The Call, Column 74 – Some Notes From My Urban Farm

18 06 2017

(June 18, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Some Notes From My Urban Farm

Hey everyone, I hope your gardens are coming along nicely despite the abnormal weather (characteristic of a fossil-fueled changing climate, of course). I decided to use today’s column to discuss a few observations, notes, thoughts, and updates from my own urban farm, as it has developed this year. I’ve never done something exactly like this before, but I think it might be helpful to share my experiences with my nearby urban farmers, who can hopefully relate and put them to good use.

This year has NOT been a good one for leafy greens in my garden. It was cold and wet pretty late in the winter, which delayed planting my spinach and lettuce until like April. And it’s been cloudy and cool far too often since then, so now that they are finally established, this onslaught of dry heat is making them bolt! It’s a shame because leafy greens are my favorite vegetables, in no small part because they are the most nutrient-packed plants you can eat. Hopefully you all are having better luck than I am.

It makes me particularly glad that I’m a member of Blue Skys Farm’s CSA program. Each week’s bag is packed with vegetables, including plenty of high-quality greens. Christina and the crew sure know how to grow them, even when the rest of us aren’t having such luck!

Gone are the days of a nice, gradual increase in temperature, and regular, light rain showers over the course of the spring. Climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc on our growing season in the Northeast US. While it’s intellectually irresponsible to attribute a particular weather event to increasing CO2 concentrations, it’s pretty safe to say that we are seeing the effects of climate change in the general shift of our day-to-day weather.

These torrential downpours, alternating with stretches of dry, oppressive heat…this weather is horrible for agriculture. It’s hard to make up for the heat with routine watering (especially if you don’t have 6 inches of mulch), and the massive downfall of rain is only beneficial if it’s followed by a kiss of sun, not another week of clouds. Until we get our act together and globally reduce carbon emissions, this unpredictability and extremeness is the new normal – and it’s only going to get worse from here.

With that said, I think the above-freezing temperatures are here to stay for the season, so I’m planning to plant my warm weather crops over the next few days. I put it off a week or two this year because of how busy I was in late May and early this month. But they’re hardened off and ready to go.

The tomatoes are a little leggy, probably because my house isn’t super temperature-controlled and my seed-starting setup isn’t heated, so they fell victim to the fluctuating temperatures over the past few months. But the eggplants and peppers are generally doing pretty well, so I’m excited for some home-grown, homemade melitzanosalata (a garlicky, Greek eggplant paste that I could eat at every meal) and meat-and-cheese-stuffed-peppers later this summer. Now, let’s hope the weather stays warmish and the rain comes a bit more regularly, so these babies can take off once they’re planted.

My raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries are doing great this year, which is hardly a surprise considering how closely related they are to their wild ancestors. They leafed-out beautifully, they’ve made a surprising number of new canes, and there is a good mix of buds, flowers, and immature fruits on the plants as I write this. This is great news, because bramble fruits are my second favorite foods from the plant kingdom after leafy greens, again and in no small part because of how nutrient (and fiber!) dense they are. Now, if only I could raise red meat animals in my yard, I would never have to buy food again! (Hmm, maybe it’s time for another change to Woonsocket’s Zoning Laws?)

My grapes, blueberries, and other fruiting bushes are doing moderately well this year. I’m hoping for a better crop than last year’s dismal one, so I’m trying to water them more than normal. But the strawberries: they’re doing awful. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the general sentiment I’ve heard is that strawberries in our area are pretty bad this year. It’s likely the same abnormal weather patterns I discussed above, especially because groundcovers tend to like cooler, sunny weather and even moisture. I might dig them all up this fall and move them to a new location, being a little more methodical with the layout, and mulching like it’s my job. We’ll see. I’m enjoying what is being produced, but it isn’t much thus far.

This year was being forecast as the Gypsy moth apocalypse. I haven’t seen that much evidence of the larvae, not nearly as bad as a few years ago, but it may just be a function of my microclimate. Anyone else have a problem in their yard? I’ve talked to some people who live in the central part of RI, who said it’s bad down there. The one good thing that might come from this weather is that they don’t thrive like they were supposed to; that, or it’ll aid in the proliferation of those much-sought-after viruses and fungi that are said to keep the larvae populations in check. Time will tell.

Are you all aware of the origination of the Gypsy moth problem? They were indigenous to Europe, and brought over to Southern MA in the mid 1800s, by a scientist who wanted to experiment on them to produce cheaper silk. They escaped into the wild and spread like wildfire across the Northeast, because they didn’t (and, I believe, still don’t) have natural predators in our area. And now, they needlessly risk the health of our gardens and farms. Have you ever benefitted from cheaper silk prices? I sure as heck haven’t.

This should be a lesson for everyone who scoffs at the DEM and EPA for regulating the movement of plant and animal materials. Regulations like this are in place for a reason. Ecosystems are pretty resilient, but in a perfectly wild setting, they aren’t supposed to be constantly bombarded by species or populations from the other side of the world, or even from hundreds or thousands of miles away. And when they do, there is a significant possibility that the new organisms harm the natural environment.

Other than the Gypsy moths, I’ve always had a huge problem with winter moth larvae, on my apple trees in particular. I started to see it sometime in late April/early May this year, when the trees began budding out, so I made an executive decision: I used foliar Bt spray for the first time in my life. Bt is a soil-borne bacteria, which seems to have evolved to keep populations of destructive insect larvae in check. The spray is approved for use in organic farms, and of all crops, ultra-hybridized, grafted, non-well-adapted apple trees probably wouldn’t survive without a little extra help (but please let me know if you have proof to the contrary). I didn’t make the decision lightly, but the organic spray is certainly effective and is not harmful to human health and not persistent in the environment, so I deemed it acceptable.

Finally, here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In the most general sense possible, we all have different personalities and drives and motivations, which mean that different approaches to the same problem work well for each of us as individuals. This is very true of how we approach creating and maintaining our gardens and urban farms.

In my case, looking specifically at the Myers-Briggs Type Index, I test as an ENFP (“Extroverted-iNtuitive- Feeling-Perceiving”), which explains why I get very enthusiastic about projects at the beginning, but often lose interest if they require a lot of repetitive, mundane maintenance tasks. Thus far, I have gardened in the typical way, which has produced a lot of mental fatigue around having to weed and water (especially if pests or other things beyond my control detract from the success of the garden), and often means I don’t keep up with that type of upkeep as well as I should.

I could certainly force myself to do these tasks, but it significantly detracts from the enjoyment of the garden. Armed with this knowledge, I have more incentive to create what I’m calling “passive maintenance systems”, that allow most of my mental effort associated with the garden to be used for creative pursuits (i.e. planting the next thing, reacting to good and bad weather events, harvesting) than routine maintenance (weeding and watering). These passive maintenance systems include things like drip irrigation to supplant direct watering, mulching to prevent weeds (and actually reduce the amount of water necessary), and permaculture design to make the whole thing function more like an independent ecosystem.

That’s my type. In general, it’s important to the success of our urban farming endeavors to tailor them to the way we think and behave, to maximize the likelihood of success and make it as fun and rewarding as possible. And in the end, there is nothing more enjoyable than a bowl of raspberries or tomato salad that was on the plant 20 minutes before.

I have one quick request. I have been writing this column for three and a half years now (!!!). I’ve written about a lot of exciting topics, and I have a long list of ideas for the future. But I want some input from you. If there is a topic you’d like me to discuss – anything from “hands-on” gardening ideas, to exposés on agricultural or environmental issues, to philosophical discussions about our place in the world – email me about it and I’ll try to make it happen!

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 73 – “A Species Out of Context”

4 06 2017

(June 4, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“A Species Out of Context”

Last fall, I ventured way out to Western Mass, to attend a talk given Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. I wrote a column about this in January, reposted on my blog in case you’re interested in reading more detail.

One of the most inspiring ideas that I took away from this conversation, was something that Wes Jackson said on the topic of agriculture. “Starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture,” he explained, “we became a species out of context.”

A species out of context. A vague form of this idea has been the basis for my understanding of the world for many years, long before attending that talk. But Wes Jackson put it into words more effectively than I ever could have, and helped me to understand it as one of the underlying reasons for many of the things we do and experience.

Most broadly, this idea perfectly characterizes our species’ overall negative interactions with our environment. Each and every harmful aspect of industrial agriculture – the artificial soil fertility, the toxins sprayed into the environment, the horrible conditions of factory animal farms, the treatment of laborers, the vast amounts of energy being wasted – is best described as a deviation from ecologically-appropriate farming methods, as food production “out of context”.

Beyond just agriculture, this characterization is true of any and every damaging interaction we have with the natural world; from we in the developed world causing dangerous climate change by using fossil fuels for energy to releasing pollutants into the air, water, and soil, and dumping massive amounts of garbage into landfills to clear cutting forests; every case of pollution and ecological destruction is just a big sign that we forgot how to live in relative harmony with our environment.

Jackson’s description of “a species out of context” is intriguing from a biological standpoint as well. This is the basic principle behind the Paleo diet, which I have followed for over two years (and suggest that you should, too). It is the idea that our evolutionary development as a species was driven by our natural context over many millions of years, and that the start of agriculture removed us from that context.

Our diets, our movements, our sleep patterns, our stress triggers, and even our communities and cultures, began to adhere to a set of rules written by our human society, rather than those implicit in the natural world. The start of agriculture changed the way we interface with the environment, each other, and our own minds, and introduced a whole plethora of health woes – some might argue, most of the chronic diseases we experience as a species.

Finally, we are “a species out of context” in the ways that we, as individuals, live our day-to-day lives and interact with our culture and society, our “human world”. We spend nearly all of our time in large, climate-controlled boxes (houses, cars, workplaces, stores), and the things that we experience and consume are pretty much all human-made. It is culturally standard to live by the words of Sheldon Cooper’s character on The Big Bang Theory (the irony of quoting a TV show is not lost on me): “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?”

And that, my friends, brings us to my true motivation for writing this column. You see, as has been the case with countless other of my columns, I think exploring this idea together could help us deal with a little problem in our lives; one I started noticing in myself a few weeks ago.

The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and the subsequent start of civilization, shifted the context of a human life from a completely natural environment to an almost completely artificial one.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate from nature; we procreated in nature; we lived and experienced only natural surroundings. The sound of the birds singing, the visuals of green plant life, the scents of soil and flowers and animals, the feelings of the rain and wind and sun and snow – for better and worse, these were our bodies’ biological context. And they were our minds’ sensory context, too. Whatever we were doing at any given time, be it hunting, gathering, building fires, recreating, sleeping – it was in the context of a natural environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the world around us, the landscape and “space” that our species should passively consume as we go about living our lives, is supposed to be a natural one. We are supposed to live in the wild.

But now, it isn’t. And we don’t. For the first time in a very lengthy human history, agriculture – civilization – has resulted in a world where, in complete defiance of what is natural to our bodies and minds, the “surroundings” that we passively consume as we live our lives is the built environment; it is completely artificial, controlled by our own species.

It’s difficult to make a scientific argument as to why exactly this is not a good thing. The closest we can come is to measure our emotional response to built versus natural environments. A team at Exeter University in the UK did just that (https://tinyurl.com/y8xb5ccf), measuring brain activity in response to urban (effectively artificial) environments versus rural (effectively natural) ones. They found that human brains responded much more calmly and meditatively to natural environments, including dull ones, and exhibited an alarming delay in response time (indicating more arduous processing) to built environments, including visually appealing ones. Our brains are much more at ease with nature as the passive backdrop to our lives. Who would have expected that?

Beyond this, though, I think anecdotal evidence may be enough to prove to ourselves that what I’m suggesting is true. I have two personal stories that might get the ball rolling.

I first had the idea for this column while sitting on the bank of the Blackstone River, in Cold Spring Park. It began while I was driving home from an evening out with friends a few weeks ago. The sunset was so beautiful, but all I had on my mind was my to-do list once I got home. And then, I just stopped the car on the side of the road and watched the sky in awe. And when I got home, instead of doing the things on that list, I walked around my neighborhood to get the best view of the sky, and ultimately ended up on the bank of the Blackstone River. I sat there for an hour, listening to a few clips of Wendell Berry reading his poetry, but mostly just taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, and watching the sun’s light disappear behind the horizon.

This experience was so…deliberate. I was controlling precisely nothing about the environment, other than allowing my mind to be present, to passively consume my natural context. This improved my mood immensely in the days following, and it’s something I’ve done a few times since.

My second anecdote is a more regular occurrence. When I get to my (standing) desk at work each morning, I have a mental checklist of things to do – changing my calendar, updating my planner, checking emails, etc. I work “inward”, towards my computer, in a subconscious attempt to minimize the scope of artificial things over which my mind has to exert control. By condensing the things I need to do to a limited physical and therefore mental space, and allowing the rest of my environment to just…Be, without my intervention…my mind is calmer.

What all of this means, I think, is that in order to be most happy, we need to limit the scope of the things that we control to the smallest size practical, and surround ourselves as much as possible with nature as our life’s context. As we in the West live our lives right now, this is very much not the case. We live almost completely in artificial environments, passively consuming built things instead of natural ones. There would be measurable benefits to changing the way we do things.

This is true on an individual scale, where even the smallest actions – opening the windows of your house or car or office, to let in the breeze, and the sounds and smells of outside; eating meals outside whenever possible; spending time in nature instead of watching TV – bring notably more peace.

And it is true on a societal scale. Now, it’s not practical or desirable to take this idea to its extreme and reject all of civilization. Architecture and other elements of the built environment are important, valuable human achievements, and agriculture is necessary since there are too many of us to be true hunter-gatherers. But we can use this awareness to effectively change our context, to the advantage of our mental and physical health.

On a societal scale, we must use the built environment insofar as it is beneficial to us – for safety and shelter, for community-building recreation, for art – and make sure much of the rest of our time is spent in a natural context. We must restructure our agriculture to operate more in line with nature, taking advantage of the environment’s inherent productive potential and allowing wild things to coexist alongside our cultivated things.

And as individuals, we must allow our interaction with the environment – our sensory perception of our surroundings and the minimal level of control we exert on them – to be in line with what our Paleolithic ancestors would have experienced. Go barefoot as often as possible; eat a Paleo-style diet comprised mostly of vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, and nuts; get as much bare skin sun exposure as possible every day (without allowing yourself to burn); exercise with short bursts of cardio and longer sessions of muscle-building; let your eyes see the sun in the  morning and midday, and minimize artificial light at night (or wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses); spend as much time as you can, outside, away from technological stimuli.

We are hunter-gatherers in every respect but behavior, and our minds are hardwired to exist in the context of nature. As I said in my favorite column about a year ago: “We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside and be free.

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.