Archives for July 2014

A Rural System Case Study: The Morel Mushroom Forest System

Rural System, Inc., the forming enterprise, plans to work with simple and complex systems. Understanding and managing natural systems based on the best available knowledge can lead to improvements in the benefits had from the system. In this case, by understanding the system in which morel mushrooms are best propagated, land managers are able to manage the system to obtain more morel mushrooms in a given season.

morel forestEcology is the study of plants and animals and their relations to each other and their environment. Thus, ecology is the study of almost everything in rural areas. That’s what ecologists have to examine, and some as those within Rural System try to use the results of such studies to improve human conditions or prevent them from worsening.

As an ecologist I like to think in terms of systems; a pickup truck would be a good example of a system. I know it has parts and needs like gas, oil, and anti-freeze. Some seem more important than others, but they all need to work for the many purposes for which the truck was designed.

I studied a forest system in Ohio, worked as a game biologist within a land system in northwestern Virginia, and taught wildlife management at the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech. I remember well a simple system, which we can call briefly: “the morel mushroom, mouse, root-threads, tree-growth, deer, snake, and evapotranspiration system” …or perhaps the morel mushroom forest system.

Morels are very tasty wild mushrooms. In early spring morel hunters went with their small buckets under my study-area boundary signs to search for and pick mushrooms. I appreciated their enthusiasm for the hunt for buttered, fried morels! Yet too rare, and too intensely harvested, the morels never had the chance to contribute all of their spores for reproduction throughout the forest.

Mice eat them too, making nature’s taste attraction the forest’s future. The mice spread the spores underground where they grow into hair-thin rootlets, moving water and nutrients among tree roots. (This subsystem, hidden like the pick-up of modern electronics, is much more important than many people realize. If the rootlets are thirsty, trees and shrubs are stressed, disease appears, and valued tree growth slows.) The unseen hordes of mice and voles are “managers” of the nutritional, rooting soil layer in the sense that they distribute the spores that create this valuable subsystem.

Yet humans are not the only over-harvesting threat to morel propagation: deer populations exploded. Unregulated by predators and dense hardwood forests and aided by new farm-food, deer also eat morels! Scientists know the modern deer populations are endangering some plant species; they are eating too much, and putting too much pressure on the system! Maybe morels, other “forest stand quality indices,” or other growth measures are being decreased as a result of this pressure.

Foresters and ecologists study the combined values of precipitation (rain, snow, and hail), evaporation of forest soil moisture (conservation of which is essential for morels), and transpiration (the moisture loss from tree leaves and stems) together with temperature and solar radiation in equations. The results are called “evapotranspiration.” Tree growth and disease resistance are intimately locked to evapotranspiration.

If we take a step back and look at how everything connects in the system, the picture might sound like a nursery rhyme. Snakes influence mouse populations, that influence the morel rooting zone structure, that influences spore placement, that influence the seed start-up success zone, that influences root-spread, that influences what trees species occupy what sites as well as site quality… all in a system in which humans depend for wonderful fried mushrooms, game, shrubs, lumber and paper, ground-water recharge, occasional mysterious snakes, and beautiful recreation areas.

Rural System seeks to take the understanding we have of these systems and manage them for the ultimate mutual benefit of communities and landowners, as well as for general ecosystem “health.” Many people wonder how managing ecosystems can make that much of a difference in terms of profits off the land. This case of morel mushrooms is just one example of how real goods can be obtained from knowledge-based land management.

On the Effects of Mobile Phones on Poverty in Africa

It may come as a surprise that mobile phones are increasingly becoming a commonplace investment in households throughout the developing world. India and Africa have been particularly targeted. Phone manufacturers worldwide are competing to flood African markets with their products, banking on the prediction that the African market for smartphones will double in the next four years. Africa is second only to Asia in number of subscribers, and its mobile penetration rate is the highest in the world.
Rural System visiting UgandaPhoto taken by Risa Pesapane, project director of Rural System, during the Rural System visit to Uganda in 2013.

“With 650 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, there are already about 100 million smartphone users with the number set to double to 200 million users in the next four years.” –CNN

It is no accident that mobile technology has become so valued in developing African countries. In some ways, increased access to communication has made Africa safer for indigenous people; one USAID-supported program informs users which areas to avoid due to ethnic violence, 93% of female mobile phone users feel safer with a phone, and 85% of female users feel more independent. Mobile phones also make times of crisis easier to manage for residents.

“In the case before mobile phones, families would spend tremendous cost on travel and time in contacting family members about a funeral or sickness. From the results, Katote households agreed that this communication device provided a means of timely responses, reduced surprises with available information, allowed the ability to multi-task and plan during shocks, engaged less time to physically search individuals and less emotional stress during the really difficult ordeals.” –Diga et al.

Mobile devices are useful in other ways as well; 42% of mobile phone owners use their phones to increase their income and professional opportunities. Phones are also used to increase educational opportunity within classrooms, to improve diagnostic precision in medical centers, to reduce corruption within some state agencies, and to provide affordable mobile banking.

Yet the effects of mobile phones on poverty in Africa are still debatable. One might think that the prevalence of mobile phones in Africa would indicate that the people are coming out of poverty and are able to afford new technology. The grim reality is that households are sacrificing money for food and clean water for the sake of mobile airtime. The following information is quoted from a research article from the Department of Geography at Trinity College Dublin and the Department of Geography, Environmental Management, and Energy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa:

  • In Ethiopia, the poorest 75% of the population who use mobile phones spend 27% of their income on them.
  • In Niger, the cost of a one minute call off-network is $0.38 per minute, representing 40% of a household’s daily income.
  • Research among university students in Tanzania found that they were spending five times more on mobile phone connectivity than they were on food.
  • There are instances in Africa—in the Millennium Villages, for example—where people have chosen to spend money on mobile phone credit rather than school fees for their children.

This research paper from the International Development Research Center reports that many people are willing to sacrifice significantly in the short term in the interest of perceived long-term gains. Whether or not the phones are actually used for business, their perceived role in long-term prosperity is enough to make African people sacrifice what are seen as basic needs in the present. It can be difficult to determine whether mobile phones are actually useful to the people who sacrifice to have them, or whether they are a matter of social status or fear of exclusion from the process of globalization.

Even beyond the high costs for residents, there are some serious issues to consider regarding the influence and effects of mobile phones in developing countries such as those in Africa. The following is paraphrased from the same research article quoted above:

  • Mobile phones foster a continuing dependence on foreign countries for technology. (This is another form of imperialism.)
  • Infrastructure, such as base transceiver stations, phones, and mobile credit is extremely expensive. Imports of office and telecommunication equipment for the 32 countries in Africa for which data are available were US$18 billion in 2009 (calculated from WTO, 2011).
  • The very construction of mobile phones involves the mineral ore coltan, which has caused serious conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This conflict has added to poverty rather than reduced it.
  • Traders may have difficulty and even fall into poverty as mobile phones cut middle men out of trading in a process known as disintermediation.
  • Rather than helping people across the board, mobile phones may create a new economic inequality. Businesses that have mobile phones will have a significant advantage over those who don’t, which may reduce market diversity and even economic growth.
  • Mobile phones may increase import penetration into African economies. If domestic manufacturers cannot compete, they may be displaced by foreign manufacturers.

The role of mobile phones in developing countries continues to be hotly contested, with some people promoting their usefulness in alleviating poverty (a palliative perspective) and others pointing out that the phones do not change the way economic and political structures produce poverty (a structural perspective). It is still early to know for sure, but it is clear already that mobile phones have had mixed effects on people in developing countries. Though mobile phones are clearly not a panacea for poverty, time will tell if they are useful tools of development in the hands of the people.

Rural System’s Bag ‘n’ Brag App for Hunters Featured in Roanoke Times

We are delighted that Jacob Demmitt of the Roanoke Times featured Rural System’s Bag ‘n’ Brag app for social hunters in an article originally published in The Roanoke Times, available here. To prepare for the article, Jacob Demmitt also participated in a lovely photoshoot with photographer Matt Gentry.Rural System Bag 'n' Brag photoshoot with Matt Gentry

We are  a company that creates tools for modern ecological management, and much of what we do involves making those tools available to the public. Bag ‘n’ Brag seamlessly integrates a tool with entertainment by including both a scoring and a social component. [Read more…]

How Does Rural System Propose to Make Money?

Our staff is often asked, “How does Rural System make money?” Recently a reader also sent us the following question about the profits reaped by the community:

 “I understand [Rural System, Inc.] to be a system of land management that generates profit, both for the people who live in rural areas and for absentee landowners. What I’m less clear about is exactly how it does that.”

We’re happy to answer these questions! There are many layers to how our company proposes to achieve “profit” and we’ve touched on aspects of economies of scale, groups, reduced waste, reasonable expectations, and what we offer the landowner. But the real key to Rural System’s success can actually be understood not as profit per se, but as savings. The profit ceiling may not change much if at all, but the profit margin is wider because costs have decreased – the idea behind “lean manufacturing” practices. Thus, more money is conserved within the company and invested in the community. [Read more…]