Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Highly Effective Habits of Successful Hop Growers (and small farmers in general...)

I'm often asked "what makes a small scale hop grower successful?"  Passion?  Vision?  Love of craft beer?  While those attributes can help I've found that they generally get in the way and cause delusions that end up driving your enthusiasm into the ground deeper than your trellis poles.  But I think these habits are also important for any small business, especially agriculture-based enterprises.

So To help answer some of these questions I built this list that encompasses the habits of very productive and quality-focused growers (at lease in our group).  And obviously as all good dictators proclaim, I reserve the right to change, alter, omit or expand at my pleasure (It's good to be the king...in my on mind).

#1.  Be Realistic/Set Realistic Goals

Sounds easy, eh?  Nope...not even remotely easy.  Why?  Because this habit takes the most work, risk tolerance, and brutal honesty not only from you but from those you trust.  In my experience people become enamored with the idea of farming because:
  1. They are fed up with their current job
  2. They are bored with their current hobbies
  3. They are willfully ignoring the fact that they have no idea about what farming entails never mind hop growing
  4. They are massive beer geeks
Every farming (and most other small businesses I've encountered) will fail when operations begin without a firm basis in reality.  Points 1-4 above can be factors that help guide due diligence but they should not be the defining factors.  So what are defining factors?  How about:
  • Making decisions based on MATH!  Due diligence up front will save you heartache and money pain later.  You know if your decisions are based on 1-2 above if you get bored with the due diligence and move onto something else.  That's a good thing!  Take up lure painting or rock gardening.
  • Demonstrate you are making serious attempts at become a bigger expert on the topic than anyone else with whom you are close.
  • Admit what you don't know.  This sounds easy too but I see several growers in the hop arena today that will not admit this point and they'd rather throw good money (and time) after bad than admit they were either wrong (ooh...another good point.  Maybe #4?) or they didn't know to begin with.
  • Set a timeline and milestones AFTER you've convinced yourself and others you've done your homework.  I'm not talking about 5 years down the road here but more like quarterly goals that lead to a go/no-go decision within 12 months.

#2.  Educate Yourself

"Hey!  Didn't you cover that already?"  Not nearly enough.  Think about this stage as your *bullshit* detector and you need to program it.  But remember that you also need to decide what makes sense and what doesn't when programming.  
  • An easy decision making tool is your gut.  I can't count the number of times I've made decisions against my internal instinct and every time I've been burned.  Guess what?  I listen to my gut now.
  • Ask "why" all the time.  Don't be an obnoxious idiot but DO demand clear answers from your sources.  If they don't know or are unsure they should say as much but like I said earlier many people cannot admit they don't know.
  • Ask for data.  Some people (including myself) do not share all of their data because we've worked very hard to gather and prove or disprove our hypotheses.  But in most cases we will share some of the basic facts to help guide you to the next step.  Something I like to remember is "A statement made without supporting data is an opinion" and I use this every day.
  • DO NOT copy someone else without understanding why.  Not easy and I see so many people stumbling because they blindly copy other systems and don't know how to cope when things go badly.
This should get you a good base-level of BS programming and I think you'll be surprised when that sucker is screaming 10 times a day.

#3.  Grow A Thick Hide

Expect people around you to tell you that:
  1. You "can't" do it
  2. You will fail
  3. It is too risky
I typically respond to all 3 by saying, "Oh, I didn't know you were a subject matter expert.  Maybe you can help me figure out exactly why:  1)I can't do it, 2) I will fail and 3) It's too risky.  People like to project their own perceptions onto others and typically they are fearful of the risk or perceived risk of trying something new.  Another snippet I am sorta well-know for saying, "Let the data decide."  You cannot know if the endeavor is too risky for your hide thickness unless you do the math, period.  Come to your own conclusions.

#4.  Say "I Don't Know" At Least Once A Day

Remember #1 habit?  Make it a mantra.  But it doesn't stop there.  Commit to finding the answer or at least creating a hypothesis.  And then test it!!!  Why do we expect someone else to have the answers?  It is just possible that you are asking questions people have not though of yet.  It happens every day and do not assume some "expert" will have it either.  We'll cover dealing with experts and how to spot a real one a bit later.

Wow...I feel like I just went on a screaming rampage.  Phew!  Once I recover I'll post the next Habits focusing on execution and dealing with adversity.  Stay tuned, citizens!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What's the Deal with all the Attitude?

So I've been quiet (believe it or not, it can happen from time to time) as we build our business and spend a little "me" time on the internal operations and I have noticed a few trends I can't resist commenting on.

Again, hop growing is gaining a bit of steam after the first wave of failures decayed back into the earth.  It seems to go in short cycles where people looking to make a bunch of money jump into hops only to find there isn't a bunch of money in hops without the requisite work part of the equation.  They get pissy and like to point fingers at everyone but themselves and leave a wake of flaming crap for the rest of us to wade through.

Same things can be said for the craft brewing industry right now.  It's the "money first, market second" approach and it confuses the hell out of the marketplace and floods every other neighborhood corner with sub-par beer, creates long lead times for equipment, and generally occupies space.  But a free market economy will help with the "self-correction" and the pendulum will swing back the other way.

As a small business owner I have to position my company to weather these waves and hope that the worst thing to happen is we all get a little wet.  But I spend an enormous amount of time (and I mean stupid amounts of time here) concerned about the farmers in our group who are bombarded with hyperbole, smack-talk, and all-around pissy attitudes from others within the industry.  It's almost as if the game is to act friendly only to take the next opportunity to degrade, berate, and otherwise diminish the efforts of others based solely on a gut reaction to someone else who seems to be playing in the same sandbox.

My initial reaction?  Claw, bite, punch, kick, etc.  I think it's natural to react like this when a new presence (real or perceived) materializes in your sandbox because you want to protect what you worked so hard for and this new entity may be a threat.  But in my experience A) they've been there longer than you realize and they didn't just appear from the murky depths of the sandbox and B) they are not looking to wreck your sandcastle.  They usually just want to play with you.

Here is where I become a protective mama-bear.  I know there is a huge amount at stake for me, my company, and my farmers.  Instead of slinging attitude around and puffing out my chest like some male-dominant monkey I go to my happy place:  Data.  Facts.  Critical Thinking.  Yes...we can all say it...emphasis on the critical part, James.  I know!  But I think we have the right to demand clarity of information; accurate, factual, and earnest.  We have become accustomed to taking things at face value and critical thinking takes a back seat.  I get angry that people have a gall to try and smear their opinions and assumptions on us and I become confrontational.  My friends and family deserve better and if it takes me to pressure the smear-mongers I'm willing to do so and be labeled and generally disliked.  The best offense is a good defense?  Defense against the sandbox interloper because why?  Because we're afraid that this new entity doesn't share our same philosophies, maybe they don't care for historically accurate sand castles?

But sometimes they don't and I think that's what we're afraid of really...what if they don't want to play nice?  As a result we throw up attitudes as defensive mechanisms but only serve to further tensions that didn't really exist in the first place.  Super.

So I guess I continue the vigilance against spin, hyperbole, and the vile smear-mongers.  I vow to uphold factualness, accuracy, and truth!

I AM...

Captain Bringdown!!!!!  (And I'm told I can be a little gruff at times)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Paddling upstream on a river of hops

As one might imagine, paddling upstream on a calm waterway might not be too difficult but trying to drag a canoe the wrong way up rushing rapids is not only exhausting but also dangerous.  You're more likely to drown than make any progress.  One could say the same thing about new ideas in a river of convention.

Buddha said "An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea."  

I think that says more about the will of the individual and their conviction of their beliefs than the implementation of the idea.  Maybe Arthur C. Clarke struck a chord closer to ideas in real life; "New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!"  

I think that sums up my experiences while instituting new ideas into the world of hop production.  On the surface it may seem somewhat egotistical but I think it speaks more to the actual conviction of one's beliefs while traversing those crazy rapids of "conventional" wisdom; about implementation.

So where is this going?  Have you ever known something so thoroughly, felt it to be true and balanced at a very basic level, yet been unable to explain it to anyone?  Frustration doesn't begin to explain the experience.  The only outlet is to demonstrate the this truth outside of yourself, allow the idea to evolve outside of the isolation of thought.  

Next thing you know this idea is now a physicality.  You can demonstrate the idea, understand the idea, others can witness the idea, yet the idea is so different from anything else even remotely comparable most people disregard it (Stage 1).  As the idea continues to bloom and evolve the demonstration of it causes the commentators from Stage 1 to become confrontational and reluctant to admit that this idea has some right to exist amongst convention (Stage 2).  If the idea is robust enough and sought after, nurtured, allowed to evolve without any preconceptions or misdirected passion it can reach something altogether different at which point it will be difficult to find anyone who patently objected it to begin with (Stage 3).

Convention is the current and paddling against it is very difficult.  The current is pulling against you at every single stroke making it a point to show you are acting against it.  Just give up and let it take you...why fight?  What if you saw something others have missed simply because they chose to "go with the flow" and ignore signs that there may be trouble ahead?

Yup...that's exactly what it feels like.  Good thing I have a strong back.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Irrelevant Rural America?

Straight from our esteemed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as reported in December 2012.  Granted, the Secretary was speaking about the apparent loss of voice that rural Americans are experiencing in the political arena and not whether or not rural America actually exists (although I'm sure for much of our representation...it is the vast emptiness between airports).  Secretary Vilsack was speaking about the shrinking of the rural population and rural economy over the last 25 years as the socio-political clout of urban centers take control of the soap box.

That would have been all fine and dandy...but I kept thinking about his observation (right or wrong) and soon enough I found myself looking through his lens at my own observations specifically in regards to our nation's food supply chain.  Couple that with the announcement that the Golden Guernsey company would close its doors and allow entire warehouses of dairy products to expire and you have yourself a whipped-up James.

It all goes back to the notion of control and our need to feel like we have some...at least in our choices.  When it comes to food we definitely do not.  Okay, okay...some do.  Those who live in progressive urban centers have quaint farm markets and maybe even a green grocer but most are subject to the supply chain gods.  

So right about now you're saying "Damn it, James!  Planning to bring this back to hops sometime?"  Yes I am and it relates directly to hops and our grower value-share system.  I was approached by a social support group for at-risk and homeless teens with an idea to use hop production as a means to teach life skills and generate some income for their program.  They wanted to know what I thought.  I thought they missed the point of their idea entirely.  What evolved was a cross-functional group from several social agencies all thinking something similar: "can we use agriculture in a urban setting to teach life skills, provide mentorship, reduce food island effects, and present communities with a new option for their sustenance?"

Yes, we can.  I have always been drawn to urban agriculture for the challenges it presents and I am looking forward to designing a community production system that demonstrates what can be done on the food island.  I find the irony in the fact that people choose to live in cities or are trapped in urban areas with so many resources being consumed that they are nearly starving to death on poor quality food almost too much to handle and people mistake my quiet chuckling for a bit of social anxiety.  The idea that urban centers are becoming more and more powerful socially and politically is just a cruel joke to me.  If it wasn't for low-cost, low nutrient, fast-fast-fast processed food those socio-political movers and shakers would starve to death.

Is the hop the savior for the food island cast-aways?  Uh...no.  Try some tomatoes and lettuce.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Acres mean nothing...let's talk about YIELD

Maybe it's just human nature to exaggerate...present an augmented image of one's self in an attempt to seem more attractive, more successful, more intriguing.  It is pervasive in our culture and many others.  Some believe it is a marketing tool and others just can't help themselves.  Whatever you call it and however you justify it...it drives me CRAZY!

So as always we will bring this rant back to hops.  the craft beer industry is experiencing a second "boom" and a new category for brew has emerged; the nano brewer.  I would imagine they are in a similar position to small hop growers in that the only comparison is to the larger brewer on the next block and so they might find themselves inflating, obfuscating, or inveigling their true production.  In all honesty it's probably just a "guy" thing but nevertheless it diminishes an opportunity to set themselves apart from their inevitable comparison.

So let's talk about appropriate measures for our industry and acres is not one of them.  Well, unless we need to know the physical area dedicated to hop production the acres is a perfectly fine metric.  However, when anyone wants to know how much production your growing operation has the first thing most people reach for is the acre.  Pardon?  I didn't ask you about how much lad you have focused on hop growing...that metric alone means nothing.  It must be accompanied by a true measure of productivity (i.e. pounds, kilos, bales, ounces, stones, etc).  As a grower, when you engage a brewer do you ask him/her how many acres of Cascade they use?  How many acres of Nugget per barrel?  See where I'm going here?

As a grower and the director of a growing collective acres is only relevant to the mass of product produced.  We project our expansions and directives on more accurate metric: pounds/acre.  That number tells us quite a bit in a single glance such as productivity, maturity, intensity of operations, etc.  Our state agricultural statistics love to report acres of corn, beans, alfalfa, etc.  Those crops have established norms for yield.  But hops...they require quite the baby-sitting to hit long-term viable commercial yields.  For hops...the acre metric alone is worse than meaningless, it is misleading.

I think this issues bothers me so much because it is counter productive to the greater advancement of our industry.  We allow the individual or committee reviewing data to draw their own conclusions by giving them only half of the information.  Moreover, exaggerating the perception of acres as a measure of success completely pushes the idea of quality into the shadows.

So next time someone asks you "how many acres do you have" in hops...maybe you can take the opportunity to enlighten them on the topic.  If they want big impressive numbers they can look to the Pacific Northwest.  Honestly, do they really care?  Not likely.  But the 30 seconds it takes to answer will give them a much better idea about where to find quality.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ponderings on... THE DROUGHT OF 2012

I appreciate the polite interest in our company from those who are not very involved with all things hop and beer, but the single question that is really getting old is..."So, are you concerned about the drought affecting your crop?"

No.  Not at all.  What drought?


Okay...with the gripe out of the way, the observation is relevant.  But why such a drastic drought?  And what's with the sudden heat?  This is just a fluke, right?  Climate change takes place on geologic time-scales, doesn't it?

Believe me...I'm not a band-wagoner.  I ask pointed questions about generalized comments that usually gets me labeled as cynic, arrogant, etc.  But I think we all need to be a bit more critical of the "information" fed to us about the state of our homes and what happens within and around them.  But enough of the admonition. 

The facts is our climate is changing much more rapidly than previously expected and if you don't believe it take a look at the rapid decline of sea ice in the arctic and Greenland Ice Sheet. (see National Snow and Ice Data Center: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/).

Big freaking whoop.  What does less sea ice have to do with hop farming?  Literally it means the difference between commercial yields and withered plants.  How?  Sea ice and large ice sheets are a major factor in determining global weather patterns (since they are fresh water they can cause huge salinity shifts in ocean water which impacts ocean currents.  They also reflect a HUGE amount of solar radiation).  Okay...so the sea ice is melting and the glaciers are thinning out.  The sea is becoming less salty and ocean currents are fluctuating.  We knew this would happen based on the hotly debated data sets over the last 10-15 years. 

What we didn't anticipate is the RATE at which this would happen.  In the last 2 years the globe has experienced the beginning of nearly every predicted change outlined in these data...except that it was to happen over the next 50-100 years. 

2 years.

So gang...ask yourselves how this impacts hop production again?  We are entering a potentially long period of unpredictable climate.  I like to call it "weather wackiness."  And as farmers we must be acutely aware of how the weather impacts our BUSINESSES as well as our plants.  The wise farmer is taking stock of the recent weather over the last few years and strategizing for the future.  Unfortunately Big Ag (including some of our hop growing brethren) seems to be in denial (or just plain ignorant) to the fact that their production systems that have been in place for the last 75 years...which has been a very stable climatic period...will no longer be suited to the impending changes to the environment we will experience in the coming few years.  And based on the current data we can expect these changes to be much, much more acute than previously thought.

So how are we...the daring, audacious, trail-blazing farmers that we are, going to remain sustainable over the coming seasons?  Think about how ravenous hops are for water, let alone the debate over conventional vs organic.  Think about how some varieties we have planted cannot hack the heat.  These are the things that keep me awake at night and distracted during the day.

Those of you who know me understand that I'm not prone to panic and espouse the need for planning and execution.  So when these things are heavily impacting how I plan seasonal production prescriptions and yield expectations and keeping me awake at night over how long this crazy crop can keep up with Ma Nature in the Midwest you can take it to the bank that time for debate is over.

So, coming back to my initial gripe...Yes.  I am concerned about the drought affecting my crops.  But I think this is just the beginning and we have alot of work to do before it won't matter.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Re-focused and ready for trouble...

As I've stated in the past, I'm not that great of a blogger.  I always find more and more things to fill my time, even to the point of distraction for what NEEDS to be done.  I've always wanted to feel like my work, the things I've done/doing, have a positive impact on others and I continue to engage every opportunity for fear that willfully declining might do harm.  I think we all have a sense that we can do everything and anything but what I've come to find is I cannot do either with any sort of focus.  Narrowing my focus allows me to direct intense effort and create a well-polished, robust, and sustainable program, hop yard, machine, etc.

So what does this expose have to do with hops and farming?  At first I thought it has nothing to do with farming, especially small farming, but I was VERY wrong.  I started Gorst Valley Hops to be a mechanism to help small farmers produce a high value crop on small acreage.  In that sense the idea is working quite well.  While the general idea was correct (helping to make small farms more profitable), the reasoning that profitability could be solved with a new cropping method was a bit naive.  It caused me to think long and hard about farming and the small farm mentality.  What I discovered was quite interesting and by no means the only observation/opinion on the subject, but extremely impactful in how we as small farmers choose to live and work.

To be very concise, I believe farmers (certainly small farmers) choose narrow profits, scraping by, simply because they are either chasing too many opportunities to make money to improve their profitability or they have chosen the lifestyle over the business aspect of running a farm.  I have had the fantastic opportunity to speak at several conferences, workshops, etc on small scale farming and niche farming and I find there to be two groups of farmers; one group (group A) that runs their farm(s) like a business, and another group (group B) that scoffs at those business farmers as "sell-outs" and such and are just scraping by. 

Group B has chosen a lifestyle that affords them their own schedule, working outside, being in-charge of their own lives so to speak.  Group B also tends to work their farm reactively and lack any long-term goals and true understanding of their costs.  They run their farm to support their lifestyle.

Group A sees the farm as primarily a business and run it as such.  That means business plans, budgets, short, mid, and long-term goals, and they operate proactively to execute their plan.  From the outside, it appears that most things group A does are governed primarily by profit; decisions made and action taken to make money and grow the business. 

Of course there is a spectrum of mentalities in between these two groups but I have found most small farmers fit into one group or the other.  I've also seen this same grouping among people who attempt to turn their hobby into a business.  The result is either a business that barely makes any money to support the owner but he/she loves what they do everyday and makes decisions based on that, or they come to an understanding that they may need to make boring cabinets instead of museum furniture pieces to pay the bills.

I like to use a saying in our workshops... "Hobbies cost you money, businesses make you money."

So, to bring this blog full-circle, I've come to accept that I am and always will looking for the next opportunity.  I am a problem-solver, systems-thinker, and an entrepreneur.  but I have found that I also have to take a longer view of the the revenue issues and apply focus to executing our plans or I cannot and will not serve those farmers we are so dependent upon.