“…the change that you wish to see in the world…”

24 02 2014


I can sometimes get very passionate with my views about the environment, the economic and financial systems, and…really the structure of our society in general. I have had plenty of heated discussions about these issues, and have sometimes been offered the advice: “Stop caring so much. Accept the system, it’s not going to change.”

But you know what? If you understand issues with industrial agriculture, and global inequality, and climate change, and a broken financial system that benefits a very, very small percentage of well-off individuals on the backs of those who actually do the work…if you read about, and understand, the issues that I obsess over, there is no appropriate response but an extreme one.

Now, I’m no where near understanding every topic about which I have a strong opinion. But one really only has to look around, to read the papers or watch the news. The Earth is being plundered of its scarce natural resources; the climate is changing at a drastic rate; we have a greedy financial system that controls our economy but produces nothing; governments all around the world are violating the rights of their people, and the people are too consumed in their consumption and entertainment to notice, or to care.

This is not the world our great-grandparents knew, and certainly not the country (or economy) that our Founding Fathers intended. We have constructed an economy that values greed, a society that rewards immorality, and an agricultural system squarely based on the destruction of the topsoil, the water, the air, and the environment, all of which it is dependent on. We give tax breaks and subsidies to the entities that are destroy our world, and throw those brave enough to protest this destruction into jail. Why? Because they care too much, they won’t shut up and accept the system

I’ve finished airing my grievances (for now), because complaining accomplishes very little. But so few people are even aware of these issues, that talking about them just might inspire someone to read The World According to Monsanto, or opt for the organic and locally-grown tomato rather than the conventional one from another continent, or look skeptically on politicians’ liberal use of the term “job creators” while they tax you to death in order to feed the corporate machine.

And beyond talking, we have to, as Mahatma Gandhi so aptly put it, “be the change that [we] wish to see in the world.” We have to vote with our dollars, buying from local, organic, sustainable businesses, and starving the beast of an unsustainable economy. We have to vote with our votes, electing politicians that don’t take corporate bribes, and instead protect the interests of their people, their country, their environment. We have to start being producers and stop being mindless consumers – growing and cooking our own food, producing our own energy, and buying only as much as we absolutely need, and only as much as can be sustainably taken from the Earth.

Probably the most important advice I can give, what has helped to open my eyes: view our world, our economy, our society as a system. Know the long, ugly, 1500 mile path between a farm in Iowa and the food on your fork; understand the connection between that new iPhone and child soldiers in the Congo, fighting wars over precious metals; see the rippling and powerful effects of simple changes that individuals can make in their lives – using less energy, buying from a local business, shaking the hands that grow their food, loving their neighbors as they love themselves. Because, when you look at it, what is a grand societal change…but a couple million individuals making a similar decision.

In closing, I would recommend The Gospel According to Larry, and its two sequels, Vote for Larry and Larry and the Meaning of Life by Janet Tashjian. These are young adult books, so they pretty quick reads, and Ms. Tashjian does a great job of demonstrating the power of a single mind, a single action, a single voice in bringing about positive change in our world. I just finished reading the series for the second time (the first was when I was in high school), and it was a much-needed, much-appreciated call-to-action.



GMO Labeling Bill in the RI Legislature

18 02 2014

I have one last post about a pretty cool development. Currently, the Rhode Island General Assembly is considering two bills, H7042 and H7093, which would require food that is made with genetically  modified ingredients be labeled as such.

Only two states in the nation – Connecticut and Maine – have passed any sort of GMO labeling laws as of now, and it is possible for us to join our neighbors in being at the forefront of this movement. The two bills are sponsored, respectively, by Representative Canario and Representative Hull. You can get contact information for your representatives here, and for your senators here.

I have contacted the sponsors of these bills to express my support and gratitude, and offer my help. Will you do the same?

I will keep you as up-to-date as I am on this issue, and let’s hope and pray that Rhode Island is on the right side of history with this issue!

The Call and Times, Column 5 – Climate Change

18 02 2014

(February 7, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Climate Change: A Call to Action

            Between the Polar Vortex, weeks of unpredictable temperature fluctuations, and severe storms all around the world, this has been a winter to remember. Before the hustle and bustle of spring planting, I want to take this opportunity to write on an environmental issue that I care deeply about, one for which urban farmers will be a big part of the solution – climate change.

            Most people have some working knowledge of climate change, what is causing it, and maybe some of the more worrisome effects. But despite the significance of this issue, and the grave consequences of further inaction, the national television media seldom reports anything about climate change. For that reason, I will give a little explanation here.

            In the Earth’s upper atmosphere, there are gases that trap heat, preventing it from escaping back into space. This mechanism is called the Greenhouse Effect and, for much of human history up until about 150 years ago, had kept the Earth at a relatively stable temperature, allowing life to flourish. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent of the Greenhouse Gases, and because of its relatively high concentration, it has been a historical driver of global temperatures. For many millions of years, CO2 has been taken in by plants and microorganisms through a process called photosynthesis, and disbursed through decomposition and consumption by animals. Normally, these living organisms would eventually die and release that CO2 back into the atmosphere. In rare occasions, however, they have been buried under large amounts of earth and, exposed to high temperatures and pressures, slowly converted into energy-dense deposits of what we now call fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. This process reduced the atmospheric concentration of CO2 over many millions of years, and essentially left us with the atmosphere that Abraham Lincoln breathed.

            Since then, however, we have extracted and burned most of this fuel, re-releasing in a century and a half the same CO2 that took millions of years to be trapped, and raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from 275 ppmv (parts per million by volume) then, to almost 400 ppmv today – a nearly 50% increase. This rapid jump in CO2 concentration has resulted in a significant increase in average global temperature over the past 100 or so years, threatening to raise the Earth’s atmospheric temperature above the Holocene Maximum – the highest in the last 10,000 years.

            That said, the consequences of further climate change are inconvenient at best, and will realistically pose economic, ecological, and health-related challenges to people everywhere on Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a continued increase in average global temperatures over the next century. If fossil fuel use continues unabated, and global temperatures continue to rise, we will see the rising and acidification of the oceans (a death threat for much of the life in the sea), an uptick in the already severe weather phenomena (hurricanes being an all-to-personal example), droughts and floods that rival what the Midwest saw two years ago, a rise in tropical disease prevalence in North America, and slew of threats to agricultural production. Even the most conservative predictions are not something to ignore.

            And now that we know that there’s a problem, the question is: what can we do to fix it? The answer can be summarized in three words: energy, energy, energy. The United States, despite being only 4% of the world’s population, brags 16-20% of the world’s energy usage annually. Most of the CO2 that we emit comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which account for upwards of 80% of our energy supply.

            There are two types of actions that we can take in order to reduce our CO2 emissions as individuals – energy conservation and energy source replacement. Energy conservation means using less energy in our daily lives, by: buying energy-efficient appliances, and LED or CFL light bulbs; turning off lights and appliances when not in use; turning down the heat, even by a few degrees; driving the most fuel efficient car you can afford (and the fuel savings do add up), driving less, and taking public transportation; and installing heat-efficient windows in our houses.

            Energy source replacement simply means investment in alternative energy sources. This particular area is one that is near and dear to my heart, because it is what I am studying in college – so forgive me if I sound a little biased. There are a lot of alternative energy options available for consumers to become producers of their own energy, but the most widespread is probably solar photovoltaic. There are a few companies in Rhode Island that will work with homeowners to help them get solar energy systems – whether by giving them a low-interest loan, or by installing the panels for no upfront cost, and slowly taking the payments out of the reduction in the customer’s energy bill. Additionally, there are tax credits available on the federal and state level for residential alternative energy system installation. Other non-polluting energy systems that can work on a residential scale include small-scale wind power, residential geothermal, solar thermal (for water heating), and, for the more creative readers, methane digestion. I urge any of you interested to contact me or do additional research.

            As urban farmers, our group will absolutely play a vital role in the resolution of climate change in the years to come. Conventional agriculture in the United States (and through most of the rest of the world) represents a significant portion of our national energy consumption, to the tune of some 10 Calories of fossil fuel energy for each Calorie of food produced. By growing our own food, we effectively eliminate the fossil fuel input – specifically by not using energy-intensive fertilizers and industrial chemicals, and drastically reducing the distance that food must be transported (from 1500 miles to 25 feet). This is one great way that we can make our own, significant reduction to national CO2 emissions.

            Even all of this may not be enough. Individual changes will surely set us on the right path to a reduction in our carbon emissions, but action on a national (and potentially international) scale will be required to catalyze the necessary changes. We must contact our representatives and senators, on the municipal, state, and federal levels, and let them know that we support actions necessary to reduce our country’s CO2 emissions. For us in Rhode Island, we are blessed to be represented by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the climate’s biggest advocates in the U.S. government. He has given over 50 speeches in front of the U.S. Senate about climate change and the steps necessary to solve this problem. Let him know you support these efforts – I absolutely do.

            If you’re interested in more information than what I could discuss here, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 4 – Agricultural Genetic Engineering

18 02 2014

(January 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Do These Genes Fit?

            How would you feel if you learned that much of the food you eat is genetically modified? Most people are completely unaware of that fact, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that this widespread unawareness isn’t exactly the intention of the companies and politicians that have stood to benefit from this technology.

One of the defining characteristics of an urban farmer is a concern for the quality of the food that he eats, and a working knowledge of the many problems with modern agricultural production. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to temporarily shift gears this month, and discuss the issue of genetically modified (GMO) food. Given the many political, environmental, economic, and health-related concerns surrounding this issue, I hope that this discussion will leave you skeptical of the purported benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture, and motivated to further investigate this topic.

Before I move on, here’s a little primer. Genetic modification is when DNA fragments are taken from one organism and inserted into the DNA of another, ignoring the natural limitations of biological reproduction. This is done with the hope that the second organism will have specific, desired characteristics. In plant biotechnology, this usually means the combination of plant DNA with that of animals or bacteria, a process that would not otherwise occur in nature. This is often done so that cash crops will fit more readily into the processes of industrial agriculture – so they will resist pests or the application of herbicide, show fewer visible signs of being past their prime, and produce bigger yields at the expense of taste and nutrition.

Genetically modified crops were first grown commercially in the United States in 1994. As of this writing, upwards of 85% of the major cash crops grown here – corn, soybeans, canola, cotton/cottonseed, and sugar beets – are genetically modified. In the U.S., we dedicate more of our farmland to GMO crops than anywhere else, and unlike our government, much of the rest of the world heavily regulates, or outright bans, the growing or importing of these crops.

People and governments are wary of the technology for a variety of reasons, but most involve issues of health and environmental protection. From the perspective of the environment, GMO crops often exacerbate the negative effects of industrial agriculture – the depletion of topsoil, the use of herbicide and pesticide, and the growth of massive monocultures. There is also concern about a process called genetic drift, in which the pollen of genetically modified crops can (and does) escape into the environment, raising issues of biodiversity and patent infringement.

In terms of health, GMO foods have been implicated in new allergies and allergenic chemicals, and more disturbingly, an uptick in cancers. To this point, a research study was published last year by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French professor of molecular biology. The study found a significant increase in cancer generation, hormone imbalance, and other health defects in rats which were exposed to genetically modified corn. Though there are detractors, this is one of the few independent safety studies that has been conducted, and it adheres more strictly to the scientific method than almost all others – and its findings are concerning, to say the least.

There is a single company that is often seen as the face of genetically modified seed in the United States – Monsanto. Monsanto started off as a chemical company, and was responsible for saccharine and aspartame (artificial sweeteners), Agent Orange (a defoliant used in the Vietnam War), DDT (a once widely-used pesticide), dioxin and PCB (highly carcinogenic industrial chemicals), and rBGH/rBST (a hormone for dairy cows). All of these products have negative human health implications, and the artificial sweeteners and rBGH/rBST are still widely used. Early in the 1980s, Monsanto was the first company to genetically modify a plant cell, and has since become primarily an agricultural biotechnology company. Now, they produce genetically modified seeds for two major varieties of crops: RoundUp Ready crops, which can survive being sprayed with the company’s signature weed-killer, RoundUp, and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) crops, which create their own pesticide. These products are created entirely to fit the mold industrial agriculture, with little regard for the health of their customers or the environment.

As if the problems of genetically modified seed weren’t enough, Monsanto’s involvement makes it an issue of law and politics. To start, a series of Intellectual Property laws, beginning with the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, have made it possible for biotechnology companies to obtain patents on DNA – as some have put it, Monsanto and its fellows are now allowed to own life. These patents give Monsanto the right to stop farmers from saving and replanting seed, a practice as old as agriculture itself. In addition, there have been cases in which Monsanto has sued farmers after their fields are unintentionally contaminated with patented seed.

With their lax standards and regulatory loopholes, our FDA has been useless in preventing the issues discussed above. On the contrary, they have been unwaveringly supportive of genetically engineered crops. There are many people in these agencies and the rest of the government, including the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, who have ties to Monsanto and other biotechnology firms. Many believe that these regulatory agencies are unduly influenced by the corporate interests of Monsanto and its fellows, whose products they are supposed to be regulating. These conflicted interests result in regulatory policies that benefit companies like Monsanto, rather than protecting the American people as intended. To date, little has been done to hinder what is being called this “Revolving Door” between the agricultural biotechnology industry and the government.

With all of this, you are probably asking yourself – what can I do to help fix this?

My first suggestion is to educate yourself. The internet is a great resource for research on this issue, as are books like “The World According to Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin.

Next, get involved with the growing movement. There are public protest events, online forums, and various forms of multimedia with which you can get involved. As an example, last May, I attended a March Against Monsanto in Providence, with my family and Yvette Ayotte, who are also concerned about this issue. The next March is scheduled for May 24th, 2014.

Finally, change what you eat. For any products that there is a high chance of contamination by genetic modification, opt for organic or non-GMO certification (like the Non-GMO Project). Better yet, and this is where your urban green thumb comes in, grow it yourself. When you grow your food, you have the ultimate control over what does and doesn’t go into it. There are quite a few specifically non-GMO seed sources, like Fedco Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, and any other company that has signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 3 – Seasonal Eating

18 02 2014

(December 6, 2013)

The Urban Farmer

Eating with the Seasons in New England

            With the rapid drop in temperature we’ve experienced over the past few weeks, it is more and more difficult to remember the warm, productive days of our urban farms. For those in our area, agriculture can easily be seen as a “summer break” kind of endeavor – an activity reserved for only the warmest few months of the year. And as a rule, the Earth’s temperate regions (most of North America, Europe, and Asia) tend to have distinct seasons, including an annual period of cold weather. Since the dawn of humankind, this has presented a challenge to agriculturists – how and what do I eat when the trees are bare and the ground is covered with snow?

At first glance, it would seem that our 21st century society has overcome the need to eat according to the seasons. And we surely have, so long as we are willing to pay the price. This price, as it so happens, comes in the form of massive amounts of fossil fuels used to ship food from the tropical and subtropical regions to the temperate ones; of the environmental degradation in Mexico, South America, and other tropical areas, caused by unregulated industrial agriculture operations; of blander tastes and less nutrients in the food we eat; and of a disconnect between us and the land and the loss of the ages-old knowledge that allowed our forefathers to survive, and even thrive, in the face of the same climatic obstacles that we don’t even attempt to overcome. With all of these issues, it might be prudent to try to find a more sustainable answer to the question of what and how to eat in a region where it isn’t always summer.

One of the best answers that I can give is also one of the most straightforward: eat what you can find at the farmers markets and local farms. By sourcing food from these local farmers, we virtually guarantee that we are getting a good quality product, helping the local economy, and, more relevant to the goal at hand, buying food that is in season, in our area, at the time it is bought.

Larger annual farmers markets tend to open up sometime in the early summer, around May, and stay open until October or early November. At markets like this, you will find everything from the first berries of summer, to the last just-picked winter squash of the fall. Alas, they are only open for 6 months of the year, the “normal” time for agriculture in a temperate region. But a new concept has gained ground in recent years, and it perfectly complements these annual summer farmers’ markets – namely, the winter farmers market. There are dozens of winter farmers markets open in the Southern New England area, offering a huge variety of local fall- and winter-grown produce, as well as other foods and value-added products. Farm Fresh RI (http://www.farmfresh.org/), a farmer-to-consumer advocacy organization, is a great source of information about the locations and offerings of winter (and summer) markets.

That said, it’s probably useful to get an idea of what exactly you might find at these winter farmers markets. Farm Fresh RI’s website also has a comprehensive Rhode Island Harvest Calendar, which is a pretty complete listing of when each type of crop is harvested in this area. This knowledge is the basis of seasonal eating. A small cross-section of this list are the foods that are being grown, or in short-term storage, in the dead of winter. These include vegetables like salad greens, members of the broccoli and onion families, root crops, and winter squash; fruits like apples and quinces; fresh and dried herbs; and all sorts of meats, milks and cheeses, eggs, and sweeteners like honey and maple syrup. The literature on seasonality is extensive, and entire diets and cultural cuisines have been formed around seasonally-available produce, so I would suggest taking a more extensive look at the Harvest Calendar on Farm Fresh RI’s website.

But of the answers that I have found to that central question, my favorite has to be: figure out what you can harvest and eat during the winter, and grow it. With a little know-how, planning, and hard work, it is possible to enjoy homegrown and home-raised food even in the New England winter.

As last month’s column discussed, there are a wide variety of food preservation methods that allow the modern urban farmer to save food for the winter. By employing those practices, the winter larder can be stocked with all sorts of foods, from root-cellared potatoes, carrots, apples and squash, to canned pickles, jams, and sauces, to anything that can be frozen or dried. In my opinion, this should one of a backyard farmer’s primary sources of winter food “production”.

It is also possible, and entirely feasible on a small-scale, to grow certain plants during the winter. A few beds of my garden are currently devoted to a slow-growing winter crop of garlic and field peas – but the garlic will not bulb until late next spring, and the field peas will be harvested in the spring and used as a supplement to chicken feed. For winter eating, it is common practice to use an inexpensive glass or plastic greenhouse, or a similar structure called a cold-frame (an enclosed, wooden, glass-topped frame set on the ground) to accelerate the growth of the desired crops. With these techniques, the dedicated urban farmer can eat most of the vegetables on the aforementioned list of cold-tolerant crops – greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, and collard greens, many members of the onion family, and even mushrooms.

Far more significantly, eggs and honey are still largely available during the winter. In many cases, chickens will still lay at this time of year, especially if they are provided with supplemental lighting in their coop. Also, honey, being one of few foods that can be stored almost indefinitely, should be a great source of tasty homegrown Calories during the winter months.

In addition, it is worthwhile to note that it was traditional practice for meat animals to be slaughtered late in the fall to serve as a dependable source of food during the winter. This practice is still useful in this area, in places where small animals are being raised for this purpose.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 2 – Food Preservation

18 02 2014

(November 1, 2013)

The Urban Farmer

Put ‘Em Up – Preserving the Fall Harvest

            As I settle down after a long day of preserving, or “putting up” the last big harvest of the season, I am inspired to write this column. For urban farmers, especially here in New England, one important consideration is how we plan to save the warm season’s bounty for the cold winter months. Whether to ensure a food supply in the non-productive season, or to preserve the flavors of summer, we must keep this task on our minds before the weather turns and the tomatoes bear their last ripe fruit. In today’s column, I’d like to discuss with you some of the important methods of preserving the fall harvest for winter – freezing, drying, root cellaring, and canning.

One of the most popular, and arguably the easiest, techniques for preserving your fruits and vegetables is to freeze them. If you plan to use freezing as your primary storage, or are projecting a big harvest or farmer’s market purchase, a standalone chest freezer may be a worthwhile investment. But even with a split refrigerator-freezer like the one in my kitchen, freezing can be an important part of your preservation effort. Certain produce, such as peppers, tomatoes, and berries, can be frozen with minimal processing. Others, like peas and beans, carrots, and broccoli, must be blanched before they are frozen to destroy enzymes that ruin the quality of the food. In blanching, you heat the vegetables in boiling water or steam for a predetermined amount of time, and then immediately immerse them in ice water to stop the cooking process, before freezing them. The internet is a good source of further information on blanching. As a final point: freezing produce, while easy and safe, tends to consume a lot of space in your freezer, space which might be better used for energy-dense foods like meat. When possible, it is worth considering other methods of food preservation.

Another popular and versatile food preservation technique is drying. The basic principal is that by removing most or all of the water from the food, you create an environment in which bacteria and mold are unable to grow – rendering it shelf-stable for at least a few months. Foods with relatively low water content, like herbs or cayenne peppers, can be dried indoors, strung from the ceiling or spread out on a drying rack. For thin slices of any food, an outdoor solar dehydrator is a quicker, low-energy option. But to dehydrate foods with higher water content quickly enough to prevent spoilage, an electric food dehydrator, or an oven set to a low (~200°F) temperature may be necessary. Some dehydrated foods, like herbs, can be used in their dried state, while others, like sundried tomatoes, can be partially reconstituted in cooking to revive the tastes of summer.

For certain crops, the best storage technique is root cellaring, which basically takes advantage of the crop’s characteristic shelf-stability. This method traditionally required the construction of a small underground enclosure, called a root cellar, which gives it a somewhat higher initial cost than freezing or dehydrating. It is possible, though, to successfully root cellar in any space that is cool (not freezing), dry, and dark, such as a basement or even a kitchen cabinet. Crops that do well when root cellared are those with thick or tough skin, like winter squash and apples, those with low water content like grains, and the method’s namesake, root crops (carrots, potatoes, and onions). Depending on the food, this technique will preserve quality for a few months to over a year. It is important to select fruits or vegetables whose skins are not damaged and which are fresh and of generally good quality, and to store them in such a way that individual pieces are not touching one another.

Finally, what most see as the epitome of home food preservation, is the art of canning, the long-term storage of foods in sealed and sterilized glass jars. Much of the backyard bounty that we urban farmers hope to enjoy during the winter is either too high in water content, making it bulky to freeze and difficult to dry, or not inherently shelf-stable, making root cellaring impossible. Foods like berries and other fruits, tomatoes, and even many vegetables can be canned in one of two ways, boiling water bath or pressure canning. The science and art of canning is far too broad for me to even begin to describe here, so I will direct you to the “Ball Blue Book” or a similar guide to canning for detailed instructions. Canning was probably involved in your grandparents’ famous jam or brined pickles, so I would be hard-pressed not to point you to their old recipes as well. But as a word of warning: canning creates high sugar, high acid, and low oxygen conditions in order to prevent most spoilage. However, if sterilization by heating is not done properly, these conditions are ideal for the growth of botulism, a toxic soil-borne bacterium. So if you want to try your hand at canning, I have to stress that you follow the recipe and cooking instructions to the letter, and for good measure, say a little prayer before you tuck in six months down the road. Lest I’ve scared you off from this rewarding food preservation technique, you should know that in 2011, the CDC reported only 2 cases of foodborne botulism as the result of home canning in the U.S., neither of which resulted in fatality.

[Note: After the publication of my last column, a friend pointed out to me that I failed to mention the issue of contaminated soil. In urban areas, it is sometimes the case that past industrial activity has left lead or other contaminants in the soil. So it’s probably best, if your land could hold this type of contamination, to either send a soil sample to University of Massachusetts Amherst for testing, or use raised beds to guarantee the quality of your soil. A special thanks to Dave Fisher for bringing this to my attention.]

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.

Call! Me Maybe

18 02 2014

Well, it looks like it’s that time again – it’s been almost a year since my last post, and the prodigal son returns, asking his readers to forgive him for his lengthy hiatus. But what a Summer and Fall it’s been. It was another successful year in the garden, and my family is still enjoying the frozen, dried, and canned produce from a time, long ago, when the birds sang and the ground wasn’t perpetually covered by a foot and a half of snow. What was that called? – oh yeah, Summer. I’m now a senior at Boston University, working toward the completion of my alternative-energy-themed Senior Design Project and, on a grander scale, toward my college graduation in May. I can’t believe I’m almost finished with my Undergraduate education. But it’s been a great four years, I’ve met some really great people, and learned enough to get me started on that grandiose goal of changing the world – well, right after Grad School that is.

I have some other interesting news. For those of you who don’t know, I have been writing for two local newspapers – The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times – for the past few months. Back in the Fall, these newspapers, which are printed by the same publisher, each added a new section, called “Shades of Green”, to the paper on the first Friday of each month. This page focuses issues of an environmental nature – be it recycling, local businesses, climate change, or agriculture. That last one is where I come in. I spoke with the Executive Editor of The Call, and she offered for me to contribute a column entitled “The Urban Farmer” to this section. I was thrilled, and have spent the past few months researching and writing about a list of topics that I think my fellow urban farmers will find intriguing or useful. Recently, I have gotten permission to post my monthly articles here in my blog. So with that said, I think I’ll be making up for my absence with 6 or 7 new posts tonight. Enjoy.

(October 4, 2013)

The Urban Farmer

Backyard Bounty

It seems fitting that I should write this first column about what is, for most urban farmers, the pièce de résistance of their whole operation – the vegetable garden. But before I do that, I should probably answer the question: what exactly is an urban farmer? Well, as I see it, an urban farm is a little piece of land in the city that is being used for production – of food, or energy, or pretty much anything involving the soil, water, air, and sun. Therefore, in our area, an urban farmer is the one who is willing to brave the fickle friend that is New England weather, the bands of marauding birds and woodchucks, and the occasional less-than-accommodating city regulation, all for the satisfaction of knowing that it was his own hands, and land, and human ingenuity that put that tomato into his salad, that egg into his omelet, and that honey into his tea.

The first question to ask is: can I grow a garden? The answer to this is twofold. First, many want to know if the laws in their city or state allow them to rip up their lawn and plant tomatoes and beets. In that case, I have good news for my fellow Rhode Islanders. Rhode Island General Law 45-24-37(g) states that “plant agriculture is a permitted use within all zoning districts of a municipality…”, basically ensuring that zoning laws in any city do not stop the urban farmer from exercising her green thumb. What’s more, for those agriculturalists that live in Woonsocket, the city’s liberal green-space law and arbitrary definition of “ground cover” mean that a homeowner can plant a vegetable garden in his backyard…or side yard, or front yard, or, presumably, rooftop – one of the few land use decisions left up to the property owner.

If, instead, the question is whether one is capable of growing a garden, I hold that with a little research, a little initial investment, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (but mostly sweat), anyone can enjoy homegrown tomato salad or zucchini casserole. To start you off on that endeavor, here are a few tips, some based in my own experiences, for how best to grow a garden in the city in Southern New England.

First off, feed your soil, and it will feed you. This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for gardeners, new and experienced alike, because the temptation is to ignore that dull brown stuff in favor of boosting the short-term growth of your plants. Instead of using chemical fertilizers for increasing yields, it is cheaper and more productive in the long-term to build up your soil with compost made from food and yard wastes, natural mulches like grass clippings, and nitrogen-fixing plants like peas and beans. Also, if your soil does not retain water well, or is too high in clay, raised beds might be a good bet. The nuances of topsoil are complex and still not well-understood, but all you have to do is compare the life in the desert to that in the forest to see the stark difference that a few inches of good dirt can really make.

Next, it is important to grow what you eat, and eat what you grow. This starts with understanding the seed catalog. Like any other catalogue, it is designed so that you are persuaded to buy the products listed. But, with the exception of Popeye, no one needs 18 varieties of spinach, and few urban farmers have space in their gardens for 100 different crops. When deciding what you should grow, figure out what you and your family like to eat. Though my grandfather insists that tomatoes and cucumbers are the only things worthy of his bright green thumb and limited garden space, my family would be lost without our 6 varieties of peppers, our heirloom green beans, and our bumper crop of potatoes. And once you’ve grown what you use, you have to make sure to use it. We’ve all been in the unfortunate situation of having to throw away (or compost) spoiled food – the feeling is significantly worse when it’s something you grew yourself, and the garden’s high production at the end of the summer makes it likely that you will have just too many tomatoes for one family to eat. It is probably useful to learn the many methods of preserving, from drying and canning, to freezing and root cellaring.

Finally, remember that nature detests a monoculture. There is no forest of just spruce trees, no sea of just cod, and no lawn of just Kentucky Bluegrass (no matter how hard some homeowners try). Plants, like all living creatures, are more resilient, and more able to withstand pressures from pests and diseases, when planted together with different species. This method is called polyculture, and one of the best ways to start practicing it is through companion planting. The basic idea is that, when certain plants are placed in close proximity, one or both will benefit from the other. The smell of marigolds, for example, wards off all sorts of insect pests (the same is true of onions), and they can therefore be planted next to tomatoes or beans to take advantage of this property. There are extensive lists of plants that do well when planted next to each other – and, conversely, species that should probably be kept apart – and it is worth any vegetable gardener’s time to gain this useful insight.

Now, these tips are not in any way complete, and libraries could be filled with our knowledge of topsoil alone. I encourage my fellow urban farmers, new and old, to read as much as they can about coaxing food from the Earth. There are tomes of information available online, from garden forums and blogs to detailed how-to pages. I would also suggest any book written by John Seymour or published by Storey Publishing for general agriculture knowledge, and the book Carrots Love Tomatoes, written by Louise Riotte, for a detailed primer on companion planting.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.