The Call, Column 58 – A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

13 11 2016

(October 23, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

 Despite the unseasonable heat we’ve enjoyed this week, the fall is chugging steadily along. Soon enough, New England will be plunged into winter. The Farmers’ Almanac said it’ll be an exceptionally cold, snowy one this year, which is good reason for we urban farmers to focus well on preparing our homesteads for the cold and snow. Today, we’ll talk about a couple of important tasks that need to get done before that fateful time when the ground freezes, based on my own experiences.

The Vegetable Garden

            I hope you’ve had a good year in the garden, and that the last of your summer crops, as well as the glut of your fall ones, are maturing and ready to harvest. You’ll want to keep close watch of the weather, or at least put a weather alert app on your phone. Most annual crops, especially the remnants of the summer garden, need to be harvested before we get hit with a killing-frost. This usually happens in mid-to-late October, but we’ve been lucky so far (or unlucky, as the delayed onset of cold weather is an indicator of accelerating climate change). I usually wait it out as long as I can, and when the freezing temperatures seem imminent, I’ll do a “big harvest”, collecting everything edible and on-its-way to being edible (i.e. green tomatoes) in the garden, to be eaten, processed, or allowed to ripen. After that, it’s best to pull up all of the spent annuals to prevent overwintering diseases and pests, and either plant for the fall/winter or protect the soil.

It’s too late to plant most fall crops (I wrote a great column last August, about how to do just that!), but there are a few things you’ll want to plant and otherwise do for the health of your soil.

First off, plant garlic! This should go in sometime in the coming couple of weeks. I think I’ll plant my large selection of organic garlic this weekend, to allow it a bit of mild weather to establish itself.

Now is also a great time to plant cover crops, which are various cold season grasses, legumes, and the like that serve as a living mulch over the winter, and can be tilled into the soil for a fertility boost in the spring. As you pull up your spent vegetable plants, you should do some combination of the following, or ideally all of them: plant cover crops; apply manure, so it has the winter to compost and sterilize (or, at minimum, get some at leave it in a pile to compost); apply compost; and mulch the soil with anything from straw to grass to the coming onslaught of leaves (shredded, for faster breakdown).

Perennial Fruits

            In New England, now is actually a pretty good time to plant perennial fruit trees, bushes, and groundcovers. If they’re dormant when they ship from the nursery, they will not really start growing until next spring; if they aren’t, or you get them from a local nursery, they will grow a little and then go dormant as the weather cools. I tend to prefer to plant new perennials in spring, but I know of plenty of people who have made successful fall plantings.

For perennial fruits that are already established, late-October/early-November is when they need to be pruned. Grape vines should be cut down to a few feet above the ground; bramble canes that fruited for the first time this year or last year (depending on the specific cultivar) can be cut to the ground; and other fruit trees and bushes should be pruned carefully, to allow airflow between branches and facilitate whatever harvesting/plant-training program you have in mind.

New plantings and old should be mulched again in the fall, to keep the soil relatively warm and foster biological activity. For more detail on any particular crop, consult a reliable online source, or a homesteading book like John Seymour’s The New Self-Sufficient Gardener.

Irrigation System

            Rain barrels are sort of a sticky subject at this point in the year. You don’t want to empty them prematurely and waste the water. However, you have to make sure they are completely empty before the temperatures dip below freezing for an extended time, to prevent them from freezing solid and getting damaged. They should be cleaned at this point in the year, and either put away or otherwise cut off from your downspout (so they don’t fill up again).

Drip irrigation is a little bit of a different story. This is my first year with the system, so I’m writing based on my research rather than personal experience. What I have read has said the system can be left installed during winter. But you definitely want to flush all of the water out, disconnect it from the spigot, and open as many valves and holes as possible (similar to the way normal hoses are winterized). Even if the plastic is capable of withstanding the cold temperatures, the last thing you want is for water to freeze within it and breaking the tube. Refer back to the literature included with your system.

Chickens

            Chickens don’t need to be winterized per se: they thrive happily down to -20°F. But their water is a different story. You need to find a way to prevent it from freezing. I’ve seen designs for passive water heaters, which use a combination of black materials (which absorb light and reemit it as heat) and the greenhouse effect (where a clear container traps sunlight as heat) to keep water above freezing and therefore potable.

I aspire to use something like that one day. But for right now, I use a run-of-the-mill heated waterer. It’s like any chicken watering fount, but has a plug and a heating element built into the base, which turns on when the temperature of the water drops close to freezing. It’s also possible to build one by resting a standard plastic waterer on a heating dog bowl.

Otherwise, just know that your chickens are in for a boring couple of months. There won’t be much garden waste, bugs, grass, and the like for them to enjoy, so you’ll have to give them something to do to prevent cabin fever – like hanging heads of cabbage for them to jump and peck, or just bringing them new and interesting treats (they seemed to really enjoy the acid whey from my homemade Greek yogurt, today). On a more practical note, you also want to make sure to have a good supply of your bedding(s) of choice, as well as their feed. Winter isn’t the best time to run out of these.

Other

            If you have a vermiculture system, it’s best to bring it inside (a basement or unused room), or at least the garage during the winter. The worms don’t do well in the freezing temperatures. If they must stay outside, find the warmest place you can – like within the henhouse, which is naturally kept a little warmer, by the birds.

Finally, you generally want to make sure that the urban farm is clean as we enter the winter months. This is one I have struggled with in recent years, mostly because this time of the fall was usually when school would really pick up.

Make sure all of your tools are clean, sorted, and put somewhere that will be easily accessible come spring. Collect all seed-starting trays, plastic cells/pots, plant markers, and anything else that can get lost or damaged in the snow, clean them off, and bring them inside! I can’t tell you how many black plastic trays I’ve lost because of this type of neglect.

Finally, make sure you’re on the mailing lists of your favorite seed companies. December will be here before you know it, and you know what that means: time to start it all again!

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.

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The Call, Column 57 – ‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

13 11 2016

(October 9, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

Wasn’t it 80 degrees one day last week? And now, as if by magic, it seems like fall has been thrust upon us. I’ve definitely said this before, but the fall is my favorite time of year. It is, of course, harvest time, when the plants vigorously bear their fruits as the threat of an early frost bears down upon them. It’s also the time of year when everything starts to slow down and become more deliberate – in nature, of course, but in human society as well.

The deciduous trees paint the landscape with color and drop their leaves, preparing for a revitalizing winter’s rest. The animals are busy storing seeds and fruits and nuts away to keep them fed, or eating whatever they can now in preparation for a long hibernation. And people, even, start to live more deliberately, as the hustle and bustle of summer dies down and is slowly replaced with the contented joy of an extended holiday season.

In New England, the fall is an awesome time to get up-close-and-personal with your local agricultural scene. The farmers have been sweating away since February or March, working towards a bountiful harvest that, in many cases, is only now coming to term. The fruits of that harvest, along with the farms that grew them, are the cornerstone of many of my favorite fall activities. Let’s talk about a few that I think you’d like.

            Visit a farmers market. I’d love to know that you already buy most of your food as one of our areas many farmers markets. But if you don’t, or if you haven’t been in a while, now is a great time to stop by! The summer crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers and melons, garlic, and onions – are still in full swing; but it’s also the time when many nutritious late-season crops, like cabbage, broccoli, kale, winter squash of so many varieties, and heat-sensitive leafy greens make their appearance. The Woonsocket Thundermist market (Tuesdays 3-6pm) was buzzing with great people and great produce this week. Check out farmfresh.org to find a market near you, and make a point to go!

Visit a local farm. For many different reasons, now is a great time of year to pay a visit to one of your local farms. Many will have open houses or visiting hours, and it gives you the opportunity to shake the hands that feed you, enjoy the scenery as the fall color descends upon the farm, and more fully immerse yourself in the process of growing food. As a bonus, many farms in our area have farm stands where you can purchase produce that was picked that very morning. Farm Fresh RI’s website is a good source for information on most of the farms in your area.

Go apple and pumpkin picking. This is a more specific example of the above. I make it a point every year to go apple picking in a local orchard, and I often buy a couple of big pumpkins while I’m there. There’s nothing like plucking an apple (or 50 right) off the tree, or a pumpkin right from where it grew in the field. This type of activity is a winning situation, both for the farmer and you, her customer. It brings people out to the orchard, creating a market for the raw produce as well as value-added products like warm apple cider  (a treat for which I will gladly consume a little extra sugar!). And you get to make memories with your friends and family, enjoying the experience of apple picking on a crisp autumn afternoon, all while buying (literally) bushels of apples for lower prices than in the supermarket, because you’re taking the work out of picking. Two of my favorite orchards are Barden Family Orchard (Scituate) and Hill Orchards (Smithfield). And what do we do with all that local produce?

Cook seasonal foods! Apples and pumpkins are the distinctive flavors of fall, used in all many of recipes, both sweet and savory, alongside the customary palette of spices. I regularly make baked apples, winter squash bisque, fresh-pressed apple cider (and one that’s, shall we say, “aged” a little), thyme- and butter-sautéed winter squash, and apple and pumpkin pastries, of course. (Eating a paleo diet has made this a bit of a challenge, but you’d be surprised how many great recipes utilize coconut and almond flour, and more nutritious sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. I make do!).

Decorate your house. Not only are our local farms the place to get some great, healthy produce. They can also be your go-to source for traditional fall decorations – from wreathes and corn stalks, to straw bales and pumpkins for carving into jack-o-lanterns. The very idea of decorating for the fall season seems to be a byproduct of our agrarian roots, where the waste products of agriculture – corn stalks, straw, leaves, pinecones, and the like – could be used to create decorative art. How cool is that! As a plus, pretty much any decorative plant material can be composted or fed to your chickens as the fall color gives way to winter weather.

Enjoy a fall or Halloween attraction. This has got to be one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s become something of a yearly tradition with my friends. From family-oriented corn mazes and hayrides, to more sinister, haunted attractions, fall is the time when New England farms show their creativity as entertainers. These are another great excuse to make the trip out to a local farm – spend the day outside with your family or friends, enjoy some hot apple cider, and get scared senseless by zombies and clowns lurking in the woods. Halloween New England’s site (halloweennewengland.com) is a good place to start if you want to check out some of these attractions.

Fall is one of the best times of year to really get involved with your local, small farms. These types of activities provide us with out-of-doors, nature-based entertainment, unmatched by electronic device. They make us more aware of the seasons, and how those seasons affect agricultural production. And they bring an influx of revenue to our hard-working local farms, right as we approach the lower-productivity winter season. Enjoying these activities is a win for everyone, so let’s get out there this autumn and FALL in love with local agriculture!

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 56 – The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

13 11 2016

(September 25, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

In today’s installment of Renewable Energy 101, we’ll talk about some of my personal favorite energy technologies (I may have said that about every technology we’ve discussed). These are energy sources that come right from the Earth, and are some of the coolest, most democratic sources, accessible to anyone who cares to implement them. Enter: biofuels.

As promoted by the US Federal government, biofuels are not a good idea. They have sunk large amounts of research time and tax dollars into corn-ethanol biofuels, wherein heavily-subsidized commodity corn is turned into a sugar-rich syrup, and from there into ethanol, which can be burned. That’s great and all, but the majority of commodity corn is grown using a lot of fossil fuels, between the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, storage, and transportation. Estimates have it that one Calorie – a unit of energy, both in food and other situations – of “corn energy” requires around TEN CALORIES of fossil fuel energy to produce. When you look at the full lifecycle carbon emissions of that gallon of ethanol mixed into your gasoline, the picture you get is much bleaker. From seed-to-sparkplug, that gallon of ethanol created something like 10 times as much carbon dioxide as would have been created by just burning the gas. That’s hardly a win for the environment. No matter how good it makes us feel that we aren’t burning gas directly.

(This mockery of the name of environmental sustainability is only possible because of how much money the federal government invests in order to keep commodity crops cheap. By subsidizing commodity field corn heavily enough over the past few decades, the market has been flooded, and its wholesale price is next to nothing. This gives our population the illusion that we, in the United States, are incapable of suffering food shortages; but it has made farmers dependent on the federal subsidies to make a living and filled our diets with a rather unhealthy crop. That also answers the question: Why are grains at the base of the food pyramid? What’s more, this unholy subsidization hides the true costs, both in dollars and environmental destruction, of the products of commodity corn. Hence, biofuels are made to seem like a sustainable, financially-viable idea!)

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk real biofuels. First off, what exactly are they? As you know, plants and photosynthetic microorganisms capture the energy from the sunlight, and turn it into energy-rich chemicals like fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and fibers, which are sometimes eaten by other organisms, like animals. A “biofuel” is the general term for one of many different setups which allow us to turn this not-directly-useful chemical energy, stored in plants, bacteria, algae, and even things like animal waste – into useful forms, like heat, electricity, and substances that can be easily burned.

As you can probably guess, the biofuels that are actually in line with the goals of environmental sustainability do not come from corn, for the most part. Rather, they come from either 1) an organic waste stream – manure, yard waste, or agricultural byproducts; or 2) something grown for this particular purpose, whose lifecycle emissions are very low.

The most basic example of biofuel is probably the oldest human utilization of stored energy, other than by eating things: burning wood! Trees store a lot of energy in their long fiber molecules. Using this type of “biofuel” is as simple as burning logs in your fire pit or fireplace, extracting renewable solar energy from the contained fibers and using it to heat your house or, if you’re the next-level homesteader that I aspire to be, even to cook your food.

There are certain problems associated with wood-burning, but they aren’t inherent to it. First off, yes, it is absolutely a renewable resource if done correctly. A tree takes in x pounds of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, and burning it releases no more than x pounds of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This is over a very short overall lifecycle (unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide that’s been sequestered for millions of years), meaning that it has no net effect on global warming. But the full assessment of its sustainability comes down to how it’s farmed.

It is imperative that, as ecologically-conscious human beings, we maintain and grow our Earth’s environmentally- and economically-valuable forestland. It is customary in Western nations to clear-cut forests, logging all of the trees and destroying the entire forest ecosystem, and giving the land 20 or 30 years to grow back before cutting again. That’s ridiculous. Instead, we can log forests at a rate defined by what’s called the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – take a fraction of the trees every few months or every year, focusing on the dead, dying, and diseased. In any forest area, there is a specific rate of extraction – a number of trees harvested per month or per year – that maximizes the speed at which the forest produces usable wood. By harvesting at this rate, and taking the trees that, while perfectly usable for firewood (or lumber), contribute very little to the ecosystem, we make the forests better instead of worse. That is a sustainable harvest of a renewable source of energy.

The next type of biofuel that I want to talk about is biodiesel. Without getting into too much detail, there is a specific chemical process which turns oils – typically, used frying oils from restaurants or those extracted from algae – into hydrocarbon fuels that very closely resemble petroleum. This biodiesel can then be burned in much the same way as gas.

This is an example of a renewable biofuel energy that taps into a waste stream. By using frying oil, which is no longer valuable as food, and would otherwise just be dumped in a landfill, the biodiesel process reclaims a dense source of stored energy. But even this isn’t truly sustainable, because restaurants rely on oils extracted from soybeans, canola seeds, or corn, which all have huge carbon footprints. With that said, it is still a disruption to the waste stream and, depending on how you look at it, does create energy without using any additional resources. As long as restaurants continue frying food in gallons of oil, this type of biodiesel has its place in the renewable energy arena.

One special type of biodiesel is that made with algae oil. You see, there are certain types of algae – both wild species and the products of human breeding – which contain large amounts of long-chain fats. Like frying oil, these fats can be converted to biodiesel and used as a combustible energy resource. But algae can be grown nearly anywhere there is sunlight, is more efficient than plants at capturing solar energy, and is very easy to grow using 100% sustainable methods. It is even relatively simple to set up a system of clear tanks (i.e. plastic water bottles), and raise biodiesel-quality algae along a sunny exterior wall of your house!

Algae biofuels are an infant concept, but they’re picking up speed. And while some species can be used for biodiesel production because of their high fat content, there is promising research being done on algae with vastly different chemical composition, used instead for direct combustion or in other chemical reaction processes that yield usable energy.

Finally, we’ve gotten to anaerobic, or “methane” digestion. From a very high level, an anaerobic digester is a single tank, or set of 2 or 3 tanks in series, which convert a slurry of organic materials – animal manure, yard waste, agricultural byproducts – into carbon-neutral natural gas. That’s a pretty awesome idea!

This is done by taking advantage of a long list of chemical reactions, that already occur in nature but are catalyzed by a variety of bacteria. These bacteria can turn fiber, fat, carbohydrate, and protein molecules into methane, a purified form of natural gas which, like I described about wood above, adds no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The process is called anaerobic digestion because the tanks are maintained as low-oxygen (“anaerobic”) environments, and the methane they produce can be burned just as natural gas is, to heat homes or drive electricity-producing turbines.

I believe this to be one of the most useful renewable energy technologies within its own niche, because it doesn’t require a lot of special equipment (there are countless stories of conservation-minded individuals building methane digesters in their backyards), and can take such a wide variety of inputs that it is hugely effective at interrupting the organic waste stream. And guess what? As I write this, two digesters are being built in Rhode Island!

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 55 – Meet Me At The County Fair!

12 11 2016

(September 11, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Meet Me At The County Fair!

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Woodstock County Fair, just over the border in Woodstock, Connecticut. I have only gone once before, a few years ago: if you know me or read my column regularly, you’re probably shocked to hear that. But with all of my hobbies, school, work, and the other stuff I get myself into, the time has just never been there in past years (recall, if you will, my tell-all exposé last month about my time-anxiety; do you see what I mean?).

But anyway, I am glad that I finally made the time and took the day to visit the fair. Every part of the experience – from my fellow fairgoers, to the animals and attractions, and even the drive there and back – really strengthened my zeal for the deliberate, almost primal agrarian lifestyle, which I believe we could all use a little more of in our lives. Today, I want to explore the value of these types of experiences, specifically in the context of the county fairs whose season we’ve happily just entered.

County fairs have been around for at least a few hundred years. They began as a fun way to show off the work of an area’s farmers to the public, and have since expanded to fulfill a much broader purpose. They’ve become a public celebration of harvest time, the time of year when nature gleefully yields her bounty, and people respond in kind. Even to this day, and even in developed areas, these celebrations have preserved their agrarian roots, by continuing to showcase the food, art, entertainment, culture, and community belonging to the local economy.

As I said earlier, every single part of that experience gave me those particular feelings of contentedness, happiness, and inward reflection, much like what my mind reserves for when I am in the woods or my garden without a phone or to-do list.
The drive down Rt. 102, through North Smithfield, Burrillville, and Glocester, and on Rt. 44 through to Putnam and Woodstock, was really beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever driven down that way, and I couldn’t believe that the bucolic atmosphere described in John Denver’s “Country Roads” existed just 10 minutes from my home.

And of course, there was the Woodstock Fair itself. I was immediately greeted by the just detectable scent of cow manure – a smell I’ve come to appreciate over the years – mixed with the rich aromas emanating from the food stands near the fair’s entrance.

I spent two hours or so wandering around the fair, loosely following the map they had given me but going wherever my legs and eyes (and sometimes stomach) took me. I really didn’t know or care what time it was, and looked at my phone only to take pictures of what I saw (which is the truest mark of how good a time I was having). And wow, was there a lot to see!

There were stands selling almost any kind of food you could ask for, most of it prepared by local restaurants and other organizations; in the center of the grounds was a huge stage, where the area’s bands and entertainers were filling the air with music; there were carnival rides, of course, and showcases of local artists and home goods; and, lest I forget my main reason for going to the fair, there were lots of prized farm animals and agricultural produce on display, including some really big pumpkins.

So why did I appreciate my trip to the fair so much? Well, for one, I experienced a lot of the same things and feelings that I do at Woonsocket’s annual Autumnfest. The only thing missing is the agricultural exhibits, though maybe that should change in the near future (I can name a few members of our City Council who would react very passionately to this idea!).

These county fairs – Autumnfest included – serve to bring us closer to the local, agrarian community in which our separate cities and towns are collectively nested.

On the one hand, I mean that quite literally: the trip to pretty much any county fair brings you through some of the most beautiful parts of your geographic area, through the country roads and rural townships where life is more deliberate and the air smells cleaner.

But I also mean it figuratively. County fairs do the important job of preserving our connection to the local economy and agrarian community that, despite being drowned out by the sounds, sights, and smells of urban and metropolitan areas, still underlies our very existence.

You’re the last people I need to say this to: we are intimately dependent on rural America. We all eat food, drink water, wear clothes, take shelter in buildings, and use energy; the raw materials for much of that comes from farms and mines and forests in agrarian communities, whether in our proverbial backyard or one 2000 miles away.

County fairs remind us of that. They keep alive the population’s interest in agriculture, in local artisans, in the local community. They connect us to our neighbors who grow food and make things, and remind us of the agricultural roots of our past (and hopefully, not-so-distant future).

The Woodstock County Fair gave me an appreciation for all of this, and I’m sad to say we’ll have to wait another year to go again. But there are plenty of amazing agricultural fairs in our area of Southern New England. Take a look at this list – http://www.newenglandexplorer.com/statefairsne.htm. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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 54 – If At First You Don’t Succeed

12 11 2016

(August 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

I’m just going to say it: my garden really isn’t doing that well this year, and it’s kind of disheartening. It is due to the combination of quite a few factors, not the least of which are this hot, dry weather that is completely not conducive to growing food – something to which I think you can all relate – and that godforsaken family of woodchucks that significantly delayed my planting and reduced my harvest of anything with edible leaves to nearly zero.

But my own shortcomings are just as much to blame. I was so busy looking for a job in the spring, that I didn’t dedicate enough time to starting my seeds appropriately, planting early spring crops, and doing all of the “construction” projects that should have been done at that time, rather than in the middle of the summer (fixing my garden’s paths, installing a drip irrigation system, building a new fence to keep the demons – er, woodchucks – out, and amending the soil with compost). I planted everything late: from very delayed seed-starting, to not planting out my warm season crops (tomatoes, peppers) until mid-to-late June, to not even getting in the pumpkins and winter squash that I had planned. Also, since starting work I haven’t been able to dedicate many full days to working in my garden, something that I had come to rely on in the past, while in school and during summers where I wasn’t working normal full-time hours, to keep it in going.

So why am I telling you this? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, we all face disappointing events – and sometimes disappointing years – in our urban farming endeavors. In the past, I’ve seen farming called “a series of catastrophies that result in a lifestyle”, and this year has given me a newfound appreciation for that quote. Side note: as I write this, my grandfather has just informed me that he watched the woodchuck go through the expensive, newly-installed fence seemingly as if by magic (I think that rodent is contorting its body to fit through the 2”x4” holes in the fence). Hold on while I apply for my shotgun permit.

Good or bad, that’s just how it is. I’m the last person who wants to accept the fact, but this type of disappointment is what should be expected when we’re trying to interface with a wild, natural, ecological system. Nature has a very different idea of “proper function” than we do. The vegetable gardener finds more value in their neat, well-kept garden of fragile annual plants than in a patch of weeds; Nature, on the other hand, has used trial-and-error over 4.5 billion years, and found that the most efficient way to use that fertile patch of bare Earth, and the rain and sunlight that fall upon it, is quick growing pasture plants like crabgrass (at least, until an old growth forest has established itself). The chicken-keeper grows emotionally attached to particular birds and goes to great lengths to protect their lives from would-be predators, while Nature knows the best way to guarantee the long-term success of a species: thin the herd so only the strongest survive. The water-conscious urban farmer loves the idea of storing fresh, clean rainwater in rain barrels, and even in the topsoil; Nature, on the other hand, abhors sterility, and when it comes to fresh water, her tools of choice are algae, insects, evaporation, and gravity.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: as urban farmers, we are in constant battle with Nature. She is our one and only benefactor (both in urban farming and every other facet of our economy), but she can seem cold, heartless, and stern when we don’t do things her way.

Sometimes, as urban farmers, we fail. And sometimes, we fail big. And sometimes, we fail so big that we start to question why we put ourselves through this every year.

But what I’ve realized, while having the worst year in the 8 years I’ve been gardening, is that failures of specific crops, or specific projects, or even specific years, are not wholesale failures. I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because a woodchuck ate my kale and spinach; I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because I planted the tomatoes too late, and they only just started ripening; I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because I was too busy in the winter and spring to do the projects that should have been done before this summer.

The chickens are still laying eggs. I harvested lots of berries and herbs over the past few months. The garden will still produce squash and tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and potatoes throughout in the coming season.

Urban farming is a learning process. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, we as a society have collectively rejected the once common knowledge about how to grow, raise, and gather food. Would my great great grandfather have been able to tell me the best time to plant tomatoes? Yep. Would my great grandmother have been able to show me how to make cheese or yogurt from (gasp) unpasteurized milk? You bet. Would any one of my ancestors have warned me that I should erect a fence, out of material with very small openings, BEFORE even starting the garden – or one of the many other methods our species has devised to stop rodents from getting at our food? Absolutely.
But they didn’t. They couldn’t. I, like so many other city-folk-turned-urban-farmer, had to learn these things from books, the internet, farmer friends, and from a woodchuck eating my garden for 7 years before actually doing something about it. My grandparents do have quite a bit of this knowledge (when they choose to share it with me), but even they have gaps in their understanding that expose how distant their childhoods were from a historically normal human upbringing.

Today’s urban farmers are starting almost from scratch, trying in one lifetime to redevelop 10,000 years of agricultural intuition – and 2.6 million years of primate-hunter-gatherer intuition – that it took only 5 generations to lose. We will all make mistakes. There will be bad crops, and bad months, and bad years, but they do not represent actual failure.

The solution is to keep chugging forward, correcting your mistakes and trying not to make new ones. And working towards a resilient system is really a good place to start. Because, yes, Nature sometimes tries to destroy our gardens. But they are part of Nature.

By mulching the soil, incorporating plenty of organic matter, planting perennials whenever possible, and practicing polyculture rather than monoculture – by gardening like Nature does – we use her own strength against her. And rounding those tactics out with some of our own human ingenuity – things like rainwater storage, drip irrigation, and electric fencing – we end up eating more tomatoes than we lose. And that’s a win.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Fall garden to plan.

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 53 – Power From the Sun

12 11 2016

(August 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Power From the Sun

Solar energy is hands down my favorite renewable energy. I find a simple beauty – not to mention the efficiency – in capturing the sun’s energy directly from the source. What’s more, solar energy systems need few moving parts, they are scalable from a single panel or residential rooftop to a large-scale solar farm, and have a really cool look to them that increases the value and curb appeal of a home.

Today, we’ll talk about the technologies that have been developed to directly capture solar energy – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. I’ll give you a briefer on the science, and then discuss the current state of implementation and ways that we, as urban farmers, can get involved. Let’s begin!

What we call “light” – or more generally, electromagnetic radiation – is really a stream of little, condensed packets of wave energy called “photons”, which exist as particles in only the loosest definition of the word, but still contain lots of energy. The amount that a particular photon contains is inversely proportional to its wavelength, meaning that ultraviolet radiation contains more energy than visible light, which itself contains more than infrared radiation.

The sun outputs a very specific spectrum of light, which is a combination of visible (the rainbow) and non-visible (infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet, etc). That energy spreads away from the sun in all directions, and a small fraction of it gets directed at half of the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere (depending on the time of day). Some of this is filtered and dispersed by the atmosphere, and when all is said and done, roughly 1000 watts hit a one square meter area of ground in direct sunlight. Remember, a “watt” is a measure of the speed of energy transfer or usage, and your phone uses probably 3 or 4 watts while it is on. That 1000 watts/square meter is quite a lot!

The question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years is: how do we make use of that energy? Agriculture was our species’ first big answer to that question, when we figured out how to deliberately capture the sun’s energy in a chemical form (“Calories”) that we could use to fuel our bodies, feed our animals, and heat our homes.

We’ve developed a variety of different technologies since that time, which have culminated with the two centrally important methods for capturing solar energy that I mentioned above: solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

What’s known collectively as “solar thermal” is really a group of different technologies and building methods, unified by the underlying goal of capturing sunlight as usable heat energy. This idea is as old as human society, and is really easy to see in day-to-day life: leave a bottle of water out in the sun for a few minutes and observe the change in its temperature (don’t drink it after); or take note of which rooms in your house are the warmest when all heaters and air conditioners are shut off (hint: it’s the rooms with exterior walls with direct exposure to the sun).

There are a couple of basic types of solar thermal technology that are used all around the world. Solar architecture takes advantage of that “south-facing-room” effect, designing buildings that more effectively absorb the sun’s warmth in the winter, and do not absorb it in the summer. The knowledge that underlies this is as old as construction, but has recently made a comeback in the developed world.

Concentrated solar thermal is an up-and-coming technology, which utilizes mirrors and lenses in a variety of geometries. These concentrate sunlight into super-heated steam, which is most often used to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These require large areas and lots of direct sunlight, which makes them good candidates for desert development.

And of course, there is solar hot water. This is one I’ve mentioned before, when I visited Greece back in summer of 2014 and made note of the fact that nearly every house has a system of this type on its roof. This technology captures the sun’s energy by running water through a specially-designed (though easily made-at-home), dark-colored collector panel. The water heats up, and is stored for use throughout the day, either in a boiler or a separate tank that is often part of the standalone unit. These systems are hugely effective at producing large amounts of very hot water, which in turn is an effective way to store heat. There is a similar type of system that uses air instead, and which sometimes takes advantage of the way that air expands when it heats up.

Solar photovoltaic is a much more complex – but also more versatile – technology, which turns sunlight into electricity. Solar cells are thin sheets, usually made of silicon with small amounts of other elements deliberately added in, that turn light particles from the sun (photons) into electric current. When solar cells are connected together correctly, and then through output wires to some other electric circuitry, they form what are commonly known as solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels are the sleek, dark blue fixtures that I’ve been delighted to see popping up on houses in our area. The commercially-available ones are around 20% efficient – a similar fuel efficiency to the gasoline engine in your car – which means that, with an accompanying bank of batteries (so the energy can be stored) or a connection to the electric grid (so it can be sold back when it isn’t being used), the rooftop of a typical residence can supply 100% of that house’s electricity needs!

There are very few solar hot water fixtures in the United States, but I’ve started to see quite a few photovoltaic arrays on roofs in our area, and know of huge solar farms (fields of panels) that have been, or are being, built as I write this. We are  pretty far behind the energy-conscious folk of Europe, but the next few decades will be exciting as the solar industry in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. So what can we, as urban farmers, do to participate?

Passive solar architecture is probably the easiest way that we can take advantage of this amazing renewable resource. At its base, it’s as simple as knowing which curtains or blinds to open – and which to keep closed – depending on the season and outside temperature. There are retrofits that can be done to your house – adding insulation, changing your windows, sealing points where it’s open to the outside air – that increase its overall energy efficiency, partly by taking advantage of passive solar architectural design. And of course, if you’re in the process of building a new house, you’ll reap huge dividends by incorporating passive solar architecture into the design!

Solar thermal systems are another really good way for urban farmers to take advantage of free solar energy. They require a little more overhead – either having to buy the panel and water tank or building the system yourself, and then installing it – but when done right, they are capable of providing hot water even in the dead of a New England winter. There is a lot of information on the internet about building or buying these systems, and I encourage you to check it out.

And then, there are solar panels. It is my view that every new house should have solar panels installed on the roof – that’s how promising I think they are. There are quite a few companies that you can contract to install solar panels on your roof, which will allow you to pay them back simply by using the money you would otherwise have spent on your electric bill. In this way, your personal solar array is paid off in less than a decade (and is fully-functional for at least 25 years), without having any additional outlay of money. There are a variety of different financing programs, and

Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face as a species, and solar energy is and will continue to play a pivotal role in solving it. These types of renewable energy systems really are one of the most democratized solutions to climate change. For a small investment of time and money, almost anyone can take advantage of this free, plentiful energy source, powering their lives while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

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.