The Call, Column 40 – When Logic Doesn’t Matter

15 02 2016

(February 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

When Logic Doesn’t matter

Last November, in response to the WHO’s horribly erroneous claim that “meat causes cancer”, I wrote a column about the glaring issues with mainline nutritional science. I briefly mentioned the bias that naturally exists in nutritional research, and blamed it on the funding stream from industry groups, private organizations, and the government (let’s use “institution” as a stand-in for all of these). Today, we’ll ask the question: Why do these institutions throw so much money, so much time and effort, in order to essentially lie to their constituents?

I call this “institutionalized misinformation” (or “willful, militant ignorance” on my bad days), and it pains me to see how easily it has infected our society. The first thing we need to figure out, is how this package of misinformation – let’s call it the Flawed Narrative – arises in an otherwise well-meaning institution.

At some point, a Flawed Narrative begins as a single piece of misinformation, something that is factually incorrect but easy to believe, maybe because it fits comfortably into knowledge that is already common. A person of authority becomes convinced that this misinformation is true (either as an honest mistake, or because it is to his or her, a friend or family member’s, or the institution’s benefit), and in his or her capacity makes this misinformation doctrine within the institution.

Normally, in nature or human society, if an inappropriate or harmful thing is trying to grow within an environment – like a new product trying to take over the market, or an animal or plant filling a niche within an ecosystem, or even bacterium proliferating in a human being – the environment has some mechanism for stamping it out. If the product doesn’t work, the free market makes it fail; if the animal is taking resources from other species, established populations find ways to wipe it out; if the bacterium is pathogenic, the body’s immune system checks its growth and eliminates it.

But manmade power structures don’t have this self-correcting mechanism. So the seed of misinformation is planted within the institution, and it is free to grow without natural opposing forces. Maybe the institution changes its bylaws to reflect the “truth” found in this package of misinformation; or maybe it informs its constituents (the people who make it up or depend on it) of the new truth, and some of them believe it. There are many possible ways it can happen, but over time, what started as a single person believing a single believable falsehood grows into an institution and its constituents having a belief system which takes a falsehood as given.

Some fraction of the constituents of the institution adopt this pathogenic belief system as fact, making it part of their day-to-day lives – maybe it’s benign enough that they don’t notice that it’s false, or maybe they trust the institution enough to overlook or explain away glaring problems. Either way, in turn, the institution now has a whole lot more incentive to defend this information, and feed it back to their constituents – and on, and on. This back-and-forth turns an innocent, easy-to-believe piece of misinformation into the Flawed Narrative, institutionalized misinformation that is now accepted as fact by the population, even though it is not.

And here’s the fun part. The Flawed Narrative is now at the level of what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – it feels true, so it is! It is now the duty of the institution to defend the Flawed Narrative at all costs, funding scientific research riddled with biases that lend support to it, and convincing media sources to report it with enough sensationalism that it seems groundbreaking and unquestionable.

And so it goes. The misinformation gets cemented into public consciousness, and the Flawed Narrative becomes the official position of polite society: to disagree with it is to disagree with simple fact, to argue against knowledge so basic that they “knew it in our grandparents’ day” (even though they didn’t).

I know this has all been very abstract so far – so let’s take the specific, close-to-home example of backyard chickens, to demonstrate how pervasive and damaging this problem is within our cherished institutions.

In the City of Woonsocket, when I started trying to legalize chickens back in 2013, the accepted doctrine was that “chickens don’t belong in the city” – that they smell, and are loud, and will decrease property values, and simply aren’t worth the effort by the misguided peasants petitioning to be able to keep them. This was a bit of institutionalized misinformation that had arisen in our city (curiously, the same one that I saw in North Providence last March), and there is no better indication of its pervasiveness than the harsh treatment of myself and other public proponents, and of the council-members who worked to change the law. Thankfully, this Flawed Narrative was relegated to the history books a year ago.

I could write about countless other examples (climate change denial that is unfortunately rampant amongst government officials; the misdirected blaming of the Greek people as being responsible for their economic crisis), but I think this briefer and my previous columns are enough for you to understand this problem.

The pièce de résistance, the dogmatic ridiculousness that served as the main driving motivator for this column, is of course the religion of modern, low-fat, high-carb, count-your-calories nutritional science.

This elaborate False Narrative began with a self-serving nutritional researcher, Ancel Keys. One day in the 1950s, Dr. Keys made the decision that saturated fat intake causes heart disease, and cooked some data (in margarine, of course) in order to convince the government of the validity of his hypothesis.

The government bought it. And the rest, my friends, played out just as I have described above. The low-fat era was born in the 1960s, and the official dietary religion became that fat makes us fat and (especially the saturated type) is the cause of heart disease. The grain-based, low-fat food pyramid was published, and the federal government defended their assertions tooth-and-nail. Assertions which, conveniently, aligned just right with the large amount of money they were throwing at massive grain and legume agriculture to keep food prices artificially low.

The party line was lapped up like (low-fat) milk by an unsuspecting public, and defended mercilessly by the government, the processed food industries, and the private nutritional organizations that they fund.

And guess what? Following these high-carb, low-fat recommendations, we’ve gotten sicker than we were before they were published. But since that would have dangerous implications, the Flawed Narrative must be defended at all costs. Enter: the evil calorie! Chronic metabolic disease (heart disease, diabetes, etc) must be caused by obesity, which in turn must be caused by eating too many of those nasty Calories (because our bodies are blast furnaces, and not the most complex biochemical systems in the known universe). And because fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, saturated fat still makes us fat, and is still somehow the cause of heart disease. But, for some strange reason, the same is not true of unsaturated fats (despite having the same number of Calories). No, they now claim they’ve told us to eat these all along.

            Biochemistry, the actual science we use to describe what goes on in the human body, disagrees with pretty much all of these claims. But government officials, and those who report on the “science”, have become experts at parroting off these failed hypotheses like robots, ignoring something as mundane as rational thought.

So you may be asking: why does any of this matter, outside of human health? Well, when a Flawed Narrative becomes institutionalized, it makes it incredibly difficult for activists to make positive change!

It legitimizes anti-scientific and anti-logical groupthink; and it allows pro-establishment members of powerful institutions to simply deny every rational argument you throw at them, every piece of logic, in favor of their accepted narrative. This means that the public ends up following advice that isn’t sound, or isn’t based in real science, but is instead protected by moneyed interest groups whose well-being relies on the preservation of a particular set of incorrect beliefs.

60 years ago, not long before the dawn of the low-fat era, George Orwell penned in his famous book, 1984: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

When we allow scientific discourse to be guided by politics, by moneyed interests, by institutionalized misinformation that persists as “truth” long after the quietly-spoken facts say otherwise, we suffer for it. Don’t let that happen. Speak with a louder, smarter voice than the institutions. Provide logic they simply cannot argue with. Be the self-correcting mechanism that won’t exist without you. Make positive change!

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

The Call, Column 39 – Local Agriculture: Greek Style

8 02 2016

(January 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Local Agriculture: Greek Style

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

As I write this, I arrived home not 16 hours ago from my month-long trip to Greece. I spent a lot of great time with my family around the country, and one of my most vivid memories was the context that surrounds you as you explore the cities and landscapes – the Greek agriculture.

I’ve made it pretty obvious in the past, that small-scale, local agriculture forms the basis of Greece’s economy. We’ve discussed this from the perspectives of urban farming, energy efficiency and sustainability, community resiliency, economics, and international politics. Today, let’s talk about the farmers markets and the farmers themselves.

Last week, I visited two huge farmers markets. The first was the Varvakios Agora, Athens’ central market, and it was a pretty incredible experience.

Imagine walking down a long hallway, with standard sized market booths on either side, each of which belongs to a meat farm or farm collective. You can find almost any kind of meat you want – lamb, goat, beef, pork, chicken, duck, and every kind of fish swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. And many of the animals are still whole – entire lambs or chickens, with the heads and (if you’re lucky), organs still attached, hanging on display – having obviously been slaughtered just that morning.

And here’s the fun part: the vendors talk directly to you as you pass by. They are constantly yelling their products and prices – “Fresh lamb, 5 Euros per kilo!” But as you walk by, they address you specifically, explaining how the meat is “just for you, sir”, holding a lamb-chop or whole chicken out in front of you, urging you to examine and smell it for quality.

And that’s not the half of it. Along one adjoining road is the fruit and vegetable market, where in-season produce from around Southern Greece is laid out in farmers-market style. They have a longer growing season and warmer year than us, so in addition to the root vegetables, leafy greens, and brassicas, I found a plethora of fruits and vegetables that I wouldn’t otherwise dream of eating in January. And along the other joining road was the dried goods – nuts and seeds, dried fruits, cured meats, and spices of all kinds.

A few days later, I went to a “small” farmers market (called a Laiki) in Piraeus, the suburb of Greece where my dad’s mom and sisters live. That was an experience in itself.

Four or five city blocks along one road were lined with upwards of 100 vendors from the local foodshed. Like in the Varvakios Agora, Greece’s warm, extended growing season was made obvious by the shear diversity of produce available – fruits and vegetables, eggs, olives and oil, and honey, among others.

And in similar fashion to the agora, the farmers and vendors were shouting their competitive prices, and addressing sales pitches at specific passersby. This market reminded me a lot of the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market going on now in Rhode Island, but was generally louder (and there were lemons).

Despite the positive and inspiring atmosphere in these markets, I couldn’t help but recognize that it wasn’t a good reflection of the situation that the farmers in Greece are facing.

If you thought my description last time of the labor crisis and tax rates was unbelievable, it is even worse for the farmers. When all is said and done, their income is taxed at something like 85%, despite their not being the best-off financially. Their social security is being cut significantly, and their insurance rates are increasing as well. And having to honor the European Union’s regulations and embargos – specifically with Russia, one of the Greek farmers’ biggest customers – is making it even less financially stable to be a farmer in the country.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that there have been massive farmer protests in the recent months, and quite often while I was there. They used their tractors to block the National Highway in Northern Greece earlier this week, and in some cases stage protests where they spill unsold/unsellable produce (milk was what I saw) in the street. I generally don’t condone food waste, but if they are being driven to waste the product of their own hard work, it shows the magnitude of the struggles they are facing.

And while I celebrate the farmers standing up for their interests against the European Union government that obviously doesn’t care, I write it all with a heavy heart – I have a personal attachment to these goings-on, because a good part of my family in Greece is farmers.

On both sides of my family, my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generation were mostly full-time farmers, and now, many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, are at least part-time. I have experienced this fact first-hand, enjoying the fruits – and vegetables, and eggs, and olive oil – of their labor each time I visit Greece. But with this also comes stories: of peaches and kiwis, which are bought for so little money by Northern European packing companies that it’s barely worth growing them; of cherries that had to go to waste, because EU regulations have closed market channels and there isn’t enough demand at local farmers markets; and of produce that was grown and harvested, only to be made unsellable overnight by an unexpected embargo with Russia.

If, through conversations with my family members, friends, and baristas at local coffee shops, I could feel the struggles facing every citizen of Greece, I could feel it tenfold amongst my farmer relatives. Farming was and still is considered a noble job in Greece – whether full- or part-time, it is a common and positive thing for a family to spend their free time collectively managing a few acres of agricultural land.

As I have said a few times, agriculture is the basis of Greece’s economy. And I think the farmers are all fully aware of that, which is why they seem hopeful that they can use it to their advantage in protesting.

But with all of this said, the local agricultural scene in Greece is still vibrant and strong. They aren’t allowing the problems with the European Union and the Greek government to get in the way of their chosen profession, their calling – to raise a good product, and make it available to their fellow Greeks.

They are blessed with good soil, abundant sunlight, lots of pollinators, and a culture of people who know that agriculture is a dignified occupation and who respect, and can empathize with the lives of farmers. They live in a perfect environment for agriculture; and guess what: They sure know how to put on a good farmers market.

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

The Call, Column 38 – Lessons from the Greek Crisis

8 02 2016

(January 17, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Lessons From the Greek Crisis

I am writing this from Greece. Most people in the United States know of the existence of the economic crisis here, but understand very little about what is actually happening. Today, I want to discuss the problems that they are facing in this country, and how they might be relevant to our own economy and agricultural system.

It is the fashionable thing, in ours and other countries in the industrial Global North, to blame the Greek people for the dire economic situation that has crippled their economy and left them with incomprehensible levels of unemployment. But the true causes are so much more complex and appear, at least in my assessment, to be a calculated and largely successful effort to destroy the once-thriving, agriculture- and tourism-based economy of Greece, and turn them into a nation of unwilling dependents to the European Union, and slaves to the global financial system.

If you recall, I wrote a column the last time that I was in Greece (the summer of 2014) in which I praised the country for their significant efforts in energy conservation, alternative energy generation, and small-scale and backyard agriculture. This has always been true of the country, and is even truer as I explore it today. But despite their judicious, conservative use of natural resources, and emphasis on producing their own food and other goods, they have found themselves susceptible to the harms of global capitalism. As I see it, here are some of the main issues that led to this crisis:

The Euro. This is the common currency used by a subgroup of countries in the European Union, and was adopted in 2002. The ostensible goal was to streamline free trade between member countries, but its adoption had the unforeseen consequence of damaging smaller agricultural economies in its membership. Because the exchange value and inflation of the Euro is largely driven by the giant, industrial economies of Germany and other Northern European countries, the use of this common currency subjects Greece and other small, stable, less-industrialized economies to unnatural fluctuations. This has majorly harmed the economic climate of the country, and I believe they would have been better off retaining their old currency, the Drachma.

Easy credit. For a few years prior to the start of the crisis, European banks had been giving easy, low-interest credit, mortgages, and loans to people in Europe. For the hard-working farmers and small-businesspeople in Greece, the availability of this extra capital in a time of plenty provided the opportunity to invest in new projects, and to grow their farms, businesses, and economy. But when the country’s economy crashed in 2010, and wages halved while interest rates rose precipitously, this growth opportunity quickly turned into a game of survival. And in the banks’ view, making your loan payments is more important than buying food.

Agricultural and other regulations. This is where I stop believing the common narrative of a benevolent European Union. In the recent years, the European Union has enacted legislation which had the effect of shrinking the agricultural base of Greece’s economy. Namely, they have begun to pay farmers to not grow food on their land. And they have enacted embargos and other regulations that make it impossible for Greek farmers to sell their crops to other countries, causing huge amounts of waste and, therefore, disincentivizing continued agricultural production. Can you think of any reason why they would do this, to pull a small country’s economic foundation out from under them?

Taxes! In response to the start of the economic downturn, the European Union began to enact “austerity measures” against the Greek people – forcing the government to levy very high taxes on everyone, regardless of income. Let’s take some hypothetical numbers, to better understand the problem.

As a point of reference, unemployment is about 25% across the board, and about 60% for people in their 20s. At this time, the Euro and the Dollar are roughly equal in value. Despite this, before taxes, a person in Greece makes 1/5 to 1/10 the salary of an equivalent position in the U.S. – from about 120 € per week for “minimum wage” to about 400 € per week for a medical doctor. And yet, products cost minimally half as much as they do in the U.S., and often only slightly less.

Across the board, there is a 23% income tax. And after high housing, automobile, utility, and gas taxes, they are left with some 30% of their original income. Thirty percent. Taking a minimum wage of 120 € per week (which is many of the jobs in Greece), this leaves 36 € after taxes. And now, for minimalist survival, they must buy food, water, heating, and (arguably) insurance and clothing. On 36 €, or 50 €, or even 100 € per week…when 1 in 4 are unemployed. Remember this, the next time some talking head blames them.

With all of this, note that Greece has one of the smaller external debts in the European Union and the Western World, around $360B. This is far behind those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, who are all in the trillions, and yet oddly enthusiastic about collecting from Greece, and pales in comparison to the United States’ nearly $19T debt. Greece is the subject of an experiment in heavy-handed financial asphyxiation, by the ruling nations of the European Union. It’s the 17th century all over again.

It’s also worth pointing out that some of these most austere countries have, in the past, been forgiven of very large reparation debts by Greece. I guess heinous crimes in global warfare are more forgivable than buying food and heating oil for your family.

Does any of this sound familiar? Whether we perceive it or not, the same things are happening in our country. The government is willing to sacrifice the health of small-scale, local economies, based on agriculture and other primary production, for the pipedream of endless industrial growth and the diminishment of distributed production systems. Multinational corporations have taken action, both in their own capacities and using their control of the federal government, to overtake small businesses and farms. Financial institutions have the insatiable desire to own everything and everyone, which is accomplished by easy credit and the resulting mass indebtedness.

All of this has the effect of the people and economy moving away from the land, away from small businesses and primary production. Our nation, like Greece’s to some level, is tending towards big farms, fewer farmers, and commodity crops (we’ve actually been at that last one for four or five decades already). If the situation in Greece is any indicator, these trends aren’t a good sign.

I’m not sure I can offer a good solution to Greece. Exiting the Euro and returning to the Drachma is one that I’ve thought about a lot. But this would leave the Greeks with a horribly devalued currency and, at least temporarily, even more difficulty in buying the necessities for survival. Similarly, bankruptcy would essentially tank their economy. The only solution that Europe and the Greek government seem to entertain is raising taxes further. This is makes people unable to afford food and heating oil, and is therefore literally causing starvation. That is unacceptable.

This is the effect of globalization and the loss of small-scale agriculture. I’m not sure what will happen in Greece. But as I see it, it isn’t too late for us to make changes at home, changes that would preserve our own primary production and might even protect the Greek people from further harm. They are, of course, deeply related to topics we have discussed in the past.

We have to insist on laws at every level of government that encourage sustainable, small-scale, local production – of food, fuel, fiber, and everything else we consume. And we have to fight against laws that harm these systems, laws that deprive us of the freedom to grow our own food (or raise chickens!) and make it more difficult to obtain local, sustainable products.

And then we actually have to grow our own food. And make our own value added products. And buy everything we can’t grow or make ourselves, from farmers and businesses in our localities. And keep ourselves alive without becoming dependents of any financial institution – no bank, investment firm, government, or multinational corporation should be capable of ruining our lives.

There is still hope – both for us and, I have to believe, for Greece. The solution to all economic woes is the most powerful word in the English language: resiliency. When we create production systems that are resilient and not dependent on global capitalism, we are sheltered from power structures with imperialistic tendencies. Individual resiliency is the best, and possibly the only, measure in order to avoid the same fate that is now befalling Greece – the nation where democracy, philosophy, and the Western World itself was born.

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

The Call, Column 37 – The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

8 02 2016

(January 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

Despite the snow, frozen soil, and minimal egg yield, the winter is one of my favorite times of the year in terms of urban farming. Why, you ask? Two words: seed catalogs!

It’s time to begin the preparations for next year’s garden, and the eight or so seed catalogs I’ve received in the mail over the past month make that task a whole lot more fun. They form the basis for my spring garden plan, how and what I decide to plant come springtime. Today, I want us to go over how an urban farmer should go about making this plan: what types of decisions you will have to make and how to go about making them, my personal methods for planning my garden each year, and some resources that I’ve found helpful in the process.

The first two decisions that you must make are: what you want to grow, and how much. These decisions are nuanced, and how you make them depends very much on your and your family’s goals in planting a garden.

If the purpose of your garden is the simple quest for good food, you probably want to focus on tried-and-true favorites: culinary herbs, heirloom potatoes and beans, and varieties of fruits and vegetables bred for taste. A good yield is important to you, but a bushel of tomatoes is worthless of they are bred for industrial production or cooking down into sauce, and taste like mushy water raw.

This is even more true if you make a few, specific recipes often, and are growing the garden to supply the ingredients for those recipes. If Italian food, for example, is a personal forte, then basil, oregano, and good Italian tomatoes are a must.

On the other hand, if you are growing with the goal of maximizing production in the confines of your backyard, whether for some measure of food self-sufficiency or even just to stock the cupboards for the winter, your focus will be different. High-efficiency, high-calorie-density crops like grains, beans, brassica vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, and root vegetables are the best way to accomplish these goals.

If, instead, you have found that eating a sufficient quantity of vegetables and low-sugar fruits (10 servings per day) can get cost-prohibitive, you might endeavor to supplement your food budget with a garden. The crops you’ll want to focus on are those that give you the greatest return on your labor investment – for example, nutrient-rich and calorie-poor crops like leafy greens, can run a pretty big food bill if you want to make them a significant part of your diet. It’s a great idea to combine what you buy at the farmers market (which is already cheaper than what’s in the supermarket) with the products of your own garden.

Personally, as I’ve grown and matured in my knowledge of agriculture, ecology, and human nutrition, the emphasis of my diet has shifted from high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to “high-nutrient” foods. In turn, the subtle focus of my garden has and will continue to shift in this direction – rather than spending so much effort and space on things like white potatoes, sugar beets, corn, and other manner of grains, this year’s garden will be largely based on all manner of nutrient-dense vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and especially leafy-greens (with some sweet and white potatoes and other root crops mixed in, for the self-sufficiency aspects).

In all cases, how much you decide to grow of each crop should be made to match its intended uses. If you’ve decided on a “stock-the-cupboards, self-sufficiency” garden, you need to look at how many potatoes, how much cabbage, and how much corn your family eats throughout the year, both fresh while it is in season, and preserved, if there is a good way to do that.

In my case, tomatoes and peppers are a high-yielding, easily-preserved, nutrient-dense crop that my family uses a lot of. By growing many plants of these types in my garden, the goal is for us to have enough for much of the year. In terms of leafy greens, there are some that we like more than others – I go through a lot of spinach, kale, lettuces, arugula, and cabbage, so I will grow a lot more of that this year than, say, Swiss chard (which I like, but only in small doses).

Now that you have an idea of the types of crops you want to grow, and how much you should plant, you need to actually order the seeds! Here’s my organizational strategy.

It all starts with seed catalogs. If you haven’t bought seeds or plants from an online supplier before, you will need to go to each website and request a catalog; if you have, they usually begin sending you one around this time each year. I normally get catalogs from Fedco Seeds (along with their other plant divisions), Gurneys Seed and Nursery, Bountiful Gardens, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burnt Ridge Nursery, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Some of these are from the local area, and otherwise they specialize in very high quality seeds and plants (organic, heirloom, permaculture-based, etc).

While you are deciding which companies to order catalogs from, and again after perusing their catalogs (which have way more information than a website ever could), you have to decide which companies you actually want to order your seeds and plants from. This decision can be based on many factors, but usually includes their prices in comparison to the others, how local they are, whether they offer specific seeds or plants you desire, and other company’s policies – about GMOs, organic seed, business structure and practices, and even practical considerations like ordering timelines. I usually limit it to two or three companies to order my seeds and plants, because there are a few whose quality has been proven (Fedco is my go-to for seed!), and otherwise because shipping can add up if you spread your order too thin.

For those who have grown a garden in recent years, you then need to make a seed inventory of what you already have. This is a big step for me, because I easily have over 200 seed varieties that I use every year (I know, this is excessive), and this step helps me organize my thoughts about what I liked, what I didn’t, what I still have, and what I need to order again.

Everyone’s inventorying strategy is different, but I use an Excel document and list out all of the different seeds that I have, based on crop type (Nightshades, the tomato family; Alliums, the onion family; Cucurbits, the squash family; Herbs; Brassicaceae, the cabbage family; Leaf Crops; Root Crops; Beans and Grains; Flowers; and Fruit). Next to each type of seed, I write the year that it was packed for (which can be found on the seed packet), a rough estimate of the amount of seed I have left of that type (either a number or, as I did this year, a designation of “few”, “some”, or “lot”), and a guess at the viability, based on how long seeds of that type or family usually last (I designate “viable” or “questionable”, based on my experience and tables like this one at I also designate which varieties I actually ran out of this year.

            From this, I extract a rough list of specific cultivars and general crops that I want to plant again; and therefore, for those that I did not save any seed (which I admit happens far too often for my liking in my own garden), those cultivars and crops that I have to order again, and which company I got them from (if applicable). Start by designating those cultivars which are definitely viable (i.e. tomatoes or lettuce marked for last year) and which you also have a lot of left, as “in inventory” (and therefore don’t need to be ordered), while those that probably aren’t viable and/or you have little left, but that you liked as “out of inventory” (and therefore need to be ordered).

            You can then peruse the offerings of each company by the above crop categories, keeping in mind 1) which crops and how much you decided to grow; 2) what you already have for seed; and 3) what you definitely need to order again. For me, this is the Year of the Leafy Greens – I have some lettuce and kale seed from last year, but I’m stepping up my game and need to include quite a few of them in my order.

            Finally, I create another Excel sheet (can you tell my mom is an accountant?), organized by company, of the specific seed varieties (and plants) that I need to buy. Include their name, as well as other identifying information – production number, weight or count, and price – to keep you organized, make it easy to build your shopping cart (if ordering online), and keep a rough estimate of total prices. Also, if shipping is calculated by weight or total order cost, you can include a formula to calculate it for each company in a cell below the company’s listing.

            Good luck, and happy (seed) hunting!

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

The Call, Column 36 – All I Want for Christmas…

8 02 2016

(December 20, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

All I Want for Christmas…

Cows at Blackbird Farm, enjoying Santa's visit to the farm stand

Cows at Blackbird Farm, enjoying Santa’s visit to the farm stand!

I just got back from the big farmers market in Pawtucket, and I have to say, I’m really inspired. I go pretty often, probably once every two weeks during the winter. But this week, the atmosphere was different – Christmas was in the air, there were an exceptional amount of people, and all around me, there was this vibe – people were there to shop local for the holidays.

That’s what I want to talk about today. As we approach Christmas, and the weather gets colder but our homes (and hearts) get warmer, there are a lot of things on our lists to be bought. There’s food and drinks, gifts, decorations, and entertainment of all kinds. And while I’m the first to discourage mindless consumerism, 1) food is a biological necessity and 2) this is the time of year to share our blessings, including thoughtful gifts and experiences, with those we love. So with that in mind, here are some reasons that you should buy from small, local businesses for the holidays.

It’s good for the local economy. The American Independent Business Alliance ( estimates that about 48% of the money spent at small, local, independent businesses is recirculated through the local economy. When we buy from these businesses, the profits made on our purchases don’t go to make the rich richer. Instead, they help to pay for the dance lessons of a little girl in our community; or into the retirement savings of one of our neighbors; or to buy some other good from the local economy, which itself has this pronounced effect.

As consumers, by buying from local businesses, we send signals to the economy that we value their goods more than those bought at big box stores and chains. And we create demand, so that innovative and hardworking people in our community might be able to make a living in their own companies.

            It’s good for the environment. Personally, this is my favorite part. Buying locally produced goods and services – things like jewelry, entertainment, handmade clothing, art, prepared food, and agricultural products (which we’ll talk about below) – drastically reduces their carbon footprint. They do not have to be shipped around the globe like many similar products at big box stores, and small businesses are often more careful in selecting higher quality goods and materials, which further reduces their toll on the environment.  

            Buying locally-produced goods also serves to internalize, and thereby reduce, the negative externalities associated with production. “Negative externalities” are harms caused by some industrial process – like pollution, labor exploitation, damage to local economies, etc – that do not affect the company’s bottom line (because no laws exist to make it so), and which they can therefore freely ignore.

When a multinational company builds a heavily-polluting factory in a low-income neighborhood, it does not rely on the health and wellbeing of those people, that environment, and that community for its financial success – so it has no incentive to pollute less (that’s called environmental racism, classism, etc).

But when a good is produced and sold within a localized area, we who live there know and personally feel the effects, good and bad, that that product has on the local environment, the labor force, and the health of the members of our community (for example, think about the pollution of the Blackstone River). This means that if a product comes with any negative externalities, they are necessarily internalized. And if we choose en masse not to buy it, we force the production to be cleaner.

So buying locally-produced goods from businesses whose practices are helpful, not harmful, to the local environment gives us a powerful tool to protect and restore our community.

            It’s good for you, the consumer. When a business owner makes a good (or provides a service) to be sold to his or her friends, family, and neighbors, he or she puts more thought into the quality of that product. Unlike a multinational baked good conglomerate, it is doubtful that a local bakery, for example, would use a preservative or additive that is technically legal but that other countries have deemed harmful. And if you, as a carpenter, are building a swing-set or table to be sold to one of your neighbors, that product will be structurally superior to a big-box version, cheaply made by slave labor in a developing country.

And this notion, that the things we consume have an effect on our health, brings me back to the beginning of this column, and the central reason that I decided to write it: why it’s so great to buy food from local farms.

Buying food from local farms strengthens the local foodshed: it grows the local production system, and makes it more resilient in the face of large-scale food shortages that result from weather events, political unrest, and the like.

It drastically reduces the carbon footprint of the food we eat, and often results in improvement to the local environment, rather than destruction of some foreign or otherwise out-of-site one.

It gives us the ability to know what practices went into growing our food: what artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers were applied, how animals were treated, and what type of seed (organic, heirloom, GMO?) and feed and growing methods and soil fertility measures were used. And therefore, it gives us the ability to select foods which meet our personal criteria for environmental health and individual wellbeing.

And it lets us shake the hands the feed us (throwback to this summer!). We can know the hardworking, conscientious men and women who have dedicated their lives to making the one good we all cannot live without. Whose industry is the only one with the potential to have a positive, rather than negative, effect on the local and global environment. And who get up early on a Saturday morning, to bring delicious, healthy food to Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, for us to buy and cook for our loved ones, to show them how much we care.

One of my favorite farms, Blackbird Farm in Smithfield (Farm Stand: 660 Douglas Pike, Smithfield), is a perfect example of this (you might remember when I wrote about them during the summer). Last Saturday, Santa visited the farm stand, where they were selling Christmas trees and, of course, their high-quality beef and pork. The overwhelming message there was the benefits of buying locally-produced food, and intimately knowing the growing practices that went into producing your food. Ann Marie, one of the farm’s owners, sent me some great pictures of the day, one of which I have included here.

In closing, I want to wish all of my readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous holiday season. See you in 2016!

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

The Call, Column 35 – Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

8 02 2016

(December 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

As you probably already know, last Monday marked the beginning of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (“COP21”), in Le Bourget, Paris, France. The goal of the conference is to reach a comprehensive, global agreement, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, and halt the dangerous climate change that these emissions are causing.

Even if a global plan of action is not formed (the U.S. has been a notable holdout in the past), it does not change the facts: the climate has been altered significantly in the past century; we, and specifically our carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas, are the dominant driving force of that change; and it is easily the biggest threat that we face to the comfortable existence of life on Earth. Moving forward, we can either intentionally take strategic, preventative measures now, or be forced to take reactionary measures to ensure our survival in the future. Given the devastation that is often caused by a single hurricane, I hope it’s clear which action is the safer bet. And today, the engineer (and potential future political leader) in me is going to get really practical: What can we, lowly human beings on an environmentally-unstable planet, do about climate change?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you must “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – this is a good starting point. There is action that we can and must take within our own lives, in our own households, to help slow the progression of climate change.

The first step is to assess and minimize your household energy use. In Rhode Island, National Grid and private companies, like RISE Engineering, offer no-cost energy assessments/audits, where they visit your home, assess your energy use, and suggest ways to reduce your long-term consumption. You can find out more about these programs at their websites. And whether or not you get a formal energy audit performed, there are some key areas in home energy use where a small change produces a pretty huge effect. All of these solutions work for commercial buildings as well.

First, lighting uses between 10 and 15% of a normal household’s electricity, and by switching out incandescent light-bulbs for significantly more efficient LED bulbs, you can reduce that amount by 83% – a reduction of nearly 10% of your household’s total electricity consumption, and a savings of about $8.20 per year per bulb. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate that National Grid heavily subsidizes LED lighting, allowing companies like Ocean State Job Lot and many of the drugstores in the area to sell them for around $3 per bulb, yielding a 100% return on investment in as little as four months, on a bulb that will last over 20 years.

Heating, cooling, and refrigeration consume a combined 60% of residential electricity usage. Whether your water heater, refrigerator, air conditioners, and other such appliances are electricity- or gas-powered, there are very efficient versions currently available, which would drastically reduce their energy consumption. And with heavy subsidies from National Grid (, their cost is quickly returned by the savings in energy use. Furthermore, structural efficiency measures (like replacing windows and doors and adding insulation in key areas) can help to reduce heat loss.

In addition, finding ways to supplant current, energy- and carbon-intensive processes with less intensive ones – like switching to a clothes line, or from electric to gas heating – are good ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, supplementing or completely replacing fossil fuels with sustainable sources – by having solar panels installed on your roof, or paying a little extra to the energy company in order to guarantee better energy sourcing – may have the biggest effect of all.

Let’s change gears a bit: by driving less, and instead using public transportation, carpooling, and alternate forms of transportation like bicycles, you can significantly reduce your transportation-related carbon emissions. Personally, I take RIPTA whenever I can – on average, one-third to one-half of the times that I go to school in Providence are with public transportation. This and other alternative transportation is often pretty fast, costs less than gas, and doesn’t require parking. Also, because of their efficiency, electric cars (even running on coal electricity) produce less carbon dioxide per mile than gas cars.

Most products that we buy come with baggage, an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide (and other pollution) that was required in order to bring it to your home. By simply buying less stuff, buying used goods (which don’t have an additional footprint), buying locally (to reduce shipping), buying goods whose production methods you know were better for the environment, and throwing away less, you can help to reduce the fossil fuel that is burned by industry on your behalf.

That brings us to a very specific case – the food we eat. The knee-jerk response you’ll hear from some environmentalists is to “eat less meat”, citing a ridiculous, cherry-picked statistic and linking to a tofu recipe. If you couldn’t already guess, I don’t agree with this, and I think it indicates intellectual laziness and unwillingness to look deeper into the issue.

The actual carbon emissions of industrial agriculture come largely from the same place as in every other industry – burning fossil fuels. When industrial grain and soy monocultures are grown year after year, the soil’s fertility must be heavily supplemented with artificial fertilizer – this is made from natural gas, and releases carbon dioxide in its production. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in industrial farm machinery and artificial chemical applications. And the off-farm processing of these crops into “food”, and shipping them around the globe, uses fuel as well. When we (unnecessarily and inefficiently) feed animals these cheap grains, the effect is compounded.

Saving more detail for future columns, we need to eat diets that are environmentally-restorative – that have the net, lifetime effect of actually putting carbon into the ground (sequestration) rather than into the atmosphere. That means animal products that are raised on pasture, rotationally-grazed to build the topsoil, and fruits and vegetables that are grown non-intensively, on farms that use organic sources of soil fertility and don’t mechanically harvest, or otherwise in permaculture-type systems.

Buy these foods in season and from your local foodshed to eliminate long-distance transport; and rather than looking for “organic” or “natural”, ask the farmer yourself in order to ensure their practices fit these criteria. And, as always, grow your own using these methods.

We should all certainly make these changes, because they are the most direct and necessary ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not enough to make them in our own lives, and be satisfied – there are 7 billion other people on Earth, who either already do, or are on the path to, contribute to climate change as much as the average American.

We need to do more than “be the change” – we need to make the change through collective action! We have to champion good politicians who make climate change a top priority. And we have to call and write to make it clear to our leaders (in every level of government) that action on this issue should be taken now, by choice, rather than later, out of necessity.

Whether or not COP21 is successful, we in the United States, with 4.7% of the world’s population that produces an unbalanced 16% of its carbon emissions, need to change our regulatory and legislative climate.

On the municipal and state levels, we need to ramp up incentives for renewable energies – subsidies and grants to consumers who install solar and other alternative energies, the removal of taxes and fees on those projects, and investment by the government itself.

On the federal level, we need comprehensive carbon legislation. Whether that’s a carbon tax on power companies, to incentivize the switch to renewable sources without significantly increasing energy prices, or a cap and trade system, where we catalyze this change through market mechanisms, allowing companies to choose their own paths, or straightforward regulations, directly promoting the use of renewable sources of energy, it has to happen.

We have to stop subsidizing dirty energy. We need to stop sacrificing the lives of our brave servicemen and women in pointless oil wars. We need to stop dragging our feet, entertaining useless politicians who are so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to spend 1% of our GDP for a few years to ensure that there is a functioning Earth left for our grandchildren.

It’s time to act. In our homes, in our businesses, in our communities; with both our individual and our collective voice, we must demand action before it’s too late. Accelerated climate change threatens the general welfare of life on our planet, and inaction violates the oath that every politician takes to uphold the Constitution. It’s time to act.

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