The Call, Column 84 – Lessons Learned Amongst the Cold Tomatoes

13 11 2017

(November 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Lessons Learned Amongst the Cold Tomatoes

It was 6:30am, and my hands were absolutely freezing. I was bundled up, sure, but my hoodie and bare fingers were no match for the early-morning dew and near-freezing temperature. And the cold air around me was filled with a pungent, not-exactly-unpleasant smell as I worked tirelessly against the clock.

OK, I’ll admit that was all pretty dramatic. Those were some of the thoughts racing through my head last Tuesday morning, as I hurriedly picked the last of the produce from my garden before winter set in. But the 45 minutes I spent in my garden that day sparked some interesting internal dialogue, and taught me a few lessons about our gardens and our world that I think would be worth sharing.

First off, I’ve come to realize that any outdoor activity, urban farming most definitely included, is actually pretty tough in the context of an 8-5 work schedule once Daylight Savings Time has ended. Had the frost been predicted for late the week before, I would have had a well-lit hour after work to do the last-minute harvest, in the waning (relative) warmth of the afternoon. But now it’s dark by the time we leave work, which meant a rather rushed harvest in the cold, bitter, pre-coffee morning before work, since I wouldn’t be home with enough light to harvest by until after the frost had already happened. I am only a part-time, amateur gardener, so I can only imagine how much this effect compounds for professional farmers who have full-time jobs off the farm.

The very fact that Daylight Savings had already ended by the time of my last harvest gave me pause, too. Normally, it is the middle of October when the first real killing frost happens, and it is at that point that I normally make the last harvest of the year. This year was almost a full month later. Climate change is real, we are the cause, and it is already resulting in dangerous alterations to the seasons, making them less predictable and less conducive to normal growing.

A kind of inflammatory thought I kept having was how much I hate morning glories…at least, the vines. I like the flowers themselves, and had planted some a few years ago in my garden. But they dropped seeds, and now, each year, my garden gets overwhelmed by volunteer morning glory vines. They have strangled many of my plants in the past, and it happened this year with the tomato patch I was in last week. Three or four of my garden beds were basically decimated by morning glory vines this year, so I really have to find a way to prevent that from happening in the future.

Speaking of preventing morning glory overrun…I did take note of a couple of things that should have been done over the course of the season but weren’t. Every year, I start off by saying that I will mulch religiously, that I won’t step on the soil after it has been planted and mulched, that I will keep everything weeded and watered, and that I will tie up the plants regularly.

Harvesting those tomatoes was kind of eye-opening. Because I had to fight through weeds and an untied patch to get at the tomatoes, stepping on the soil in the process. I did a great job this year with keeping everything mulched, but between the morning glories taking over again, other weeds springing up over the months, and not typing the tomatoes to their stakes often enough, it make it kind of hard to harvest.

Speaking of difficulty in harvesting…the rush to harvest everything before work (and the frost) helped to point out to me some of the flaws in how I had organized the layout of my garden. I plant things too close together, especially tomatoes, which makes them grow as a think mass. I also made an error when originally designing my garden, by making the beds six feet on each side instead of the standard four. This makes it exceedingly difficult to access the stuff at the center of the bed while standing on the outside path, which makes it tempting to step in while harvesting.

Next year, I will still plant according to a loose version of permaculture principles, but I need to remember to leave more space for the plants to grow, and give myself access to the center of each bed (even if it’s just one area that I’m allowed to step into) to make harvesting and maintenance easier.

The last lesson that I thought was worth sharing was the notion of what is really worth harvesting. I had limited time in which to harvest that morning, so I had decisions to make. I decided not to harvest the last of a quasi-perennial green that has taken over one of my beds. It cooks up nicely, but I didn’t think I would have time to use it, which meant the more-easily-storable tomatoes took precedence. I also made note of all of the cold-tolerant crops – carrots, potatoes, turnips, brassicas – that I could wait until next week to harvest (which actually might even be improved by the frost) – allowing me more time to harvest tomatoes.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 83 – More Food for Thought

29 10 2017

(October 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

More Food for Thought

            What is food?

This question began my last column, starting us on an adventure through the history of hungry living things on our planet. We left off around 10,000 years ago, with the basic definition of “food” that has sustained essentially every single animal, since we first emerged from the primordial soup hundreds of millions of years ago: food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts, from which energy and nutrients can be obtained.

Every species on the planet – ourselves included, at least until 10,000 years ago when we started agriculture – eats according to this basic definition of food, defined by their particular evolutionary history. And I would argue that eating this species-specific definition of “food” produces the greatest likelihood for achieving individual health and longevity.

But then, at least for the human animal, everything changed. Our hubris put an end to the golden era of diet, as it does to most good things. We ate from the Forbidden Tree, choosing to toil in the field in order to eat our bread. And we took upon ourselves the responsibility of gods, but with neither the wisdom, nor the power, nor the benevolence of the One who originally established us as hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture turned food into a human creation. No longer was our diet extracted from the same basic plants and animals on whose flesh we had evolved; rather, it was the product of our own toil, the spoils of our conquest and subjugation of previously-wild land, previously-wild plants, and previously-wild animals. This allowed tribes of early modern human beings to settle in one area, enabling them to produce more food per square foot than at any time prior, but making them dependent on their own labor to keep closed the thin veil between survival and starvation.

I cannot overstate the significance of this event, probably more than any other in our history. This marked the birth of civilization, and was the original cause of everything, good and bad, that has come with civilization. Settling down as agriculturalists naturally resulted in the development of human communities…at the expense of the long-term health of the land on which we settled. It allowed for the division of labor, and also for caste systems and the exploitation of the lower classes. It sparked the beginning of commerce and trade, and resulted in warfare between neighboring tribes in competition for the same (unnecessarily-) limited resources. It provided us with a more stable food supply, but made us susceptible to basically every disease we struggle against to this day.

Civilization allowed for all of this. We can argue until the cows come home whether it improved or worsened our species’ overall wellbeing, but it happened. And at the root of every product of civilization, as the basic premise upon which all of human endeavor sits, is the fact that we cultivate, rather than the hunt and gather, essentially all of our food. Food became the foundation and basis of human society.

And then, as the story goes, the first tribal communities morphed into nation-states. Agriculture-based settlements set themselves apart by more than just geographical distance. Human beings began to bow to different leaders, worship different gods, trade in different goods and currencies; and all the while, each state was but one strategic maneuver away from their rightful expansion into their neighbors’ land, or one wrong move away from the loss of their own. Food was a finite resource to be guarded, stolen, traded for, and won, and every cow your neighbor owned, every acre he planted, every bite he took…was one fewer for you.

Simultaneous to the political differentiation enabled by agriculture was the cultural differentiation. The development of a quasi-stable society, which was set in motion by the start of agriculture, freed up peoples’ time and brain-power for more nuanced work than hunting and gathering their food, or even growing it. Some were free to create poetry, music, and art of all kind; they studied philosophy and science; they practiced astrology and founded complex, often politically-charged religions. Distinct cultures developed, and the diets, culinary practices, and agricultural strategies unique to a certain people became one of the ways to define and distinguish them from others. Food became culture.

These basic definitions – food as a finite resource, as an element of culture, as the elemental foundation of civilized society and community – persisted for much of modern human history. Nearly all of us were agrarians, by association if not as farmers ourselves. Food was politics; it was culture; it was vocation; and it was limited. But despite being under domestication, it was still understood as an outcropping of the natural world. That is, until the late 19th century. And here’s where it gets really ugly, really fast.

As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned in the Western World, efficiency and uniformity became the name of the game. It stopped mattering, how tasty or nutritious your tomatoes were; margins were tight and global demand was skyrocketing, so it only mattered how many pounds you could squeeze out of every square foot. The question “is this cow being raised as healthfully as possible” was replaced with a more economical one, “is this cow being raised as efficiently as possible”. And as an answer to that question, the CAFO was developed.

Food, like every other consumable good, became a commodity under industrialization. My ear of corn is the same as your ear of corn, which is the same as one grown in Mexico or Greece or Arkansas – they are distinguishable only by how cheaply each can be grown and shipped.

And here, my friends, something strange happened. Up until some point in the early 20th century, we were still heterotrophs, relying on other “food” organisms to gather solar energy (plants), or concentrate it in an easily-digestible package (animals). But with the widespread implementation of fossil fuels as energy sources, and their adoption into agriculture – as both fuels and fertilizers – we began to both figuratively and quite literally eat fossil fuels. We, the kings and queens of the heterotrophs, have come to the point of using more non-biological, chemically-stored energy to feed ourselves than biological! Food has become a commodity, and somehow, it is a non-renewable, fossil-fuel-based commodity

We would be justified to leave the conversation here. This is an accurate description of food as it is currently defined. But it isn’t the only definition…and they only get worse.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a cold, soulless, reductionist view of food and human nutrition, one I’m sure that you are intimately familiar with…though I hope you know to look beyond it.

Modern nutrition has taken the approach of defining food as a means to an end – foods are simply combinations of water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients, and eating is simply a means towards consuming the perfectly-understood amounts of each of these substances needed to maintain a healthy life. There is no nuance, according to nutritional science, and food is not only a commodity, but simply the sum of its parts…just like the human beings consuming it. It is measurable and quantifiable. “Food” is just a number of Calories and associated amounts of vitamins and minerals; and balancing these numbers with your body’s requirements is the only consideration that is needed in order to be healthy. Food is a means to an end, and that’s it. How utterly absurd!

And finally, we’ve reached modern day. From a political standpoint, food is a commodity; from a scientific one, it’s a means to a nutritional end. But there is one more definition that arose together with our Postmodern Western Corporatocracy; the idea that’s more immediately responsible for our horrible “relationship with food” (God, I hate that phrase) than any other: Food. Is. A. Vice.

We are bombarded by aggressive marketing campaigns whose basic message is that our lives can be made better if we just eat the product that they’re selling. We are told to consume alcohol, sugar, and fast food as methods to cope with the stress of modern life. Ads convince us that good taste is what we crave – that consuming their “cheezy”, or “lo-fat”, or “naturally-sweetened” product, as part of a balanced lifestyle of course, will make us enjoy our lives more. And we’ve been convinced that the conspicuous consumption of certain foods – specific brands, certain health foods, that special new box of reconstituted garbage – can help to advance our place in society. I know, it’s hardly an intelligent view of food. But I didn’t say it…the TV did.

And there you have it. Food has gone from the basic energy and nutrients required by a species to live, to an agricultural commodity, all the way to a means of mass mind-control. At this point, it’s just a way to sell flashy combinations of wheat, corn, soy, milk, and sugar, the commodity crops that governments around the world subsidize in order to prevent food shortages and the associated political unrest. We’re in a bad place; there’s no kinder way to say it. We’ve discussed solutions to this problem in the past, and will do so in the future. But today, I just hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 82 – Food for Thought

17 10 2017

(October 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Food for Thought

            What is food?

That’s a question you probably haven’t heard before. And it might have caught you off guard, being that you and I are the Urban Farmer family, and food is kind of our thing.

But really, have you ever actually stopped and thought deeply about food? For me, it took many years of urban farming, developing an environmental awareness, steeping myself in evolutionary/Paleolithic nutrition, reading enough Wendell Berry, and (no word of lie) debating with people in the comment sections of food-related articles to really get me to think deeply about this question. And it’s a rabbit hole that you’ll probably find just as interesting as I do. Grab a flashlight, Alice, because Wonderland awaits!

Let me take you back a few billion years, when the Earth brought forth the first single-celled life. This, I think, is a good starting point for the definition that we’re trying to build today. One of the basic characteristics that defines life is the use of metabolism; that is, taking in energy and materials from the environment in order to support internal functions. This is true of every life-form on the planet, and as far as I’m concerned, it is the basic definition of “food” after all other nuance is stripped away. Food is energy and nutrients from the environment.

The first life on Earth was autotrophic; in addition to taking in materials from its environment, it “created its own energy” by taking in energy from non-living sources, either sunlight (photosynthesis) or chemicals/heat in its environment (chemosynthesis). Plants as well as certain bacteria and algae are autotrophs still present on Earth today.

But, contrary to what some would have you believe, we are not autotrophs. We are heterotrophs, organisms that must steal from, maim, or kill other organisms to supply themselves with energy. Like all other animals, fungus, and some microorganisms, our food must come from the body parts of other living things.

This sort of realization was striking for me, when I made it a year or two ago. There are people who claim that meat/eggs/milk are “not food, they’re murder/theft/etc”. Murder is defined as killing another human being, of course; but inflammatory terminology aside, this sentiment isn’t exactly wrong. ALL of a heterotroph’s food is the product of killing or stealing, by definition, if we believe that these acts are still defined as such when perpetrated against a non-human (they aren’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s broaden their definition). In this scope, “food” doesn’t actually exist. There is no lifeless sludge from which we can extract nourishment (Twinkies notwithstanding). Seeds are the unborn fetuses of plants; fruits are their ovaries; sap is the literal lifeblood (blueberry pancakes with extra syrup, anyone?).

This all might have turned your stomach, but it shouldn’t. We can’t photosynthesize, we can’t live off of volcanic heat, and we aren’t breatharians; for heterotrophs like us, food is the literal bodies of other organisms that contain energy and nutrients.

Getting a little more specific, all of life on Earth is divided into various levels of categorization. The principle, and arguably narrowest of these, is a “species”, a group of very similar organisms that can reproduce with one another.

Among other things, a species is defined by its diet, the things it eats in order to survive. Taking this a little further (warning: justifiable bias ahead), a species’ “optimal diet” is the subset of those things that it CAN eat, in the appropriate amounts necessary to both provide it with all energy and nutrients it needs, in optimal chemical form, but also minimizing its intake of toxins to a manageable level. This optimal diet is developed as an integral part, both a cause and effect, of its evolution.

Wild ruminants eat grass; that’s their optimal diet. They eat grass, because they have multiple stomachs and special bacteria in order to be able to digest grass; because they eat grass; because their stomachs and gut bacteria are supposed to digest grass; because they eat grass. Do you see my point? Their optimal diet developed as an integral part of their evolution. Domesticated cows are also supposed to eat exclusively grass as well, but our government subsidizes corn and soy in order to placate us…so we feed them an evolutionarily-inappropriate diet.

But wild species – animals, plants, fungus, microbes – they basically eat their optimal diets in almost every case. A tree “eats” sunlight and certain soil micronutrients because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; with low-quality soil, it becomes sickly, and without sunlight, it dies. A robin eats earthworms, seeds, and the bottom half of each perfectly-ripe raspberry in my yard, because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; if it doesn’t get the protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and beneficial microorganisms that it needs from those foods, its health becomes suboptimal and it becomes more a more likely target for evolutionary purging.

The adherence to optimal, appropriate diet is a benchmark quality of healthy, stable species on Earth. Those individuals that eat appropriately are healthier and better able to survive, reproduce, and teach their offspring to eat similarly; those who don’t, aren’t. For the vast majority of species on earth, essentially all but human beings and their domesticated plants and animals, food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts.

If the answer to our question, “what is food?”, stopped here, with this last definition, all would be good. This definition is by-and-large the historically- and evolutionarily-normal one, acted upon for basically all of human history (and all of the history of every other species).

But we didn’t stop there. Next time, we will kick off at the start of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, when the definition of food changed enormously, and has continued to do so throughout written history. Food is a lot more complicated now than ever before. Stay tuned.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 81 – Rest and Lie Fallow

1 10 2017

(October 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Rest and Lie Fallow

I am writing this column with more inspiration bouncing around my brain than for any one before…here goes.

In the past couple of years, as summer has transitioned over to autumn, I have often written a column or two about the hugely important “Fall Garden” – a second chance at a harvest; an extension of the season; one final push before we allow winter to envelop our urban farms for what will sometimes feels like forever.

This year, I am changing my tune. I still hugely support fall gardening, and encourage anyone with the energy, time, and motivation to put this paper down and go tend your broccolis and leafy greens right now.

But I won’t be planting a fall garden. At least this year. Before you disown me, please let me explain.

Since starting full-time work as an engineer last April (2016), I have slowly made myself more and more busy. I let this on a little in some columns during my Existential Period (last summer), but until fairly recently, I kept letting it get worse.

Now, I am the last person to glorify being “busy” – I don’t know if I’ve ever even used it as an excuse to get out of something (until this column, I guess). As far as I’m concerned, it is a matter of personal failure that a whopping majority of my time is pre-planned, and that I rarely allow myself time to relax. I just have so many interests, friends, family members, and the obligations that come with each, and also a very difficult time saying “no” to anyone, for anything, for any reason, that my lifestyle is the result. If any of you are fellow ENFPs, I know you can relate to my feeling that a meticulously pre-planned life is a horrible, ugly, nasty thing, one I am working very hard to change.

That’s enough complaining, though. You’ve just met the 2016-2017 version of Alex, and I can assure you he will be very different by 2018 (seriously hold me to it, under threat of every last one of my to-do lists being buried under a pile of chicken poop).

Today, I want to have a heart-to-heart with you. You don’t have to grow a fall garden. In fact, it might be better for everything and everyone involved if you let Nature reclaim that little parcel until next spring. Really, I promise, it’ll be fine.

Every year that I’ve been gardening (this was my 9th, I think), I have attempted some measure of fall gardening. In most of those years, it was just a way to keep the productive summer garden going. But this year, my garden has not done exceedingly well. I’ll chalk some of it up to the weather – periods of bone-dry heat, alternating with week-long stretches of cloudy skies and rain, that do not a strong tomato plant make – but it is certainly mostly my fault. Actually, given the pandemonium I spat out above, I’m genuinely amazed at the amount of tomatoes, green beans, and turnips that are ready for harvest as I write this.

And as always, the abrupt transition from summer to fall had me thinking about a fall garden. But this year, that garden would exist not as an extension of my beloved summer plot, but squarely as atonement for the sin of neglect. Hence why, I decided against it this year.

I need to get certain things in order, trim down some of my obligations, and recover some of the fire of passion that I used to have about my interests. Next year’s summer garden will be great, and if I find it in me, next year’s fall garden will also be great. But for right now, I’m looking forward to a lower-stress couple of months, without the impending certainty of failing at a fall garden, which itself would only have been an apology for the quasi-failure that came before.

And so with all of that said, I’ll share some good reasons (read: not excuses!) to harvest the last crops of summer, pull up spent plants and cut back perennials, and mulch the manure out of that bad boy until spring. I want to reiterate that I am not in any way discouraging fall gardening, which is a great activity that I will most likely do next year. I am merely giving a nod to those whose lives might make it more difficult for them to plant a second time this year, or whose underperforming summer garden has discouraged them from doing so: here’s why it’s ok to rest and lie fallow over winter…and let your garden do the same.

            It’s actually good for the land. If you look around in the middle of October, there is very little growing. Our climate is not exactly conducive to most plant growth during the late fall and winter, and has evolved certain biological and chemical rhythms in order to replenish itself during this time. Microbial activity is still occurring, and the winter is a chance for organic matter to break down, pathogens, weeds, and insect pests to be killed, and the soil to be given a rest from the extraction of nutrients that it endures the rest of the year. As long as you clean spent plants, mulch, and optionally plant some cover crops, your garden will be waiting for you, all the better for a nice rest, next spring

            It’s probably good for your family, friends, and pets. Gardening can be a time-expensive hobby. It is fulfilling, and productive, and a very natural thing for human beings to do. But allowing yourself the chance to rest for a few months of the year means you can devote more time to your family, friends, and pets.

The “family and friends” part should be self-evident, and so should the part about pets. But by “pets”, of course, I also mean chickens and other food animals. Obviously they cannot be allowed to lie fallow over winter (that’s called neglect). By temporarily removing your attention from the garden, you can give more of it to them – both empathetic attention, like you’d give any companion animal, and also productive attention – and they will be the better for it. You can use this opportunity to update the coop and give it a thorough cleaning, both of which I plan to do this weekend.

It’s good for the farmers, if you make it. We’ve already gone over the “you-probably-can’t-grow-all-your-food-yourself-so-buy-the-rest-from-local-farmers” thing plenty of times, but this might be especially true during the winter. As I said, it is not easy to grow winter crops in our area, and it requires a lot of overhead and investment (of time, money, and willpower) on the part of the farmers. I have seen Blue Skys Farm’s amazing winter greenhouses, and let me tell you that it is no easy task for Christina and her colleagues, even with passion like theirs.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t grow spinach for anything, in November or otherwise. Make sure, if you are taking a break, you support the experts by buying your vegetables from the many winter farmers markets in our state (might I suggest the Hope Street Market in Pawtucket). You won’t be disappointed.

            It’s good for you, if you need it. Considering everything listed above, I feel like you don’t need to be told twice why it might be good to take this season off. If it’s been a bad garden year, or you just can’t seem to find the time right now, you might be doing more harm than good, trying to make up for that by committing to a fall planting. It’s ok. Seriously.

If you are in the same boat as I, let your garden rest and lie fallow for the next couple of months. Get your commitments in order, enjoy the holidays, and get ready. Because come spring, it will come out of hibernation, and so will you, and you’ll be ready to fall in love with it again.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 80 – Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

17 09 2017

(September 17, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

Today, let’s take a quick break from self-sufficiency, to instead talk about the pretty remarkable brand of agriculture in which I recently got the chance to immerse myself.

Last week, I was on the island of Santorini, Greece, at the tail-end of a trip to see my family on the mainland. I learned quite a bit about community-level, effective self-sufficiency while spending time with my relatives, but today’s column is about the industriousness of the farmers on this small island in the Aegean Sea.

So, unbeknownst to me even as my plane touched down, Santorini is actually a semi-arid desert climate. It is hot and very dry during the summer, and cool, wet, and very windy during the winter. This, combined with the mineral-rich but humus-poor volcanic soil, makes agriculture generally kind of difficult there.

And here’s where the industriousness of the Greeks (like all Southern Europeans) is really made obvious: despite the harsh conditions, farmers on the island have found ways to grow world-famous, prized produce, and even capitalize on the native grape varieties and associated terroir, to produce some of the best wine in the world.

Now, keep in mind, they don’t really have to do this. Santorini is one of the most traveled-to islands on Earth, and tourism is probably more than enough to drive its economy. The people there are skilled at receiving tourists. Many of them speak fluent English, and some measure of Spanish, Italian, French, and even a bit of Slavic or Nordic; they are incredibly tolerant of tourists being…well, touristy…and have managed to preserve their culture and the beauty of their island despite having so many visitors from around the world, with far less of a personal stake in its preservation.

No, I don’t think their economic solvency as an island requires agriculture…but they still do it. A lot of it. I didn’t talk to too many farmers while I was there, but in talking to the few that I did meet, I recognized this extreme passion for the high-quality agricultural products that Greeks are known for, an appreciation for the land and its capabilities, and a cultural attachment to the farming culture that has sustained my country of origin since many thousands of years Before Christ.

The few types of produce they can grow in quantity, they grow very well. They are renowned for their intensely-flavored cherry tomatoes, a delicacy I sampled a couple of times in restaurants, and their tender white eggplants, edible even raw. One of the famous dishes on the island is “Fava Santorinis”, a mashed bean dish made with legumes grown in their soil, and they incorporate their locally-grown capers into much of their food.

And the islanders are very, very proud of their traditional agriculture. Restaurants, even those in very touristy areas, base their menus on traditional dishes from Greece and Santorini, making a point to use the island’s produce, and proudly advertise that fact. And having eaten many of these vegetables myself, I can attest to their quality and taste.

But the pièce de résistance, the type of farming that inspired me to write this column, was, of course, viniculture: the art of growing and harvesting grapes, and processing them into wine.

The island is well-known for their quasi-native Assyrtiko grapes, and along with these, they grow a few other traditional Greek varieties whose names I cannot recall. When I first began to explore the island, I was puzzled by the low-growing, bushy plants that seemed to be growing wild in every open parcel of land. It took a little while to realize that these were, in fact, the native grape plants from which the island’s prized wines are made.

Much of Santorini is covered with their unique version of vineyards, which are these Assyrtiko grape vines, grown as low-lying bushes (not on any sort of trellising), and spaced very distantly apart. In speaking to the owners of my hotel, who are themselves grape-growers, I learned that the vines are grown close to the ground to protect them from the harsh, killing winter winds, and are spaced so widely because of difficulties in keeping the arid soil properly irrigated.

Being the topsoil-loving hippy I am, I couldn’t help but wonder why the farmers didn’t use large amounts of mulch to try to build the organic matter in the soil, retain moisture in the summer dry-heat and winter wind, and prevent runoff. I asked my friends who owned the hotel, but the conversation quickly got beyond my skill level in the Greek language, so I’m still not sure of the answer. I can guess, though, that the unique terroir – the taste, smell, and quality of the wines that is characteristic of Santorini – may depend on those native grapes being grown in the specific – yes, dry, arid, and maybe even humus-poor – ecological conditions of the island.

And though I only had two days to sample the variety of wines produced in Santorini, I can totally see why the people care enough to preserve their viniculture! There were two traditional wines that I kept happening upon: the dry, white Assyrtiko, and the syrupy-sweet, technically white Vinsanto.

I like dry wines a lot, in no small part because I feel much better drinking them in the context of my low-carbohydrate diet. That said, with the low sugar content, the complex flavors of the grape are able to come through in the taste of the wine. This was some of the best dry, white wine I have ever had.

On the other end of the spectrum, though made – I came to understand – with the same grapes, is the world-renowned “Vinsanto”. To make this wine, as explained to me by my hotel friends, the grapes are cut and left in the field for a couple of days, to dry them partially into raisins and caramelize the natural sugars. From these grapes, the wine is fermented. This process produces a white wine that is more of an amber, light-maple-syrup-color. After explaining this process to me, the owners of my hotel brought me a flask of their homemade Vinsanto, aged a few years, for me to try. This was, again, some of the best wine I have ever had.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 79 – On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

16 09 2017

(August 27, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

After my second-to-last column about self-sufficiency was published, I thought about another important motivation behind peoples’ endeavor for “effective self-sufficiency”; one that is often overlooked in writings on the topic, but nonetheless a driving force for many people.

There is a certain comfort, a feeling of inherent security and freedom, that comes from systems where we – as individuals, families, and small communities – are in full control; systems whose operation is only otherwise subject to Acts of God/Nature, and not to the will and whim of external human entities that probably don’t have our personal best interests in mind. This is true across the board – who wouldn’t feel freer on a big plot of land, where they can raise chickens, or an orchard, or any herbal plant they want, without being watched, judged, and condemned by micro-regulation-happy locals and their municipality? And what internet user wouldn’t feel more secure with the knowledge that the information they transmit and receive is truly, honest-to-God not being looked at by private “Big Data” corporations and the NSA, despite there being nothing to hide?

Well, this is even truer of the systems by which our food, water, fibers (materials), energy, and production/processing/value-adding services – the basic goods and services responsible for keeping us alive and healthy – are produced. I can certainly say that I feel significantly different about a particular vegetable, or fruit, or egg, or gallon of water that I grew, raised, or gathered myself. When there is no industry, no force of government, no selfish private interest upon which you NEED to depend for the basic goods you require and no person or institution from which you must ask some permission in order to produce those goods; when your food is born of the soil and dies at your lips, with no entity of interests contrary to your own intervening in between…that’s a human life best lived.

So with that said, this column is about practically implementing a system as described above. I’m defining this as a system where we are capable of being secure and free in the production processes by which our goods are produced, though by no means ideologically bound to always be so; and where those goods are produced sustainably, on a small-enough scale to be considered “effectively self-sufficient”, without surpassing the point of diminishing returns in self-sufficiency.

The basic question is: If the stores were to close tomorrow, what do we need to be producing on individual and small community levels, to continue normal human existence for an extended time? Food, of course, which would include vegetables and animal protein at a minimum, with fruit and healthy fat sources added in for nutrient and palate variety. We also need potable water, shelter, some minimum amount of energy, (arguably) clothing, and the skills or services needed to 1) change all of these from raw materials into usable form and 2) keep us happy beyond the physical requirements for survival (entertainment, recreation, community).

Let’s go through each of the categories of goods above and discuss them in semi-isolation. For each, we can look at how the inherent limitations of your specific situation – that is, how much land you have, how much labor/time you are willing and able to exert, how much money you have to invest in startup, and your present repertoire of skills and ability to expand them – shape how you might implement them. We will discuss specific examples of each type of system, and consider the central goal of producing as much of that thing as is possible in a sustainable way.

Food. This is probably limited by land more than anything else. With a pretty investment in seed, plants, and some type(s) of animal, and a willingness to dedicate a moderate amount of time working and learning, the amount of food you grow is pretty much dependent on the amount of space to grow it.

For plants, your yield for each unit of time, labor, and money you invest will be highest if you use permaculture-type principles, focusing on perennial plants, rotating whatever annuals you do grow, practicing polyculture and guilding, and using beyond-organic methods that improve soil fertility and resilience in the long-run.

For animals, whether it’s a flock of chickens in your backyard or a herd of cows on a 10-acre plot, you should raise them in the type of environment, and the diet, on which they evolved. This will maximize their health and therefore yours; and when accounted for in the long-term spreadsheet demanded by sustainability, will produce the highest yields of any system.

Growing food can be scaled to almost any size of land available, and it’s worth focusing on the crops and animals that give the most bang-for-the-buck (and hour, and acre!). It is easy to be self-sufficient in herbs and spices, since a little space goes a long way. And because a big part of the diet of chickens and pigs, among others, can come from food waste, their space requirements on your land don’t necessarily need to include the space to grow their food (like pasture-land for cows).

Water. Collecting potable water is a very different game. This can come either from some sort of rainwater catchment, from a stream or other running water source, or from groundwater. Whichever source(s) are available to you, you need to decide the end uses that you’re willing and skilled enough to provide for. Drinking/cooking water is obviously the highest-value use, and I would urge you not to attempt this unless you are certain about the quality and purity of the final product before consuming it. For other uses that involve human contact – irrigation of foods, supplying animals, and even cleaning – water doesn’t necessarily need to meet human potability standards, but must minimally be free from sewage (obviously), high levels of pathogenic bacterial contamination, and toxic chemicals.

This is a more attainable state for even urban farmers, because rainwater is plentiful and easy to collect, and almost always meets these standards. A system as simple as a barrel on the end of a downspout is all that’s needed; alternatively, I have seen – at that heaven-on-Earth, Blue Skys/Urban Edge Farm, a rainwater and groundwater fed pond that is used to sustainably supply for irrigation needs.

Shelter. This is a little more implicit in whatever type of property you have. If you already have a house, you’re done with this section. If not, reason would dictate that you need a place to live, to protect you from the elements, and to maintain your body temperature within a healthy range (which does segue into the next section). By no means am I well-versed in construction, but there is a wide array of permaculture literature available for green, sustainable, low-impact, and actually pretty inexpensive building. Once your home (I hesitate to sound soullessly technical by calling it a “dwelling”) is built, especially if built in such a way that you are able to repair and maintain it yourself, and even more especially if the materials to do so can be locally-sourced (Earth-bags, anyone?), then you can call it effectively self-sufficient.

Energy. This is probably the most capital-intensive but land-cheap item on the list. At base, the energy we consume is used to keep our shelters and water at a reasonable temperature, cook our food, transport us long distances, and entertain us. That energy is usually supplied to us in a few basic forms: as electricity, as natural gas, as heating oil (though less common now), and as wood or other bio-fuels.

A solar array and battery bank is enough to supply any reasonable household’s electricity needs, and a bigger one in tandem with electric car(s) can supply their transportation as well. Systems like passive solar heating/water-heating, wood fires, homemade biofuels, and other distributed generation (remember back to that series of columns I wrote a few months back?) can fill the spaces that electricity can’t.

Clothing/Textiles/Materials. This is a little more situation-dependent. There are many sources of usable fiber, from linen (flax) and wood, to stinging nettle and cotton, to animal-based textiles like leather and wool. These can be grown/raised/harvested as a pretty natural extension of your food-growing endeavors, and even, in some cases, with just additional effort but no additional land or investment (i.e. wool from sheep being raised for meat/milk; nettle fibers from wild-growing stinging nettles; leather from beef cattle). These products also require a pretty extensive set of skills, but nothing that cannot be learned with a little effort and a book by John Seymour.

Next time, we’ll address the process- and community-level “products” (homestead skills, entertainment, community), and talk about a really good example of this effectively-complete self-sufficiency in action that I am currently experiencing. I want to bring up the way that these individual production systems can interplay, and how you would see that implemented in a holistic, community level.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

So, while I was writing my last column, it occurred to me that many of my readers may be new, either to my column or the subject of sustainable agriculture, and might not be fully aware of the issues that exist with industrial agriculture as it is currently practiced. Before moving deeper into our ideological quest for the ideal sustainable, self-sufficient homestead, I think it’d be great to give you all a little briefer (or just a reminder) on the woes of industrial agriculture. Queue the foreboding music and the lightening!

To start: what is industrial agriculture? This column is not about the small-scale family farm. It is not about the sustainably-managed vegetable operations. It is not about the pastured cattle or poultry or hogs. It is not about the integrated-livestock-and-plant operations, the small orchards, the pick-your-own-whatever farms, or the local apiaries. With the notable exception of one farming empire that wields quite a bit of political clout, this isn’t really about any farm in Rhode Island, or most places in New England (because we’re just that awesome).
This column is about industrial agriculture. Make that “Industrial Agriculture”, with the capital letters designating it as a namable, diagnosable, and most importantly, treatable disease of society. It is about the 5000 contiguous acres of corn, the 12,000 chickens kept in battery cages, the intensive, undocumented-labor-exploiting vegetable operations. Industrial Agriculture is what happens when food is treated as a mere commodity, and the land as a factory, from which as much of that commodity must be produced as possible, with as little expense and human intervention as possible. It is what happens when the government subsidizes productivity at the expense of quality, and the people demand that cost be minimized at the expense of their own health.

It is what happens, in short, when too few people in our country experience anything to do with agriculture (except, of course, its final product); when too few know remotely enough make responsible choices.

And what does that look like? I’m so, so glad you asked.

Carbon dioxide. Lots of it. Between farm equipment, cold storage, processing, and shipping and distribution, Industrial Agriculture uses huge amounts of fossil fuels. Natural gas is even used to manufacture artificial fertilizers; a chemical reaction called the Haber-Bosch Process turns methane into ammonia, releasing carbon dioxide as if it were burned. Not to mention, the large-scale tillage that must be done in order to satisfy our country’s addiction to high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils, forces the soil to off-gas huge amounts of carbon dioxide. All-in-all, Industrial Agriculture is responsible for a double-digit-percentage of the climate-changing carbon dioxide released by our species.

The socio-economic issues associated with Industrial Agriculture shouldn’t be diminished, either. Products, both animal- and plant-based, are considered commodities. This makes them subject to global price fluctuations, which harms not only farmers in the U.S./West, but abroad. The federal government subsidizes certain crops – wheat, corn, soy – in such a way that farmers are forced to continually increase yields, planting “hedgerow-to-hedgerow” at risk of not remaining solvent. This subsidy program and these crops form the basis of our unhealthy food industry (more on this later). And because of the number of steps between the farmer and the end-user’s corn chips, soda, or white bread, the farmer ends up getting paid only a few cents out of every dollar spent at the grocery store. Not to mention, undocumented workers are taken advantage of by industrial farms, paid grossly less than the minimum wage, given no benefits, and made to work long, laborious hours doing jobs that most Americans wouldn’t dream of wanting.

The growing practices of Industrial crops leave much to be desired, and leave even more that can’t be washed off, in the way of chemical residues. The land is forced to conform to a rigid set of industrial standards, not the least of which is monoculture – where thousands of contiguous acres are planted to the same crop – and leaving the soil bare. These issues bring about insect pest and weed problems, for which toxic pesticides and herbicides are sprayed liberally on our food. And to boot, minimally-tested, questionably-safe, and only marginally-effective genetically engineered seed is used in place of open-pollinated.

Over-tillage, lack of groundcover, and a slew of other bad land-management habits result in huge amounts of topsoil washing off into the ocean – causing an environmental nightmare in its own right. The soil loses its natural water-retention capabilities, so more is used in irrigation. And artificial fertilizers are used as a band-aid for the loss of fertility, replacing the naturally-fixed nitrogen so that plants can still grow, but never able to replenish the beneficial microbes, organic pH buffers, biological residues, and that golden humus responsible for the continued existence of life on this planet.

On Industrial animal farms, the conditions are even worse. Instead of being fed from the pastures and forests on which they evolved, animals are fed largely unnatural diets, consisting of the commodity crops above and, in many cases, the waste products of industrial food processing (a nice way to say, “garbage”). They are generally treated horribly, concentrated in very tight quarters and denied the ability to perform their natural behaviors.

These diets and lifestyles make them sick, with pretty nasty strains of E. coli, salmonella, and the like, which risk tainting the food. They are treated with antibiotics – both because of these diseases, and also because antibiotics make animals gain weight (think about that, next time you’re prescribed one for a virus) – and those antibiotics definitely taint the food, no question about it. And the manure they produce is…let’s say…not the same, high-quality compost material you’d get from a local farm. Tainted with antibiotics and harmful pathogens, and present in such high concentrations, it becomes an environmental nuisance. Instead of nourishing the ground, it poisons it.

And all of this is to say nothing of the effects of Industrial Agriculture on human health. I’ve written pretty extensively about this in the past, but the huge subsidies given to grain and soy operations means that these are the things that are grown, and these are the things fed to us in as many ways possible, including (unnaturally) through ruminant animals. A processed-food- and grain-based diet, deplete of vegetables and pasture-raised meat (the basic foods not subsidized by industrial agriculture) is the cause of chronic disease, hands down.

So…bad for the land, bad for the creatures being grown and raised, bad for the farmers, and bad for the consumers. Can you see why I feel the way I do about Industrial Agriculture?

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.