The Call, Column 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

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 42 – The Fruits of Your Labor: Growing Raspberries and Blackberries

28 03 2016

(March 13, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Fruits of Your Labor: Growing Raspberries and Blackberries

Despite having arrived a little early, I can’t say I mind the past week’s warm, sunny weather. The crocuses are blooming, the robins are scurrying around my yard, and I actually think I see the grass starting to grow. Spring is on its way, and that means it’s time to plant perennial fruits and vegetables!

Today, I want to take a look at bramble fruits, and give you a quick how-to on planting, growing, and using these amazing crops.

“Bramble fruits” is a wide classification of species belonging to the plant genus Rubus. They are tall-stemmed, often thorny, bush-like perennials that spread like wildfire and fruit abundantly. Depending on where you are in the world, this family of crops includes blackberries and (red, purple/black, and yellow) raspberries, but also their many hybrids and cultivars – loganberries, boysenberries, tayberries, etc. Today, I’ll focus specifically on blackberries and raspberries, because these are where I have the most experience – and they have essentially the same growing requirements.

These fruits are incredibly nutritious – they are high in Vitamin C, and one of the best sources of dietary fiber you can eat (if you want more information about this, check out my latest blog post, about various fruits and vegetables and their fiber content).

They also make great crops – they are easy to grow, require little care other than occasional watering, and yield large amounts of fruit at an early age, and for many years (more on this later). There are two distinct types of raspberries – summer-bearing, which bear one large crop in the mid-summer, and ever-bearing which bear two smaller crops in the summer and the fall. With all this said, let’s begin.
When and where to get your brambles: The best time to plant brambles is either in the early spring – mid-to-late March, giving the plant the spring, summer, and fall to put on growth – or in the fall – where it will stay dormant until the next spring. I’ve always had good luck with spring plantings of perennial fruits, and I would recommend going this path if only to prevent possible winter losses of tender, fragile young plants. That means you’ll want to have the plants within the next few weeks – because, if you order them from an online nursery, they will be shipped dormant and you’ll need them to break dormancy naturally, in the ground, as the soil and air temperatures warm.

Spring is the time of year when you’ll be able to find brambles and other fruit plants for sale in stores in our area. The best place to get fruit plants is in dedicated garden centers – places like Cluck Urban Farm Supply in Providence. If you’re looking for specific plants like raspberries and blackberries, it’s always best to call ahead to make sure they have them in stock.

Online nurseries are a good route to go if you want a broad selection of varieties – thorn-less blackberries, Latham raspberries, and those other hybrid berries I mentioned earlier. I’ve always had good luck ordering from Gurneys Seed and Nursery Company, and most of the bramble fruits I have growing in my garden were originally from there.

Raspberry and blackberry canes are also available from hardware stores in the spring. You should be careful with these, because I’ve read that they sometimes treat the plants with neonicotinoid compounds – artificial pesticides that have been found to be very damaging to bee populations. It’s worth asking before buying plants from them.

How to plant your brambles: When you buy raspberry and blackberry plants, either online or from a local nursery, they will come with instructions about the recommended planting depth, spacing, and location. But generally speaking, you’ll want to incorporate some compost into the planting hole a few weeks before planting, and space them around 3-5 feet apart.

As with most fruiting plants, their yield will be highest in a site with southern (full sun) exposure. But I have my berries planted on a northeast-facing wall (it was the most convenient area when I planted them) and they still yield pretty heavily. This is likely because bramble fruits evolved as undergrowth to thick forests, and so can do moderately well on lower amounts of sun.

Like most other plants, a few inches of mulch around your brambles ensures that the soil stays moist and fertile, and protects them from some soil-borne diseases and pests. You’ll want to water them once or twice a week, but I have found that they do pretty well on rainfall alone (assuming it is adequate). Like many perennials, they have both deep and sprawling roots, which allow them to pull up water (and nutrients) from further down in the soil.

You should create some sort of trellising or other support system for the berries. Because the canes grow very tall (I’ve seen some of my blackberry canes reach almost 15 feet), you should tie them up to a growing support to 1) increase air-circulation and prevent disease, 2) keep them from covering the surrounding area, and 3) make harvesting easier. I have three plants (two raspberries and one blackberry) planted along a wall of my house, separated by around 7 feet. We put four posts – cedar, driven a foot into the ground and extending about 8 feet up – between the plants and on the left and right ends. We tied metal wire horizontally along these posts, and tie the berry canes to them as they grow.

One special consideration to take is that bramble fruits should be pruned for best growth. Pruning is when you cut off this or last year’s growth, sometime in the fall or winter, to encourage better growth the following year and increase air circulation (to prevent disease). Each year (sometime between late fall and early spring), you should cut down any canes that have dried out, and are no longer fruiting. For summer-bearing varieties, these are a few years old (because they grow canes one year and fruit on them the next). For ever-bearing varieties, these are the canes that have grown and fruited in the last year.

Timeline for yielding fruit: In my experience, the plants may fruit very lightly the first year, but don’t expect much. If you water them and keep them healthy in the first year, they will take off the second year with a pretty significant harvest; they will probably reach maximum yield in the third year, and continue for a decade or more.

From my three plants, I harvest probably 4-6 gallons of fruit per year. That number could go up significantly if they had better sun exposure, and probably if I watered them a little more.

Why I love bramble fruits: These berries were my first real foray into fruit-growing, and I’m glad they were. They require very little maintenance, and yield fruit in less than two years, which cannot be said about most tree fruits.

Because they are delicate and hard to transport fresh, bramble fruits do cost quite a bit to buy, which makes it that much sweeter (pun intended) to get a few gallons of them, per year, from a $5 plant.

From an ancestral-diet-framework, they are probably the best fruit. Small, sour, wild berries (from which bramble fruits aren’t too far removed) were the primary source of dietary carbohydrates throughout human evolution, and this is reflected by the unbelievable levels of dietary fiber and phytonutrients found in them. Most of our fruit consumption should come from fruits like these.

They are delicious to eat fresh over the late spring and summer, and can be stored in the freezer for a year or more, to be eaten in the off season. A small investment now will pay dividends in the future – so plant some bramble berries, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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.

A Paleo/Low-and-Slow-Carb Approach to Produce: Which Fruits and Vegetables are Best?

6 03 2016

This is the product of my new-found obsession with dietary fiber – namely, making sure that I get enough of it, from the best possible dietary sources, coupled with safe amounts of digestible carbohydrates.

I compiled a list of popular vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and parsed through the USDA’s data to find fiber values for different measures of the food – i.e. grams of fiber per cup, and per 100 grams, and per pound. I also calculated the grams of digestible carbohydrate (i.e. {total carbs} – {fiber}) per gram of indigestible fiber, to enumerate those foods which I would consider the “slowest” carbohydrates (with the least digestible carbs per gram of fiber, or equivalently the most fiber per gram of digestible carbs).

My reasoning for this is that fiber acts as a “buffer” of sorts, slowing the digestion and uptake of digestible carbohydrates and minimizing their negative effects on the body’s insulin sensitivity, metabolic health, and the like (not to mention every other benefit fiber consumption has on our metabolic health, starting with our gut bacteria).

With no empirical evidence, but rather a strong hunch, informed by my knowledge of biochemical systems, I hypothesize: on average, a gram of fiber has some “digestible carbohydrate buffer capacity”; so all things being equal, a food with more digestible carbs per gram of fiber has a more negative effect, metabolically, than one with fewer digestible carbs, because the carbohydrates are released into the blood or liver more quickly.

(That’s not to say we shouldn’t eat foods with higher numbers of digestible carbs per fiber, but that the foundation of our copious vegetable consumption should be from foods with lower numbers).

As a quick point of conclusion, I found it pretty remarkable how the true Paleo diet emerges from the table when you sort it by grams of digestible carb per gram of fiber. The foods with the lowest numbers include berries, leafy greens, brassica/cole/cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, etc), and nuts and coconuts (I included peanuts in here for arguments’ sake, but they are legumes and there are legitimate reasons to avoid them, beyond the scope of this post). These foods are the closest to their wild ancestors, the plant foods that our bodies evolved to eat (greens, berries, nuts, and tubers, which I’ll discuss below) before agriculture selected for higher levels of sugar at the expense of nutrients.

And without much further ado, I’ve uploaded the chart and made it available below. One discrepancy to point out: it was beyond my level of patience to tease out information about resistant starch – a type of non-fiber carbohydrate that ends up feeding our intestinal bacteria and not our fat cells. This is present in things like tubers (especially potatoes that are raw, or cooked and then cooled in the refrigerator) and onion family vegetables. I’ve made a note in the document, but it’s worth considering onions, leeks, scallions, garlic, and potatoes prepared as described above as having a much lower digestible carb/fiber measure than this table indicates. Eat onions every day, and tubers a few times a week.

Columns A, B, and C are self-explanatory. D through G are the grams of indigestible fiber per common volume or weight measurement of the food (typical “piece”, raw cup, raw 100g, raw 1 lb, respectively). H is the grams of digestible carbs (remember, this includes resistant starch and so skews the numbers of onions and tubers), and I is the important number, grams of digestible carbohydrate per gram of fiber. I have included highlighting – the greener the cell, the less carbs per gram of fiber and therefore, (as per my hypothesis), the better the food.

I urge you to peruse this chart and use it to make the healthiest food choices you can. The USDA (probably erroneously, but still) recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1000 Calorie food intake – about 25 grams per day for a typical woman, and 35 grams per day for a typical man. Armed with the information here, it’s easy to meet or surpass that number – and you’ll quickly see that watermelon probably isn’t the best way to do it.

Happy eating!

Vegetable Fiber Reference – Excel Document

Edit: Here is another version of the table (at the request of a friend of mine) with the rows sorted by grams of fiber per raw cup (first sheet) and grams of digestible carb per gram of fiber (second sheet). You can also change the sorting yourself.

Updated Vegetable Fiber Reference

The Call, Column 41 – A Spring Planting Schedule

2 03 2016

(February 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Spring Planting Schedule

At this point in the year, you’ve probably ordered or bought your seeds already and are preparing to start them. I will be starting my first ones this weekend, and thought it the perfect opportunity to share my basic schedule for seed-starting and planting-out over the next few months, so we can all kick off the 2016 growing season right.

Last winter, I wrote a detailed tutorial about the tools, materials, and practices that everyone should know in order to start their seeds indoors (here). I urge you to check it out on my blog, but I’ll quickly recap the basics here. Those common black plastic trays are called 1020 flats, and in them you want to put “cell packs” (#72s or #98s for small/early crops and #32s or 3 or 4-inch pots for large/later crops) filled with a good quality seed-starting mix. This should be set up in front of a south-facing window and/or under grow light fixtures, to give your seeds the best possible start. They should be well-drained and warm, and you should water them according to the particular needs of the crop. One more thing: opt for high quality, organic/biodynamic/non-GMO/heirloom seeds whenever possible. And that brings us to the second recap.

Earlier this year, we talked extensively about how to order your seeds from seed catalogs (here). Most importantly from this column, in order to select what to grow, you need to determine 1) what type of garden you are going for (preservation versus self-sufficiency versus high-nutrient-diet versus just tasty food) and 2) how much of each crop is sufficient (based on eating patterns, intended end-use, etc). After you make these decisions, you should use my strategy to parse through your many seed catalogs, and make the final decisions about what to order.

So you now have your seeds, and know how to start them. The next question is: how much? In my experience, it’s very easy to overplant. This isn’t always a bad thing. Having the extra plants means a few things: 1) It gives you a choice about exactly what varieties to put in the ground; 2) They provide a safety net for potential crop failure; 3) They provide you with enough to give to friends and family; and 4) You can even sell or trade them, if they are that high quality.

But extra plants can also be a problem. If you have limited seed-starting space (or you’re someone like me who overplants to an unnecessary level and runs out of space no matter how much he expands his setup), too many of every type of plant can mean sacrificing a better variety of crops, and ultimately having to compost plants which cannot end up being used.

Now, in my own garden literature, I’ve broken up the crops into pseudo-taxonomic groupings (plant “families”, and then some), and that’s how I’ll divide them here. They are presented roughly in the order that they should be started. As a point of reference, northern Rhode Island is in Zone 6a, and our last frost normally occurs sometime around May 10 to May 20.

First up: the Onion Family. You’re going to want to plant bulb onion seeds as soon as possible indoors (within a week or two from now), to be planted out in early April; leek seeds should be started indoors in mid March and planted out right before the last frost (early May); and scallions can be direct-seeded outside around the same time you start leeks (once the soil can be worked). Any started indoors should be planted thickly in the planting tray, and trimmed occasionally (down to a few inches) as they grow to promote robustness. Bulb onions can also be grown from onion sets (olive-sized onions that continue to grow when put in the ground), which should be planted in April.

Next, we have the Cabbage Family. These include cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower, and are all grown pretty similarly. You’ll want to start them indoors right around now, to be planted out early-to-mid-April. Kale can also be started directly outside at that time. As I discussed last year, you can start a second crop of all of these in a cool area (indoors again) in late June, to be planted for a fall harvest in late July. These are all relatively easy to grow, but require regular watering and lots of light. They are pretty hardy in the cold, and it might be worth growing extra so you can plant out earlier and later crops.

Then, we have what I call the Leafy Greens. This includes small, leafy crops from many different plant families, like arugula, endive, lettuces, celery, spinach, and spinach substitutes (i.e. Good King Henry). These are pretty varied in their specificities, so you’ll want to check the seed packet and the internet for a better idea. But in general, these can be started indoors between now and mid March (celery and spinach on the earlier side), and planted out or otherwise direct seeded in late March (except for celery, which should wait until after the last frost in mid May). Other than celery and select alternative/exotic greens, these don’t really like the heat or very bright sunlight, as they are prone to bolt. You’ll want to plant them in succession throughout the spring and early summer, and again in the late summer and fall. Start them in small cells (like #98 trays) as they will only be a few inches tall by the time they are planted out.

Next up: the Tomato Family. This includes tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes, and all the potatoes are planted very similarly. These should be started indoors, early March for eggplants and peppers and mid March for tomatoes. I suggest starting these in smaller cells (like #72s) and transplanting the better seedlings up into 3 inch pots. They love light, water, and a nutrient-rich planting medium (like compost-based Fort Vee), and should be planted out in late May, after the last frost. Potatoes, on the other hand, can be direct seeded (from sprouted seed potatoes) throughout April and early May.

Now, we have the Roots, my grouping which consists of carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, and other similar crops. They can all be started directly in the ground in mid-to-late-March, and can be planted every week for a steady crop through the summer and fall – this is the method that I have used every year so far. I found out that it is also possible, and arguably beneficial, to start them indoors a few weeks prior to planting outside (probably in #72 cell trays because they won’t get that big), to give them some steady, warm temperatures to sprout and get off the ground in their growth (pun intended). However you do it, make sure to disturb their root as minimally as possible while transplanting them outside. I plan on trying a tray this year.

Next up: the Legume Family (beans and peas) and the Grains. None of these like to be transplanted, and all should be planted directly outside. You’ll want to start peas in late March, in succession throughout April (they are cooler season crops), and beans after the last frost in mid May, in succession through August (they are warm season crops). Grains vary widely depending on the crop and variety, but should generally be planted a few weeks before the last frost (except corn, which should be planted after).

Then, we have the Squash Family, including winter and summer squash, gourds, melons, and cucumbers. These can all be started indoors in late April (to give them a head-start), and transplanted out or otherwise direct seeded in late May. They aren’t fond of transplanting, so care should be taken not to disturb their roots. They are heavy feeders, and like plenty of water and light while growing.

Finally, if you’re growing Sweet Potatoes as I have started doing, they are very warm season crops and can only be directly planted out (from bits of root called “slips”) in late May or early June, after the frost.

That’s it, now get those seeds started! For a detailed local schedule, check out this handy calendar from URI: Good luck and happy planting.

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.