The Call and Times, Column 17 – What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Cycles of Nature

9 02 2015

(February 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Cycles of Nature

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So wrote John Muir, our nation’s first environmentalist, as he gazed across the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, captivated by the intricacy of the ecosystem that lay before him.

Muir had a strong sense of the interconnectedness of everything in that flawless environment, a grand natural symphony whose conductor, he humbly recognized, was the hand of God. Putting aside this spiritual component for a moment, Muir’s words form the basis for a powerful point of view – that literally everything on Earth is intimately connected in perpetual cycles of material, fueled by that giant ball of fire in the sky.

First, a little primer on the science. Everything in the physical Universe consists only of matter and energy – “stuff”, and the way it moves around and interacts. Our Earth is what scientists call a “closed system” – the atmosphere allows energy in and out, but not matter. For this reason, it is eerily accurate to say that you breathe the same air as Julius Caesar, eat the same minerals as the dinosaurs, and drink the same water as the first animals, 543 million years ago.

The surface of the Earth consists of four basic partitions – the lithosphere (solid ground), the hydrosphere (water in all forms), the atmosphere (the gases surrounding the Earth), and the biosphere (life!). Energy and matter are exchanged between these spheres through what are called “biogeochemical cycles”, including the carbon, oxygen, water, nitrogen, and rock cycles.

Without getting into too much detail, it is enough to say that these cycles are exclusively responsible for clean air, unpolluted water, fertile topsoil, and regulated global temperatures. The survival of every living creature relies squarely on these so-called “ecosystem services”, which were conservatively valued at a minimum of US$48 trillion (2014 dollars) by Robert Costanza, in Nature Magazine in 1997.

The web of interconnected natural cycles, the dynamic surface of the Earth, has perfectly formed over the course of billions of years, into today’s incredibly productive, resilient global ecosystem. This system uses the Sun’s constant energy, but continuously recycles the same materials – the same water, carbon, oxygen, and minerals – over and over again. But not only is it capable of sustaining itself and all of life, indefinitely into the future. When its inhabitants live responsibly, it can even increase the amount of productivity, the amount of biomass, the amount of life that it bears, making the future better for our kind in the biosphere than it has been in the past.

So where do we, cultured and preoccupied human beings, fit in? It’s easy to forget the environment in our day-to-day lives, but every single thing that happens outside of our built environment, every breath, every sip of water, and every calorie of food, is a necessary, interdependent component of the grand environmental symphony. In the words of Sir Albert Howard, we should understand “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.”

Unfortunately, our actions can negatively affect these cycles. By digging up and burning fossil fuel carbon that was no longer meant to be in the atmosphere, we are causing the Earth to trap excess heat and contributing to climate change. By overusing artificial fertilizer, and letting it run off into bodies of water, our agriculture creates algal blooms that deplete the water of oxygen and kill off marine life. By brightly lighting entire cities and entire regions for 24 hours a day, we drown out the nighttime sky…and prevent ourselves from seeing the stars.

Though our species harms the environment with much of what we do, we must remember that there are other, essential ways in which we interact positively, beneficially both for ourselves and the world around us. As we move towards a more environmentally-friendly future, it might be prudent to tune our senses to the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles.

What can we do with this sense of the ebbs and flows of the environment? As farmers, we have the unique and vital responsibility of constructing productive little ecosystems of our own. We have to learn to operate in concert with this grand symphony of the global ecosystem, by 1) farming so that we interact positively with the environment, and 2) imitating nature within our farms, to create renewable cycles of our own.

We’ve already discussed this first point in previous columns. By reducing waste, artificial chemicals, and carbon pollution, we can make our agricultural operations a benefit to nature, rather than a liability.

Bu to the second point, let me bring you a simple example: You grow a garden to feed your family. All sorts of garden wastes and food scraps can be fed to a flock of urban chickens, which will produce eggs and manure. The manure is composted, to improve the garden soil so…you guessed it, you can grow a more productive garden next year. And thus, the cycle loops back on itself, having produced fruits and veggies, eggs, fertile compost, and a better future, free and without pollution or waste – all because we used our human ingenuity to imitate and engage with the pre-existing ecosystem.

There are so many, varied ways to implement this knowledge, to view our urban farms as small parts of the grander dance of energy and material in the environment. We have to remember that it is our welfare, not that of the environment, that rests on a productive use of these cycles. Our lives depend on the labors of this amazing, sacred system; our Mother Earth, who uses a tiny fraction of the Sun’s energy to power the only instance of life in the entire Universe. If that makes you feel small, you’re not alone.

In the beginning of this column, I put aside the divine elements of Muir’s observations and focused on the hard physical science. Lest you mistakenly think my view is cold, what say we take another look through that lens. Some people – I am one of them – stare up at the vast, starry, nighttime sky, and feel the presence of God. But at an even more elemental level, when I walk outside, draw a breath, drink a glass of water, or eat an (organic) meal, I feel that same divine presence, that force that formed a perfect, self-sustaining Earth from cosmic dust 4.5 billion years ago, and continues its restorative maintenance to this day. In one of my favorite books, the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:9) notes, in a voice that is wry yet unmistakably reverent, that “there is nothing new under the Sun”. I take that observation as one of the most amazing things about our humble, vibrant planet – it sustains itself, us, and the rest of life, without the need for anything new but the light of day.

That verse is right – there really is nothing new under the Sun. But as an ecologically-conscious human being, one who takes very seriously the command to honor and protect our Eden, our only home; in short, as an urban farmer, that system is more than enough for 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.

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The Call and Times, Column 16 – As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

9 02 2015

(January 9, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

“Once you think you know about bees, you realize you don’t know a thing.” Thus began an enlightening conversation, when I sat down with my friend, The Beekeeper, for a chat about his sweet hobby.

The Beekeeper began his practice over a decade ago, at the suggestion of his wife and a neighbor. He began with little agricultural experience, but was immediately engrossed, and rose up the ranks in the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association within his first year.

“Bees are a communal insect,” he told me. “They actually live for each other, not for themselves. They will protect the colony with their life, because a honeybee can only sting once.”

This is a remarkable thing about honeybees – they literally work themselves to death, fulfilling their roles as laborers and protecting their colony. Immediately upon breaking out of their larval cells, bees are put to work as nurses, maintenance staff, and guards in the hive, while their older sisters are out gathering nectar.

I asked The Beekeeper about the differences between honeybees, bumble bees, and wasps, something I’ve often wondered. “You can tell the difference just by looking at them”, he explained. Bumble bees are bulbous and furry-looking, with yellow and black coloration and little tendency to sting. Wasps (hornets and yellow jackets) vary in color, but are all more aggressive. Honeybees are often “softer and cuter-looking”, and are not prone to aggression. A surefire way to tell them apart, he explained, is that wasps’ stripes are more distinct than honeybees’.

We moved on to our next topic, the benefits of eating honey. “Nutritionally, honey is very similar, no matter where you go, as long as it has not been super-heated or super-filtered”, The Beekeeper explained.

He made a point to define a locale as a place where “the same basic plants are growing in the fields”, citing the examples of Woonsocket, Cumberland, and Worcester on the one hand, and Bristol, Warren, and South County on the other. As The Beekeeper explained, eating local honey has the additional benefits of asthma alleviation, “increasing the good qualities of the foods that you’re already eating” by aiding digestion, and allergy mitigation, something I can attest to personally.

He offered a word of warning, that “cooking honey reduces a lot of the enzyme health benefits”. He suggested to use it raw, or to heat only to low temperatures in things like tea, lest we mistakenly pasteurize it and lose those benefits.

As the meat of the interview, I asked my interviewee about a typical beekeeper’s year, and when and how an aspiring urban beekeeper could get started.

The Beekeeper explained that winter is a relatively quiet time: the beekeeper is getting ready for the spring, buying equipment and preparing the hives, while the honeybees are at home, keeping themselves warm during the cold weather. In the spring, new bees are installed, and are fed supplemental sugar syrup if their stores are low; it’s a time of cleaning the hives, watching and waiting for the first nectar flow. This happens in early June, at which point bees produce enough for themselves and the beekeeper alike. After this point, sometime in June or July, a “honey super” (an additional box that will be harvested later on) is installed on the hive, and the goal is for the girls to produce as much honey as they can, which they will gladly do, “whether they need it or not”. Early fall is the time for the harvest, after which the Queen reproduces much less and the population decreases in preparation for winter.

If you’re a new beekeeper, he said, “this time of year is the time you want to start”. Mail-order bee colonies become available in March and April, but there are a lot of considerations to make before that: where to get the equipment and what type of hive you will get, and leaving time for the actual hive setup. He suggested http://www.betterbee.com and http://www.dadant.com as good sources for beekeeping supplies, with free catalogs to boot.

The Beekeeper was also adamant that “now’s the time to really whet your intellectual appetite”. He explained how talking to a beekeeper, contacting the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (ribeekeeper.org), and even taking late winter classes at the RIBA Bee School all help an aspiring apiculturist to make decisions about their style and practice: where they will operate on the spectrum between aggressive chemical treatments and “earthy, crunchy” beekeeping.

He explained that, barring a fear of bugs, “if you want to get into agriculture, bees aren’t a bad choice for most people.” “They are much lower maintenance than any other pets”, and you can go on vacation without worrying about their immediate wellbeing, because they feed themselves. “It’s a good idea to start with two hives, so that you can compare them”. He directed me to http://www.beesource.com, which has tomes of information about building beehives and many other beekeeping interests.

But why should we care, why should we keep bees? “People don’t realize that you can get incredible quality honey in an urban environment”, The Beekeeper explained, praising the trees growing in Woonsocket as the reason for this. “It’s very primal, and yet also spiritual, to watch these girls work together”. What’s more, production distributed amongst many small beekeepers is the formula for sustainability – these alone are reason enough to keep honeybees. But I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit more.

Bees are directly responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. Considering this, The Beekeeper solemnly told me that “if you take away the honeybee from the equation, agriculture as we know it would collapse”. Our very continued existence rests on the health of local pollinator populations. Yet, like with freshwater, topsoil, and fossil fuels, our actions are threatening the long-term wellbeing of the honeybee.

Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious illness in which entirely honeybee colonies abruptly disappear, has surged in the past decade. Heavy winter losses, 25 or 30%, and even up to 90%, of American beekeepers’ colonies, have been destroyed as a result of CCD, raising a national alarm about the populations’ continued health. This affliction is associated with stress placed on the colonies by the “bigger, faster, stronger” mentality of industrial agriculture, and by dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides used by the same. But that’s the story of modern agriculture, eh? Bite the hand that feeds you, and at least you’ll be full for the rest of the day.

The preservation of as vital a natural resource as the European Honeybee is reason enough for me to sign up for bee school next month. I hope it is for you, too.

I will publish more information on this topic, including the full interview, on my blog.

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 15 – Joy to the World

9 02 2015

(December 5, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Joy to the World

I hope everyone enjoyed a reflective, family-filled, homegrown Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas is around the corner, and as we move into the holiday season, what the economists and lending institutions must surely call “the most wonderful time of the year”, I see it as a timely opportunity to write on a topic that I’ve been waiting a long time to share.

If you’ve noticed, this column has taken on a common theme over the past few months. This idea is that it is our responsibility, as consumers, co-producers, and (most importantly) urban farmers, to guide the local and global economies toward a better state than the present one. As we’ve discussed previously, this can be done by reducing waste, by “solving for a pattern” in our production and consumption of goods, and by buying food responsibly, with sustainability as the key measure of value.

As consumers, we shape our economy through the products we purchase and, in doing so, support a production system that either heals the environment, local communities, and our fellow human beings, or further damages them. In the spirit of that motive, and to put a nice finish on my theme this Fall, I want to discuss three general but interconnected habits of consumption: buying local, buying used, and repurposing whatever we can.

To my pleasant surprise, this is a concept that has really taken off in the past few years. The idea is that, by shopping at locally-owned and –operated businesses instead of chains and big box stores, whether you’re buying products you would otherwise buy or, better yet, making a point to buy things that are locally-manufactured, -made, -grown, and –raised, your purchase stimulates your local economy. It’s hard to exactly quantify this effect, but the American Independent Business Alliance (amiba.net) has found that an incredible 48% of money spent at local, independent businesses is recirculated through the community, in stark contrast to the 14% of that spent at chain retailers. This means that spending money at local, independent businesses is more than three times as stimulating to the local economy than buying equivalent products elsewhere.

Given the nature of this Urban Farmer column, my first suggestion is, of course, to buy food from farms (urban and commercial alike) in your area. Because food is the most basic good we need to survive, it is important for all communities to have a resilient and sustainable local foodshed. But beyond food, it is imperative that we, who know what sustainability really means, buy from local businesses whenever possible. Most communities are home to independent businesses offering basically every good and service we could need to purchase – from building supplies, to handmade art and jewelry, to electronics repair, it’s better to shop local. For those of you in my area, the Blackstone Valley Independent Business Alliance (buylocalbv.org) is a trove of information about businesses in the area, and serves as a much-appreciated advocate for the local economy.

It took an insightful email from a reader, Mary, for me to start thinking about this, and I’m so thankful for her correspondence. As a perfect complement to buying local, it is hugely beneficial for consumers to buy lightly-used and repurposed goods wherever possible. Depending on what’s available locally, these can include used books, electronics, tools, and even lightly-used clothes and furniture, all just as good as if bought new, but often at a small fraction of the price.

We live in a throw-away economy, where the availability of cheap labor and the efficiency of mass-production catalyze the flow of cheap, low-quality, plastic goods from developing countries to our shores and our stores. It is very easy, almost second nature, for us to buy and throw away these goods as quickly as their low cost can justify, forgetting the strip mines, sweat shops, and immeasurable pollution that it took to make those widgets. But this system can, and should be, turned on its head.

To switch our buying habits from mass-produced goods to high-quality, lightly-used ones would yield some pretty significant benefits. It saves money, of course, while delivering an identical or superior product. It saves energy and natural resources, by making the manufacture of an additional laptop or the printing of an additional book unnecessary. In this way, buying lightly used also does wonders for environmental health: less waste is produced, less fossil fuel is burned, and less mining is done. As an added bonus, because buying used generally means buying from a locally-owned business, and because the greater durability of American products is often a given, doing so stimulates our national and local economies as well.

This concept is probably where the skills and ingenuity of the urban farmer come in most handy. If our goals are to reduce waste, eliminate unnecessary consumption, save money, help the environment, and (though this week’s weather makes it hard to imagine) produce food efficiently and naturally in our own urban farms, then the practice of repurposing is absolutely necessary. It is pretty self-explanatory, but repurposing is basically finding new uses for old or otherwise used materials and goods, which serves both to keep them out of the landfill and eliminate the need for the manufacture of whatever it is that is being replaced.

There are countless examples of this, but in keeping with the Christmas spirit, here are a few good suggestions for repurposing. For the past few years in my home, I have been using newspaper instead of wrapping paper for my gifts. Not only does this reduce my house’s consumption of shiny, colorful paper that will ultimately be discarded after little practical use, but it also makes use of something (newspaper) which already served its initial purpose, and which would be recycled anyway. The next example involves the fate of a Christmas tree. Instead of being hauled to the landfill (something that I can’t believe is still being done), a Christmas tree at the end of its life can be treated like any other plant material: the needles, dried, can be used as a great mulch for acid-loving crops like blueberries; the skeletal stem and branches can be used as a trellis or stake in the garden; and at the very least, the entire thing can be composted into some great humus for next year’s garden.

Being stewards of the Earth means consuming as little as possible, buying goods that are responsibly made and secondhand, and making our home economies more productive, and definitely more sustainable, than the national and global ones in which we’re forced to take part. That old mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has served its purpose, but I think it needs a little update if it’s to be applicable in our modern economy. Instead, as we’ve discovered over the past three months, how about we “Reduce, Reuse, Buy-used, Repurpose, Recycle, Up-cycle, and most of all, Compost”.

In our role as co-producers (maybe it’s time to drop that title of “consumers” now, eh?), it is our unique responsibility to vote with our buying power, and push the economy off of the ruinous path that it’s currently on, and towards sustainability and resiliency. It’s time to kick the idea of “rational self-interest”, the single motivation that economists assign to you and me, straight to the curb. We have to choose to operate our economy by the crazy notion that it can’t exist without the Earth. And if we can view the surface of the Earth not as a strip mine and a garbage heap, but as our only home, then it stands to reason that the less we take from it without giving back, the better.

To all my readers, I want to wish a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous holiday season. This is the time of year when those of us who toil under the Sun, who understand the beauty and mystery of Nature and the simultaneous insignificance and danger of destructive human endeavors, are given a chance to rest. Rejoice in the natural and supernatural lights which burn bright in our wonderful world, and let the season restore your faith and hope in the year to come.

And with Christmas less than three weeks away, I’ll leave you with a classic but relevant quote. In the eternal words of Dr. Seuss, “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”

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.