photos below). The freeze-thaw action on the plowed soil (4 furrows wide) over the winter will cause the soil to break apart more so that when I run my 3.5 foot wide rototiller over the tills twice it will make a nice bed to plant my rooted vines into. The strip tills also have a drainage function as the fields get waterlogged in spring and this helps dry the soil up better. Vines don't need as much water as apple trees. I also went down to the farm this weekend to take in the colors of the season. The leaves are changing now and the various hardwood tree species create a pastel landscape this time of year.


Colors around the farm


More colors in the distrance


Strip till for next year's vines


2 yr old vines at end of growing season


2 yr old vines up close


Ripe red wine grapes


Ripe white wine Grapes


Corn looks ok


Harvested vegetables


Nine new strip tills


Farmstead from back field


Permalink 

Farm Experiments [Agriculture
Posted on July 2, 2013 @ 09:27:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I haven't blogged much this week because I've been busy trying to get caught up with work on a second farmstead property we own. We have a couple of rental units on the farm that needed to be cleaned up for the upcoming tourist season. I also needed to deal with some land I plowed earlier in the spring - I rototilled it up and it is starting to look more like a field and less like a nuclear fallout site. We've had lots of rain over the last couple of weeks so I didn't get a chance to put in our gardens so I'm working on that these days. Got my tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, corn, yellow beans, bell peppers in the ground yesterday and will plant out some more today. I also planted some Harrington Malting Barley that I am trying to build up a seed supply for. I started with 4 seed packets last year and hope to get a burlap bag or more of seed this year. I am going this route because it was next to impossible to get good malting barley seed in this part of the world perhaps because the humidity is considered too high to grow it - can cause fusarium blight which is not good. We have good wind on the ridgetop farm so I'm thinking this might be less of an issue. Also, we grow alot of feed barley so I don't see why it should be so difficult to grow malting barley. If my seed supply does well maybe I'll start selling malting barley seed that is adapted to this climate.

I blogged earlier about my experiment with growing potatoes in the hay rows I made last fall for planting into for the spring. I planted 800lbs of potatoes so this was a fairly large experiment. It has been interesting so far. I didn't get the early season jump that I thought I would get from planting in the hay. I thought the decomposing hay might create heat and the hay would act as a nice insulating blanket over the potatoes to give them a head start. What happened is that the insulating blanket of hay made it harder to heat up the ground and potatoes just didn't grow until the temperatures picked up in the middle part of June. Neverthess, they did eventually start to take off and I'm expecting to know the final results by the middle of July when I will start removing hay and seeing how many potatoes I have per plant.

I planted 6 different varieties of potatoes so there will be varietal difference (different maturity dates). This was supposed to be a no-work form of gardening so I haven't done work to maintain the potatoes rows except drive a lawn tractor next to the windrows a couple of times to blow in some additional hay. This does not add much new hay but it does keep the potatoe field looking a bit more like a potatoe patch and less like a hayfield. The hay is coming on strong and has grown through the hay mulch but the potato is also a tough plant and my feeling at the point is that they will co-exist with the potato plant possibly becoming a bit more dominant as it grows more. No evidence of any colorado potatoe beetle or other pests or deficiencies. Hopefully my next update on this experiment will be a photo of some nice small round red potatoes (I'll likely start harvesting my Norland early season reds first).

Permalink 

Straw Bale Gardening [Agriculture
Posted on May 31, 2013 @ 03:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My book order for Straw Bale Gardens (Joel Karsten, 2013, Cool Springs Press, Minnisota) came in this week.

If you are into gardening or farming, then I'd recommend it as eye-opening exploration of the possibilities of straw bale gardening.

Straw is hay without the seeds so requires a threshing stage before you bale it. The drawback to planting in hay bales is that they have hay seed that can germinate in the hay and compete with the plant you want to grow. I grew potatoes fine in haybales last year so I would have liked to have seen more exploration of hay bale gardening in the book as they are a cheaper and significantly easier to produce bale than a straw bale. Other than that quibble, it is an enjoyable book to leaf trough to see his gardening/farming methods illustrated with abundant photo-based descriptions and explanations.

I made a note of his "glove of death" technique for dealing with unwanted sprouting seeds in hay bales. It involves dipping a dishwashing glove in vinegar and selectively touching the plants you don't want. Vinegar is non-selective in what it kills so you have to be careful you don't apply it to the plant you want to grow.

This is the time of year when alot of people are thinking about gardening with plans to garden this weekend if the weather is good. If you don't go overboard on planting expenses you can potentially grow some of your own food cheaply. A few hay bales, a few bags of earth/compost for the top, and you can be in business with a small but potentially productive home garden.

Permalink 

The Succession Effect [Agriculture
Posted on May 28, 2013 @ 09:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In the year 1995, Isreali researchers reported that farms with a successor lined up outperform farms without a successor on many different measures of farm success (e.g., profitability, Total Farm Assets (TFA), etc...). They called this phenomenon the succession effect.


Source: http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/44131/2/249.pdf

There are many reasons why the succession effect is believed to occur:

  • The exiting farmer does not cannibalize their business as they grow older.
  • The exiting farmer is more willing to build up farm assets.
  • The farm has more incentive to expand and forward plan.
  • The younger successor brings new ideas, vision, and energy to the enterprise.
  • Long term survival becomes more important that short term gain.

The way succession in farming often occurs is that the successor goes away to a secondary educational institution and/or works outside the farm for awhile and then returns to the farm at a later date. When the successor returns there is often an increase in farm spending and investment. If the successor proves out during this expansion phase then a legal partnership arrangement is drawn up. Assets and business responsabilities are gradually transferred over to the successor with responsability for major financial decisions being the last responsability to be transferred over. The ideal age for a successor to be chosen is when the exiting farmer is around 45 years of age.

At least that is what I gleaned from the lead article Here They Grow in the Country Guide magazine article.

What is true of farming may generalize to other types of business. If you are 45 and older and don't have a successor lined up to run your business, does that affect how successful the business will be relative to if you had a successor lined up to take over the business? If you had a successor lined up, how would that affect how you run your business. Would you be willing to take on more risk to expand the business further?

Permalink 

Dealing with Gate Keepers [Agriculture
Posted on May 23, 2013 @ 11:01:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Many entrepreneurs go into business thinking they just have to develop a product or service the public wants and they will be successful. This is not the case in agriculture and it is often not the case. Why not?

In any industry there are gate keepers, established industry players, who can make it more difficult than it should be to sell your product or service. In agriculture, many entrepreneurs ignore the gate keepers only to have it bite them as they try to grow their business.

For example, I was reading about a local farmer who was raising chickens according to a pastured poultry farming system. Pictures of the farm (see below) show a large fence with happy chickens milling about feeding off the grasslands with lots of space to roam about. Their grass diet adds lots of valuable omega vitamins to the eggs they produce. Their droppings also increase the fertility of the land. It all appears very eco-friendly and one would think the entrepreneur deserves to be successful for raising his chickens in such a humane and healthy environment and also because he has grown a large consumer base that wants his pastured-poultry products. Unfortunately, the farmer did not consult the egg police, otherwise known as the Egg Marketing Board, about his operation. If he had consulted them, he would have learned that he was only allowed to freely raise 100 chickens and sell their products. After that, he is obliged to join the Egg Marketing Board to obtain a quota to sell more eggs. It costs about 200 to 250 dollars per chicken for additional quota, which he may or may not be able to obtain from the board. In order to obtain that quota, he needs to reduce his flock to 100 or less birds and then apply for quota. Half of the farmer's income comes from his pastured poultry so the egg police now have him over the proverbial barrel. I would not want to be in his position now.

One of my favorite farm entrepreneurship authors is Joel Salatin who broke into the bigtime when he wrote a book called "Everything I want to do is Illegal". In this book he recounts all his battles with the various gate keepers he has had to deal with over the years to stay in operation. I recommend that you read this book to appreciate the hurdles that many farmers have to jump through to sell their products.

The lesson generalizes to most businesses. In most lines of business there are gate keepers, established industry players, who represent a "barrier-to-entry" for businesses attempting to grow into that space. Many businesses are like farming insofar as you may think you have the freedom to simply produce a high quality product or service, find paying customers, and you will be successful. The mere fact that you can produce something of exceptional quality, and find customers for it, should be sufficient grounds for you to be successful. That is often not the case because there are often lurking gatekeepers who require your money and time before they will let you grow beyond a certain size.

As you grow your business you might need to spend time identifying who the gatekeepers are, the nature of the gates they have setup, and the toll that is required of you to navigate through their gates. Failure to do so is could put the brakes on your growth.

I've posted a few blogs about my potato growing efforts this year. Because I'm using an unconventional method to grow potatoes, I've been less concerned about the gate keepers and more concerned about the cultivation methods that might be required to ensure its success. If I am successful, however, I will need to worry about the gatekeepers more and whether I am big enough that they might pay attention to me. In the case of potatoes, the definition of "big" is defined in terms of acreage under potato cultivation, however, in traditional potato growing you plant one row of potatoes immediately next to another row of potatoes. In my system, there may be a 25 to 40 foot gap between rows that is needed in order to have sufficient hay to create the growing beds and "hill" the potatoes with new hay. It is difficult for me to figure out if I should acknowledge the gate keepers or not. I'd rather not as it entails paying for quota and seeking the blessing of the Potato Marketing Board. I probably won't acknowledge them this year, but I have done some research and I'm aware of their requirements and their tolls.

As your business grows, you should allocate some time to identifying any gatekeepers who might stand in the path to further growth. As entrepreneurs we like to think we are free to operate as we choose and have chosen this lifestyle for that reason. The reality is that there are often gatekeepers who have bureaucratic and financial hoops that they expect us to jump through. If we do not acknowledge them, our business growth could stall even though we are offering a high quality product or service.

Permalink 

First Round of Potato Planting [Agriculture
Posted on May 13, 2013 @ 08:34:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I planted my first batch of potatoes in the hay windrows this weekend. I planted 150 lbs of Norland early red potatoes.

Equipment for Planting Potatoes

I purchased a hand rake before I drove down to the farm because I thought it might make planting into the hay easier. It certainly did. I developed a fairly efficient planting motion that consisted of striking the corner of the rake into the hay windrow, pulling back some matted hay, sticking the potato under the back of the lifted hay mat, then putting the hay mat back into place on top of the potatoe.

Rotted-Hay Growing Medium

I didn't cut up the potatoes as they were fairly small tubers and were a good size for planting as they were. I wore work gloves while planting and could have used a pair of knee pads but didn't bother to get them. Feeling some tenderness in my knees today.

I have 650 lbs more potatoes to plant. I'll be trying to take another dent out of that next weekend.

One question you might have about growing in hay is where the fertility comes from to grow the potatoe plant. The rotted hay is one source of fertility. The fields are also abundant with worms so there is likely to be alot of vermicomposting going on as well in the hay windrows. I also plan to add more hay to the windrow in about a month to give the plant more area to grow into.

Worm Basking on Top of Windrow

This is my first foray into growing vegetables at a scale where I might try to derive some income from a farm product (planting fruit trees and grape vines as well but they take longer to be productive). There was some urgency to plant my early season Norlands as I want to have some of the earliest local potatoes and use these to get into the door with local restaurants or markets and possibly create customers for my other potatoes all season long. If they grow well they could be considered a premium organic potato (small red potatoe, white flesh, few blemishes, clean, unique, sustainable, eco-friendly).

Haven't spent much time figuring out possible yields and pricing. More focused on removing uncertainty about scaling up my hay-based growing efforts by getting seed into the hay and seeing what issues I might run into through the season. I've decided, however, to go big and assume it will work rather than conduct a smaller scale experiment on this approach. I had some success last year growing potatoes in hay but was using bales instead of loose hay gathered into windrows (which is a simpler longer term approach). I have also planted about 300-400 vegetable/spaghetti squash seeds into the hay so far and that could be another major crop this year. I have about a 5 acre field that I set up for hay-based planting this spring.

Permalink 

Soil preparation [Agriculture
Posted on May 9, 2013 @ 09:59:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I spent the most of my time from monday to wednesday preparing my soil for the upcoming planting season. I rototilled my 4 garden plots (one is going fallow, one will be planted with vegtables, one will be planted with herbs and stawberries, one will be planted with malting barley and other grain crops that I might want to experiment with). I rototilled 12 strip tills for grape vines I will be planting this year. I don't think I'll have enough rooted grape cuttings to cover 6 tills so some of these tills could theoretically be used for planting vegetables if I wanted to. I also plowed about 2-3 acres of land that were overtaken with low quality forage weeds that I wanted to get rid off (Juncus Effusus), and the only way I think you can do it is by plowing them under. I never plowed land before so this was a big learning experience for me. Plowing is only the first step, there are many more steps involved to get a soil surface that can be planted into. I'm probably looking at about 25-30 more hours of tractor work to get this section of my field in shape again and I'm not sure exactly how I'll do this yet. This is somewhat stressful for me because I am a weekend and vaction farmer so I'm not sure where I'll get the time to devote to assemble the necessary equipment or do the work.

Farming is alot like entrepreneurship generally insofar as there is uncertaintly every step of the way. I don't know if my crop of potatoes and vegetable squash will grow in my rotted hay media, I don't know if I'll be able to sell what I produce or what price I'll get, I don't know if I'll have the time to reap what I have sown. I'll never know unless I do it. When one uncertainty is elimated (it grows), then I can tackle the next stage of uncertaintly (how to sell it).

Entrepreneurship is defined by the leval of uncertainty associated with new ventures. Non-established farmers are all entrepreneurs dealing with high-levels of uncertaintly. Farmers are probably navigating a degree of risk that is greater than what many non-farm entrepreneurs face. Why? Because the startup costs are significant (tractor, tractor equipment, seeding, fuel, soil amendments, fertilizers, etc...) compared to, for example, starting up an internet-based business. Most startup farmers today work off-farm to finance their farm startups. That is what I am doing and it is not something I anticipate will change after this season of planting.

Why do I do it? Because there is magic in seeing something that you have planted grow into something that can feed people, because a life spent in front of a computer is not what I imagined for myself, because there is a physical element to the work that I want embrace, and last but not least, because I enjoy the aesthetics of the land that I'm working on.

The ultimate test of whether you are a farmer is whether you can run a profitable farming enterprise. I haven't set high goals in this regards for this year as I'm still experimenting and I still have time to experiment before the taxman will come ofter me for claiming farm-related writeoffs.

What is different about this year of farming compared to last year is two main aspects: 1) in previous years I have focused on fixing buildings (ashphalt roofing, cedar shingling, fixing foundations, new doors, windows, gutters, etc...) , and not farming per se, 2) this year I have more time to focus on farming and establishing what techniques and what products might be profitable. So this year is a test for me as to whether I have what it takes to be a farmer. Again, I'm not expecting to achieve a high level of success this year as a farmer, but I do expect to have a better sense of what it takes to be a farmer next year when I think this can start to be a profitable enterprise again (5 years after acquiring the property).

Permalink 

Planting Potatoes [Agriculture
Posted on May 7, 2013 @ 08:14:00 AM by Paul Meagher

As the weather turns nice in this part of the world (sunny and warm for last 5 days) it is time to get the soil at the startup farm ready for the upcoming planting season. I did the soil preparation for my potatoes last fall when I mowed my fields and windrowed the hay. It rotted down over the winter. I have about 3-5 inches of hay mulch to plant my potatoes into. I plan to plant some this weekend.

I may only plant my Norland early potatoes this weekend. About 150 lbs of Norland potatoes. I'm speculating that the hay mulch can act as a "forcing" environment. It should heat up better than ground covered potatoes during the day when the sun is out. At night it should be insulated somewhat by the hay mulch which should protect it from frost damage (still danger of frost for another month or so). I will "hill" my windrows with new cut hay around the middle of June. I have several other varieties of potatoes to plant (mid seasons, long seasons). Not sure if I will plant any of these as well this weekend.

If I am successful at growing potatoes in this way, the next question is what I will do with all my potatoes?

Permalink 

Pruning Vines at my Farm Startup [Agriculture
Posted on April 26, 2013 @ 07:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher

It took me 2 and a half days to finish planting my trees and shrubs and prune my vines. I was not planning on pruning my vines as I thought I would leave well enough alone. However, when I inspected the vines closely I noticed a pattern of dead growth at the tops of the vines. The vines die back a bit over the winter. I decided I would prune the tops back to a viable bud and also prune the vines back to 1 to 3 main shoots. Year 2 for the vines will be mostly about getting better rooted and getting them trained to hang off my trellis wires properly. Usually want 2 main shoots with one shoot going left and one shoot going right on your guide wire.

Grapevine pruned back to 2 main shoots

Took about 3 and a half hours to prune all my vineyard plants. Ideally you would do this during winter months when the plants are dormant, however, that is not a very pleasant job at that time of year. Bob Osborne at Cornhill Nursury where I purchased my apple/pear/blueberry stock talked about the last two weeks of April as being an ideal time to do grafting work so I assumed that the same timeframe applies to vine pruning as well.

2 yr old vineyard is pruned.

I'm hoping to expand my vineyard this year. My neighbor at the farm, A.J. Taylor, provided plowing services last fall. He plowed 8 strip tills which I will rototill in early summer and plant my vines into.

Strip tills for grape vines with gutters draining water.

I finished planting my vine cuttings in my home greenhouse nursery over the last weekend. I planted 8 to 9 hundred cuttings in my 12ft x 15ft sunken greenhouse. This is my second year nursing vines in my greenhouse. My vines were well rooted when I eventually planted them out last year.

Densely packed vines at my home nursury.

It takes awhile for a farm startup to get to the point of producing enough farm product to generate significant income. Apple trees and pear trees could take up to 10 years before they start fruiting significantly. Vines provide a faster return as it can start producing it its third year. Then there are the annual crops that can give you more immediate returns. So far, I have plans to plant surplus amounts of potatoes and squash. I don't plan on getting rich of this crop, but if I am successful, I'd be more willing the next year to scale up my production to a level where it could be profitable. I also offer a couple of vacation rental units at the farm that cover some costs. The burn rate for the last couple of years has been quite high to repair buildings, get the rental units ready, and acquire machinery and tools. I have been able to use these expenses as much needed tax write offs (I only claim a hobby farm amount for now and don't try to spend much above that amount) but eventually a farm has to be profitable or the tax man will look unfavorably upon the enterprise.

Permalink 

Planting Apple Trees [Agriculture
Posted on April 23, 2013 @ 02:27:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I'll be juggling my farm startup business with my online dealflow interests over the next couple of days. What that means is that I am in the middle of planting approx. 80 trees and shrubs - apple trees, pear trees, and high bush blueberry bushes. I drove 225 km from Truro, Nova Scotia to Mabou, Cape Breton this morning to do the planting.

I have a row of 18 Honeycrisp apple trees planted and hope to get 40 apple trees planted today (varieties include Honeycrisp - 2yr, Cortland- 1 yr, Sunrise - 1 yr, and Cox Pippen 1 -yr. It is 5:00 and my planting deadline is 8:30 tonight. Rain tomorrow so I'll be planting in a mild rain tomorrow with warm temps (9-14 degrees Celcius). The rain will provide the required watering for the newly planted 1 and 2 year old apple trees, 1 yr old pear trees, and 20 blueberry bushes.

Getting the tractor geared up for tree planting.

Inspected the 300-400 vines I planted last year. They appear to be doing ok and I'm looking forward to see how they grow this year. There are significant varietal diffferences - different grape varieties have difffering degrees of vigor in my soil. I'm curious to see if the most vigorous variety could start producing this year - 1 year after planting. Usually takes 3 years, and probably will, but a grape vine can put on 6 to 9 feet of growth in a season if it is in good soil, sun, and ambient conditions. Supposed to pinch the grapes of this year to let the roots get more of the joy juice, but on some of my vigorous plants I might see what they will do without pinching.

2 yr old unpruned vines in early spring

There is some evidence of snow damage on my vines. Had a heavy layer of snow at the bottom of my field and the melting action broke vine guide poles (bamboo) and the vines themselves in some cases. Only the vines on the hill towards a forested corner of the field were subject to this damage perhaps because of the vortex winds that develop in this unique wind/snow environement. During the fall, winter and early spring there are heavy winds on this maritime ridgetop grasslands farm. During later sping, summer, and autumn the winds are generally pleasant but occasionally the winds will kick in again (sou'westers winds during summer). Based upon winterime experiences I thought I could run a wind turbine here and I could generate alot of power, however, I discovered that over later spring to autumn period the winds are quite pleasant.

View of farmstead from orchard

As I do my manual labor, I am reflecting upon the role of Bayesian Inference for angel investors and entrepreneurs. According to lean startup theory a startup is defined by the level of uncertaintly in its operations. So if operational uncertainty is the defining aspect of what a startup is, then how do we go about representing, understanding, and managing that uncertaintly? Does Bayesian Inference offer a formal foundation for lean startup theory?

Back to planting.

Permalink 

Solar Electric Tractor [Agriculture
Posted on March 28, 2013 @ 10:45:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Thought provoking YouTube video on a new tractor design. Courtesy of Paul Wheaton at Permies.com.

Permalink 

Solving world hunger with forward contracts [Agriculture
Posted on March 28, 2013 @ 11:02:00 AM by Paul Meagher

When we think about solving the problem of world hunger, one solution that might come to mind is sending more food aid to nations unable to feed their populations. This may help to address the immediate problem but does not solve the longer term problem of ensuring that these nations can feed themselves; in fact, it can be detrimental to that goal (e.g., flooding these nations with cheap food aid and wiping out local farmers who can't compete).

Another way to solve the problem of world hunger that is gaining momentum is to develop a forward contracts market for farmers. According to Wikipedia:

A forward contract or simply a forward is a non-standardized contract between two parties to buy or sell an asset at a specified future time at a price agreed upon today. This is in contrast to a spot contract, which is an agreement to buy or sell an asset today. The party agreeing to buy the underlying asset in the future assumes a long position, and the party agreeing to sell the asset in the future assumes a short position. The price agreed upon is called the delivery price, which is equal to the forward price at the time the contract is entered into.

In North America we are probably under the impression that the reason we have an abundance of food is because we are able to grow a lot of food. That is true, but another key element in the equation is that farmers have a forward contracts market for the food they produce that helps to take some of the risk out of growing food and inspire enough confidence to buy the inputs and equipment necessary to grow food. The raison d'etre for the Chicago Commodities Exchange is to offer this risk-management service to farmers.

Even at a smaller scale we see forward contracts happening in Community Support Agriculture where a farmer asks that subscribers agree to pay a price ahead of time for the produce that they will produce or jointly-produce over the course of a season. These forward contracts are often flexible in the sense that if a farmer has a rough year, subscribers will generally agree to pay the subscription fee even if the amount of produce received does not live up to expectations - we are in this together through good times and bad. As long as the farmer put in an honest effort, planted the right amount of seed, worked the land, and did her share, then if conditions beyond their control transpired to reduce yield we are generally sympathetic enough to honor our subscription fee pledge. One wonders if the forward contract markets for hungry nations will be similarly forgiving.

The effort to solve the world hunger problem in this way is being spearheaded by the largest food-relief agency in the world, the World Food Program (WFP), which has a 6 billion-a-year budget (see Purchase For Progress). In addition, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are offering their money and expertise to the cause of developing a forward contracts market for farmers. It is interesting to reflect upon the idea that the most powerful tool we have at our disposal to tackle world hunger may be a financial concept, the concept of a forward contract and setting up commodity exchanges in developing countries to make them work better.

To learn more about the role of finance in solving world hunger, I'd recommend the book I'm currently reading called Bet The Farm: How Food STOPPED being Food, 2012, by Howard Kaufman. Here you will also learn about the dangers of a market-based approach to solving world hunger, the dangers that speculators and derivatives pose to the proper functioning of such markets.

As you eat your Easter meal this weekend, you might reflect upon the role of forward contracts in making this bounty available, whether forward contracts are indeed part of the solution to world hunger and, if so, how they should be structured to work as effectively as possible.

Permalink 

No-work techniques [Agriculture
Posted on March 26, 2013 @ 09:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Ruth Stout was an American author best known for her "No-Work" gardening books and techniques. She discovered that she was able to grow a surplus of vegetables without plowing, weeding, or watering by using hay mulch as a growing medium. I can confirm that potatoes grow extremely well in a properly weathered hay mulch (bales of hay left to weather over the winter and then planted into in the spring - see below). I never weeded my potatoes all year, never watered them, and when I harvested them I barely had to clean them because they had no dirt caked onto them. I'm now a believer in Ruth Stout's no-work methods and will be experimenting on a larger scale with growing vegetables in hay mulch and using hay mulch for perennials to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. Growing vegetables in hay is also "organic" and "sustainable" in the best senses of these words (no synthetic fertilizer, no herbicides, no pesticides, no irrigation, no soil cultivation or erosion, soil building, reduced tractor use) . We'll see if the reality lives up to the ideal this summer.

I also planted grape vines last year and hopefully in two more years I will literally start to see the fruits of that labor. Last night I was reading over my Wine Maker Magazine and came across an excellent no-work concept called "Whole Cluster Fermentation". Basically you don't bother de-stemming or crushing your grapes, just start the fermentation process using the whole grape cluster. Wow, that would be great if I could achieve the same desired outcome, namely, drinkable wine, without all the work and expense associated with traditional wine making. You can bet that I will be experimenting with this technique when my vines start producing.

My philosophy of making wine is not to worry that much about producing the perfect wine at first, but just to produce a drinkable wine with the least amount of work and cost. If I can't, then maybe I will have to work more and pay more to produce the desired outcome; but that will only happen after I have explored the viability of the least work, least cost option.

We need to ask ourselves more often if we really need to do all the work that conventional wisdom suggests we need to do in order to achieve a desired outcome. Analyze the work you are doing and ask yourself "is there a way to achieve this outcome without doing all this work?". Then, take it a bit further and ask yourself "is there a way to achieve this outcome without these expenses?". These are the types of questions that lead to innovation, cost savings, and a more productive use of your time.

Permalink 

Life Cycle Analysis of Food Miles [Agriculture
Posted on March 19, 2013 @ 08:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the arguments that Locavore's make for why you should buy locally is that by doing so you will reduce the amount of "food miles", and by implication, the amount of greenhouse gases created to feed yourself. This argument has been persuasive to many consumers as indicated by popularity of the "100-mile diet" concept which basically advocates sourcing your food from within a radius of 100 miles. Doing so will reduce your "food miles" and in this way you can help the environment. If everyone followed suit it would make a huge difference in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (and the vitality of your local economy but I will not address this aspect of locavorism in this blog).

The main problem with the "food miles" argument for locavorism is that it only looks at greenhouse gas consumption from the retailer (i.e., farmer) to the consumer (i.e., the "distribution" component in table below), and does not address greenhouse gas consumption from a life cyle perspective which would include the greenhouse gases consumed to plant, harvest, package, store, distribute, consume, and dispose of the food items. When this broader perspective is taken into account, the "food miles" argument for locavorism can be contradicted by the facts (i.e., buying local can produce more greenhouse gases than buying from the global supply chain).

Food Life Cycle Analysis
Source http://www.globavore.org

If a farmer is producing and selling food that is in season to local consumers, then this is the best case scenario for locavorism. If the food producer needs to consume energy to heat a greenhouse to get a jump start on the growing season or to extend the season, or needs to consume energy to maintain a cold storage to preserve their harvest, then this energy is being consumed where it would not have been had the food been imported from a different food producing region at a different latitude where the product is in season or not subject to heating or cold-storage requirements. Transporting food in bulk via a container ship from one region to another region where it is supplied to consumers via transport to a grocery outlet, has been calculated to consume less greenhouse gases than consumers driving en-masse to a local producer to pick up out-of-season food items (e.g., local apples from the UK versus apples imported from New Zealand). Consumers are likely to pick up more of the food items they need at the local grocery store than they will be able to at a local producer so less trips are required. In some respects, Locavore's have it right that the drive from your residence to the food retailer is a big culprit in green house gas emissions, however, the argument can be turned against a Locavore when it is pointed out that the cost of transporting food from one region at latitude A to another region at latitude B via a container ship is so efficient that it accounts for a very small fraction of the overall greenhouse gas emissions produced relative to the amount of emissions produced when consumers drive en-masse from their residence to a local food producer who may be supplying only a fraction of their food requirements and thus not negating a trip to your local grocery store.

The "food miles" argument is only one of the arguments for buying food locally. For a food producer to extoll the lack of green house gas emissions produced by consumers buying locally, they will need to find innovative ways to make that statement true relative to the efficiency of the global food supply chain coupled to a big box grocery outlet. One simple innovation is delivering the food to consumers individually or at centralized pickup points, rather than having consumers drive to the local food producer to pick up their goods. Other innovations would involve improving the efficiency of other parts of the food life cycle: production innovations, heating innovations, cold-storage innovations, packaging innovations, and disposal innovations. Doing so would give more force to the argument that buying local helps the environment by reducing green-house gas emissions. I don't think these arguments against buy-local are fatal, but they do require locavore's to step up their game if they want to use a reduced food miles argument in an honest manner to promote their food products. There is room for local innovation here, but it is an innovation that looks at greenhouse gas consumption from a life cycle perspective rather than just how much is consumed in the distribution component.

Permalink 

The Locavore's Dilemma [Agriculture
Posted on March 18, 2013 @ 06:19:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My blogging activities were reduced last week because I was on vacation with my family during my kid's march break. During that vacation, I read a book called The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10000-mile Diet (2012) by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. The book is a critique of the locavore movement from a number of different angles. While the book has not shaken my belief in buying food locally when available, it has helped me to form a more balanced view of our food system insofar as it extolls the benefits of the global supply chain that currently provides us with most of the food we eat.

To get a quick sense of the books contents, here is a ReasonTV interview with one of the book's authors Pierre Desrochers (professor of Geography at U. of Toronto):

You can also get a quick overview of the book by reading an earlier article of their's called YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS: A Critique of the “Food Miles” Perspective that covers some of the same ground.

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in food policy issues and anyone who grows and sells food. I'll be doing a follow up blog tomorrow on the life cycle analysis of food miles which I found interesting for a few different reasons.

Permalink 

Folks, this ain't normal [Agriculture
Posted on January 29, 2013 @ 07:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I just finished reading Joel Salatin's latest book Folks, this ain't normal.

The book examines food, farming, and life from the perspective of what has been considered historically normal in order to highlight how abnormal our current food, farming, and living arrangements are. Joel values many of the practices that were considered historically normal because they were sustainable, they taught valuable life skills, and they put us in touch with how food arrived on our plate (or should arrive on our plate). He rails against the conditions in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFO's) where most of our meat comes from, the pesticides and NPK fertilizers used to grow our vegetables; the food police and regulations that thwart farm entrepreneurship, local food systems, and rural economies; how out of touch we are with where our food comes from or how to grow or prepare our own food; and many other bugaboos of modern living. After reading this book, you will probably agree that our industrial food and farming systems are not normal, and if you are sufficiently disturbed by this fact, you might consider joining the fight to bring some normalcy back to our food, farming, and living arrangements. The book offers some ideas on how to do so.

I read Joel's books for several reasons:

  • He is a successful farm entrepreneur who engages in innovative and sustainable farming practices. There is much for aspiring farmers to learn about business and farming from his books. While he devotes alot of ink to railing against industrial food and farming systems, his writing is also sprinkled with practical nuggets of information about farming. These nuggets come from his own experiences running Polyface farms or the extensive reading he does on farming and food.
  • I am entertained by his books. He has distinctive writing voice that is part farmer, part philospher, part business person, and part showman.
  • I am moved by his books. They make me rethink how I acquire the food that I eat and motivate me to want to grow more of my own.

You can watch Salatin's Google talk below if you want to find out more about the book. You can skip the first few minutes - I find he warms up and gets more eloquent and entertaining as the video progresses.

Permalink 

Holzer on farming success [Agriculture
Posted on October 23, 2012 @ 04:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Starting reading a book called Sepp Holzner' Permaculture. Sepp takes agricultural innovation to the next level at his mountain side farm in Krameterhof, Austria.

On p.54, Seth asserts the key to farm growth:

"...it is your own strengths and weaknesses that help a farm to grow and nothing else."

What is true of farm success is also true of startup success. Like Sepp, you are attempting to carve your business out of the side of a mountain and a key determinant of whether you will succeed will be your profile of strengths and weaknesses.

Here is a recent film on Sepp if you want to learn more:

Permalink 

 Archive 
 

Categories


 Agriculture [67]
 Bayesian Inference [14]
 Books [14]
 Business Models [24]
 Causal Inference [2]
 Creativity [7]
 Decision Making [15]
 Decision Trees [8]
 Design [35]
 Eco-Green [3]
 Economics [11]
 Education [10]
 Energy [1]
 Entrepreneurship [51]
 Events [2]
 Farming [19]
 Finance [25]
 Future [15]
 Growth [16]
 Investing [23]
 Lean Startup [9]
 Leisure [5]
 Lens Model [9]
 Making [1]
 Management [9]
 Motivation [3]
 Nature [21]
 Patents & Trademarks [1]
 Permaculture [34]
 Psychology [1]
 Real Estate [2]
 Robots [1]
 Selling [11]
 Site News [12]
 Startups [12]
 Statistics [3]
 Systems Thinking [2]
 Trends [5]
 Useful Links [3]
 Valuation [1]
 Venture Capital [5]
 Video [2]
 Writing [2]