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 BLOG >> September 2015

Mushroom Foray [Agriculture
Posted on September 30, 2015 @ 06:30:00 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.

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Ownership Design [Design
Posted on September 24, 2015 @ 10:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I was recently reading an interesting article by Peter Barnes called Common Wealth Trusts: Structures of Transition. Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, has devoted considerable writing and discussion to Trusts as a good legal structure for communities to conduct business under so I'm always interested in learning more about Trusts and their potential. All public universities and major religious organizations, for example, are incorporated as Trust structures. It is a type of organizational structure that offers an appropriate "ownership design" in many cases. Bill would argue that it is a type of business/organizational structure that is not used enough.

Towards the end of Peter Barnes' article he mentions Marjorie Kelly and her well-received book Owning Our Future (2013).

I'm waiting for the book to come to my local university library but in the meantime I read the intro and first chapter which is available on her website (PDF link). A term she uses which strikes me as quite thought provoking is "Ownership Design" and she makes the point that there are many more ownership design options than capitalist ownership or communist ownership models. There is considerable innovation happening in the middle ground, such as Peter Barnes' call for Common Wealth Trusts.

There are many ways that an entrepreneur can innovate but generally we think about innovating in terms of product or service design and not really that much about ownership design. There are, however, lots of opportunities to innovate in terms of ownership design as well.

Some examples that come to mind can be found in farming entrepreneur Joel Salatin's book Everything I Want To Do is Illegal. In this book he recounts his many run ins with food inspectors who wanted to shut him down. Often the way he avoided prosecution was by tweaking the ownership design of his product. For example, if a side of beef is first sold to a customer and processed after that there are alot fewer food inspection people on your back than if you try to sell the processed meat directly to the customer. Or, if you want to drink raw dairy milk the only way you will generally be able to do so is if you own the cow through some form of ownership design that allows the farmer to take care of the animal but where they do not own it - you do.

Another example is computer software where you wonder whether you even own the software anymore with how intrusive software updates are (shutting down your machine in the middle of doing something). Apple has found a very lucrative model in retaining end-to-end ownership of their hardware and software but many other firms have found lucrative niches in giving away and opensourcing/commons licensing their software and hardware designs.

Finally, back to Peter Barnes and his observation that many corporations are acting as if they own the commons - the air, the water, the roads, and other public resources required to produce and distribute their goods. Their profits come in part because they are not paying sufficiently for the use of commons resources. The day might arrive when the public decides to assert public ownership of these commons resources and charge companies to use them with the revenues circulating back to the public. This is one scheme that could be used to reduce wealth inequality by assigning a price tag to the use of commons resources and distributing the wealth back to a public now asserting common ownership. Of course carbon taxes are a form of this but the revenues are not necessarily being used to reduce wealth inequality as Peter is suggesting we do.

Ownership design is a type of design that is worth adding to your business design toolkit. It has the potential to be as disruptive as any other form of design and can be used to solve problems that arise when a single company tries to own the whole value chain (e.g., Joel selling the animal to the customer before processing it), or are exploiting more than their fair share of commons resources, to create a better environment for workers, and in many other situations that are discussed in Marjorie Kelly's book.

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Lowbush Blueberry Lawns [Agriculture
Posted on September 22, 2015 @ 09:12:00 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.

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Emporium Business Model [Business Models
Posted on September 21, 2015 @ 09:08:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One news story that interested me this weekend was news that musician and music producer Joel Plaskett was opening up an Emporium in the front part of a commercial space he owns. The back part is occupied by his recording studio, but on October 10th he will add three new tenants that compliment his own business and each other. In the front part of the Emporium he will house a vinyl record shop, a coffee and baked goods shop, and a hair cutting salon. You can read more about the Emporium on the New Scotland Yard website.

An emporium is like a small mall but owing to its smallness you have more control over the ambiance that you want to create in that space. The strength of this particular business model would seem to depend upon the careful selection of businesses that you want to have co-occupy the commercial space. Joel's first choice of occupant was probably Taz Records which has a long history of selling Vinyl records successfully even after all the big music stores have gone under selling music in more modern formats. Taz Records will compliment his studio business and his studio business will compliment Taz Records.

For many, browsing a good collection of vinyl records is even more pleasurable with coffee and people picking up a coffee might like to spend some time lounging in a vinyl record shop.

If I have to wait for my name to be called for a haircut, I would like to be able to have a coffee and perhaps browse some records. If I'm going to a coffee shop with some time to kill, maybe I'll be reminded of the haircut I should get.

The point is we can make up stories about how one business might compliment another business in an emporium. We can do this for a mall also, but it is harder to get it all working together and with the overall ambiance you might want to project.

In Joel's emporium he has a personal connection with many of the owners - they are not simply tenents, they are band mates and long time music acquaintances. Joel is already talking about hosting music events in the emporium which will help to create the type of music loving ambiance he wants to project.

It is too early to tell whether Joel's latest venture will be a success but I suspect he has found a better recipe for success than simply renting his commercial space out to whoever wants it. The emporium concept allows him to stack more functions in his commercial space and by making them somewhat complementary with each other and with his music studio business he is probably on a surer path to success than opting to simply rent out the space to the highest bidder. Joel as the proprietor of the emporium might also be generating more rental income for his space than if he rented only to one owner.

I'll end this blog with a bit of the lyrically clever and melodic music that Joel Plaskett is known for.

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Exploration Pays [Entrepreneurship
Posted on September 16, 2015 @ 01:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

It was a steady mix of rain and overcast conditions yesterday. I did not feel motivated to work in the vineyard so I pulled on some chest waders and went to explore the nearest major river system to my farm. I want to understand the local watershed better.

My expedition to follow the path of the river further took me, in my truck, past a field that I was familiar with having visited it before. I thought the weedy and shrubby field might have some interesting plants in it. When I explored further I noticed there was a very large amount of blueberries growing there in patches here and there but fairly regularly throughout the field.

I returned to my house, picked up my blueberry rake, a bucket, and a styrofoam cooler. I returned to the field. I harvested ten large zip lock bags in 2.5 hrs. I cleaned half of them so far. We are set for morning smoothies for awhile!

It is hard to predict what types of yeilds exploration will bring. The blueberry yeild was only one yeild I obtained from my exploration activity.

I also found the closest swimming hole to the farm and a series of excellent fishing holes close by along the river. The stretch of river is sufficiently interesting that I made a mental note to spend an afternoon there with a coleman stove to cook up some trout.

Exploration may seem like a waste of time but the yields can be many: it can lead to a chance discovery, it can answer questions, and it can help to add data points to your mental models of the local physical or business environment so you can ask better questions. It can also be fun.

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Trellis Wiring & Anchoring [Agriculture
Posted on September 15, 2015 @ 08:49:00 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.

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Trellising and Harvesting [Agriculture
Posted on September 14, 2015 @ 11:48:00 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.

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Vineyard Intermediate Technology [Agriculture
Posted on September 9, 2015 @ 05:09:00 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.

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Patent Mining [Patents & Trademarks
Posted on September 8, 2015 @ 08:11:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I reviewed some of the course offerings on EdX last night and came across a Text Mining and Analytics professional education course that featured patent mining as an application.

I don't know much about patent mining so I watched the Sneak Peak video for the course to learn more:

The United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) website is located at http://www.uspto.gov and contains a wealth of useful information and functionality. The USPTO is in a partnership with Google to host free patent products which you can access here:

https://www.google.com/googlebooks/uspto-patents.html

There is alot of data here but they do break down the data into smaller compressed XML datasets with file names that use the date of publication. So you can download the latest dataset, use some XML tools to extract the content, and then do some patent mining magic on the data. The XML datasets do not provide up-to-the-minute reporting of patent applications so you would need to research the set of USPTO query strings that you can use to get various types of data from them if you want to monitor for certain types of patenting activity on the site.

There are other patent databases you can parse and monitor but the USPTO is probably the best place to focus limited patent mining resources on, at least initially. I'm not a patent mining expert, however, so if this type of stuff intrigues you then you can enroll in mentioned course to learn more.

If you want to get familiar with the content of USPTO patents an excellent place to start is to check out the current week for the Official Gazette which announces all new USPTO patents issued in the last week. Lots of interesting new technologies are described in detail if you want to read about them.

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Commonwork Business Model [Permaculture
Posted on September 3, 2015 @ 10:08:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I was flipping through Introduction to Permaculture (2002) by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay and found their motivation for a commonwork business model quite interesting:

For commercial orchards, grain and seed crop, market gardens, and small animal systems (poultry, pigs), small areas of 5 acres or less work better than large acreages devoted to single or even double cropping. It is impossible to completely mulch, water, maintain and raise a large variety of plants and animals for multiple functions and multiple yeilds over a large area (as can be accomplished on a Zone I or Zone II level). Extensive systems, therefore, tend to simplify.

However, this factor can be overcome by a "commonwork" model, where families or groups agree to divide up the work and the products, so that one is responsible for the orchard, while another grows green crop beneath or runs poultry. Someone else might bring bees in during flowering for pollination (and honey production), and manage the firewood crop interplanted with the fruit and nut tree crops.

Smaller systems are usually easily managed by a farm family with seasonal helpers, and provide high yeilds due to mixed cropping and intensive management (pp. 142-143).

Commonwork is often viewed as a way to achieve superior functional stacking. The business is designed to support multiple functions/yeilds with lots of beneficial interactions between these functions/yeilds. The Commonwork model has been very successfully applied to farming by Joel Salatin of Polyface Inc. He runs a dizzying number of businesses under the umbrella of Polyface Inc. Salatin prefers to talk about commonwork in terms of "stacking fiefdoms" and I would encourage you to listen to his Permaculute Voices presentation at this link to learn more (note: Joel is an exceptional speaker and his business ideas are often applicable beyond farming):

Stacking Fiefdoms: Creating Multiple Complementary Businesses Under the Umbrella of an Exisiting Business

Another successful farm enterprise that uses a sort of commonwork model is Freedom Farms. The farm family consists of a large number of brothers with each brother assigned to their own separate but related fiefdoms.

I hope Joel's talk and these examples whet your appetitie to investigate in more detail the commonwork business model. I think a commonwork business model can be structured in different ways but Bill's version of what a commonwork model ideally consists of would be a reference point to compare other versions to.

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