The Call and Times, Column 26 – The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

7 08 2015

(August 2, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

Cluck Urban Farm Supply in ProvidenceDrake Patten and her partner Wright Deter at the Best of RI Awards Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I see us starting to reconnect to local networks”, reflected Drake Patten with a measured optimism in the unfolding story of our agricultural economy, when I visited her Providence-based Cluck Urban Farm Supply store for an interview last week. Sitting atop a stack of chicken feed bags, we discussed the recent interest in local food systems and sustainable production, and the role that she hopes her store could play – and by my every metric, has already played – in their continued growth.

Visiting local farms in preparation for this series of columns has been a welcomed learning experience for me. Getting up-close-and-personal with the farmers, the farms, and the creatures raised there, and coming to understand how their lives figuratively and often very literally sustain our own, I am developing a deep appreciation for the power of a local foodshed.

And when considering the hands that feed us, we should remember to count two very important ones, whose work and toil is instrumental in filling our pantries and bellies – our own. And if, as urban farmers, we want to grow tomatoes, raise chickens, and keep bees, what do we need? Of course, a big dose of our own ingenuity and hard work is required. But we also need tomato seeds, chicken feed, and a beehive, to name just the basics, coupled with a whole bunch of knowledge. And that’s where Drake comes in.

Drake Patten grew up all around the world. She went to school for anthropology and worked as an archaeologist, and throughout her life, gravitated towards a career in the public sector and at nonprofits.

She lives in Cranston with her partner Wright, and her stepson Jackson, at Hurricane Hill, their historic, 48 acre farm. The family moved here this summer, having previously farmed for many years on a smaller property in Cranston.

It was the yearning for a big change in her profession life, combined with her frustration at the lack of a one-stop-shop for urban farmers, which ultimately led to the birth of Cluck in June of 2013. “I built the store that I wanted to shop at”, Drake explained. And as our conversation progressed in a room stocked with every conceivable good that a chicken-keeper could need, I echoed that sentiment, and chalked it up as the reason for my own, frequent visits to Cluck.

The store can be found at 399 Broadway in Providence, and online at cluckri.com. The store is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm, and Sunday, 12 to 4 pm. It’s currently closed on Mondays, but Drake says a seven-day week is in the works for the future.

At Cluck, “we focus on stuff to help people grow and raise their own food”, Drake explained. She offers everything an urban farmer could need – tools, materials, and knowledge – under one roof. She has created a space where she herself, her customers, and the impressive network of local small- and micro-businesses with which she is involved can share information, and build a community around local agriculture.

And with the goal of building a strong local foodshed, the products and services offered at Cluck are a much-needed catalyst. From the highlights that Drake pointed out, and my own frequent perusal and patronage of the store, here’s an idea of what Cluck has to offer: all manner of chicken-keeping supplies, including feed, bedding, herbal and mineral supplements, and chick-raising equipment; beehives, protective gear, and tools for beekeeping; seedtime-to-harvest garden stuff, from seeds, seed-starting equipment, and plant starts, to tools, soil and amendments, and raised beds, to canning jars, pickling ingredients, and apparatus for other types of preservation; cheese-making supplies; books on topics of agriculture and sustainability; and gifts and locally-made artisanal goods related to backyard farming.

While chicken feed and bedding, and books are popular year-round, many of the goods that Cluck offers are seasonal. Late winter brings demand for seeds, seed-starting supplies, and garden-planning knowledge. Spring requires soil and amendments. The summertime harvest means an uptick in food preservation. And now, in late summer and fall, you’ll find the makings of a fall garden – a last planting of greens and brassicas and eventually, garden cleanup and cover-cropping supplies.

When I asked her for some tips, Drake explained that now is the perfect time to plan your fall garden, to “end your season as you began it: with intention.” As the fall approaches, we should take care not to overlook this aspect of the garden – removing dead and spent plants; mulching and cover-cropping to support soil health during the winter; adding soil amendments in preparation for next Spring; readying a bed for a fall planting of garlic; and of course, prepping the chicken coop for winter and putting the beehive to rest after the honey harvest. “Eventually, I want to see people doing four-season gardening”, Drake said, explaining her goal of educating people on the crops that do well in-ground and in greenhouses year-round in our climate.

Cluck also hosts a wide range of seasonal demos, author events, and regular classes to help educate people about urban farming. These have covered topics like permaculture, chicken keeping, mushroom cultivation and identification, and cheese-making, and the classes are usually small and hands-on, and taught by experts from the local food community.

A common thread in our conversation was the historical normalcy of local food systems. When I asked her about her personal and agricultural philosophies, Drake said that they’re basically the same – “if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” She made it clear that she’s not against progress, but that she strongly objects to our modern tendency, in agriculture and in general, to “falsely imagine things as broken to justify replacing them.”

This statement struck a chord with me. This is precisely the reason that we are where we are, why it is necessary for me to write this column and engage in an otherwise broken political system. Within the past century, and especially in the past 60 or so years, we collectively evolved (devolved?) from a society of people who understood the seasons, who actively engaged in food production, who knew the “what” and “where” and “who” and “how” of their food, to…whatever we have now.

But Drake is optimistic. She believes, and I with her, that we are in the latter part of this unnatural period disconnect from our food and local economies. She is optimistic of the trend toward “a kinder, more local-focused food system”. And through her involvement in the local food economy, she sees educated consumers, who are more demanding in policy that aids in the growth of local economies and sustainable agriculture. And urban farming, she proposed, is a central part of this education. Growing their own food teaches people to manage a complex, small-scale food system, which in turn fosters demand for policies that do the same.

So urban agriculture will help save the world – I can get behind that. And it is going to require businesses like Cluck and people like Drake Patten to act as facilitators to this trend, playing an essential role in the revival of systems that have worked in the past. And the Rhode Island community, who voted Cluck the Best of RI Garden Store (Providence) in the Best of RI Reader’s Poll, seem to agree.

But don’t take our word for it. Take a trip to Cluck, and see for yourself.

My column appears every other Sunday 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 25 – The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

7 08 2015

(July 26, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

Blackbird Farm Cows

For this week’s edition of The Hand That Feeds You, I spent an afternoon with the Bouthillette family, the owners of Blackbird Farm in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Ann Marie and Kevin Bouthillette, with their sons Brandon and Troy, and their daughter Sam, own and operate a cow and pig farm that sits on over 200 acres on Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise 100% Angus beef and 100% American Heritage Berkshire pork, breeds whose genetics they’ve carefully selected for over many years to produce a high-quality, great-tasting product.

They sell all cuts of beef and pork at their Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike (Rt. 7) in Smithfield, which is open Fridays 1 – 6 pm, Saturdays 9 – 6 pm, and Sundays 9 – 4 pm. They also sell at the Providence Downtown Farmers Market in Kennedy Plaza, on Tuesdays 3 – 6 pm, and the Providence Armory Farmers Market at the Cranston Armory, on Thursdays 3:30 – 7 pm, both through the end of October. You can find more information on their website (http://blackbirdfarmri.com/), their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/blackbirdfarm), and their Farm Fresh RI profile page (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2134).

Sitting at their kitchen table, Ann Marie described to me the long history of what was to become Blackbird Farm. Her father had a life-long love for Angus beef, and always had the desire to become a farmer. After marrying her mother and traveling around the US, they settled down on some land in Glocester, Rhode Island and did just that, raising turkeys and eventually Angus cows.
Ann Marie grew up in the 4-H Club, and her interest in agriculture began with breeding Angus cattle for shows. Here, she learned firsthand how to selectively breed in order to improve the genetic characteristics of the herd, a practice that her son Brandon specializes in today.

After studying Animal Science at the University of Connecticut, Ann Marie married Kevin Bouthillette, who had lived on four acres of what was to become Blackbird Farm since the mid-1970s. Over the next few years, they had kids and made some sacrifices (including, as Ann Marie fondly told me, Kevin selling his prized Corvette) to expand the farm to 40 acres, but still weren’t doing much farming. They were breeding for cattle shows, and a trip to Montana yielded 20 pregnant cows, high-end Angus cattle whose genetic characteristics just happened to be perfect for beef agriculture.

As the family grew and went in the different directions that life took them, the focus on cattle showing became too costly and hard to sustain long-term, and they considered selling the cows. It was then that the couple made a life-altering decision. They had the “carcass cattle”, specifically bred for beef production; they had the land; and they had the know-how – they had become a beef farm. That decision was made a decade ago, and they’ve since expanded to over 200 acres.

When the rain finally let up, we took a drive around the farm. Ann Marie explained how the Angus cattle are broken into three groups, based on the point in their lifecycle: the cows (females who have carried young) and their calves, the feeder cattle, and the finishing cattle.

Ann Marie showed me two of the pastures where the cows and their calves graze on some of the healthiest, greenest, most bio-diverse grass I’ve ever seen. When the calves are a few months old, they are moved to a feeder area, where they eat a wet hay (called “bailage”) grown on-site, and supplemented with free-choice local brewer’s grain, apple peels, and non-GMO corn. Finally, a few months before slaughter, they are moved to the finishing area, where they are finished on hay and non-mega doses of non-GMO corn.

The cattle are given no hormones or antibiotics. Because they are fed a pasture-based, grain-supplemented diet natural to their species, they gain the necessary weight and are naturally very healthy – a world of difference from industrial agriculture.

We then visited the American Berkshire pigs. They are fed a diet of non-GMO corn and soy, and live in large, wooded lots, where they root and forage for tubers, shrubs, and berries, a behavior very natural to their species.

Through the course of the afternoon, the family described the diverse range of markets where they sell their product. There are the Farm Stand and farmers markets, of course. But there is also a long list of restaurants (available on their website) and local processing companies, like Daniele, Inc Fine Charcuterie. In addition, they are planning to start offering monthly farm tours.

One theme that seemed to permeate into many of our conversations, and indeed into much of Blackbird’s agricultural model, is the burgeoning farm-to-table movement in Rhode Island. “I want people to be educated about industrial farming”, Ann Marie explained, so they know the reasons to support local farms that use responsible, sustainable practices.

She explained that “everything Blackbird Farm does, is done in Rhode Island” – RI Beef and Veal harvests the animals, Westerly Meat Packing cuts the beef and pork, Central Falls Provisions makes their sausages and hotdogs, and Eat Drink RI manages their media and cooking classes.

And as many things in life do, our conversation came to the cost of their products. “It’s going to cost a little more” than industrial meat, Ann Marie said plainly. As she explained, every part of their production model focuses on quality – the superior breeding of Angus cattle; the pasture-based feeding; the local processing; and even small-scale packaging. Pasture is not subsidized by the federal government, and federal agricultural policy actually makes non-GMO feed more expensive than GMO (despite little actual increase in yields), and artificial drives up demand for meat grown in factory farms and in foreign countries, as compared to local, sustainable farms.

Decisions at Blackbird are made “to bring superior quality to the consumer”. This motivation is in direct contrast to that of industrial agriculture, where quantity and profit are the only driving factors, and questions of animal welfare, the growth of local economies, the appropriateness of diet regimens, and the use of pharmaceuticals are largely ignored.

Looking at Blackbird Farm, and at the local, sustainable food economy in Rhode Island to which it is so intimately tied, it’s hard to even directly compare it to industrial agriculture. Blackbird Farm’s model is a completely different paradigm than that of industrial agriculture; their meat, a completely different product.

“Once people come here, see what goes into our product, and taste it, they’re sold”, Ann Marie said candidly. This sentiment is validated by the number of repeat customers that they have, and I can personally attest to it myself. The marbling, the color, and the taste are all vastly superior to industrial meat, and the pasture-based diet means that the meat is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Ann Marie left me with a reiteration of the phrase that has grown in popularity in recent years: “know who your farmer is, know where your food comes from”. Personally, my journey towards local, sustainable food over the past few years brought me to Blackbird Farm as a principle source of my family’s meat. I have come to know my farmers, and I see where my food comes from; and you know what? From the animal treatment and the pastures to the sustainable practices and local production – I really like what I see.

 

 

My column appears every other Sunday 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 24 – The Art and Science of Vermiculture

7 08 2015

(July 5th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Art and Science of Vermiculture

It’s an understatement to say that topsoil is the glue that holds the Earth together. But how it is formed? We’ve dug deep into the mysteries of topsoil, explored natural material cycles, and discussed organic methods for soil fertility. But one aspect of this amazing substance that we haven’t really covered is the little creature responsible for making it: the humble worm.
Consider this your first and only warning – this column is about worms, and the steps that an urban farmer can take to make more of them. If you, like my grandmother, are squeamish about this topic, it’s best to put the newspaper down and go for a walk. I’m just kidding – there are dozens of them in each square foot of the ground you’d walk on, so it’s best just to continue reading.

In today’s column, I want to introduce the simple but powerful art of “vermicomposting” or “vermiculture”. This isn’t nearly as complicated as the technical names imply. Vermiculture leverages the natural tendencies of worms to create rich compost and more worms. For the urban farmer, this means putting some worms and organic material in a box, and letting nature do the rest.

The construction of a vermiculture system (a “worm bin”) is quick and inexpensive. Minimally, you need: a 10 to 20 gallon plastic tote box, preferably 12-18 inches in height, with a tight-fitting lid; a second tote or a tray that the first tote can fit into, with high enough walls to hold a few inches of drainage liquid (called “worm tea” – though I wouldn’t recommend drinking this); two bricks or wooden blocks; and a drill with a small drill bit (1/16th-1/8th inch).

To construct the bin, first drill some small holes in the bottom of the tote, separated by a few inches – 20 to 30 in total. If the tote is uneven along the bottom, make sure to drill at the lowest points. These will provide for drainage.

The lid of the bin needs to be tight-fitting, to protect the worms from bright sunlight and rain. In the lid, you need to drill around a dozen ventilation holes, a little larger than the drainage holes. Alternatively, you can cut a small (postcard sized) rectangular hole in the center of the lid using a utility knife, and attach a piece of screening (i.e. an old window screen). Glue generally doesn’t bond to this type of plastic, so my preferred method is to drill small holes along the outside of the ventilation hole and use plastic zip ties, string, or wire to tie the screening to the hole. This method is more complicated, but I believe it makes for better ventilation.

That’s basically it. You put the bricks or blocks into the tray and set the plastic tote on top of them, so it won’t be submerged in the tea. I used a second plastic bin, so the drainage holes would be protected from direct exposure. Now, it’s time to fill the bin.

First, line the bottom (of the main bin) with a few inches of high-carbon bedding material. This could be shredded paper or cardboard, peat moss, or shredded leaves – I used half newspaper and half leaves. You need to wet the bedding material enough that it absorbs water, so that it’s comfortable for the worms. On top of this, put a few shovelfuls of garden soil, just enough to cover the bedding. This introduces beneficial microbes to the bin, as well as non-biological, which aid in worm digestion. Finally, you add in your worms and some food (more on this below), and a piece of wet paper or cardboard across the top to keep the bedding and vermicompost from drying out.

Traditionally, the types of worms used in vermicomposting are red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) or red earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus), which thrive in high-organic-matter environments. It is possible to harvest these by hand, in dark, damp areas of your yard, where leaves and leaf mould cover the ground – but this is time consuming. Red wigglers can be purchased online, from many garden stores or even Amazon and EBay, or you can find a local vermicomposter in your area (Craigslist is a good place to start) who will be dividing their worm bin and would sell some to you. I got my red wigglers from a friend who vermicomposts.

Worm bins are capable of digesting most organic materials. Favorites include most vegetable and fruit wastes (with the exception of citrus and any plant in the onion family), coffee grounds with the filter, tea bags, and starchy leftovers (better used to grow the worm bin than the vermicomposter’s belly). Fat and oil, bone, dairy, and meat scraps can added as well, but should be a small portion of the total food input.

There is essentially no day-to-day maintenance of the worm bin. You should make sure the contents stay damp (not soaking, but not dry), and feed the bin only as fast as the food is digested. The first few weeks will be slow going – the worm population starts small, and it takes time for microbial populations to colonize the bin (and these are actually what the worms feed on).

The bin should be placed in a shady area – a basement, garage, or shed is good, or a cool, shady alcove outside. You don’t want it in direct sunlight, which makes the worms uncomfortable, and can heat the bin. The optimal temperature range is around 50 to 80 degrees, which means that special attention should be given on hot summer days. The worm bin must be put inside during the cold of the winter if you want the worms to survive (it doesn’t smell and is indiscriminate).

So why would an urban farmer want to go to the trouble of growing a box of worms?

Vermicomposting is faster than regular composting, and merely through their digestion, the red wigglers turn organic materials (and even ordinary topsoil) into worm castings – a valuable soil fertility amendment that is even better than compost. Castings should be extracted from the bin by moving the contents over to one side and filling the other with new bedding and feed. The worms will slowly migrate to the new organics, and the castings can be extracted.

The collected drainage (worm tea) is also a powerful liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and sprayed onto plants – this provides them with nutrients, and is known to enhance microbial activity in the topsoil.

And then, there are the worms themselves. After a few months, when the worm populations have skyrocketed, it is wise to begin extracting worms to keep their reproduction rates high (this is called maximum sustainable yield). These can be put into the garden or the compost, where they will continue to do their good.

They can also be used more directly in food production. Feeding them to backyard chickens or fish can offset feed costs, and make egg, chicken, and fish production more self-sufficient and sustainable. This is my ultimate plan for my system.

            Healthy worm bins have tens to hundreds of thousands of worms in them. Each red wiggler has around 2 Calories in it, and a laying chicken (for example) consumes around 400 Calories per day. That means that 50 worms could easily make up 25% of the hen’s diet (in addition to whatever other bugs she found herself) – if that’s not a huge step towards self-sufficiency, I don’t know what is.

 

My column appears every other Sunday 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 23 – The Hand That Feeds You – Blue Skys Farm, Cranston

7 08 2015

(June 21st, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Blue Skys Farm, Cranston

Blue Skys Farm Crew

As urban farmers, our guiding principle is to grow, raise, and gather as much of our own food as we can. But living in the city, we are bound by another rule: we can’t do it all. For everything that we can’t produce ourselves, we must make it our goal to buy local, responsibly-grown foods, in season, from the people who grew them.

With that in mind, I’m happy to announce the beginning of a series of columns entitled “The Hand That Feeds You”. Over the next few months, I will be profiling local farms, food producers, and agricultural businesses in our area, taking a look at the work they do.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to Christina Dedora, the first subject of this exciting summer series, and the owner of Blue Skys Farm (www.blueskysfarm.com).

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting the farm on Pippin Orchard Road in beautiful western Cranston. As Christina explained to me, the 50 acre piece of land on which the farm is located is owned and protected by the Rhode Island DEM. They lease it to the Southside Community Land Trust, which in turn leases much of it to five farms – Pak Express, Blue Skys, Scratch, Big Train, and Zephyr – via its agricultural incubator program, Urban Edge Farm. This program has been going on for 15 years, and the individual farmers grow on plots of between 1/8th of an acre to two acres apiece.

Christina grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Boston at age 19. Following a job around and, in her words, “trying to climb the corporate ladder”, she lived in Connecticut for a while, before moving to France to study the French language.

Reminiscing, she described how the French, with their renowned cuisine and appreciation of agricultural terroir, “taught me that food tastes good”. And with that, the increasingly common call back to our agrarian roots largely responsible for the recent uptick in the number of small farms, Christina became a farmer.

She got a job on a farm in France, but soon returned home with agricultural ambitions. After initially setting up shop in Massachusetts, and learning firsthand about the unfriendliness with which disconnected governments can treat small farmers, she moved back to Rhode Island.

That was 10 years ago, when she began part-time farming at what was to become Blue Skys Farm. Five years ago, she became a full time farmer – and the rest is history.

When I first got to the farm, I found the crew in the Packing Room, bagging up snap peas and bundling sweet-smelling flowers and herbs in preparation for market the next day.

They sell their produce at four farmers markets throughout the year:

  • Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, Saturdays, 9-1 pm, November through May, in Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket
  • Woonsocket Winter Farmers Market, Tuesdays, 3-6 pm, November through June, at Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket
  • West Warwick Farmers Market, Thursdays, 3-6 pm, July through October, at Thundermist in West Warwick
  • Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market, Saturdays, 9-12 pm, May through October, in Rhodes on the Pawtuxet Parking Lot in Cranston

You can find out more information about these markets at http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farmersmarkets.php.

In addition to the farmers markets, Blue Skys operates a 20-week CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, from June through October. The 2015 CSA (which has already begun this year) has 22 members, a number that is growing every year.

We started the tour in Blue Skys’ main fields, full of rows of flowers, herbs, and cool-season vegetables. Christina showed me the farm’s two high tunnels – passively-solar-heated structures that allow early plantings of warm-season crops, like tomatoes and beans.

Blue Skys grows a huge variety of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. A partial list of crops includes turnips, lettuce mix, snap peas, kale, Swiss chard, summer squash, beets, carrots, arugula, tomatoes, purple potatoes, yellow pole beans, tomatillos, peppers, and a huge variety of herbs and flowers – Echinacea, ornamental sunflowers, sweet-smelling peonies, lilies, lavender, and nettles, to name a few.

As we started up the beautiful dirt road that snakes through the farm, Christina explained to me about their irrigation system. A large pond sits a short way up the road from the main fields, fed both by an underground spring and by rainfall. The five farms on the land together pay to operate a pump, which filters and disburses the pond water throughout the land a few days a week, providing for both overhead and drip irrigation in the fields, high tunnels, and greenhouses.

This system is an archetype of Blue Skys’ growing practices. Christina described the farm as chemical-free – not certified organic, but utilizing practices that are above and beyond those required by organic standards. They use no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides; instead, they build their soil’s fertility using farm-grown nettle tea and comfrey syrup, Rhode Island-produced compost, and fish emulsion. Much of their energy comes from solar panels that cover the roofs of many of the farm’s buildings – another collaborative effort.

As we ended the tour in their big barn, which holds a communal wash room, storage area, and drying room, a bigger picture was emerging. The solar panels and pond-irrigation system, a huge greenhouse, important on-farm processing and storage facilities – all shared by the five farms, whose acreage I had seen as we walked up the road.

“Collaborative farming is effective”, Christina explained, after we completed the tour and broke for lunch. She couldn’t say enough about the value of her on-farm team, volunteers and work-share members alike. And she described her fellow farmers as seven people from very different backgrounds, technically competitors within Rhode Island’s local food market. But this sharing – of farm resources, facilities, tools, and knowledge – helps to make their farms more productive, more financially lucrative, and more community-oriented. And in an environment dominated by massive, polluting, industrial mega-farms, collaboration gives these local farmers the tools they need to compete for space on Rhode Islanders’ plates.

This sense of beneficial collaboration speaks to Blue Skys larger mission – to provide people with, and educate them about, good local food, and to take care of the Earth.

These goals are, in their most basic sense, the same. Throughout our conversations, a topic that kept coming up was the loss of community. The agrarian social structure that phased out over the last century took with it some important and irreplaceable wisdom – a widespread understanding of the seasons; of true quality; of community. People understood their food to come from the soil, from plants and animals and fungi and farmers, rather than from a box. And from this understanding, they knew that the food they ate healed their Earth…or destroyed it.

Christina’s central goal is to revitalize this cultural wisdom. In my humble opinion, her agriculture is helping to do just that.

My column appears every other Sunday 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 22 – Water, Water, Everywhere: Urban Rainwater Harvesting

7 08 2015

(June 7th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Water, Water, Everywhere: Urban Rainwater Harvesting

Remember that three-day stretch of nearly constant rainfall early last week? I have to admit, for every raindrop that hit my roof, I died a little inside. You see, there’s this one special project (well, there are hundreds, but I’m going to focus right now) that I’ve been meaning to do for years but have never gotten around to, which has become one of my latest obsessions: rainwater harvesting.

Otherwise known as rainwater catchment, this is exactly what it sounds like. By installing a waterproof container at the bottom of a downspout gutter, the rainwater that falls on that portion of your roof can be collected and stored for future use.

Later on, I will describe a simple catchment system (the basic plan that I will be using). But before we get into the practical, let’s talk theory: why exactly would I want to go to the trouble of installing rainwater catchment on my house?

Being a coastal state in the Northern Atlantic, Rhode Island is blessed with relatively rainy summers (though someone might want to remind the climate about that this year). With that said, rainfall often comes in short bursts of thunderstorms, while our farms, gardens, livestock, and people would probably be better off with a little water every day rather than a biblical flood twice a month. The basic motivation for rainwater collection is the same as many other homesteading projects – if you save it during times of plenty, you’ll have it during times of little.

For every inch of rainfall, a 100 square foot area of roof (the size of a small bedroom) passes 62 gallons of rainwater – more than you can shake an umbrella at. Taking the average roof area in our region to be about 1000 square feet (U.S. Census Bureau), and Rhode Island rainfall to be 3 to 4 inches per month, a total of nearly 20,000 gallons of rainwater falls onto the average roof in the 9 non-winter months every year! Because of how easy it is to harvest, those 20,000 gallons ($100, at our rates) of clean, free rainwater are essentially wasted in most homes in the country, my own included.

The rule of thumb is that vegetable gardens require 1-2 inches of water per week in the summer, including rainfall. It’s entirely possible that we could get this much rain, but there’s a catch: a garden does much better with frequent watering, rather than what would otherwise be a cycle of flood-drought conditions. By collecting and storing rainwater when it is abundant, it can be used to irrigation the vegetable garden during periods of little or no rain.

Being a frugal, environmentally-conscious, thinking-in-cycles, conservationist engineer, these numbers are too appealing to pass up. I will be constructing a simple rainwater catchment system in the next few weeks, and I’m writing this column to hopefully motivate you to do the same.

With that, the central question is: what do I need to build a minimalist rainwater catchment system? While I can’t give a complete tutorial here, I will address the different components (there really aren’t that many) of a rainwater collection system. The internet is full of step-by-step instructions about how to build these fixtures for very little money, and I would recommend http://www.instructables.com/ as a good place to start.

The first step in rainwater collection is the downspout. Most homes already have these, but they often have to be adapted (and probably shortened) so the water can run into your collection container rather than onto the ground. In addition, I’ve encountered many urban farms in my research that employ what is called a “first flush system”. This is essentially a clever piping system that discards the first few gallons of each rainfall. This is desirable, because asphalt roofing tiles that were hot prior to the rain can leach small amounts of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the first bit of rainfall. By stopping the first few gallons from going into the rain barrel, you prevent those chemicals from ending up in your garden. What’s more, it helps to remove most bird droppings.

The next step is the storage tank, commonly called a cistern or a rain barrel. This can be as big or as small as you like. Pre-assembled rain barrels or assemble-it-yourself kits of 50-100 gallons are available for sale online and from many garden stores for around $100. In my opinion, it is easier and less expensive to build one yourself.

A simple, sturdy trash can works just as well, and makes the whole enterprise much more cost effective. It must have a tight-fitting lid, to prevent animals and insects (mosquitoes) from getting in. To this, you basically have to add a screened hole in the lid for the water to enter, and a watertight spigot near the bottom, to which you can attach a hose, for water to exit. An overflow system is also a nice addition: essentially you make another hole on the side of the barrel, near the top, so that excess rainwater can feed elsewhere (another rain barrel, perhaps?) once the primary container is full. Again, I direct you to one of many DIY websites for specific instructions to suit your individual budget and needs.

Finally, there is the (optional) distribution system. The water can simply be taken as-is from the spigot – a watering can or bucket is all you need to disburse it to those organisms in need of it most. A hose can also be attached, allowing you to water manually.

In my opinion, the state-of-the-art distribution system is drip irrigation. By laying out special (or homemade) irrigation piping throughout your garden, you can deliver water directly to the roots of your plants, minimizing waste and reducing weed growth. This is my preferred system, and I will be building one sometime in the near future.

One other thing to consider: the higher the rain barrel is raised up, the more water pressure (and higher flow rate) you will have in the distribution system. This doesn’t matter as much if you’re using automatic or unmanned drip irrigation, but if you’re watering by hand, a higher flow rate means less time spent watering. Something as simple as inexpensive, cement cinder blocks can do the job of adding a few feet to the height of the container.

Rhode Island house bill RI HB 7070 of 2012 set up a 10% tax credit for the cost of installation of residential and commercial rainwater catchment systems. Rather than illegalize rainwater collection, as has been done in certain other states, Rhode Island is actually encouraging its residents to collect rainwater. And they do so for good reason.

It is healthier for your plants, healthier for your animals, and healthier for the environment. And while I would not recommend drinking it yourself (insect larvae, toxic compounds, algae and other microorganisms will undoubtedly be present in the water), collected rainwater serves as an important buffer against short rain-free periods, more serious droughts, and problems with the municipal water supply. Remember, my friends: resilience is the product of practical forethought.

My column appears every other Sunday 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.