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 BLOG >> June 2015

Home Garden Incubator [Entrepreneurship
Posted on June 30, 2015 @ 08:51:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I spent an enjoyable evening in our garden working on the fence. I installed a fence last year but the wires around the fence got quite loose so I wanted to tighten them. I tried a number of techniques and, in the end, needed to use them all to get the fence tighter. I installed some braces higher up on the fence posts to keep them from pulling in when the wires are tensioned. I put a stick in the wire, twisted it around, and made a loop to tighten individual strands. I broke the wire quite a few times so it is not a great technique but can work if you are very careful. Finally, I cut some alders growing beside the road and weaved them between the 6 strands of wire. I may add more in the future as I harvest them. The alders help stiffen the fence and adds additional deer protection (maybe I'll sharpen some at the top to impale the leaping deer :-).

I also finished mulching around the rows and edgeing around the back and far left corner of the garden. See yesterday's blog on the importance of defining your edge. The edge will help to clearly demarcate where the garden ends and the grass is allowed to begin.

As I finished working on the fence and garden for the day it occurred to me that I will be able use my home garden as an incubator for skills I can apply on our farm property at a larger scale. I'll be planting out the second half of a main garden at the farm this week. I can apply ideas I learned this evening to edging, mulching, and fencing the larger farm garden seen below (a couple of weeks ago).

A home garden is an excellent incubator for learning the skills you can use on a larger scale if you choose to. You can manage a home garden more intensively and learn what works and what doesn't. You can put up small fences, electrify them if you want, buy a few chickens if your bylaws and situation permits, figure out irrigation systems, figure out fertility management, weeding, pest control, and so on. All useful skills for adding self-reliance and resilience to your home situation and becoming better prepared for growing significantly more food if you have to or want to in the future.

It is better to make mistakes on a smaller scale (suburban lot) before making them on a larger scale in a large garden (e.g, 1/4 acre plot) or field situation. I've gone too big too soon on some plantings of corn, potatoes and barley before I knew whether it would work so I've made this "scaling up too soon" mistake a number of times and hope to make it less often in the future.

We might use this example of home garden as incubator for successful larger scale gardening to think about what a business incubator is or might be. A business incubator should allow you to engage in meaningful activity directly related to a larger scale undertaking but in an environment where mistakes aren't as costly or as likely (e.g., because of mentoring). You can learn how to run a business at a smaller volume so you have a sense of how it should work at a larger volume. Incubators, like gardens, are also where we can experiment with ideas for things to grow, to experiment with ideas for ways to grow stuff faster or more reliably, and to figure out our own personal approach to gardening/business.

Oftentimes an incubator is a place we might have worked until we acquired enough skills to branch out on our own. It could be a place we volunteered at in the hopes of acquiring some skills relevant to a lifestyle we wanted to pursue. It could be a formal business incubator that takes on promising businesses with the hopes of helping them to grow and sharing in their success. It could also be a hobby setup that inspires you enough to keep refining your skills and getting better so you could scale your hobby if you wanted or needed to.

We don't need formal incubators to be successful at starting a business, but we probably need environments where we can learn how to do things at a smaller or less consequential scale before scaling up and trying to managing something we don't have much experience with.

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Resilient Future [Future
Posted on June 30, 2015 @ 09:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This morning I read an interview with Dennis Meadows called Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits. Dennis was co-author of the seminal "Limits to Growth" book. In this interview he expresses his viewpoint on the future and how to deal with it. I found two passages particularly interesting. In one passage he downplays the importance of long term planning as a way to deal with climate change using an interesting white water rafting metaphor:

I think we are now in a situation where it doesn’t make much difference what we want to see happen fifty years from now.

White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive. Our society has moved into the rapids phase.

Climate change is an example of this. There was a period where we had some possibility of influencing future climate by our decisions about the use of fossil fuels. I think that time has passed. Climate change is increasingly dominated by a set of feedback loops—like the methane cycle and the melting of Arctic ice sheets—which are beyond human control. They have come to be the drivers of the system. The dominant drivers of the system are not people sitting around trying to reach a consensus about which of several different possible outcomes they most prefer.

White water rafting might also be a useful metaphor for thinking about business planning and its relevance to dealing with the day to day issues of starting and running a business. Business planning is like the placid lake, and the rapids are where you have to adapt to what life throws at you. Long range planning cannot be used to navigate through the white water part of your journey, there you have to exercise different skills that are appropriate to dealing with the challenges at hand.

Towards the end of the interview, Dennis discusses why he has become more preoccupied with design for resilience than with sustainable development as a way to deal with what the future may hold.

In my own work, I have shifted from a preoccupation with sustainable development, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, toward the concept of resilience. I think that is the future: to understand how different scales—the household, the community, the school––can structure themselves in a way to become more resilient in the face of the shocks that are inevitable regardless what our goals might be.

You see the climate debate evolving this way. Talk about prevention is on the wane, giving way to talk of adaptation. Adaptation really means resilience. It is about designing actions for dealing with New York City the next time superstorms threaten to paralyze the city or for figuring out what California can do if the current drought continues for many more years, or even decades.

Aspirations and good fortune will get us only so far. Human survival cannot risk reliance on them alone.

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Edge Design [Permaculture
Posted on June 26, 2015 @ 01:20:00 PM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, I talked about Permaculture Principle 11 - Use Edge and Value the Marginal. Yesterday I was reminded of this principle when I watched permaculture teacher, Tom Kendall, discuss the importance of defining edge in order to collectively maintain systems more easily and effectively.

Tom argues that defining edge early on can save alot of work and second-guessing. Logs make for a good edge between a garden plot and grass, weeds, and path area.

On my walk today I reflected on edge design and thought this picture of a log suspended over a shallow river offered another avenue to think about edge design.

Here we have a large hemlock tree that has recently fallen across the river. The branches and remaining root attachments prevented it from falling into the river and creating an edge perpendicular to the flow pattern of the river. If the tree had fallen cleanly into the river it may have significantly impacted upon the flow pattern and distribution of plants and animals on each side of the log.

This photo suggests that edges are dynamic forces in the landscape. When an edge is put down it can affect flow patterns in a way that can significantly change a landscape/waterscape. Some edges have little effects, others, such as a big log across a river, can have more significant effects on the local ecosystem.

What constitutes an edge is something worth thinking about because it is not an easy question to answer. In the video above the log is presumably the edge, but if there was only one log separating the garden area from the grass would it still be an edge? Does the existence of the edge depend upon the system that it is presumed to belong to? A series of logs around a garden constitutes an edge better than one log strewn between a garden area and the grass. Perhaps the students can see the edge because they can more clearly see the mulch gardening system it contains and defines.

Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison approaches the concept of edge from many different directions from very practical to very metaphysical. In the metaphysical version an edge arises from an event or series of events that takes place when two different types of "media" interface with each other. If you are looking for an abstract definition of what an edge is this is actually a pretty useful one. On either side of an edge are two different media - water & grass, air & water, gravel and grass, trees and grass, etc... These edges arose as a result of an event or series of events. Edges can be designed by human interventions and/or by nature. Edges are dynamic as their persistence in an event sequence can result in the edge changing gradually or catastrophically. If you want to go deep into what edges are then listen to Bill's lecture on the Fundamentals of Pattern.

As you walk through nature an interesting exercise is to look for the edges that nature has created in the landscape, how those edges came about, and how they might evolve over time. You can then compare how nature creates edges with some of the beautiful designs that humans create by the masterful use of edge. This young circular herb garden is also very fragrant adding to the delight it offers.

Designs that give the sense of a multi-story forest garden along a meandering path are quite nice. The edge design around the local Dalhousie Agriculture campus is simply exquisite with incredible lushness, color and variety on display.

The alpine garden is also spectacular. Here is a small fragment. A stone planter with a playful use of line, color and textural edges.

The last photo shows (to the discerning eye) some natural edge along a riverbank . We have ferns to the left, purple and white wildflowers (of the same species) in the middle, and young willow trees to the right (next to the river below). Each type of plant is neatly separated from each other as if by an invisible edge that arose over time as the result of flood events, patterns of sun and shade, and mutualistic and competitive interactions.

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Use Edge & Value The Marginal [Permaculture
Posted on June 18, 2015 @ 11:36:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I will discuss the 11th Permaculture Principle which advises us to "Use Edge & Value The Marginal" (you can read my discussion of the 10 other principles here).

What is an edge? Bill Mollison, in Introduction To Permaculture, defines edge this way:

An edge is an interface between two mediums: it is the surface between the water and the air; the zone around a soil particle to which water bonds; the shoreline between land and water; the area between forest and grassland. It is the area between the frost and non-frost level on a hillside. It is the border of the desert. Wherever species, climate, soils, slope, or any natural conditions or artificial boundaries meet, we have edges. (p 26)

Edges are important because where two ecologies meet (land/water; forest/grassland; estuary/ocean; crop/orchard) we have a mixing of plants and animals from both ecologies, as well as plants and animals unique to the edge. This often results in more productive landscapes around the edges.

We are also attracted to edges, particularly the edge between water and land. Half of the world's population lives next to this edge.

If we see a particularly beautiful landscape, we may be able to trace our reasons back to how edges are used in the design. Straight edges are less interesting than curved edges and as we increase edge through such curves, we also create conditions for a more productive landscape because we have more edge in a given area.

So the imperative to "Use Edge" is a reminder to study edges and use edges consciously in our designs to increase productivity, interest, preserve biodiversity or for other reasons.

I was contacted awhile back by Rick Harrison about his design work on Prefurbia. Prefurbia is suburbia with alot better edge design than suburbia. Suburbia is often laid out in a grid pattern for no particularly good reason. To get from one point on a grid to another point is quite inefficient because you have to zig-zag to your destination. Sewer lines, electrical lines, and roads on grid are also inefficient. A better edge design can produce savings in time and money and a better suburban living arrangement. See Rick's Prefurbia video for some interesting suburban edge design.

The second part of this principle is to "Value The Marginal". The word "marginal" includes the work "margin" which is an edge or border around something. The word "marginal" originally referred to what was written in the margins of a book. We now use the word marginal to mean something that is on the fringe or less important. The principle advises us to value these fringe or less consequential elements in our thinking and/or designs.

When we design an edge we also have margins around that edge so the principle would advise us to properly value what is on either side of the edge we create. The principle also encourages us to value what is less mainstream, counter-cultural, and fringe. If mainstream thinking got us into our problems, perhaps we need to listen or appreciate the marginal elements of society to get ourselves out of these problems. If climate change or peak oil come to pass, for example, the lessons we will need to learn will not come from mainstream culture but from cultures that choose to live with less fossil fuel dependence and with greater community. The Amish might be the most well adapted to a post carbon future.

Today I visited our local "community workshop" where mentally challenged people are kept busy stocking shelves of stuff/junk that people donate to the workshop. I'm often impressed with how well this enterprise is doing. It is often difficult to find a parking spot. It is a prime example of what can happen when community organizers properly value the marginal, when we create edges that are more inclusive of the marginal.

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Planting Time [Farming
Posted on June 15, 2015 @ 08:50:00 PM by Paul Meagher

The conditions were right today to start planting out some vegetables. I have a handful of yellow beans and I'm getting ready to plant them into mounded rows on the right that I prepared for them.

The mounded rows on the left are where I planted Spanish onions.

Me and my brother also planted out some potatoes. Here is a strip till that is prepared for planting a long row of potatoes. Strip tills were plowed a couple of years back and rototilled each spring. The trench is dug and the potatoes need to be laid in the trench and then covered over again with a rake. Later they can be hilled to create more growing area and cultivate around the plant. I have a hiller attachment that I'll be using when that time comes.

Here is some of the equipment used to plow the furrow and transport the potatoes to be planted. My brother directed the plow as I drove. Worked ok but would only work right if we plowed from the bottom of the hill to the top and not from the top to the bottom. This is a small plow that I had for a walk-behind tractor that I attached to my farm tractor.

Each year I have a friendly competition with my father-in-law on who will get get the best yield of potatoes. I've had some low yield years using hay-based growing media (still experimenting with it) but this year I'm also going old-school but using a strip-till approach. Planted 75 lbs in the strip-till so we'll see what my return on investment is.

The final veggie I was able to plant today was some romaine lettuce. I like romaine because it doesn't bolt when it gets hotter and I can keep harvesting through the summer. With one packet of seeds I planted 3 mounded rows each 5 feet long (stick is 4 feet long for comparison). 15 feet of romaine will produce alot of lettuce.

I did some funky earth mounding around the romaine bed to help retain rain water and dew.

Tomorrow I plan to plant out some sweet corn, green beans, snow peas, beets, and carrots. I also have a few experimental plantings I want to try (confrey, diakon radish, fenugreek).

The guru of market gardening, Elliot Colemen, made a remark that I carry with me as a would be farmer. He said something to the effect that you should only become a market gardener if you know what you are doing. It takes a long time to figure out how you should grow various types of vegetables but each year is a new chance to test and refine ideas. I'll be sharing some gardening results as the spring/summer wears on.

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Use & Value Diversity [Permaculture
Posted on June 11, 2015 @ 05:44:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I'll be commenting on the 10th Permaculture principle which is to "Use & Value Diversity" (you can find my discussion of the other 9 principles here).

There are some obvious and not so obvious reasons to use and value diversity. Nature contains alot of diverse types of animals and plants but we have not done a good job of conserving that bio-diversity so it makes sense to use & value diversity because these species are never coming back and we are losing valuable ecological and cultural resources when a species is lost (either by crowding them out with development or because corporate interests are trying to control the seed trade so that traditional seeds are dropped in favor of corporate seeds).

Another reason we might use and value diversity is because our agricultural landscape often consists of large expanses of monoculture that may not work so well in a future with less energy or a changing climate. Diversity in our agricultural landscapes can help us be more resilient in the face of these major challenges. This would mean a return to more diversified farming operations that includes several crops, animals, and probably more agro-forestry type approaches where we mix animals, trees, and crops.

Diversity can help to make systems more stable and resilient. If one pest or disease comes into a monocultural operation it has a greater chance of wiping out a farm's crop than if we have at least two different types of crops we are growing. The more intermixing of these crops might also prevent the spread of pests and diseases in the same crop.

Diversification in investment portfolios can help to preserve wealth in the face of downturns in specific industries. The oil & gas industry has lower barrel prices that would have had a major impact on investors with all of their holdings in this sector. Better to have investments in several industries whose economic performance is not strongly correlated.

Diversity in the workplace can also have many benefits. Under the appropriate conditions, the wealth of perspectives and knowledge represented by a diverse workforce can help the company exhibit a sort of hybrid vigor that can lead to outperformance of companies with less diversity.

The stability that diversity produces in ecosystems is not a simple function of the number of different species in a given region. More important is the number and strength of connections between the elements in the ecosystem. You can have fewer species, but if those species have lots of functional interconnections, then this results in more ecosystem stability than many species with few functional interconnections between them (see the Integrate Rather Than Segregate principle also).

So the way to use diversity to increase stability and resilience is not just to add more species, but to make sure that each species offers and receives services from the other species in the mix. Instead of just putting in different plants for the sake of having a more diverse garden, you select your plants so that they are good companions to the other plants, in the right shade relationships, etc...

In agriculture we often prefer simpler monocultural systems because they are easier to manage (but less stable). Too much diversity can lead to unmanageable complexity so we must take some care to balance diversity against simplicity. Often a diverse planting will simplify on its own to fewer elements that work together better.

David Holmgren also talks about diversity in the context of experimenting to see what works. If you don't try it you'll never know. Using this strategy, however, we must also be prepared to cull when we find that one of our species is not working. Diversity and culling often go together to ensure tight ecosystems.

The concept of diversity has many meanings and subtleties when you research it more. Let this principle be a reminder to spend more time thinking about how much diversity is manageable, how that diversity is to be integrated into the whole, what types of benefits we might gain from adding or preserving diversity, and what diversity lessons can we learn from nature.

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Life Cycle Marketing [Selling
Posted on June 9, 2015 @ 06:29:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Reading more of the Sustainability Marketing textbook mentioned in my last blog. Here is some of what I've learned this morning.

The life cycle of a product from cradle to grave consists of the following elements:

  1. Extraction of raw resources
  2. Transportation
  3. Manufacturing
  4. Distribution
  5. Use
  6. Disposal

Each of these product stages can be rated with regards to how much energy is consumed, how much water is consumed, how much waste is produced, how the waste is disposed of, how much air pollution is created, and so on.

The process of creating a sustainable product involves analyzing the life cycle of the product and trying to minimize the rated impacts where they are highest or most critical.

Sustainability Marketing would allow you to advertise the benefits of choosing your product over another one by virtue of the reduced impacts and/or positive impacts of your product life cycle on the environment and society (social and environmental consequences).

Sustainable consumer behavior is consumption behavior that is attuned not just to the attributes or features of the product in isolaton, but which is also attuned to life cycle attributes of the product and how it addresses the cradle to grave environmental and social impacts.

The consumer is not expected to be aware of some of these impacts before purchasing the product. It is the job of sustainability marketing to help make consumers aware of these impacts and that they are being reduced or positively affected in the case of this product.

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Sustainability Marketing [Selling
Posted on June 5, 2015 @ 07:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I was browsing some business books and came accross a textbook called Sustainability Marketing (2012) that piqued my interest.

The subtitle of the book is "A Global Perspective". The reason for this subtitle is because what it means to be sustainable varies in different parts of the world. In the Middle East sustainability tends to me more associated with passive cooling, proper architecture, renewable energy and water conservation. In South America sustainability tends to be more associated with fair trade of locally grown crops and the development of ecotourism. In Japan, before Fukushima, sustainability was more associated with sustainable innovation in technology with the Prius being a leading example. After Fukushima, conservation of water and energy and consuming less or more wisely became more associated with sustainability.

So what it means to be sustainable varies as a function of location/culture/major events/etc... Given this, you need to be attentive to the sustainability values of the population you are addressing with your marketing.

The book has a chapter on "Sustainable Consumer Behavior" which I haven't read but which strikes me initially as a paradoxical concept. It will be interesting to see how they navigate this topic. There are enough quirks involved in sustainability marketing (e.g., certifying goodness, life cycle analysis, pricing for externalities and embodied energy) that it probably justifies specialized treatment. Perhaps in the future, it will be the mainstream instead of a specialty area of marketing.

David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture, has a nice video on what he views as the proper strategy for changing the world for the better and it makes me wonder if he is talking about a form of sustainability marketing or a process that might benefit from sustainability marketing. Sustainability marketing is usually associated with corporate messaging whereas David is talking about a more individual bottom-up approach to becoming more sustainable so there are differences. His preferred approach to increasing sustainability utilizes two Permaculture principles in particular - Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback and Use Small and Slow Solutions which I discussed in my last blog.

Sustainability marketing is also referred to as "Green Marketing" (although the authors claim it is different) which you can read more about at the Green Marketing Wikipedia page.

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Use Small and Slow Solutions [Permaculture
Posted on June 3, 2015 @ 05:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The 9th principle of Permaculture which advises us to "Use Small & Slow Solutions" (see discussion of the first 8 principles here).

To tell an entrepreneur to "use small and slow solutions" is a tough sell. On Dragon's Den and Shark Tanks the investors are looking for the opposite characteristics - companies that will grow quick and big with their help. We should, however, be mindful of the many successful companies that arise from a slow evolutionary process that can take a decade or more.

For example, Jean-Martin Fortier has been evolving his market gardening business for over a decade now using a variety of small (staying smaller than an acre) and slow solutions (no large machinery). He has become a trusted brand in market gardening with many people seeking his produce and advice. The fact that he has achieved success in his operation by purposefully staying small is a non-intuitive lesson that might apply beyond market gardening. His focus is to increase the quality of his product and efficiency of his work to become more profitable on the same acre of land.

What is a small and slow solution? Most examples of appropriate technology are small and slow technologies compared to their industrial counterparts for performing the same function. A small scale machine that allows a household or village to thresh grain is an example of a small scale and slower solution for processing grain than a combine harvester for example.

Many technologies that are small and slower than their industrial counterparts are also easier to afford, typically involves more physical effort to operate, and are appropriate to a smaller scale of production.

Nature uses small and slow solutions to keep soil fertile. The solution is small and slow in the sense that fertility is added in small amounts each season though leaf fall, tree death, animal death, and droppings from animals. The large and fast solution for improving soil fertility is to fertilize with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) - NPK. While this can increase and maintain yields, it is often not building up humus in the soil so the fertility of the soil is artificially maintained which is ok as long as fertilizer is available and accessible. A smaller and slower solution involves cover cropping and green manuring of plots along with adding what compost is available. This mimics natures process a more faithfully.

Not all companies burst into success like high-tech startups sometimes do. Instead many successful companies evolve over a decade to become established, profitable, and poised for further growth. Permaculture Voices interviewed a Sustainablity Education center in Costa Rica that embodied the idea of small and slow growth and how, over time, it might position you better than if you opted for the rapid/large scale growth option. Using small and slow solutions is not a barrier to growth over a longer term.

The way I use this principle is as a reminder that there might be other ways to approach or think about a problem if you adopt a longer term perspective where small things I do today might lead, over the longer term, to achieving some goals I might have. Doing things slower and/or at a smaller scale is a good way to learn how to grow a vegetable rather than scaling up and trying to grow 5000 of them in your first year. Your failure won't be as epic. A smaller scale will allow you to experiment and optimize before scaling. Even then you will only want to scale enough to meet demand which could become your limiting factor.

I've been busy over the last week planting 35 apple, 6 pear, and 21 hazelnut trees and weeding 2 yr old grape vines. If feels like a series of small and slow solutions to food production. Small and slow solutions aren't always enjoyable or immediately profitable, but over time there is the hope that something worthwhile will come from the effort. In the case of grape vine weeding, the quick solution is to apply a herbicide to all the rows before the buds emerge (pre-emergence spraying) and be done with it. Because I'm still small, the slow solution of hand weeding with my brother is still workable and allows the farm to remain organic. Perhaps it is the best design option given the goals.

There are many other aspects of our lives that benefit from a design that is small in scope and slow in nature. The solution to large systemic problems is often not an epic assault on the problem (war on ".....") but designs that incorporate smallness and slowness in them. Relationships with children are not based on epic vacations but the small and slow things we do for each other over a lifetime. Consider the small and slow design option to solve your problems instead of looking for the magic bullet that might only serve to create other problems.

The principle does not tell us to avoid large and fast solutions, only that we should consider using small and slow solutions in our design toolkit. Many designs for catching rainwater off a roof, for example, are inadequate to capture the volume that is available and would benefit from being larger. If we balance large and fast with small and slow in our design toolkit we can perhaps do better than defaulting to large and fast as the preferred solution to our problems.

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