Tightening our (gun) belts

 Man standing with gun and ammunition belt

On 15 April I joined the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party movement to protest high taxes, higher federal spending, and general disrespect for the Constitution of the United States of America.  It felt good.

I also know that along with rights come responsibilities.  Times are tough all over and it is difficult to see services we use being cut.  Government provides many essential services, and many things that just make our communities nicer places to live.

I doubt many people consider the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) an “essential service”.  According to their website:

The Minnesota Historical Society is chief caretaker of Minnesota’s story—and the History Center is home to the Society’s vast collections. Within its archives reside artifacts ranging from American Indian moccasins and artwork to furniture and photographs, Civil War-era flags and a wealth of geneaological information. All of it is accessible today and for future generations.

I love history and I love the Historical Society, and I am a paid member.  However, they really are the last part of “public health, safety and welfare”;  not surprisingly among the first to be cut.  MHS announced today a planned 16% cut to their budget for next fiscal year, starting 1 July 09.

Minnesota Historical Society Announces Plans for a Potential 16-Percent Budget Reduction

All programs and facilities will remain in full operation until a final plan is adopted

The Minnesota Historical Society announced plans today for a potential 16-percent overall budget reduction, beginning July 1, 2009, which would result in layoffs and reduced services to the people of Minnesota. The plan is based on expected cuts in the Society’s funding from the state of Minnesota, as well as the effects of the current economic downturn. The reduction was developed in anticipation of serious budget shortfalls during the Society’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

A final decision on the Society’s state funding levels is expected in late May when Governor Pawlenty and the Minnesota Legislature announce an overall state budget for the upcoming biennium, which also begins July 1. In January, the Governor’s budget plan contained a 15-percent reduction to the Society’s operating budget. The Minnesota House recommended a reduction of nearly 10 percent earlier this month, and the Minnesota Senate recommended a seven-percent reduction this week.  

In addition, the Society is projecting a 20-percent shortfall in its non-state revenues over the next two years, due to declines in admissions, sales, charitable gifts and investments.

“We know that Minnesotans value the work of the Historical Society,” says Nina Archabal, director. “Our main objective in meeting the challenges of today’s economic downturn is to continue to preserve the state’s history and educate the state’s schoolchildren and adults.”

Since October, 2008, the Society has been engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process. This process provided guidance in developing the proposed budget reductions.

The planned budget reductions would result in less public access to the Society’s services, programs and facilities.  It also would affect the Society’s work to preserve the state’s history.

Layoffs would occur for 94 full- and part-time employees, and an additional 223 employees would have their hours reduced.  In total, 317 individuals would be affected, or 46 percent of the Society’s staff, including individuals that work directly with the public, as well as people that support public programs and preservation statewide.

Some of my favorite MHS sites are on the chopping block.  Three sites will be mothballed 1 July 09:

More sites would see access and hours cut back, including Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey, MN, which I recently wrote about on JohnScout blog.

These are great places.  I visited Historic Forestville last summer.  It’s a ghost town down in the Drifless Hills of Southeast Minnesota, south of Rochester.  Living history players act out original characters, literally bringing history to life.  I would love to participate on a regular basis if I lived closer…and dropped seven or eight other hobbies to make time.  One of those hobbies I’ve picked up of late is participating in Mountain Man Rendezvous, with their black powder rifles and tomahawk throws and leather britches over cast iron.  The Fur Post at Pine City recreates the world of 1804 and the European, American and Ojibwe fur trade.  Picture me lost and dreaming in buckskins.

I am a bit concerned about this bit at the end of the press release:

Also pending is a decision on how proceeds from the Legacy Amendment will support history education and programming. The constitutional amendment, which was passed by voters in November 2008, calls for funds to preserve Minnesota’s history as a way to supplement, rather than substitute for, current funding and programs. The Minnesota History Coalition, representing historical organizations statewide, including the Society, has recommended that 50 percent of the funding for the Arts and Cultural Heritage portion of the amendment be dedicated to statewide history education and preservation.

I could be cyncial and say it’s all posturing to get dedicated funding.  I won’t.

I could fuss and fume, and put on a big pout.  I’ve driven by the Lindbergh property several trips, each time telling myself “I’ll stop next time.”  Now there won’t be a “next time.”  These places are important to me and a big benefit to living in the state of Minnesota. 

I could get angry, pull out the big guns, and demand my rights.  But I won’t. 

When times are tough we all have to tighten our belts and do our share.  What I’m going to do is clear my calendar for the 2nd half of June after I get home from Scout camp.  I’m going to plan a drive to Pine City before the Northwest Company Fur Post closes.  Maybe I’ll go through Little Falls, or at least make a stop at Jeffers Petroglyphs on my way.  I’m going to look for a book from the MHS bookstore to buy and read after the first of July.  I’m going to save so I can renew my membership.  I’m going to put my money where my mouth is….

Right after I write a letter to my Representative, my Senator, the Governor about cutting (my) taxes and (somebody else’s) spending.

(Cross-posted at JCShepard.com).

Turbine Envy

Minnesota Wind Turbines in Winter

Wind blows when and where it wants. That’s annoying when you’re sailing. It really becomes a problem when you’re trying to convert wind energy to useful power. You see, the wind is here on the Buffalo Ridge of Southwest Minnesota.  You people reading this live everywhere else.

Southwest Minnesota has been at the forefront of renewable energy development for some time—corn-based ethanol, soy biodiesel, and wind energy conversion systems.  The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota wrote this into their long-range plan for the Life Sciences industry in the state and the Worthington BioScience Conference picked up on the theme this year.

Jay Allsup, Pinnacle Engineering, Maple Grove, MN, spoke in a breakout session on wind and solar power.  The existing electrical utility system was built to send power OUT to rural communities.  Now rural communities are trying to send wind power back up the grid, and it works about as well as stuffing toothpaste back in the tube.  The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) tries to make it work but the system is complicated.  Instead of sitting and waiting for needed reforms, Allsup worked on a project to put new wind turbines (windmills to us old-school technologists) into the spots where the regional electrical grid has room for new capacity.  Plug in where the system can handle the load.

Another way to tackle the distribution problem is to not play the distribution game.  Dan Juhl, a long-time wind developer from Woodstock, MN, champions small wind projects and Community Based Energy Development (CBED).  Instead of moving electricity, move towards distributed generation facilities—build more smaller turbines closer to where we in the region use power.  Juhl cited many sound technical disadvantages of the larger turbines common in Europe, in addition to many sound economic advantages to smaller turbines on family farms across rural Minnesota.  The insatiable urge to build bigger, larger, taller systems will not necessarily provide more efficient, effective or affordable energy.  Sometimes a bigger turbine is just a bigger turbine.

Other advances in technology are also looking promising to firm-up power supplies from renewable sources.  For example, the wind tends to stop blowing when the sun comes out, so some pretty smart folks are working on demonstration-scale solar power and fuel cell backup to smooth out the electrical peaks and valleys.  There are of course other issues that need to be hashed out with the technology, fair regulatory provisions to protect adjacent property owners, and more effective state and federal tax policy, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed if we really wanted.

A balanced approach, of course, is more likely to meet our long term energy needs.  Industrial-scale distribution lines across our rural landscape will be, unfortunately, necessary to meet our nation’s need for electrical power.  Industrial-scale wind energy conversion systems—acres and acres of turbines on farm and field—will be increasingly necessary as an essential compliment to coal-fired and nuclear power generation.  And small-scale, individual distributed generation facilities will be increasingly important sources of redundant (back-up) and peak-hour energy.

(Cross-posted at JCShepard.com).

BioScience is not about the Science

VC G. Steven Burrill opened the second day of the 5th annual Bioscience Conference at Worthington Friday with a presentation on trends in Life Sciences industries.  He covered some big broad ideas:

  • Human healthcare from innovation to delivery
  • Nutraceuticals/wellness
  • Agbio/food
  • Industrial/energy
  • Bio-cleantech
  • Enabling Tech, including nanotechnology

Excellent coverage on the front page of the Worthington Daily Globe continued in this morning’s edition:

Burrill sees significant innovation within 10 years

[Steve] Burrill, a California-based venture capitalist whose company has nearly $1 billion under management, has been involved in the biosciences for 40 years — and was introduced Friday morning as “one of the original architects of the industry.”  he used a bulk of his nearly 80-minute presentation to describe what he calls a “sea change” in the biosciences.

“Worthington, and this part of the world, is not as isolated as you might think when it comes to value opportunity,” Burrill said. “This is a sea change that’s historic in the world … it will be more pervasive than the Depression was. … But we will come out of this a stronger country and a stronger industry.”

If I had a nickel for every pundit predicting “sea change” I could fill an aquarium.  Even though that’s the name of his $450 book, Mr. G. Steven Burrill seems to put his money where his mouth is, which is why I got up at 6am for a commute to hear him speak.  I even took notes.  The Daily Globe reporter took better notes.  Maybe Ryan had more coffee than I did Friday morning.

Burrill acknowledged “the economy is pretty messy, and it’s only going to get messier,” adding that “to some extent, capitalism has failed, if only temporarily.” He sees the economic downturn as lasting three to five years.

“The important thing to take from my speech is not where we are now, but where we’re going to be,” he said.

Yes, Burrill did say that he thinks capitalism has failed, along with other nice fluffy Obamaisms.  Seems like he’s done pretty well with it.  Suppose I expect some such double-talk from the Left Coast.  Actually, most of the morning speakers after him were left-of-center to extreme environmental evangelists, which is why I left early.  Anyway, other than his pimping for BHO & Nancy Pelosi, he made some good points.

Government organizations around the world, whether they have to do with patents or regulations, are barriers to the market, Burrill added, but the biggest spark for new businesses and innovation comes through capital.

Here Burrill comes back to his midwestern roots.  Many regulators, as well as existing life science practitioners, are primarily interested in preventing—avoiding risk.  Successful investors are the opposite, primarily interested in potential—seeking sensible risk. 

Changes to global financial systems have fundamentally changed the risk-reward system, in many ways he points out are unfavorable to innovation.  The largest pharmaceuticals companies have lost ~20% of their market capital over the last five years and the IPO market for biotechnology has evaporated.  Gotta work through that and it’s going to take awhile.

In examining the current marketplace, Burrill said technologies, an aging population, governments and policy makers, and economic imperatives are economic drivers. He also predicted a radical shift in how health care is delivered as a result of some of those conditions.

I don’t buy the Canadian-style single-payer healthcare system, yet I’ve become increasingly frustrated with what we do have here, so my ears perked up for this bit.  Burrill noted that what we call “healthcare” is really Sickcare—like we have for thousands of years, we go see somebody only when we get sick.  The future of health care is a Wellness Care, he says, a patient-centered delivery system:

  • Entry into the system at a Doc-in-a-Box consumer distribution center using genetic screening and intelligent diagnostic systems, staffed by nurse practitioners.
  • Specialized delivery will have Doctors concentrating on long-term risk assessment
  • Home diagnostics/monitoring systems will give constant feedback to maintain wellness

I was glad to see Burrill point out the disconnect between 3rd party payers, service providers and consumers.  I also had no idea there was such a large failure rate for many medicines.  He sees big new markets emerging to treat Alzheimer’s/memory loss, obesity/diabetes/metabolic disease, anti-aging, antibiotics to counter antibiotic resistence, and prevenative medicine.

Still, I’m not sure technological systems are going to change that much that soon.  I’m just not keen about having my genetic records stuck on a chip or some laptop that any hacker can get into as easy as my Paypal account.  There’s some trust issues there that Burrill and a state legislator dismissed flippantly in Q&A afterward.  I may blog my life away, but I am concerned with personal privacy and keeping Big Brother where he/she doesn’t belong.


In shifting today’s healthcare system into what he deemed a wellness care system, the biopharmaceutical industry will be re-invented, he added. Countries such as China, India and Brazil will likely be leading the way, but places such as Worthington shouldn’t see themselves as isolated in any way.

“We’re global from day one. … It used to be that globality happened when you got to a certain scale, but that’s not the case any longer,” he said.

About this point in the presentation, I think Burrill realized he was going to be running over his allotted hour (he should have been allotted more time).  I hope this point came through.  When I was working economic development directly, I always emphasised with entrepreneurs the importance of a well-crafted business plan.  You start simple with clear objectives and build you business over time.  Today, you can’t necessarily do that.  Disease knows no borders and markets don’t create themselves.  Entrepreneurs must be thinking about competing globally from the word Go.

For me, Burrill’s most relevant point for this audience came near the end.  I’ll summarize:

When we look at the link between human health and agbio systems: 
It’s not about the science, it’s about the political, social, economic and environmental issues

We have the technology for the most part.  We have the science and the scientists.  It’s up to us to create the political, social, economic and environmental community where entrepreneurs can bring the science and technology to life.

It took me longer to write this up than for him to give the presentation, so thanks for sticking with me to the end.  You can see an interview with Mr. Burrill about many of the same ideas on the Burrill & Company website here.  Think he’s even wearing the same pink tie.

(Cross-posted to JCShepard.com).

Linking Ag and Human Health Bioscience

Interesting first day of the 5th annual Bioscience Conference at Worthington Thursday.  Dale Wahlstrom of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota opened the session, discussing the Alliance’s vision for the Life Sciencs industry in Minnesota, developed with Deloitte Consulting.  The vision focuses on five general industries in Minnesota:

  • Medical Devices
  • Biologics/Biopharma
  • Animal Health
  • Food
  • Renewable Energy

This year’s Bioscience Conference highlighted Animal Health and Renewable Energy.  There was great coverage on the front page of the local daily newspaper of the afternoon sessions on animal health:

Use of antibiotics in livestock debated at Bioscience Conference

WORTHINGTON — Scrutiny over antibiotic use in the livestock industry continues to make headlines across the United States and around the world, making it a timely topic at the 2009 Bioscience Conference Thursday afternoon in Worthington.

 The animal health track at the conference gave visitors five perspectives on the use of antibiotics, from the impact it has on animals and humans, to food safety and the environment….

A couple of the presenters spoke of the time and money it takes to get an antibiotic approved for use in the livestock industry. Often, a decade or more of research is needed and tens of millions of dollars are spent before an antibiotic ends up on the market….

Worthington (MN) Daily Globe 3 April 2009

Couple of interesting points here regarding opportunities and challenges.  I’ve worked with a number of counties on local water management planning, and the issue of nutrient management always comes up.  Satish Gupta, professor of soil, water and climate at UMN, has conducted research at Lamberton Ag Experiment station in Southwest Minnesota.  The Globe reports:

Increased concentration of soil-applied manure…shows an increased uptake of antibiotics by the plants. Gupta said while antibiotic levels in plants appears minimal, there are some implications on organic vegetable growers who use manure as fertilizer.

In addition to the concerns of antibiotic levels in plants, Gupta said producers will need to be mindful of applying manure on erodible soils.

“If you have erosion of the soil, you’re going to want to control it because the soil can be carrying antibiotics,” he said.

Dr. Robert Elde, Dean of the UMN College of Biological Sciences finished up the first day with details of projects supported by the U’s Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment

I attended the second track on renewable energy, with sessions on wind & solar power, ethanol & biodiesel, and future biomass feedstocks.  Today the conference wrap-up aimed to bring the two tracks together.  More on that later.

(Cross-posted at jcshepard.com).

Bioscience Conference

 bioscience 09 logo

Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation‘s 5th annual bio-sciences conference will be held 2-3 April, 2009, on the Minnesota West campus. Worthington, Minnesota, is home to a number of firms working in animal health and bio-sciences. This year, Southwest Regional Development Commission, is a co-sponsor of the conference as well.

On Thursday, the conference features 2 tracks on Renewable Energy—wind & solar, bio-fuel, bio-mass feed stocks—and Animal Health (impacts of antibiotics on livestock production). Sessions will feature speakers from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, universities, energy developers, veterinarians, and others involved and interested in the industry.

The keynote speaker Friday morning is G. Steven Burrill, CEO of San Francisco, CA, based life sciences firm Burill & Company. The conference will close with a speech by Minnesota’s Will Steger, Arctic Explorer and global warming advocate, after presentations by the Worthington Middle School Science Club.


(cross-posted from new blog site for jcshepard.com )

How China Sees the West

Strange Maps blog has an interesting post regarding the current cover illustration on The Economist news weekly:

The Economist is concerned about the present state of affairs, as they should be:

Although in public China’s leaders eschew triumphalism, there is a sense in Beijing that the reassertion of the Middle Kingdom’s global ascendancy is at hand.

I love The Economist and really miss reading the print copy every week (budget just can’t support that habit right now).  However, I’m tending to agree with some of the comments on Strange Maps site.  Perhaps a better title for the graphic (if not the article) would have been “How China Sees the West”.  I certainly would have at least stuck a skyscraper at Vancouver, BC (Canada), but they didn’t ask me.

Already a big idea has spread far beyond China: that geopolitics is now a bipolar affair, with America and China the only two that matter. Thus in London next month the real business will not be the G20 meeting but the “G2” summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao.

There is alot about China I don’t pretend to understand.  Although I think The Economist may be oversimplifying their graphic design, their ultimate point is well to consider.

Far from oozing self-confidence, China is witnessing a fierce debate both about its economic system and the sort of great power it wants to be—and it is a debate the government does not like. This year the regime curtailed even the perfunctory annual meeting of its parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), preferring to confine discussion to back-rooms and obscure internet forums. Liberals calling for greater openness are being dealt with in the time-honoured repressive fashion. But China’s leaders also face rumblings of discontent from leftist nationalists, who see the downturn as a chance to halt market-oriented reforms at home, and for China to assert itself more stridently abroad…

Wikipedia lists about 60 cities in China with a population of over 1,000,000 people—that’s urbanized population, administrative population (similar to our metropolitan areas?) is much larger.  Can you name more than 2?

I’m not sure I can.

When is a Farm a Farm?

Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions

We all know what a farm is.  A small white cottage with a big red barn out back, one or two silos and grain bins, cows & horses grazing contentedly in a fenced pasture.  Maybe a chicken coop, hog wallow and a machine shed.

That was my grandpa’s farm 50 years ago and it looks alot different today.  In the 21st Center, when exactly is a Farm a FARM?  How many chickens have to be in that coop?  How many cows in the barn?  How about the over-sized vegetable garden supplying the Farmer’s Market in town?  Or the place gone dormant with the fields resting in CRP?  Does a 4-H or Scout project count if it sells well at the County Fair? 

It’s a complicated question, as discussed (here, here, here and here) when we looked at the US Dept of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture returns.  Currently, USDA considers a farm as any place with $1,000 in sales, or the potential for $1,000 in sales.  This is more than an academic question, as our understanding of many issues in the rural economy depend on how we define our units.

The Economic Research Service at USDA released a report today, Exploring Alternative Farm Definitions, that looks at how we classify agricultural operations for ag statistics and programs.

Meeting agricultural policy and statistical goals requires a definition of U.S. agriculture’s basic unit, the farm. However, these goals can be at odds with one another. USDA defines “farm” very broadly to comprehensively measure agricultural activity. Consequently, most establishments classifi ed as farms in the United States produce very little, while most production occurs on a small number of much larger operations. While desirable for obtaining comprehensive national coverage, measurement and analysis based on the current definition can provide misleading characterizations of farms and farm structure in the United States. Additionally, more stringent requirements have been proposed for farms to qualify for Federal agricultural program benefits. This analysis outlines the structure of U.S. farms, discusses the current farm definition, evaluates several potential criteria that have been proposed to defi ne target farms more precisely, and examines how these criteria affect both statistical coverage and program eligibility.

: Agricultural statistics, Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), farm businesses, farm definition, program eligibility

Politicians, ag economists and other interested parties are unlikely to agree on a single “best” defnition of farm, rural, or economy.  I try to take all of their numbers with a degree of skepticism.  Sometimes it’s just as important to understand the data behind the data—to know the metadata—as it is to understand the meaning of the data itself.

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