The Call, Column 77 – Why Self-Sufficiency?

30 07 2017

(July 30, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Why Self-Sufficiency?

Have you ever been at the market, buying a blog of cheese, a head of lettuce, or a dozen eggs, and found yourself wishing you could grow or raise or produce that thing yourself? Or maybe you do grow a garden a raise a few chickens, but hate that you still have to buy water and higher-value consumer goods, when the only thing stopping you is a good catchment system or the skill of your own hands?

I’m pretty sure that a lot of us have these thoughts. Stemming from either wanting to save money, or a desire to be acquainted with the production process, or even aversion to support a harmful industrial model, I think it’s pretty standard that well-informed people begin to resent our role as meager end-consumers of goods and services, wishing instead that we could be make and do more things ourselves.

This, my friends, is how I define self-sufficiency. If you remember from last time, I promised that I would write a couple of columns on some of the vague concepts that surround that grandiose idea of “homesteading”. I figured we could start with this concept of self-sufficiency – producing more, most, or all of the things one consumes within one’s own homestead. I am going to look at all of this with a moderately critical eye, and discuss how we might implement some of measure of self-sufficiency within our own urban farms without getting bogged down in extremes. Let’s begin!

Before getting to practical considerations, we need to discuss the different forms or “levels” of self-sufficiency, and the motivations that might drive each of them.

The first of these is what I’m going to call “modular self-sufficiency”. That is, choosing certain goods and services that you and your household consume, and integrating production models for those goods into your life. Nearly every person on Earth, even in the consumerist West, engages in some form of this modular self-sufficiency. Activities like cooking and baking one’s own food, managing one’s own finances, and even providing one’s own entertainment (i.e. recreation) are all moderately good examples of self-sufficiency in services. There is a short list of goods we require to keep ourselves alive, and a longer list of goods and services that we desire to keep ourselves comfortable, and a giant list of goods and services that we consume in order to live standard Western lives, and any individual act of providing ourselves with one of these goods or services instead of buying it (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), is at, its base, modular self-sufficiency.

But the real magic happens when we go beyond the basic activities that everyone around us does to keep themselves alive and comfortable. Though subsistence farming is pretty standard in much of the rest of the world, it is not so in the United States. Here, growing a three- or four-season garden or raising a flock of chickens is quite the revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of providing yourself with certain food items instead of buying them.

And so it goes. This idea of modular self-sufficiency is applicable to any good or service you consume. Deciding to collect rainwater to irrigate your garden, raising fruit trees and bushes, chopping your own firewood, taking on some kitchen or workshop craft (i.e. cheese-making, brewing, furniture making, canning, whatever) is a revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of rejecting the industrial production model of that good or service, and using your time and resources to substitute your own.

And it is great, to be modularly self-sufficient in as many goods and services as you can. But some people desire to take this further. Some people with enough land, and time, and know-how, make their goal to be completely self-sufficient. But what does that mean?

In my view, there are two types of complete self-sufficiency – truly complete self-sufficiency, and effectively complete self-sufficiency. Truly complete self-sufficiency is when you, on your own land and using your own resources, produce literally every good and service that you consume. There is something romantic about this idea, about being completely independent of any external production model for anything you consume, from the produce and meat and water you eat to every toy and widget you would otherwise buy. But to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever read about or encountered anyone who is successfully, happily, “truly completely self-sufficient”…and that’s probably a good thing.

In economics, there is a principle called The Law of Diminishing Returns on Investment. The basic idea is that, within a specific context, each additional unit of something that you utilize yields less benefit than the unit before. The typical example that is given is artificial fertilizers. But because we are well-informed urban farmers with nuanced views of agricultural production, we should substitute compost for artificial fertilizers in the example (just like in real life). If the first cubic foot of compost you put in your tomato bed increases your tomato yield by 30%, the next cubic foot will likely have less of an exaggerated effect…and the next one less, and the next one less, until, at some point, more compost does nothing in terms of increasing production. This is the point of diminished return on investment.

I would suggest that we can apply this reasoning to the modular acts of self-sufficiency that one can take towards the goal of truly complete self-sufficiency. Depending heavily on your individual situation, there are certain acts of modular self-sufficiency that produce huge benefits. For a relatively small amount of effort and money, you can grow much of your own produce; for maybe 20% the cost per dozen of free-range, organic eggs, you can raise a flock of chickens and become self-sufficient in that arena. And it goes like this, for quite a few general categories of items, from fruits and even meat (rabbits, anyone?), to rainwater catchment for irrigation, renewable energy systems like solar arrays, and a good many services (cooking, financial management) and value-added products (things like cheese, alcohol, etc).

But what about that Pinterest recipe that requires tarragon, quail eggs, and mustard greens? Truly complete self-sufficiency requires you to grow these yourself, so do we set aside some garden space, and build another coop, in order to have these specialty foods? And then, consider goods that cannot be grown in the Northeast – citrus, olives, avocados, coffee…do we abstain because we can’t grow them ourselves?

In the standard, “come-to-Jesus” education of a well-informed urban farmer, there is a point where he or she would probably answer “yes” to both of those questions. For years, I sure would have! Now, of course, I’m not knocking any of those foods. If you use tarragon every day, or have a penchant for quail eggs, then they are probably within the previous list of effective acts of modular self-sufficiency. But these examples are well-beyond the point of diminishing returns for most people, and it’s not worth the time, effort, and expense to produce a specialty good if it can even be done in your climate, nor the deprivation of abstaining from those that cannot, merely to satisfy the black-and-white notion that everything you consume, no matter how small, must be produced at home.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The globalized, commodification-based, environmentally- and socially-exploitive, fossil-fueled production model is the problem, not the urban farmer that grows elderberries to avoid having to potentially buy cough syrup, even though he doesn’t get sick (*blushes*). I figure that you probably already recognized that, as readers of my column. But that doesn’t change the fact that a socially-, environmentally-, economically-, and globally-conscious urban farmer such as yourself, would be using an unnecessary amount of your time in forcing yourself to make furniture or grow a half-acre of pineapple mint (there, I’m not only picking on tarragon), when your neighbor is a skilled carpenter and your friend is a farmer of specialty herbs and spices, simply on the vague notion that you need to do these things yourself. Do you see where I’m coming from?

So what’s the solution? What is the goal to strive towards? The answer: effectively-complete self-sufficiency! You need basic food (fruit, vegetables, meat), water, energy, and shelter at a minimum to stay alive. And you need community, recreation and entertainment, certain value-added foods, and a slew of case-specific services to keep you comfortable and happy.

Instead of spreading yourself too thin, trying to produce a little of every possible thing you consume, a more fruitful path towards self-sufficiency is to satisfy your needs and wants for each of these general categories in an environmentally-sustainable manner, and allow yourself to buy or trade for specific things that you don’t produce yourself from other people producing them similarly!

Next time, we will take a look at what this effectively-completely self-sufficient production system looks like in practice, on a community level, and discuss some practical ways you can make it happen.

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 76 – The Concepts of Homesteading

19 07 2017

(July 16, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Concepts of Homesteading

            In many of my columns, I’ve throw around this concept of “homestead” without much of an explanation. I’ve described urban farms as “homesteads” in some cases, and discussed “homesteading” as a type of living, akin to urban farming on a much greater and more deliberate level.

This type of lifestyle, and the philosophy embedded within it, has been really inspirational to me in my slow journey towards sustainability and rejection of Western social norms. Over the span of a few columns, I think it would be really interesting to dive into these ideas, fleshing out what exactly it means to homestead, how much this can be done within the city, and the effect that an individual’s homestead may have on personal environmental sustainability, food security, and happiness.

Today, let’s start by going through some of the foundational concepts related to homesteading, to get a feel for the ideas and dialogue before diving deeper in future columns.

First off, what exactly is homesteading? The use of the word dates as far back as European imperialism, where the homes and land of small subsistence farmers, in the countries that Britain had temporarily seized, were called “homesteads”. The word carried through the English language, and in the US, it caught on after the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862. By this legislation, the federal government supported peoples’ Western expansion by guaranteeing families a pretty decent parcel of Native land on which to settle, farm, and live.

It has evolved quite a bit into its modern concept, which is surprisingly difficult to define. Today’s “homesteading” is more like the conscious act of maintaining your home and land, such that it supplies some measure of your resource requirements; and in addition, maintaining your land in the context of the area, so that it contributes to a strong local economy, minimizes local environmental pollution, and encourages a vibrant community of people.

I know, that’s quite the mouthful. The basic idea is that homesteaders want to view their homes as points of production, in addition to points of consumption. This can come in many different forms, depending on personal interests, as well as what types of resources can reasonably be produced from the home and land.

This list is pretty extensive. The basic, raw resources that many seek to produce are: food, through urban farming (!); water, from rain catchment, diverting flowing water sources, and extracting groundwater (i.e. through a well); shelter, which is kind of inherent in a house; energy, through any combination of renewable energy generation or (and this is REALLY stretching the definition of on-site production) a fossil fuel generator; and fibers/‘materials’, like wood, textiles, metals, hides, etc, through farming or sustainable logging/mining/gathering/hunting.

The homesteader may also want to produce “resources” beyond these basic ones. These include: the creation of value-added resources, like food processing, lumber milling, fiber spinning, water treatment, etc; entertainment and recreation; and, of course, community.

Obviously, this list is incomplete. What I want to do is to get you into the mindset of thinking about all of the resources that you, personally, and your household consume. What are ways that any or all of those could be produced on your land? We will discuss this more in the future, but that idea of producing ALL of your own resources leads us to the next concept I want to touch on.

“Self-sufficiency” or “self-reliance” is a particular type of homesteading, in which the homesteader seeks to produce all of their own resources. Or at least, all of the resources that they need to survive, should a hypothetical situation arise that would cut off the normal supply chain.

Self-sufficiency is pretty environmentally-agnostic. You can rotationally graze cows on your pastures, which is certainly a self-sufficient production system, at least in beef, dairy, cowhides, etc. But you can also raise them in a CAFO, feeding them grain grown on your own land, and technically still be self-sufficient.  See how both of these are technically self-sufficient in those products?

The basic idea being pursued in self-sufficiency, is to have production systems in place that some subset of required resources can be produced without any intervention from wider society. I believe that this is a good goal, in general, especially if it is conducted more on a community level than used as justification for isolationism. That is, every house doesn’t necessarily need to go completely off-grid, and have the equipment to make cheese, and brew beer, and weave fiber, and mill lumber, and process every kind of animal, and press paper, and make maple syrup, and…the list goes on. As long as people can provide basic needs – basic foods (meat and vegetables), water, energy – and allow a community to be built around creating the value-added resources. I hope to talk more about this in the future.

This leads to another, very important concept: resilience. Any homestead, self-sufficient or otherwise – and really, any system at all – should be measured by whether it is resilient, whether it is capable of surviving an inopportune event or situation and continue functioning more-or-less as normal.

This is a powerful metric, because it indicates whether a production model can be relied upon for consistent production, even in times of stress. Nature, as the basic measure for everything we do, is resilient. Life is self-perpetuating, and disastrous events (which are, ironically, also part of nature) can destroy natural systems in a certain area for a period of time, but the web of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial life, the biogeochemical resource cycles, sunlight, etc is resilient enough that even very big wounds can be healed.

Finally, we have the concept of individual environmental sustainability. We’ve talked a lot about this in the past, but it relates pretty strongly to the homesteading. As I said, homesteading and self-sufficiency don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, but sustainability is another good metric for the effectiveness of a homestead.

As you probably know, the simplest definition of a system that is environmentally sustainable is that, over time, it produces an environment which is at least as “fertile” – as capable of continued production of biological life and environmental services – as it was before the system started; meaning, that this system could theoretically be in place forever, and would never render the environment incapable of supporting it.

I think I’ll leave it at that for right now, because writing this has given me a lot of ideas for future columns on these concepts. See you then!

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 75 – The Best Parts of Urban Farming

2 07 2017

(July 2, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Best Parts of Urban Farming

Ahh, summer! The garden is growing, the chickens are laying and loving the heat, and I’ve been spending a whole lot of time outside – both on the urban farm and off it. I’ve gotten a real, newfound enthusiasm for my homestead this year, in no small part because it’s actually off to a really good start, and poised for a productive season. Since I know we’re all busy, I wanted to take this week to quickly highlight a few of my absolute favorite things to grow and raise, and methods to use, to see if maybe you share my enthusiasm.

Raspberries. And blackberries. It was the ripening of my first summer raspberries a few days ago that really prompted this topic. I have been eating an ultra-strict version of the Paleo diet as an experiment over the past week, which temporarily excludes anything with any measurable about of sugar. But the sight of that first, ripe, plump raspberry on the plant on Thursday afternoon meant I had to make an exception – and I’m glad I did! The crop this year seems like it’ll be really great, so I’m excited for that.

So if I were talking to a new urban farmer, in probably every case I would recommend that they plant bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries) before anything else…including any vegetables. Not only are they the easiest fruit to grow, but these plants require basically no care. And as I’ve taken to telling people recently, their productive capacity is limited pretty much only by the farmer’s ability to keep them from spreading.

They can be planted in areas with very little sunlight and still produce bountifully, and I’m not kidding when I say that a single cane planted this year, with basically no effort on your part, will be dozens of productive canes in two years’ time. And when it comes to nutritional bang for the buck, bramble fruits might be second only to leafy greens. They are incredibly high in fiber, such that the sugar in them probably won’t create any negative metabolic effects in anyone. Unlike many other fruits, they have a healthy balance both of glucose/fructose and of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids. And as far as fruit goes, they are pretty dense in micronutrients. All of this, in a tasty, abundantly-growing package!

Mulch. I can’t quite express how much I love mulch, though I confess to not always use enough of it. Straw, leaves, grass clippings, mulched wood/bark…it doesn’t matter. With a few inches of mulch covering your garden’s soil, everything will grow better.

I’ve used more mulch (a combination of straw, a special shredded and heat-treated hay/straw mixture, and grass clippings) this year than ever before, and I’ve seen great improvements in soil health. Just the other day, I pulled back some of the mulch while planting, to find the soil, still damp, cool, and full of earthworms right up to the surface. This was three or four days after the last rainstorm, since when it had been 85°F and dry.

A thick layer of mulch keeps the soil moist and prevents water runoff and evaporation, encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms and bugs, cools down plants’ roots which aids in growth, prevents most weeds, keeps certain plants (like tomatoes) safe from soil-borne diseases, and preserves soil nutrient from depletion (a big problem in raised bed gardens like mine); not to mention, I think it makes my garden look a lot more natural.

Companion planting. This is a practice that I’ve been doing almost as long as I’ve been gardening (9+ years?!), based heavily on an old masterpiece, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte.

The basic idea is that, certain combinations of plants are mutually beneficial when planted near each other, others are mutually harmful, and yet others are neutral, and in some cases, there are pairs where one sees benefit and the other sees harm by their proximity.

This is a very holistic, inexact science, but I’ve definitely found it useful in deciding how to lay out my garden each year. The harms and benefits between plants come in many shapes and forms, and are causes by many different facets of each plant. In some cases, one plant exudes a compound from its roots and harms or helps others. Other times, the scent of one plant deters some insect pest that would harm the other. And then, like in the case of potatoes and tomatoes (respectively), some plants are vectors for a plant disease that doesn’t harm them, but can harm a related plant if they are close by each other, or planted in the same soil in subsequent years.

The types of effects range from soil-borne chemical exchange, to resistance or attraction of pests or beneficial insects, to disease harboring or prevention, to even shading or windbreak capabilities. You should definitely read a little about this (either in Ms. Riotte’s book, or on the internet), even if you just plan to use it as the baseline from which you plan your garden layout.

Leafy greens. And specifically, certain well-adapted lettuces. As long as you start them right, these are incredibly easy to grow. And like brambles, they yield quite the nutrient-bang for the buck (other than iceberg, that is).

I always grow a lot of lettuce plants of many different varieties, both by direct seeding in the spring and by starting in 72-cell trays (which tends to work better in my case). I stick them between newly planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and even brassicas early in the season. These provide a little protection from the summer heat at first (#companionplanting), but by the time they’re big enough to block the sun, the lettuce is long since harvested.

Organic/sustainable lettuce is pretty pricey, which makes it even better to grow it in your garden. I happen to get lots of leafy greens (at a very good price, when you break it all down) in my CSA share from Blue Skys Farm, so between those and what I’m soon going to start harvesting from my garden, it’s a good thing I eat so much lettuce!

Chickens!!!!! I would be remiss to not mention these feathery little garbage disposals, that I promise would integrate really well into any urban farm. You can supplement their diet with food and garden scraps which they turn into eggs; their penchant for scratching means you don’t really ever have to till your garden or turn over your compost pile; they have no more favorite food than insect pests; their manure can be composted into valuable fertilizer; and they turn very little feed into a valuable protein source, something not otherwise available from an urban farm (legumes don’t count, because in basically every case, plant proteins are biologically-inferior to animal proteins).

Robust, interwoven, holistic, permaculture systems. I know, that was a lot of buzz-words that probably don’t mean much to the general population. I meant to do that, to cover as much ground as possible with this last “favorite thing” of mine.

What I mean by this, is that I really value truly sustainable agricultural systems where nature is artfully emulated, where human knowledge is used instead of toxic, artificial chemicals and large machines, in order to produce and maintain a complex, productive, resilient ecosystem that is capable of both benefiting the natural world and feeding human beings. Wow, that was a mouthful!

I try to do this with my urban farm, between my chickens, fruit plants, garden, and compost, and I think everyone should. The basic idea is to use the inedible outputs of one entity as the inputs to another entity (i.e. chicken manure into compost and then into soil fertility), which steps your urban farm closer to true sustainability and minimizes the streams of external inputs and wastes.

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 74 – Some Notes From My Urban Farm

18 06 2017

(June 18, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Some Notes From My Urban Farm

Hey everyone, I hope your gardens are coming along nicely despite the abnormal weather (characteristic of a fossil-fueled changing climate, of course). I decided to use today’s column to discuss a few observations, notes, thoughts, and updates from my own urban farm, as it has developed this year. I’ve never done something exactly like this before, but I think it might be helpful to share my experiences with my nearby urban farmers, who can hopefully relate and put them to good use.

This year has NOT been a good one for leafy greens in my garden. It was cold and wet pretty late in the winter, which delayed planting my spinach and lettuce until like April. And it’s been cloudy and cool far too often since then, so now that they are finally established, this onslaught of dry heat is making them bolt! It’s a shame because leafy greens are my favorite vegetables, in no small part because they are the most nutrient-packed plants you can eat. Hopefully you all are having better luck than I am.

It makes me particularly glad that I’m a member of Blue Skys Farm’s CSA program. Each week’s bag is packed with vegetables, including plenty of high-quality greens. Christina and the crew sure know how to grow them, even when the rest of us aren’t having such luck!

Gone are the days of a nice, gradual increase in temperature, and regular, light rain showers over the course of the spring. Climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc on our growing season in the Northeast US. While it’s intellectually irresponsible to attribute a particular weather event to increasing CO2 concentrations, it’s pretty safe to say that we are seeing the effects of climate change in the general shift of our day-to-day weather.

These torrential downpours, alternating with stretches of dry, oppressive heat…this weather is horrible for agriculture. It’s hard to make up for the heat with routine watering (especially if you don’t have 6 inches of mulch), and the massive downfall of rain is only beneficial if it’s followed by a kiss of sun, not another week of clouds. Until we get our act together and globally reduce carbon emissions, this unpredictability and extremeness is the new normal – and it’s only going to get worse from here.

With that said, I think the above-freezing temperatures are here to stay for the season, so I’m planning to plant my warm weather crops over the next few days. I put it off a week or two this year because of how busy I was in late May and early this month. But they’re hardened off and ready to go.

The tomatoes are a little leggy, probably because my house isn’t super temperature-controlled and my seed-starting setup isn’t heated, so they fell victim to the fluctuating temperatures over the past few months. But the eggplants and peppers are generally doing pretty well, so I’m excited for some home-grown, homemade melitzanosalata (a garlicky, Greek eggplant paste that I could eat at every meal) and meat-and-cheese-stuffed-peppers later this summer. Now, let’s hope the weather stays warmish and the rain comes a bit more regularly, so these babies can take off once they’re planted.

My raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries are doing great this year, which is hardly a surprise considering how closely related they are to their wild ancestors. They leafed-out beautifully, they’ve made a surprising number of new canes, and there is a good mix of buds, flowers, and immature fruits on the plants as I write this. This is great news, because bramble fruits are my second favorite foods from the plant kingdom after leafy greens, again and in no small part because of how nutrient (and fiber!) dense they are. Now, if only I could raise red meat animals in my yard, I would never have to buy food again! (Hmm, maybe it’s time for another change to Woonsocket’s Zoning Laws?)

My grapes, blueberries, and other fruiting bushes are doing moderately well this year. I’m hoping for a better crop than last year’s dismal one, so I’m trying to water them more than normal. But the strawberries: they’re doing awful. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the general sentiment I’ve heard is that strawberries in our area are pretty bad this year. It’s likely the same abnormal weather patterns I discussed above, especially because groundcovers tend to like cooler, sunny weather and even moisture. I might dig them all up this fall and move them to a new location, being a little more methodical with the layout, and mulching like it’s my job. We’ll see. I’m enjoying what is being produced, but it isn’t much thus far.

This year was being forecast as the Gypsy moth apocalypse. I haven’t seen that much evidence of the larvae, not nearly as bad as a few years ago, but it may just be a function of my microclimate. Anyone else have a problem in their yard? I’ve talked to some people who live in the central part of RI, who said it’s bad down there. The one good thing that might come from this weather is that they don’t thrive like they were supposed to; that, or it’ll aid in the proliferation of those much-sought-after viruses and fungi that are said to keep the larvae populations in check. Time will tell.

Are you all aware of the origination of the Gypsy moth problem? They were indigenous to Europe, and brought over to Southern MA in the mid 1800s, by a scientist who wanted to experiment on them to produce cheaper silk. They escaped into the wild and spread like wildfire across the Northeast, because they didn’t (and, I believe, still don’t) have natural predators in our area. And now, they needlessly risk the health of our gardens and farms. Have you ever benefitted from cheaper silk prices? I sure as heck haven’t.

This should be a lesson for everyone who scoffs at the DEM and EPA for regulating the movement of plant and animal materials. Regulations like this are in place for a reason. Ecosystems are pretty resilient, but in a perfectly wild setting, they aren’t supposed to be constantly bombarded by species or populations from the other side of the world, or even from hundreds or thousands of miles away. And when they do, there is a significant possibility that the new organisms harm the natural environment.

Other than the Gypsy moths, I’ve always had a huge problem with winter moth larvae, on my apple trees in particular. I started to see it sometime in late April/early May this year, when the trees began budding out, so I made an executive decision: I used foliar Bt spray for the first time in my life. Bt is a soil-borne bacteria, which seems to have evolved to keep populations of destructive insect larvae in check. The spray is approved for use in organic farms, and of all crops, ultra-hybridized, grafted, non-well-adapted apple trees probably wouldn’t survive without a little extra help (but please let me know if you have proof to the contrary). I didn’t make the decision lightly, but the organic spray is certainly effective and is not harmful to human health and not persistent in the environment, so I deemed it acceptable.

Finally, here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In the most general sense possible, we all have different personalities and drives and motivations, which mean that different approaches to the same problem work well for each of us as individuals. This is very true of how we approach creating and maintaining our gardens and urban farms.

In my case, looking specifically at the Myers-Briggs Type Index, I test as an ENFP (“Extroverted-iNtuitive- Feeling-Perceiving”), which explains why I get very enthusiastic about projects at the beginning, but often lose interest if they require a lot of repetitive, mundane maintenance tasks. Thus far, I have gardened in the typical way, which has produced a lot of mental fatigue around having to weed and water (especially if pests or other things beyond my control detract from the success of the garden), and often means I don’t keep up with that type of upkeep as well as I should.

I could certainly force myself to do these tasks, but it significantly detracts from the enjoyment of the garden. Armed with this knowledge, I have more incentive to create what I’m calling “passive maintenance systems”, that allow most of my mental effort associated with the garden to be used for creative pursuits (i.e. planting the next thing, reacting to good and bad weather events, harvesting) than routine maintenance (weeding and watering). These passive maintenance systems include things like drip irrigation to supplant direct watering, mulching to prevent weeds (and actually reduce the amount of water necessary), and permaculture design to make the whole thing function more like an independent ecosystem.

That’s my type. In general, it’s important to the success of our urban farming endeavors to tailor them to the way we think and behave, to maximize the likelihood of success and make it as fun and rewarding as possible. And in the end, there is nothing more enjoyable than a bowl of raspberries or tomato salad that was on the plant 20 minutes before.

I have one quick request. I have been writing this column for three and a half years now (!!!). I’ve written about a lot of exciting topics, and I have a long list of ideas for the future. But I want some input from you. If there is a topic you’d like me to discuss – anything from “hands-on” gardening ideas, to exposés on agricultural or environmental issues, to philosophical discussions about our place in the world – email me about it and I’ll try to make it happen!

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 73 – “A Species Out of Context”

4 06 2017

(June 4, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“A Species Out of Context”

Last fall, I ventured way out to Western Mass, to attend a talk given Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. I wrote a column about this in January, reposted on my blog in case you’re interested in reading more detail.

One of the most inspiring ideas that I took away from this conversation, was something that Wes Jackson said on the topic of agriculture. “Starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture,” he explained, “we became a species out of context.”

A species out of context. A vague form of this idea has been the basis for my understanding of the world for many years, long before attending that talk. But Wes Jackson put it into words more effectively than I ever could have, and helped me to understand it as one of the underlying reasons for many of the things we do and experience.

Most broadly, this idea perfectly characterizes our species’ overall negative interactions with our environment. Each and every harmful aspect of industrial agriculture – the artificial soil fertility, the toxins sprayed into the environment, the horrible conditions of factory animal farms, the treatment of laborers, the vast amounts of energy being wasted – is best described as a deviation from ecologically-appropriate farming methods, as food production “out of context”.

Beyond just agriculture, this characterization is true of any and every damaging interaction we have with the natural world; from we in the developed world causing dangerous climate change by using fossil fuels for energy to releasing pollutants into the air, water, and soil, and dumping massive amounts of garbage into landfills to clear cutting forests; every case of pollution and ecological destruction is just a big sign that we forgot how to live in relative harmony with our environment.

Jackson’s description of “a species out of context” is intriguing from a biological standpoint as well. This is the basic principle behind the Paleo diet, which I have followed for over two years (and suggest that you should, too). It is the idea that our evolutionary development as a species was driven by our natural context over many millions of years, and that the start of agriculture removed us from that context.

Our diets, our movements, our sleep patterns, our stress triggers, and even our communities and cultures, began to adhere to a set of rules written by our human society, rather than those implicit in the natural world. The start of agriculture changed the way we interface with the environment, each other, and our own minds, and introduced a whole plethora of health woes – some might argue, most of the chronic diseases we experience as a species.

Finally, we are “a species out of context” in the ways that we, as individuals, live our day-to-day lives and interact with our culture and society, our “human world”. We spend nearly all of our time in large, climate-controlled boxes (houses, cars, workplaces, stores), and the things that we experience and consume are pretty much all human-made. It is culturally standard to live by the words of Sheldon Cooper’s character on The Big Bang Theory (the irony of quoting a TV show is not lost on me): “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?”

And that, my friends, brings us to my true motivation for writing this column. You see, as has been the case with countless other of my columns, I think exploring this idea together could help us deal with a little problem in our lives; one I started noticing in myself a few weeks ago.

The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and the subsequent start of civilization, shifted the context of a human life from a completely natural environment to an almost completely artificial one.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate from nature; we procreated in nature; we lived and experienced only natural surroundings. The sound of the birds singing, the visuals of green plant life, the scents of soil and flowers and animals, the feelings of the rain and wind and sun and snow – for better and worse, these were our bodies’ biological context. And they were our minds’ sensory context, too. Whatever we were doing at any given time, be it hunting, gathering, building fires, recreating, sleeping – it was in the context of a natural environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the world around us, the landscape and “space” that our species should passively consume as we go about living our lives, is supposed to be a natural one. We are supposed to live in the wild.

But now, it isn’t. And we don’t. For the first time in a very lengthy human history, agriculture – civilization – has resulted in a world where, in complete defiance of what is natural to our bodies and minds, the “surroundings” that we passively consume as we live our lives is the built environment; it is completely artificial, controlled by our own species.

It’s difficult to make a scientific argument as to why exactly this is not a good thing. The closest we can come is to measure our emotional response to built versus natural environments. A team at Exeter University in the UK did just that (https://tinyurl.com/y8xb5ccf), measuring brain activity in response to urban (effectively artificial) environments versus rural (effectively natural) ones. They found that human brains responded much more calmly and meditatively to natural environments, including dull ones, and exhibited an alarming delay in response time (indicating more arduous processing) to built environments, including visually appealing ones. Our brains are much more at ease with nature as the passive backdrop to our lives. Who would have expected that?

Beyond this, though, I think anecdotal evidence may be enough to prove to ourselves that what I’m suggesting is true. I have two personal stories that might get the ball rolling.

I first had the idea for this column while sitting on the bank of the Blackstone River, in Cold Spring Park. It began while I was driving home from an evening out with friends a few weeks ago. The sunset was so beautiful, but all I had on my mind was my to-do list once I got home. And then, I just stopped the car on the side of the road and watched the sky in awe. And when I got home, instead of doing the things on that list, I walked around my neighborhood to get the best view of the sky, and ultimately ended up on the bank of the Blackstone River. I sat there for an hour, listening to a few clips of Wendell Berry reading his poetry, but mostly just taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, and watching the sun’s light disappear behind the horizon.

This experience was so…deliberate. I was controlling precisely nothing about the environment, other than allowing my mind to be present, to passively consume my natural context. This improved my mood immensely in the days following, and it’s something I’ve done a few times since.

My second anecdote is a more regular occurrence. When I get to my (standing) desk at work each morning, I have a mental checklist of things to do – changing my calendar, updating my planner, checking emails, etc. I work “inward”, towards my computer, in a subconscious attempt to minimize the scope of artificial things over which my mind has to exert control. By condensing the things I need to do to a limited physical and therefore mental space, and allowing the rest of my environment to just…Be, without my intervention…my mind is calmer.

What all of this means, I think, is that in order to be most happy, we need to limit the scope of the things that we control to the smallest size practical, and surround ourselves as much as possible with nature as our life’s context. As we in the West live our lives right now, this is very much not the case. We live almost completely in artificial environments, passively consuming built things instead of natural ones. There would be measurable benefits to changing the way we do things.

This is true on an individual scale, where even the smallest actions – opening the windows of your house or car or office, to let in the breeze, and the sounds and smells of outside; eating meals outside whenever possible; spending time in nature instead of watching TV – bring notably more peace.

And it is true on a societal scale. Now, it’s not practical or desirable to take this idea to its extreme and reject all of civilization. Architecture and other elements of the built environment are important, valuable human achievements, and agriculture is necessary since there are too many of us to be true hunter-gatherers. But we can use this awareness to effectively change our context, to the advantage of our mental and physical health.

On a societal scale, we must use the built environment insofar as it is beneficial to us – for safety and shelter, for community-building recreation, for art – and make sure much of the rest of our time is spent in a natural context. We must restructure our agriculture to operate more in line with nature, taking advantage of the environment’s inherent productive potential and allowing wild things to coexist alongside our cultivated things.

And as individuals, we must allow our interaction with the environment – our sensory perception of our surroundings and the minimal level of control we exert on them – to be in line with what our Paleolithic ancestors would have experienced. Go barefoot as often as possible; eat a Paleo-style diet comprised mostly of vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, and nuts; get as much bare skin sun exposure as possible every day (without allowing yourself to burn); exercise with short bursts of cardio and longer sessions of muscle-building; let your eyes see the sun in the  morning and midday, and minimize artificial light at night (or wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses); spend as much time as you can, outside, away from technological stimuli.

We are hunter-gatherers in every respect but behavior, and our minds are hardwired to exist in the context of nature. As I said in my favorite column about a year ago: “We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside and be free.

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 72 – “Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

21 05 2017

(May 21, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

Cows grazing on one of the pastures at Blackbird Farm

Making hay, as the sun sets on the farm

If you ever want to talk serious local agricultural strategy, sit down with Ann Marie Bouthillette of Blackbird Farm. She is a tireless advocate for the entire farming community in Rhode Island, starting with her family’s own pasture-based beef- and pork-farm in Smithfield, but reaching even as far as her own competitors. She has her finger on the pulse of the local food movement here and around the country, and you can tell that she is always thinking up some new, creative way to better promote and practice appropriate-scale agriculture. You can probably imagine how thrilled I was for the chance to talk to her again about some exciting things going on at her farm and statewide

Blackbird Farm sits on over 200 acres along Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise their Black Angus cattle, which you can sometimes see grazing in one of the road-side pastures, on a diet of grass supplemented with non-GMO grains; and their free-ranged American Heritage Berkshire pigs, what Ann Marie calls “the angus of pork”, on a diet of non-GMO feed supplemented with woodland roughage.

Their farm stand is at 660 Douglas Pike (Rt 7), right at the intersection with Limerock Road. This is where the public can purchase frozen cuts of the farm’s beef and pork, along with other agricultural products from around the state. They also sell to local institutions, like Johnson and Whales University and Roger Williams University. Check out their website, at http://blackbirdfarmri.com/, to learn more.

I visited the farm last Thursday afternoon. The warm air and approaching sunset put the farm in a particularly beautiful light, and set an appropriate backdrop for our long conversation about the state of agriculture in Rhode Island.

As we drove and walked through the farm’s 200+ acres, Ann Marie expressed the importance of truly-local animal agriculture. At Blackbird, she explained, the whole cycle takes place right on the farm: their animals are born, weaned, raised, bred, fattened, and ultimately sold right on the farm.

Their operation is a far-cry from a feedlot, where the scaled-up, product-at-the-cheapest-cost-possible business model means that the cattle are bought at an older age, put into confinement, force-fed massive quantities of the cheapest sources of calories possible, pumped with drugs and hormones, and shipped off to be slaughtered and sold God-knows-where.

In talking to Ann Marie, you can tell how carefully she thinks about each step of the process of raising animals, each method and practice that her farm uses. She makes decisions consciously, with the welfare of the animals and her customers in mind, and each one is very deliberate and not simply based on the often-flawed conventional wisdom. Walking through the rolling pastures and wooded areas of Blackbird, I was more than a little reassured that local, appropriate-scale agriculture can give the CAFO business model a run for its money.

Running a business like this is no small task, so make no mistake: Blackbird Farm is truly a family affair. It takes a huge amount of work to raise, feed, care for, move, and sell meat animals, grow and harvest 600+ bales of hay for winter feed, manage the finances and operation of a farm, and market their brand. So while Ann Marie is the public face of the farm, her husband Kevin, their sons Brandon and Troy, their daughter Sam, and their daughter-in-law Sarah all play crucial, laborious roles in the farm’s day-to-day operations and management.

And that is why Ann Marie has become such a tireless advocate for local, small-scale agriculture. By getting the public to think about where their food comes from – fostering public awareness of farmers markets, starting conversations with the farmers whose hands grow and raise their food, and, to borrow her awesome pun, getting their minds down to the grassroots of local agriculture – Ann Marie is confident that we can grow the local agricultural economy and create a sustainable environment for the farmers, their farms, and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

On that note, one of the major reasons for my visit to the farm was to discuss the grand opening of their farmers market this week.

The market will be located at Blackbird’s Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike. It will run every Friday, starting this week (May 26th), from 4-7 pm. It is being organized by Eat Drink RI, with the intention of making consumers more aware of local products and giving a boost to Blackbird and other local producers.

There will be at least 6 farms selling in the first week, with plenty more getting on board as the season progresses. Customers will be able to buy a huge range of local products, from the meat, produce, eggs, and dairy, to baked goods, sodas, and honey, to maybe even sea salt. There will be information on local farms and a horse-drawn wagon for the kids. This is a big deal, so make sure you’re there!

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 71 – Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

8 05 2017

(May 7, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

Today, I want to tell you all about something really exciting happening right now in Woonsocket. NeighborWorks, the Woonsocket-based nonprofit whose goal is the revitalization and enrichment of our community, is in the final stages of creating a kitchen incubator…right in Market Square!

If you aren’t sure what a kitchen incubator is, please don’t fret. I wasn’t that hip to the concept myself, at least not until I got the opportunity to attend the “Woonie Foodie Night” last Thursday. This was the monthly event held by I ❤ Woonsocket, and the attendees got the privilege of touring the state-of-the-art kitchen, sampling the creations of two up-and-coming chefs, and learning all about NeighborWorks’ newest project. I see so much promise in this idea, so let’s dive right in.

This kitchen incubator is located at 40 South Main Street in Woonsocket, right next door to the Museum of Work and Culture, in the old Mulvey’s building. The event was managed by Margaux Morisseau, Tamara Burman, and Meghan Rego, three of the forward-thinking leaders at NeighborWorks who set up this project.

The idea of the kitchen incubator is straightforward. The space is a certified commercial kitchen stocked with state-of-the-art, Hobart-brand equipment. It is designed to be accessible to up-and-coming chefs and food producers, who after a vetting process and being guided through any necessary individual licensing, will soon be able to become members of the kitchen. From that point on, they can schedule as much or as little time in the kitchen as their business requires (paying a per-hour rate and a small monthly membership fee), and the food and products produced there are certified for commercial sale.

So you may be asking: “Alex, why does this matter to me, an urban farmer?” Good question! One of the major goals of kitchen incubators like this is to make the food industry accessible to many more people that it would otherwise be. It makes it possible to start a certified food business – including training, help with licensing, finances, and marketing, and of course, access to high-quality equipment in a certified commercial kitchen – with an outlay of only a few thousand dollars, instead of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What’s more, NeighborWorks will be opening up a bazaar-type market in Market Square, Woonsocket, on Saturdays during the summer (more on this soon!). The chefs and food businesses in the kitchen incubator will have access to this market as a place to sell their goods.

There is pretty remarkable potential in a space like this, as evidenced by the success of other kitchen incubators around the country. This kitchen makes it relatively easy to create a food production business at whatever level one is looking to do so. From the grandmother, who wants to produce herbal teas or her special cheese recipe such that she can sell at the farmers market; to the beginning chef that needs to make his name in the community; to the recent culinary school graduate, working towards her dream of one day opening a restaurant; to the want-to-be wholesale producer and distributor of packaged cookies: this kitchen incubator is the place to start.

During the tour, we got the opportunity to hear the stories of the first potential members of the kitchen incubator – Andrea Russell of Rustic Roots Baking, and Roscoe Gay of Every1sChef (both businesses have Facebook pages where you can check them out). Andrea is focused on “comfort pastries” – the cookies and cakes and pies that your grandmother might make – while Roscoe wants to offer something to please the tastes of any and every customer.

Both chefs emphasized the daunting overhead of starting a food business – the quality equipment, the licensing process, the limitations of home-cooking, and of course the startup capital – as a major factor that brought them to the kitchen incubator.

That type of motivation will likely be true of the 20+ chefs that NeighborWorks hopes to attract to its this new location, which is precisely why they have worked so hard to build it.

One of the aspects of Andrea’s production model that really stood out to me was her selection of ingredients. Having worked in agriculture, and seen firsthand the well-established farm-to-table economy in Vermont, she makes it her goal to source as much as possible from local farms that use sustainable practices. Her honey, maple syrup, cranberries, eggs, dairy, flour, and even cooking oil come from local producers. She even buys nuts from Virginia and Spanish Peanut Company in Providence.

And this really drives home one of my main points of enthusiasm in this space. In my column in the past, we’ve talked quite a bit about local, sustainable, small-scale agriculture, and the many reasons that it is necessary to the goal of creating a robust, sustainable food system.

The next pieces of the puzzle, though, involve the construction of a system wherein the products of that agriculture can actually be used to feed people, and to wholly supplant the unsustainable products of industrial agriculture so that it can be eliminated from this planet. The growth of farmers markets is a promising trend, providing a direct, farm-to-table connection between producers and consumers. But what about value-added products? Sauce made from Blue Skys’ tomatoes, or jerky from Aquidneck’s beef, or pies full of Hill’s apples? These products, things that consumers reasonably demand alongside their whole-foods from the direct farm-to-consumer markets, require a little more effort.

And while industrial agriculture itself is bad, the industrial food processing chain, which consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel to ship, process, ship again, package, ship again, distribute, store, and sell agricultural products, robbing the farmers – the actual food producers – at each step of the way…that system is bad too.

So in order to fully supplant the industrial model, in order to reject the reality of factory farms and the white-collar food processing and distribution chain, we need to encourage and endorse local food businesses alongside the farmers that grow. And to that end, we owe NeighborWorks a pretty big debt of gratitude. I am so excited to see how this project pans out.

Before I forget, I recently had the idea for a column about individuals in our community who have installed renewable energy systems on their homes. I have some people and homes (I make a mental note every time I see solar panels) in mind, but if you or someone you know has a system and would want to answer some questions and maybe entertain a quick visit, please shoot me an email and we can set something up.

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.