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SMART Christmas Trees [Agriculture
Posted on December 12, 2017 @ 09:13:00 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

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Scale Planning [Agriculture
Posted on November 30, 2017 @ 09:01:00 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.

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Building Value [Design
Posted on November 24, 2017 @ 01:57:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport. One of the main activities that entrepreneurs engage in is building. They build to solve problems on the way to achieving a goal.

One goal I finished addressing today was winterizing my green house. A section of the plastic on the roof ripped open in a windstorm so I eventually ended up replacing the full roof with hard plastic Tuftex panels - transparent on the south facing side, white on the north facing side (mostly because the cost of the transparent panels was double the cost of the opaque panels). These hard plastic panels added some needed rigidity to the building and I added gussets and braces to the worst walls to strengthen the walls and help ensure they don't flex and wander as much in the wind.

The green house winterizing project didn't end with the roof project as I had to figure out what to do with the screen window I leave open during the summer and fall (so it doesn't overheat). It is now time to close the window area in. Usually, I use plastic but this year I decided to re-purpose an old window and make it so that it is easier to open and close the window on an as-needed basis. Here is what I ended up building.

The purpose of this blog is to give a simple concrete example of what I mean by building value. Something similar has to be done on an ongoing basis to build anything of any value. As you keep building, the value of what you build keeps increasing and you may find yourself investing even more time, energy and capital into building value. Or you may just say it is good enough which is where I am at now on my greenhouse winterizing goal. Time to move onto solving the next problem.

Building is how entrepreneurs solve problems and add value. They build their way out of problems. I've heard several investors say that the reason they wouldn't invest in a project is because the entrepreneur was "not a builder".

Building isn't always about building something new. Most of my building has been fixing up something that currently exists so it looks or functions better. Building new stuff is more exciting, but fixing old stuff may be equally if not more important. Unfortunately, new stuff doesn't stay new for long.

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Reading the Building Code [Books
Posted on November 22, 2017 @ 09:20:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I was listening on the radio to a couple of female entrepreneurs talk about running their restaurant. The interviewer asked them what they were reading hoping to get some good motivational or business recommendations. One of them responded by saying she was reading the building code.

As a restaurant owner she was probably not required to read the building code but it likely comes in handy if you are planning any renovations or additions.

Sometimes what you have to read to get ahead is not particularly pleasant stuff to read, but it could be very beneficial if you can persist at trying to absorb it. For me, reading the building code is a metaphor for all that unpleasant but useful reading that could help your business survive and thrive.

There is no rule that says that what you read always has to be pleasant or that what is pleasant to read is what you should be reading. If you are wasting too much time on book keeping and accounting, maybe you need to spend some time reading about basic book keeping and accounting. Or, maybe you have to read municipal council minutes because you heard they are planning a project that might impact you. Or how about a legal text on the laws relevant to your business.

So the next time you think about what book you should be reading next, don't just think of all that NY times best-seller stuff that is interesting but not useful. Perhaps you might also be inspired by this blog to read your local or national building codes or literature of similar gravitas.

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What Makes A City Great? [Trends
Posted on November 21, 2017 @ 12:26:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I am slowly making my way through Geoffrey West's book Scale (2017). I am finally getting into his discussion of cites and how we might think about them. He makes this interesting observation:

This may seem obvious, but the emphasis of those who think about cities, such as planners, architects, economists, politicians, and policy makers, is primarily focused on their physicality rather than on the people who inhabit them and how they interact with one another. It is all too often forgotten that the whole point of a city is to bring people together, to facilitate interaction, and thereby to create ideas and wealth, to enhance innovative thinking and encourage entrepreneurship and cultural activity by taking advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that the diversity of a great city offers. This is the magic formula that we discovered ten thousand years ago when we inadvertently began the process of urbanization. Its unintended consequences have resulted in an exponentially increasing population whose quality of life and standard of living have on the average also been increasing. ~ 252.

Geoffrey then goes on to define a city as follows:

Cities are emergent complex adaptive social network systems resulting from the continuous interactions among their inhabitants, enhanced and facilitated by the feedback mechanisms provided by urban life. ~p 253

In discussions of city planning, the name Jane Jacobs often comes up. She helped to derail the plans of powerful New York city planner, Robert Moses, from putting an expressway through some culturally important neighborhoods of New York - Greenwich Village, SoHo and Little Italy. She also argued that it was the interactions in these neighborhoods that made them great and that putting a freeway through the center would destroy that.

West's definition of what a city is shares alot with the definition of what ecology is. Charles J. Krebs in his book Ecology (6th Ed, 2009) defines Ecology as follows:

Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. ~p 5

This definition suggest that we might be able to use some of the tools from ecology to understand the distribution and abundance of organisms in our cities. Those organisms include humans but also wildlife like these 2 deer that visited me last week when I was working outside.

I think it is worth reflecting on what makes a city great and whether it is a quality of the interactions that it affords, the quality of the physical infrastructure or some combination?

I don't think the great cities of this world are all made from the same cookie cutter. They can be great for different reasons. They can be larger or smaller in size. Some may be a hotbed of innovation where others may be a hotbed of cultural activity, community spirit, natural beauty, or educational attainment.

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Two Year Business Plans [Books
Posted on November 11, 2017 @ 11:37:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My pre-order of a new book by Ben Hartmann (author of The Lean Farm, 2015) arrived this week. It is called The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production (Nov, 2017).

I started reading from begining to end which I will continue to do, but I also started jumping around to the pictures and then reading all the yellow highlighted sections in the book that denote important topics. One such highlighted topic that I want to comment on is given below:

A Plan for a Beginning Farmer

In the first year don't tackle every crop in the seed catalog. Pick just a few. Starting out, I would seed mixed salad greens and a hardy spinach variety, such as Gazelle, as soon as the ground is workable, and every week until temperatures linger consistently above 72 F to 75 F. Greens are a sure sell in most markets. Then I would seed determinate red tomatoes in time to set out after the last frost in your area, or a few weeks earlier if you have a greenhouse or tunnel. BHN 589 is a dependable variety. In the fall, when nights start to cool to below 68 F, I would seed greens again. If you can master greens and tomatoes in year one, you are off to a good start. Other easy crops for the first year include radish, sugar snap peas, head lettuce, romaine, kale, and green beans. If you want to try starting a CSA, take on 10 customers and keep your season to 12 weeks. Keeping it simple will more likely result in success, and that will build confidence. ~p. 5

This plan is very interesting to me for a variety of reasons, some of which are listed below.

  1. Planning that gets to this stage of simplicity and clarity offers useful guidance. The objective of business planning is not complexity, but simplicity of process and purpose.
  2. The planning horizon implicit in this plan could be 2 years. That plan would involve using the first year of operation to gain skills and sufficient success and confidence that you are ready to scale up the next year. What isn't mentioned here is that Ben decided to go whole hog and used some angel money (from his family) in the first year to build up infrastructure for the second year so he was ready to scale to a full income level then. Trying to get infrastructure such as water lines, formed beds, greens houses, cooling areas, washing stations in place can be more difficult to do when you are also scaling up your farming orders (e.g., more CSA clients, restaurants, farmers markets). Ben Hartmann, like farming innovator Jean-Martin Fortier, focused in their first year on getting infrastructure in place while downgrading the importance of making a full-income from production in that year. Some income is necessary, however, to accelerate your learning and to validate the enterprise.
  3. The plan can also be implemented as a multi-year plan. You can keep your day job and start commercial farming as a side business. You might not be as ready to scale up in year 2 if you are taking this approach but you may be under no pressure to do so. If you have income from a job you like you can scale up the farming enterprise at whatever pace works for you.

I focused on a two year planning horizon in the title because that seems to me an important planning horizon for any type of business that involves building infrastructure before you can scale to a full-income level of revenue. I thought this plan for a beginning farmer is worth reflecting on as it makes clear some of the issues involved in 1, 2 and 3+ year plans and what you might be doing in each of those years in anticipation of scaling up to the next level.

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Increasing Production [Agriculture
Posted on November 7, 2017 @ 07:36:00 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.

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Wine, Music & Nature [Farming
Posted on October 31, 2017 @ 12:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I've been busy processing my 2017 grape harvest into wine (vinification). Just 20 more gallons of crushed grapes to process. My garage fermentation room is starting to reach its limit as shown in this video.

Two days ago, I had the opportunity to see a brief free concert with one of my favorite local artists, Matt Mays. NYC Girls appears to be the song that he wants to feature first on his new album, Once Upon A Hell of A Time.

I'm also really liking another new song, Sentimental Sins.

Here is a photo at the farm in the early morning just after harvest time. This time of year these magical morning fogs blanket the forest valleys.

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The Good Life [Books
Posted on October 24, 2017 @ 09:02:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the first essays I had to write in my intro philosophy class was to choose a theory of the good life and argue for why it was the right way to live.

Some of our choices included hedonism, stoicism, epicurianism, utilitarianism and other options that I can't remember. I do remember selecting epicurianism as the best route to the good life. I gave some serious thought to hedonism and stoicism as well.

I'm mentioning this because I recently purchased a book that is currently being recommended on David Holmgren's site called The Art of Frugal Hedonism. It is a modern spin on how to live the good life. Frugal Hedonism seems to me very similiar to my concept of epicurianism minus the high cost of entry.

The book consists of 50 short chapters with ideas and strategies you can use to become a frugal hedonist. This approach to living has the benefit of being sustainable and enjoyable at the same time.

Many startups are no stranger to frugal living. Frugal living extends the runway for your business and the length of that runway is often directly related to how frugal you can be while the startup is not generating enough income to live the high life. Be careful about wishing for the high life too soon, because you may not experience the same level of enjoyment from a simple beer with friends, walking or biking to wherever you have to go, or a cheap night with friends. It doesn't take much to make you happy when you are used to just getting by as frugally as you can.

David Holmgren is on record as pursuing a life of voluntary frugality so part of the reason he is recommending the book is probably because it aligns in part with his own approach, and perhaps explains the many unrecognized benefits of this lifestyle beyond simply being a sustainable way to live.

For many, the good life is a house, two cars, and all the consumerist items that the catalogs say we need in order to live the good life. There is little evidence that people are happier compared to people who get by on less but have more time, more interests, more friends and other things of equal or more value than money. Getting off the treadmill and consuming less is likely to lead to more enjoyment with life than trying to keep up with the Jones.

Does this mean that entrepreneurs must give up their pursuit of money because it is an overly consumptive way to live? If it is only about making money so you can get all the toys, then frugal hedonism would predict that you will not be happy - you will adapt to ever higher levels of consumerism to try to achieve a disappearing rainbow of enjoyment. If you recognize that money is just the way we keep score but is not the end goal of living, then I think you have a better chance of leading the good life which could be inspired by frugal hedonism.

Frugal hedonism carries the hopeful message that leading a sustainable existence might also be the surest route to the good life. Whether this is true or not is a question worthy of thinking about and this book is a guide to the options, strategies, and joys associated with living a less consumerist existence. And when you do make a choice to consume, you might be more mindful of why you are consuming and what it means to you.

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The Startup Way [Books
Posted on October 18, 2017 @ 10:14:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Eric Ries wrote what is probably the most popular book ever on starting a business called The Lean Startup (2011). It is therefore worth mentioning when he publishes any new book on startups. I pre-ordered and received my copy of The Startup Way (2017) yesterday.

According to Eric, this book is 5 years in the making. He argues that many of the same lean startup principles (plus some new ones) apply at the enterprise level, to non profits and to government agencies that want to remain innovative and relevant.

I have not yet read beyond the first chapter of the book but what is particularly interesting to me is the issue of whether companies have to manage things differently at different stages of growth to keep on growing or whether similar management principles apply. In my last blog Scale and Complexity I suggested that different principles might apply to manage complexity as a company scales (based on the work by Verne Harnish); however, Eric appears to be making the provocative claim that many of the same lean management principles apply at all scales and for very different types of organizations (i.e., for profit, non profit, government). Eric argues for a unified theory of entrepreneurship that potentially applies at all stages of company growth if the company wants to keep growing. Obviously management of a company earning > 50 million is different in some respects from management in a company earning < 1 million, but what each company might have to do in order to manage ongoing growth and innovation might be similar in many respects. This is one of the issues that interests me and what I will be attending to as I continue reading this book.

For now, however, I just wanted to draw your attention to this book because it looks like it will be another very popular addition to the startup literature. The book launch appears to have been scheduled to coincide with the launch of Eric's new startup The Long-Term Stock Exchange that will be interesting to follow as well.

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Scale and Complexity [Books
Posted on October 12, 2017 @ 10:58:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday I started reading a new book by Geoffrey West called Scale (2017).

So far I'm learning about how the number of patents filed scales with city population size (superlinear - more patents in more populated cities), how the amount of infrastructure (e.g., length of roads, water pipes, electrical cables, gas stations, etc...) scales with city population size (sublinear - less infrastructure per person in more populated cities), how per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) scales with city population size (superliner - more GDP per person in more populated cities) and many other interesting scaling relationships. The book tries to give a more fundamental account for why such scaling relationships exist; an account that draws upon research in complexity theory. The book is very readable so far and there appears be virtually no math equations on display but appreciating this book will require you to master some basic mathematical concepts like what a linear, logarithmic, exponential, and power law relationship is. If you are rusty on these important mathematical concepts then reading the book to brush up on this stuff would be one reason to read it because he explains them well in the context of lots of examples and interesting discussion. Ultimately, where Geoffrey wants to get to is a "science of cities" that might consist of a fundamental theory that organizes alot of this scaling data.

I'm not that far into the book yet to give any final review.

The book does remind me of a popular business book by Verne Harnish called Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It...and Why the Rest Don't (2014).

Verne argues that companies need to "conquer complexity" (p. 24) in order to scale up and that "complexity generates three fundamental barriers to scaling up a venture" (p. 25):

  • Leadership: The inability to staffgrow enough leaders throughout the organization who have the capabilities to delegate and predict.
  • Scalable Infrastructure: The lack of systems and structures (physical and organizational) to handle the complexities in communication and decisions that come with growth.
  • Marketing: The failure to scaleup an effective marketing function to both attract new relationships (customers, talent, etc.) to the business and address the increased competitive pressures (and eroded margins) as you scale.

Verne argues that you have to keep solving these same problems, often in different ways, at different levels of growth (e.g., < $1 million, > $ 1 million, > $10 million, > $50 million) if you want to keep on growing.

I am looking forward to reading what Geoffrey West has to say about scaling up and the "science of cities" and how that might relate to what Verne Harnish, Toby Hemenway (The Permaculture City, 2015), and Richard T.T. Forman (Urban Ecology: Science of Cities, 2014) have to say about these topics.

Another person who is busy scaling up is the Sweden-based farming entepreneur Richard Perkins who shares alot of useful information in his YouTube channel. He has a recent two part video series on how he intends to use lean thinking to help him double revenue while also reducing his workload. I think they offer a useful case study on the type of planning one might engage in to "conquer complexity" to enable more growth and more free time.

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