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New Possibilities in Agriculture

I admit it. Agriculture fascinates me. As someone with an engineering education I see so many potential upsides, complex merging of systems, and breakthroughs ahead.

I’m not a spiritual person but the miracle of growth is inspiring. As Cargill Executive Director Greg Page once said to me, “Trust in photosynthesis.”
Hand Water Plant Small

I envy the nifty toys agriculture pro’s get to play with. Robots and drones. Tiny nano-sensors that eventually feed big honking computational power to make everything work even better. Curls my toes.

If I could restart an education and career I could easily choose agriculture. It appeals to the boy still in me.

A fascinating niche of the field is the never-ending possibility of new crops and new uses. I spend a lot of time with the monoculture – the empire of corn and soy that dominates the best soil in America. But there are very interesting upsides for discovered or rethought plants and the potential within them.

Perhaps none of them will make a huge difference in agriculture – at least not in my lifetime. But every time I hear of a new potential crop, an experimental program, an adaptation, the possibility to grow a cure for a disease, a new source of energy, or a breakthrough that could help us in climate change, I’m inspired.

Carinata, moringa, and Rhodiola rosea are examples. Each has promise in a particular niche of agriculture.

Brassica carinata is the most interesting of new biofuel crops. It’s essentially a weed – Ethiopian mustard – that grows on marginal land in heat and drought conditions. New breeding by Canada produced a plant that rivals canola for yields, is resistant to disease, produces long hydrocarbon chains, and has a number of uses. Jet fuel, lubricants, and bio-plastics are all on the list.

Moringa trees are native to the foothills of the Himalayas and are cultivated in the tropics. One nickname is the miracle tree. It produces small leaves and pods that have an impressive nutrient profile. With a protein content nearly that of eggs, more potassium than bananas, more iron than spinach, and massive amounts of calcium you can see why it’s a new buzz in natural foods.

This is no recent discovery. Moringa were used 4,000 years ago but the application to a modern society for anti-oxidants, anti-diabetes, anti-inflammatory, anti-arsenic, and anti-cholesterol are just coming into wide recognition. Look for development of species even easier to harvest as the world seeks food for the next two billion planet occupants over the next 25 years.

Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen. It’s made into a supplement that has an ability to improve the response to physical and mental stress and trauma. There are claims it lifts mood, increases energy, and sharpens focus. It can optimize insulin production and extend the effects of caffeine. The root is powdered or chipped for tea.

Cultivation is ramping up because demand far outstrips the wild sources from Siberia. Canada, Scandinavia, Poland, and even Alaska are doing startup cultivation. But there is a growing emphasis in agriculture on indoor cultivation of many specialty crops.

April, 2013 - What We're Watching in the Practice

Here’s a quick synopsis of projects, presentations, and work we’ve done over the recent past. I’m also including some trends we’re seeing from the work. It’s been a hectic several months as we’ve found a permanent place to live in a new city, remodeled a dwelling, and settled into home and office.

These days a great number of economic forecasting assignments come my way and the last two months have been no exception. I was asked for three economic forecasts in agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. It’s encouraging to be able to pass along relatively positive news and projections for a change.

Heaviest implications – the effects of a major cybersecurity breach on national/regional economies. Three years ago I moderated and did the closing keynote presentation to the most influential global meeting of information security professionals. 90% believe a major breach is imminent. The Pentagon has ramped up tactics, “weaponized code” is loose on the Internet, information security is now mixed into global conflicts and efforts to prevent access to nuclear weapons. This is a big deal and surprisingly it goes unconsidered in most business planning.

Most overlooked development – the quiet but impactful use of robotics. The development of devices like Baxter and the continuing utilization of manufacturing robots has quietly cut into employment. Expect deeper cuts in the next ten years. With the price point dropping, capability rising sharply, and programming easier look for these intelligent machines to slide into society under the radar.

Trending upward – succession is taking the biggest uptick in my consulting assignments. Transfer of business, top management replacement, and governance are areas where I see rising demand. With Boomers flooding over the 65 age-line and smaller pools of obvious successors available this is going to occupy more of my time in the coming years.

Longer term and interesting – the extraordinary transition society will make as energy sources swing from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s obvious that the effectiveness and adoption of renewable energy sources is poised for a rapid spurt. Legacy businesses have not thought through the implications for their own fields. The swing will most probably take place in the next 15-20 years.

I believe it’s shrewd to have social media presence although how this field gels in the next five years is still uncertain. I like the utility of
Twitter as a scanning aid and I also post sporadically. It’s also interesting to watch who follows the posts. I make no effort to attract followers but I find myself following many who find my posts useful.

A New View of Oil

Several entries in this blog have focused on oil prices. It’s an overarching driver of future factors that range from consumer behavior to geopolitical influences.

Lately I’ve studied oil prices more carefully and drilled into (forgive the inadvertent pun) the data that looks ahead. I’ve been a forecaster of a long-term rise in prices due to supply and demand pressures for a commodity with declining output.

I’m now adjusting my views in line with advice I give clients. A forecast is foresight that takes into account uncertainty and adjusts with time and new information. Time has passed since I began forecasting a rise and new information is available.

Frankly, the Bakken is making me a believer that more oil that will be available over the next two decades than we’d been able to forecast before. There’s been evidence of this in the past but now it’s being put into practice to a greater degree.

For many years I lived and worked throughout California’s Central Valley. The oil-producing fields to the west of Bakersfield were a constant source of amazement to me as someone who minored in geology in college. The estimates of the field and its productivity continued despite the forecasts of depletion. The Kern River Field was supposed to have fallen off in production in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and especially the 70’s and 80’s.

Today Kern River still forms a foundation of the strategic national reserves. Chevron began injecting steam underground in the 60’s and today the formation still yields about 80,000 barrels per day. It was a harbinger for what we see today as the unprecedented emergence of “tight oil” – petroleum that is brought to the surface through new technology both in new discovery fields and old fields that were thought to be defunct.

That’s what’s going on in the Bakken which I doubted was a significant or long-lived contributor to oil production. Today we know that it is and while so-called “cheap oil” – where you punch a hole and oil and gas flow to the surface – could be gone the creation of new reserves is going to be with us on an increasing basis.

Oil over $200 a barrel? Less probable if geopolitical events don’t cause problems in the Gulf. But I think the planet may have been blessed with some more time to use fossil fuel reserves while it makes the transition to sustainable sources of energy.

Energy Prices: Why Have They Moderated?

It’s seldom that I work with a client not affected in some way by energy prices. Whether it’s the shipping costs of manufacturing, input costs of agriculture, or even the impact of higher transportation expenses on business to consumer organizations this question about the future often plays into strategy and preparation for the future.

Everyone wants to know the future price of a barrel of oil or of a kilowatt of electricity. Like most forecasts the calculation is complex and the range is wide depending on the timeline. OPEC policy, supply, demand, new discoveries, emerging technology, consumption behaviors, geopolitical events can all have a bearing or effect on energy price.

For several years I’ve been tying the price forecasts to global economic performance. This has been especially true as the globe goes through the most dramatic economic cycles since early in the last century. In fact, I’ve been forecasting a semi-permanent rise above a $100/barrel price floor sometime between 2011 and 2015. I still hold to it.

Many will ask what’s driving down short term spot prices in oil. Good question. Typically these short term fluctuations are driven by buildup in supply and the hidden effect of economic downturn and consumer behavior. That’s what’s been going on lately. I believe it also has to do with the discoveries of fairly large but very expensive sources of oil in the Western Hemisphere. Bakken oil (or “tight oil”), Alberta tarsands, and offshore Brazilian potential are all examples.

These “tight” and “dirty” sources have put off the depletion of other sources in the recent past. Eventually, however, the inexpensive oil sources are going to wane further and the price is going up. I believe to a fluctuating, often volatile range from $100 to $150/barrel.

Whether I’m right or wrong about the forecast is less important than preparation. I’m fond of the statement denial is not a strategy. That’s why I’m bemused, surprised, or sometimes frustrated by organizations that find reasons to deny any possibility of what would be painful developments. Those that believe the relatively inexpensive energy we enjoy today is going to be with us for the foreseeable future are in that denial.

The Middle East and Us

Almost 3 months into the wave of unrest in the Middle East and we’re staring at events like a deer in headlights. It might be a good time to take stock of how events might play out.

The best case scenario for an American economic recovery, avoidance of inflation, and $6 gasoline?
Moderation. Ghadifi quietly leaves Libya. A compromise between the separatists and the former cabinet and military. Eqypt remains somewhat quiet and their military fulfills promises of Mubarak crony removals and elections.

But those two possibilities are far less than certain. I’d give them less than 40% probability right now. Libya’s important production of light sweet crude oil will come offline for some time. Today I passed my first sign for $5.00 gasoline in San Diego, CA.

The more troubling events could occur in Saudi Arabia. The mere fact that government troops are firing rubber bullets at crowds is chilling. Despite the royal family throwing billions at the less advantaged citizens the groundswell from the educated population could destabilize the largest exporter of oil in the world. Crux facts: there is a huge concentration of the Shia minority around the Saudi’s oil production and shipping locations. Just like Benghazi in Libya, it’s strategic.

So what?

Think
1979.

Oil prices spike to $200 or perhaps beyond.

Oh yeah, you might not have been born then or you are too young to remember. Lines around blocks at gas stations (and there were almost 3 times as many as we have today with a population half the size). Declaration of a national crisis. Rationing. Price controls. Gas cans in auto trunks. Third world stuff.

Then, in the years that followed, runaway inflation coupled with a recession and double-digit interest rates. I was running a business in a market with real resistance to price increases when my operating line of credit went to 22%. It’s one reason I never, ever again want to make payroll for more than 40 people.

Worse, the US government can’t absorb a huge spike in what it pays to service the debt. The dollar will be wiped away as the world’s reserve currency, capital will leave the country, and the 1930’s will repeat and potentially be even more catastrophic.

I’m not saying the scenario is likely. I think it is still less than 30% probable but that probability increases daily to the point where we want to think through implications and actions.

In a recent Twitter post I pointed out a NY Times article on a fellow who’s gone “off the grid” in Texas by living in the desert on solar and wind power and capturing rainfall for water. Funny thing is that it’s both one of the most read and most e-mailed articles on the publication at this writing.

More in the days and weeks ahead. Hope for moderation in the Middle East and some leadership in our country. This could become a perfect catalyst for us to take steps to begin resolving our financial, energy, and world dominance issues.

The Oil Forecast

For the last three years, ever since it became obvious that the world was slipping into a recession and commodity prices would come down, I’ve forecasted an inevitable return to rising oil prices.

My logic: the recession reduces demand but only temporarily. Recovery from recessions is uneven globally. Some regions recover months, perhaps even years before others. A robust economy in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America will create demand that will drive prices up despite a slight fall in use in the U.S. and the EU.

Speculation or unexpected geopolitical events – “triggers” – will create volatility. Speculators will enter the market on supply shortages. No regulating body can keep them away from the opportunity to make money.

My forecast from mid-2008 forward: 75 to 85% confidence that an oil price spike and permanent plateau above $100/barrel will come sometime in the 2011-2014 time frame.

It’s been of interest to clients in, well, almost every field. Because as one CEO said to me on being asked what energy prices affect, “Everything!”

As the economic recovery has forged ahead strongly almost everywhere except the North Atlantic the price of a barrel of oil has risen back through the $50, $70, then $90 levels. Now the unprecedented events in the Middle East have taken Brent futures over $111. West Texas will follow.

Will it stay there? Of course it depends on a complex array of factors. Economic effects, how high the price spikes, volatility, whether the Saudi’s can really make up most of the shortfalls, refining bottlenecks, and more. In the weeks ahead I’ll place more information here on the implications of this important trend.

In the meantime I’m getting a lot of queries from clients who quickly remember my forecasts and are running through their Plan B strategies to react to the development or are confident because they planned for the high probability of this years ago.

Patent Harbinger: Where is Distributed Energy Headed?

I advise clients to watch certain metrics for emerging direction. A good example popped up recently in all the hype over the Bloom fuel cell announcements.
Bloom is a startup that has built fuel cell “servers” supplying electricity to a number of Silicon Valley firms. If you’ve missed the hype there’s a healthy helping
here. The servers at those big SV firms run a cool $750,000. Not pocket change to us consumers.
The Bloom technology is interesting because of a several factors. 1) It
might scale down. The company’s statement that they could be producing home-sized units for a $3000 price point in a few years causes ripples in the energy sector. 2) It shows off a technology that’s taken a back seat in the media, fuel cells. 3) It demonstrates early hype for a technology. I encourage skepticism when something gets too much media attention.
But what caught my eye as my scanning system picked this up is the longer term pattern of patents in “clean energy.”
My favorite weekly scanning source, The Economist, showed this chart at left.
When you think “alternative energy” or hear it in a politician’s speech you probably think solar, wind, electric vehicle, or maybe biofuel. You don’t think of fuel cells. But a patent rate three times the other technologies causes me to point to it as a trend to watch carefully.
The Economist hypothesizes it’s due to corporate R&D stimulated by government subsidies. Probably the major driver. When you start delving into the practicalities of the Bloom style of cell you see problems. Very, very high operating temperatures. 24 hour a day operation which gets to be a problem if you can’t sell your electricity back to the grid especially at night when demand is low. A reliable source (read that as natural gas).
My forecast: true renewables like solar and wind look like the best bets. But keep an eye on fuel cells for the long term.