Monday, 31 October 2011

Morning all,

Big numbers this week. Population of 7 billion by next week, 49% income increase for top business directors and 50% cuts in Feed In Tariff payments for new solar panel installations.

There is a popular belief that history repeats itself but a rapidly expanding and enormous population is going to be a new challenge to all over the coming years. It’s a situation that not many have faced up to yet but there must be some major redressing of resources if it isn’t to all end in tears. I wonder if that is part of the reasoning behind the hoarding of the obscene amounts of wealth by those at the top of the business pyramid, because they can see tough times coming. It is difficult to morally justify the top directors income rises when the rest of the population and I suspect many of their own employees are struggling to make ends meet. I would like to think that the money won’t bring them satisfaction and happiness and guess that they haven’t noticed the shallow and selfish action they have taken or just don’t care, which is sad. If it makes anyone feel better many of the directors I know in smaller businesses struggle to take home the minimum wage for the hours they put in. Mind you that might be something to do with knowing a lot of people with nurseries! Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not particularly envious just a bit frustrated and worried that the system doesn’t seem to be set up to cope well with future challenges. I see Carlos Tevez was fined two weeks wages (£400,000) for his misunderstanding with the Man City management, are we on the same planet?

Meanwhile back on earth we installed our trial LED lights in the growth room this week. Just red and blue lights which look very odd but the plants are supposed to like it. We could save 70% on our lighting energy use but we have to be sure they will work with us first. The theory looks brilliant, but the practice is never that simple. Fitting them was very easy but we seem to have an issue with the distribution of light across the shelf due to the fact that our growth room shelves are so close together. We are returning to the drawing board with Phillips to find another way of using their LED’s. I’m sure we will get there in the end.

Eco News

No negative only positive responses from last week’s local paper coverage which is great.

I have held back from stirring things up about the ‘Hampshire’s first major wind farm’ statement when we are only a ‘micro-generation project’ and take comfort from the fact that is has been so well received overall. It’s interesting how many individuals you speak to say how much they like their appearance but think they are in the minority and how it is assumed the ‘anti’ lobby are in the majority. Such is the power of the media and the weak position created by a silent majority.

There has been a bit of a solar rush in the last few months as many people have cottoned on to the falling installation costs and high current rate of solar Feed in Tariffs resulting in ever shortening payback periods. Lots of little installation companies appeared offering all sorts of deals and the ‘clever’ buyers were holding out for lower prices for maximum return. This balloon was due to pop in April when the annual FIT review comes into force and the government adjust the FIT rates to compensate for falling costs. However it was leaked last week that the new rates are coming into force for all solar systems installed after 8th Dec (still to be officially confirmed). There is a big cut 50%+, new rules and the quick implementation of the changes which has put the wind up a few but it is something that had to happen. The good news for all is that solar costs are falling rapidly which brings it a lot closer to being an economically viable asset to have as part of the energy supply system. The high rate of FIT support was a tool to get these things started and it has succeeded in that, but when monetary gain becomes the main aim things do need looking at. I’m sure after a few months of readjustment the solar industry will settle into a more sensible phase of development. One company I was speaking to was looking at designing ground mounted tracking systems where you can increase output by up to 40% which sounds very sensible especially in a country where we need to make the most of our limited sunshine levels use the same panels and get more output.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 24 October 2011

Had a scary visit to Roundstone Nurseries this week for a Grow-save seminar on heating and ventilation. What a place, lovely smart warm offices and a spotless despatch, potting and production setup on a big scale. We had a brief walk round and saw crops of Poinsettia coming on for the Christmas market, all very closely monitored and managed to keep inputs to a minimum and quality high. Many of the guests were more greenhouse orientated than ourselves so their interest in heating costs etc was probably more financially significant but the overall story of lack of margin for most on this crop or no margin at all, despite a crop waste rate of less than 3%, was sobering. The market is hugely supermarket led and ruthless. Stories of large pot cyclamen imports at 50p/pot were told and there were a few long faces at the longer term prospects if this sort of madness carries on. The depth of knowledge in the room was very impressive, with clever use of heat, irrigation and venting reducing and in some cases eliminating the need for sprays to control growth habits and diseases. These were very highly skilled growers producing fantastic crops yet they struggle to pay minimum pay rates to make ends meet and without better consumer appreciation will struggle to survive. It was interesting to see one large ornamental grower selling up two of their nursery sites over the last couple of weeks to a food producer, possibly a trend to watch. Luckily I did pick up a few useful pointers as to how we can eek our oil heating costs out a bit, while at the same time improving our propagation successes, so it wasn’t all bad news.

I’m not sure whether I should mention how well Southampton FC are doing on their return to the championship, riding high and playing pretty well. It’s amazing how far a bit of extra confidence can take you. We went into the city on Friday to see The Beat and a great young band called Will and the People, all of them oozed confidence but in a fun and non-irritating way. Even if you are not old enough to remember the Ska scene of the eighties look out for The Beat. It always seems slightly sad to be going to see a reformed band in a small local venue, but it was a great party atmosphere and the band very entertaining and talented. It’s always a good sign if the band look like they are having a good time!

Have you noticed the cooler weather has brought about a change in fly populations. We did have a big influx of quick moving little buggers who were very irritating and in my eagerness to catch & despatch them tended to get over splattered. It’s been a good time to avoid any homemade garibaldi biscuits in our house! Now we are into the cluster flies which tend to congregate at this time of year to hibernate. Fatter, dopey things, easier to swat but form ugly seething masses when they find a nice home. They used to be a problem in the loft until we put up an electric killing machine and now I’ve noticed them filling up the control boxes at the base of the turbines, not very nice when you open them up to check the readings. The joys of country living.

Eco News

We made page two in the paper with a reasonable splash.

I would hardly classify us as a wind farm (too small and less than 5 in number), let alone a major wind-farm, but there you go why would you want the press to be accurate, there is no sensationalist or entertainment value in that! I may have accidentally invited a load of complaints by mentioning that only one person had complained directly since they went up 3 months ago, but hopefully all will pass off quietly.

We are having the first service of the turbines in a couple of weeks which should see the last of the setup stuff completed. Although they have been busy generating since we turned them on there are still a few bits of the installation to tidy up before all is signed off at which point we will have a look at getting some local groups/schools in to have a look at what is going on and how it all works.

Times are tough and sustainability rules. Even our labels get the chop. Apparently the huge tongue depressor market is saving resources by now making them 1mm narrower so I will need to remake our wider printing plates to accommodate the change, I bet they didn’t think of that when they changed.

Skylarks are back in the field already singing and fighting over territory.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Triumph! Computer security upgrade successfully sorted last week but as is the way with all messing about with computers it’s never that simple. The instant I had finished we had a huge Windows 7 update which loaded the latest Internet Explorer 9. It took ages to download and completely messed up any internet browsing, within 30 seconds or so it would freeze and refresh. Naturally I assumed it was a cock-up on my part with the security update but after a bit of investigation it was the new IE9 upgrade. It automatically sets itself up for the very latest video software which of course we don’t have and can’t upgrade with a compatible driver despite the computers only being a couple of years old. Anyway by ticking the right box in ‘internet tools + advanced’ we sorted it. Another productive few hours!

Caroline came back down to earth last week, quite literally. She did her tandem skydive which she got as a birthday present from a load of ‘friends’ a few months ago. I wasn’t too worried as I had topped up the life insurance and I know she loves that sort of thing, about as much as I hate it. It hit the spot and the ‘money off your next jump’ voucher is now burning a hole in her pocket so I doubt it will be long before she has another go.

Sad news this week that the Woking Nursery Show is no more. We have been exhibiting there for a very long time and it was always a productive and lovely day out for us, but the competition from the new HTA National Plant Fair just a couple of weeks before was just too much to bear and perhaps it was time to move on. It will be interesting to see how the shows get on over the next few years, particularly the national ones especially when I think things are likely to turn more in favour of more local supply with increasing demand for local produce, transport costs and possible future plant movement restrictions. I’m not 100% sure of our future strategy on the show front, we have now lost both of the shows we attended this year but it looks at the moment that the favourite option may be to buy a pig and eat it! As a sideline we might invite a few folk to come and see what we are up to at the same time. We have done quite a few tours already with local interest groups, nursery visits and students and we seem to have built up quite a variety of different things to show, there is all the hairy stuff, production facilities micro-prop lab, sustainability stuff and the turbines and nearly all the people who come have managed to stay awake for most of the time. Perhaps one in early February and another in the summer, we’ll see. Mind you by the time we get too February we might be down to cabbage soup rather than suckling pig!

With perfect timing through our contacts in Plato Sustain we had a very entertaining & productive visit from a marketing strategist from URS Scott Wilson who has done us a quick review of all things hairy. I am always a bit sceptical about consultants especially when they are not horticulturaly orientated but she was brilliant, very sharp, practical and astute. We discussed all sorts of options from very short term ideas on a shoestring budget to longer term business strategies. It was certainly a great way of bringing some of our ideas into sharper focus and finding practical ways of bringing those ideas into reality. Watch this space!

Eco News

The local paper caught up with us this week with a call asking if the turbines were up yet. The reporter lives in Winchester but such is the uproar created by their erection that he hadn’t realized that they had been up for over three months. It won’t be in until next week (Hampshire Chronicle) but hopefully it will get a sensible reaction and not stir up too many negative thoughts. The photographer came in on Wednesday to take some pictures and I look great, so that’s ok.

I have been doing a bit of internet research on UK average monthly wind speeds this week to try and get a more accurate idea of how the turbines are fairing. It will still need a long term review for sensible analysis but it looks ok so far. I found a couple of graphs for UK winds over the last 21 and 34 years and they gave me the percentages to adjust the annual estimate we were given by the turbine installers. By the end of September we were 2.88% under estimate, although if I adjusted for the time one turbine was out of action with a set up problem it would have been 3% up. So far in October we are fractionally up but it is so tight that a day of light or heavy wind could swing it one way of the other.

The recent wooden tray returns have gone pretty well, we still are a few short, but looking back over the three seasons we have been using them we have achieved a return rate of 97.5% which is brilliant. Well done everyone, especially those who have achieved a 100% return of which there are many.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 10 October 2011

Back to autumn which is good news for turbine production and my body. Might have been a bit over optimistic playing hockey twice last weekend in all that heat as it took me a while to get upright on Monday, in fact it wasn’t until Thursday that I felt I could give it another go. Better day yesterday with perfect cool weather and a more forgiving rubbery pitch and a 7-0 win, we won’t talk about last week’s results. Most parts are moving ok this morning, well, as many parts as usual anyway. Shame about the England performances this weekend, on the football and rugby pitches, but there you go, good job it’s only a game and played for fun.

We had another very full week again, I keep thinking we will get a quiet week but there seems to be so much going on Monday saw my last official PLATO Sustain meeting and a résumé of all the things we had all done over two years which was a surprising amount. The timing seems to have been perfect for those of us who stuck the course (9 out of 13) with sustainability coming much more to the fore in businesses of all sizes. OK I know some may only be playing lip service to it at the moment but those of us who are embracing it are seeing some valuable returns already with plenty more to come. We are going to continue our local group on a self financed quarterly basis, meeting up at each other’s premises to try to keep up the momentum and I’m looking forward to the first one at a rubber mouldings manufacturer!

The changing weather prompted some pre-winter repairs this week which seem to have gone really well. The lab growth room and mess room roof’s had sprung a few leaks where the covers had split. The mess room we re-sheeted which looks good and the growth room we repaired with some very expensive but hopefully effective tape (Eternabond). We have tried repairing this roof before with bituminous stuff, but it has dried and split again, the tape looks much more suited to the job was quite easy to apply. What did we do before the internet!

Had a trip to the solicitors to sort out the official lease paperwork for the turbine sites which are on the field above the nursery. 28 pages of legal stuff and a bill larger than the rent for 20 years! Everything odd ‘little’ job done for this project costs another couple of thousand, whether it’s bat survey, archaeologists, solicitors, planning stuff, servicing contracts, electric extras. If only we could charge these labour rates for our skills in horticulture, still at least we are not bitter, we do have such a lovely lifestyle after all!

It is that frustrating time of year when our computer security software comes up for renewal. Every year what should be a simple renewal of licensing turns into a long winded, hair pulling cock-up. That’s the advantage of having me as the IT department! I got a reminder from Symantec that it was coming up to renewal time and they gave me a renewal code number to use. Looks easy and if you have a domestic version or have a business in the USA or Canada it is, but in the UK you have to buy it through a reseller. Went to the company who sold it to us last year, sorry we don’t do renewals, searched the internet for the UK and no obvious candidates, it was easier and cheaper to buy from new again. Bought it and tried to load it, slow start as no instructions as to what to do until one of the 6 disc’s supplied goes in (no indication of which one first). Then have to stop loading to remove the old version first. Remove that then try again, window appears to say that this version won’t load onto Windows 7, hurrah guess what we have. Spend the rest of the morning finding and reloading the old version as
we have now have no protection on our main computer. Then I find out that I can load the new one onto W7 if I use another loading method. I’ve decided to take a break from this and will try again tonight, could be a long one.

Eco News

The turbines have been productive this week and are whizzing around again today, pushing up the daily average closer to what we were hoping for. Still need a few more breezy days to catch up with the plan although we are continuing to produce more
than we are consuming which was one of the main aims of the project.

We have been researching the latest Phillips LED Growlights to trial in the lab and have now ordered a couple to try out. They look bizarre as they only have red and blue bulbs so the overall effect is quite dark, but apparently the plants like it and they are said to be 60% more efficient as well as a lot cooler in operation which saves on climate control costs too. We will see how they do over the winter and when the cash-flow recovers in 2012 we will look at making another significant sustainability investment. One financial hiccup is that this investment isn’t as obviously beneficial as it could have been as we are now generating cheap electricity so the savings aren’t as great in £’s only in carbon.

The recent wooden tray returns have gone pretty well, we still are a few short, but looking back over the three seasons we have been using them we have achieved a return rate of 97.5% which is brilliant. Well done everyone, especially those who
have achieved a 100% return of which there are many.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 3 October 2011

Summer at last. A bit late but a nice vitamin D boost before the long haul through until next summer, which is due I believe in March. Not the best of weekends to make my hockey debut for this season with two games in two days. I’m still standing after yesterdays jog about on the wing but I suspect I will be suffering after today’s fixture. Luckily it’s the over 50’s cup so not too many younger than me this time.

A lot of rubbish in the news this week. There was one day when I think the boys and girls in charge thought we needed a bit of uplifting after months of doom and gloom with economic woes and cut backs so they threw us a couple of token bonuses. All I felt were shockingly negative and wide of the mark but pandering to a perceived public demand. Just as we are getting into the swing of living more sustainably and doing lots more recycling we get told that weekly mixed rubbish collections are going to be encouraged, relying on investment in clever sorting equipment to get the recycling done. First of all the equipment is not there at the moment to achieve this with completely mixed waste and how good is that equipment anyway, surely there will be huge cross contamination between all the different wastes that can go into the domestic bins. Then there is the negative message which comes across that we can go back to not thinking about where stuff comes from and where it goes. Sorting the recycling can have a very positive influence on attitudes over a long period, as annoying chores become inbuilt ‘feel good’ habits, at which point we can move on to the next stage whatever that might be.

Another rumour of change was the discussion on raising the speed limit which seems to go against most boring but sensible thinking. Although car development and safety has come a long way they are still heavy fast moving objects controlled by rather unpredictable organic life-forms on increasingly crowded roads. On those roads there are even bigger objects that are restricted to 56mph so the contrast in speeds will be even greater which looks to be asking for trouble. On top of that the loss in fuel efficiency is already big between 60 and 70, let alone at the higher speeds, so carbon output will increase instantly.

Then the BBC were warning one morning about the dangers of handling and eating veg that had been grown in the soil, potatoes and leeks getting particularly bad press, all due to a tenuous link to a very widespread, but not huge, e-coli food poisoning outbreak for which they could find no other explanation. They couldn’t pin anything down to a single farm, district or even county but ran out of other possible links. Now I don’t know much about medicine but if the soil around the whole country was widely infected and soil on veg was the real source of this outbreak why haven’t we seen it in all those other years when soil appeared on fresh veg? I hope no-one took this too seriously as veg growing is tough enough without silly rumours hitting the markets.

Now for the rubbish good news. Recycling for small businesses is getting more efficient and the result is falling costs to us. This week we reviewed our waste disposal choices and managed to simplify our sorting/storage choices by picking more comprehensive disposal packages now being offered to businesses in our area. Because we produce relatively small volumes of waste we have had to work quite hard to get our various different recyclable wastes taken away. This has involved several different contracts, lots of individual costs and plenty of inconvenience, but it would appear that there is now enough organisation in the waste industry for more inclusive flexible solutions to be offered at lower cost. This means that most of our recyclable waste can go to one contractor in one bin, in one collection, once a fortnight at far less than we were paying before. Not only that but we are now recycling so much of our waste that we are reducing our non-recyclable waste collections to once a fortnight rather than weekly which means another saving. We also found out that our mixed waste goes to energy generation (incinerator) rather than landfill which is not perfect but better.

Eco News

The dominant high pressure system has slowed up the turbines somewhat this week but we are hopeful that the autumn storms will return soon (every cloud has a silver lining). We heard from the SSE Feed in Tariff people this week letting us know that we would need to obtain an export meter number, a half hourly export meter and an export contract to be eligible for FIT’s. I informed them calmly that all this was already in place (all installed and contracted to SSE!) and we had been generating and metered since July 21st. Am I the only one that has any idea what is going on? They said they would check it out and get back to me. They must have sorted it out as the contract turned up the next day and we are now signed up and have sent in our first quarterly reading (end Sept), hurrah. Despite the generation slow down over the last week and a bit we still managed to generate more than we used, not just September but over the whole period since the switch on. So some of that carbon surplus can go towards balancing the next big carbon user our delivery system.

Have a good week.