Thursday, October 25, 2007

When is a business truly local?

Farm Power is located in Skagit County, Washington. Our county has few features to boast about; halfway between Seattle and Vancouver B.C., agriculture remains its largest industry. With Skagit County's rural character and limited manufacturing base, median incomes are below the national average. Real estate development provided most of the business momentum during the last decade, but now this sector is stagnating.

One thing that Skagit County does still have is dairy cows. The valley has hosted roughly 15,000 milking head for the past few decades, in spite of plummeting farm numbers and enormous change in the rest of agriculture. Today, about a dozen dairy families own the majority of these cows. While this consolidation has been painful, land limitations have effectively capped farm sizes and even the biggest Skagit farmers are out with their cows every day.

Consolidation has a silver lining--it is easier to communicate with the surviving operators. Farm Power's principals went to high school with some of the same dairy farmers with whom we now discuss manure. Since medium-sized dairy farms almost never have someone in the dark closets they call offices, the accepted way to contact farmers is by tracking them down in person. We at Farm Power have spent the last week doing just that. Having been on many of the farms as children, we know where to go to find second- and third-generation owners. We also visited several farms for the first time, and there is no substitute for shaking a dairy farmer's hand and commiserating about the business.

In short, securing the Farm Power supply chain depends almost completely on relationships. Some of these relationships date back to our parents or to the school playground, while others have started only in recent months. We have benefited enormously from positive coverage in our local newspaper, read by most of the county--and from the common dairy heritage shared by those who trace their roots to the Netherlands. With the fiber bedding product we expect to produce, we also have something to offer the dairy farmers, further deepening our interaction.

Both Farm Power's inputs and products will typically only travel a few miles, a true mark of a local business. The founders operate on their home soil, another argument for being local. But in the final analysis, it is the complicated web of relationships that make Farm Power truly local, plugged in at a far deeper level than supplier-buyer or seller-customer. Farm Power cannot be understood separately from Skagit County; come see our home, our people, and--last but not least--the cows!

Monday, October 22, 2007

What is an MBA good for anyway?

If it's a degree in Sustainable Business from Bainbridge Graduate Institute, an MBA can be good for saving the world. For Farm Power, the education meant learning the language of business while constantly remembering that business has immense power to do good. BGI is one of the first green B-schools, conveniently offering a hybrid online/monthly-residency program based on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The school is growing rapidly, so the alumni numbers remain low. About thirty other students graduated from BGI in 2007, and two of them started companies while studying: Olympic Biofuels sells biodiesel on the west side of Puget Sound, and SaulGood Gift Co. sells sustainable gift boxes in Canada. Unlike Farm Power, these companies actually have revenue! They provide inspiration that a degree sometimes simply associated with climbing the corporate ladder still has entrepreneurial energy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Farm Power is the Answer...what was the question?

What is an anaerobic manure digester anyway? If you, gentle reader, continue to return to this blog in coming months, you will learn more than anyone should ever need to know about manure-to-energy technology. However, for my first posting, a manifesto: Farm Power is a little company in Skagit County, Washington, dedicated to the preservation of dairy farms, agricultural communities, and civilization as we know it. For our urban readers most concerned about the third goal of Farm Power, let me explain the broader vision.

Are you concerned about sprawl? Farm Power will bring new money to farmers, allowing them to continue using their land profitably in the face of rising property values. Rather than selling off ground for development, healthy dairy farms will expand by purchasing land needed for more crop production.

How about global warming? Farm Power will cut emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas at least twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. Within just a few years, the continuous effect will be like parking thousands of cars.

Is renewable energy your issue? Farm Power will generate electricity from the untapped potential of manure; just five cows can power a typical house year-round. In places like Western Washington, manure provides local energy in signficant quantities where wind and sun cannot.

Perhaps economic inequality is your cause. Farm Power will reverse the flow of financial resources out of poorer rural communities, investing millions of dollars in new income-generating assets. Local workers, businesspeople, and investors all benefit from keeping money closer to home.

Nitrogen pollution; sustainable agriculture; fuel vs. fuel competition; Farm Power addresses some of the largest problems we face. Stay tuned for more on how!