The Call, Column 80 – Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

17 09 2017

(September 17, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

Today, let’s take a quick break from self-sufficiency, to instead talk about the pretty remarkable brand of agriculture in which I recently got the chance to immerse myself.

Last week, I was on the island of Santorini, Greece, at the tail-end of a trip to see my family on the mainland. I learned quite a bit about community-level, effective self-sufficiency while spending time with my relatives, but today’s column is about the industriousness of the farmers on this small island in the Aegean Sea.

So, unbeknownst to me even as my plane touched down, Santorini is actually a semi-arid desert climate. It is hot and very dry during the summer, and cool, wet, and very windy during the winter. This, combined with the mineral-rich but humus-poor volcanic soil, makes agriculture generally kind of difficult there.

And here’s where the industriousness of the Greeks (like all Southern Europeans) is really made obvious: despite the harsh conditions, farmers on the island have found ways to grow world-famous, prized produce, and even capitalize on the native grape varieties and associated terroir, to produce some of the best wine in the world.

Now, keep in mind, they don’t really have to do this. Santorini is one of the most traveled-to islands on Earth, and tourism is probably more than enough to drive its economy. The people there are skilled at receiving tourists. Many of them speak fluent English, and some measure of Spanish, Italian, French, and even a bit of Slavic or Nordic; they are incredibly tolerant of tourists being…well, touristy…and have managed to preserve their culture and the beauty of their island despite having so many visitors from around the world, with far less of a personal stake in its preservation.

No, I don’t think their economic solvency as an island requires agriculture…but they still do it. A lot of it. I didn’t talk to too many farmers while I was there, but in talking to the few that I did meet, I recognized this extreme passion for the high-quality agricultural products that Greeks are known for, an appreciation for the land and its capabilities, and a cultural attachment to the farming culture that has sustained my country of origin since many thousands of years Before Christ.

The few types of produce they can grow in quantity, they grow very well. They are renowned for their intensely-flavored cherry tomatoes, a delicacy I sampled a couple of times in restaurants, and their tender white eggplants, edible even raw. One of the famous dishes on the island is “Fava Santorinis”, a mashed bean dish made with legumes grown in their soil, and they incorporate their locally-grown capers into much of their food.

And the islanders are very, very proud of their traditional agriculture. Restaurants, even those in very touristy areas, base their menus on traditional dishes from Greece and Santorini, making a point to use the island’s produce, and proudly advertise that fact. And having eaten many of these vegetables myself, I can attest to their quality and taste.

But the pièce de résistance, the type of farming that inspired me to write this column, was, of course, viniculture: the art of growing and harvesting grapes, and processing them into wine.

The island is well-known for their quasi-native Assyrtiko grapes, and along with these, they grow a few other traditional Greek varieties whose names I cannot recall. When I first began to explore the island, I was puzzled by the low-growing, bushy plants that seemed to be growing wild in every open parcel of land. It took a little while to realize that these were, in fact, the native grape plants from which the island’s prized wines are made.

Much of Santorini is covered with their unique version of vineyards, which are these Assyrtiko grape vines, grown as low-lying bushes (not on any sort of trellising), and spaced very distantly apart. In speaking to the owners of my hotel, who are themselves grape-growers, I learned that the vines are grown close to the ground to protect them from the harsh, killing winter winds, and are spaced so widely because of difficulties in keeping the arid soil properly irrigated.

Being the topsoil-loving hippy I am, I couldn’t help but wonder why the farmers didn’t use large amounts of mulch to try to build the organic matter in the soil, retain moisture in the summer dry-heat and winter wind, and prevent runoff. I asked my friends who owned the hotel, but the conversation quickly got beyond my skill level in the Greek language, so I’m still not sure of the answer. I can guess, though, that the unique terroir – the taste, smell, and quality of the wines that is characteristic of Santorini – may depend on those native grapes being grown in the specific – yes, dry, arid, and maybe even humus-poor – ecological conditions of the island.

And though I only had two days to sample the variety of wines produced in Santorini, I can totally see why the people care enough to preserve their viniculture! There were two traditional wines that I kept happening upon: the dry, white Assyrtiko, and the syrupy-sweet, technically white Vinsanto.

I like dry wines a lot, in no small part because I feel much better drinking them in the context of my low-carbohydrate diet. That said, with the low sugar content, the complex flavors of the grape are able to come through in the taste of the wine. This was some of the best dry, white wine I have ever had.

On the other end of the spectrum, though made – I came to understand – with the same grapes, is the world-renowned “Vinsanto”. To make this wine, as explained to me by my hotel friends, the grapes are cut and left in the field for a couple of days, to dry them partially into raisins and caramelize the natural sugars. From these grapes, the wine is fermented. This process produces a white wine that is more of an amber, light-maple-syrup-color. After explaining this process to me, the owners of my hotel brought me a flask of their homemade Vinsanto, aged a few years, for me to try. This was, again, some of the best wine I have ever had.

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 79 – On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

16 09 2017

(August 27, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

After my second-to-last column about self-sufficiency was published, I thought about another important motivation behind peoples’ endeavor for “effective self-sufficiency”; one that is often overlooked in writings on the topic, but nonetheless a driving force for many people.

There is a certain comfort, a feeling of inherent security and freedom, that comes from systems where we – as individuals, families, and small communities – are in full control; systems whose operation is only otherwise subject to Acts of God/Nature, and not to the will and whim of external human entities that probably don’t have our personal best interests in mind. This is true across the board – who wouldn’t feel freer on a big plot of land, where they can raise chickens, or an orchard, or any herbal plant they want, without being watched, judged, and condemned by micro-regulation-happy locals and their municipality? And what internet user wouldn’t feel more secure with the knowledge that the information they transmit and receive is truly, honest-to-God not being looked at by private “Big Data” corporations and the NSA, despite there being nothing to hide?

Well, this is even truer of the systems by which our food, water, fibers (materials), energy, and production/processing/value-adding services – the basic goods and services responsible for keeping us alive and healthy – are produced. I can certainly say that I feel significantly different about a particular vegetable, or fruit, or egg, or gallon of water that I grew, raised, or gathered myself. When there is no industry, no force of government, no selfish private interest upon which you NEED to depend for the basic goods you require and no person or institution from which you must ask some permission in order to produce those goods; when your food is born of the soil and dies at your lips, with no entity of interests contrary to your own intervening in between…that’s a human life best lived.

So with that said, this column is about practically implementing a system as described above. I’m defining this as a system where we are capable of being secure and free in the production processes by which our goods are produced, though by no means ideologically bound to always be so; and where those goods are produced sustainably, on a small-enough scale to be considered “effectively self-sufficient”, without surpassing the point of diminishing returns in self-sufficiency.

The basic question is: If the stores were to close tomorrow, what do we need to be producing on individual and small community levels, to continue normal human existence for an extended time? Food, of course, which would include vegetables and animal protein at a minimum, with fruit and healthy fat sources added in for nutrient and palate variety. We also need potable water, shelter, some minimum amount of energy, (arguably) clothing, and the skills or services needed to 1) change all of these from raw materials into usable form and 2) keep us happy beyond the physical requirements for survival (entertainment, recreation, community).

Let’s go through each of the categories of goods above and discuss them in semi-isolation. For each, we can look at how the inherent limitations of your specific situation – that is, how much land you have, how much labor/time you are willing and able to exert, how much money you have to invest in startup, and your present repertoire of skills and ability to expand them – shape how you might implement them. We will discuss specific examples of each type of system, and consider the central goal of producing as much of that thing as is possible in a sustainable way.

Food. This is probably limited by land more than anything else. With a pretty investment in seed, plants, and some type(s) of animal, and a willingness to dedicate a moderate amount of time working and learning, the amount of food you grow is pretty much dependent on the amount of space to grow it.

For plants, your yield for each unit of time, labor, and money you invest will be highest if you use permaculture-type principles, focusing on perennial plants, rotating whatever annuals you do grow, practicing polyculture and guilding, and using beyond-organic methods that improve soil fertility and resilience in the long-run.

For animals, whether it’s a flock of chickens in your backyard or a herd of cows on a 10-acre plot, you should raise them in the type of environment, and the diet, on which they evolved. This will maximize their health and therefore yours; and when accounted for in the long-term spreadsheet demanded by sustainability, will produce the highest yields of any system.

Growing food can be scaled to almost any size of land available, and it’s worth focusing on the crops and animals that give the most bang-for-the-buck (and hour, and acre!). It is easy to be self-sufficient in herbs and spices, since a little space goes a long way. And because a big part of the diet of chickens and pigs, among others, can come from food waste, their space requirements on your land don’t necessarily need to include the space to grow their food (like pasture-land for cows).

Water. Collecting potable water is a very different game. This can come either from some sort of rainwater catchment, from a stream or other running water source, or from groundwater. Whichever source(s) are available to you, you need to decide the end uses that you’re willing and skilled enough to provide for. Drinking/cooking water is obviously the highest-value use, and I would urge you not to attempt this unless you are certain about the quality and purity of the final product before consuming it. For other uses that involve human contact – irrigation of foods, supplying animals, and even cleaning – water doesn’t necessarily need to meet human potability standards, but must minimally be free from sewage (obviously), high levels of pathogenic bacterial contamination, and toxic chemicals.

This is a more attainable state for even urban farmers, because rainwater is plentiful and easy to collect, and almost always meets these standards. A system as simple as a barrel on the end of a downspout is all that’s needed; alternatively, I have seen – at that heaven-on-Earth, Blue Skys/Urban Edge Farm, a rainwater and groundwater fed pond that is used to sustainably supply for irrigation needs.

Shelter. This is a little more implicit in whatever type of property you have. If you already have a house, you’re done with this section. If not, reason would dictate that you need a place to live, to protect you from the elements, and to maintain your body temperature within a healthy range (which does segue into the next section). By no means am I well-versed in construction, but there is a wide array of permaculture literature available for green, sustainable, low-impact, and actually pretty inexpensive building. Once your home (I hesitate to sound soullessly technical by calling it a “dwelling”) is built, especially if built in such a way that you are able to repair and maintain it yourself, and even more especially if the materials to do so can be locally-sourced (Earth-bags, anyone?), then you can call it effectively self-sufficient.

Energy. This is probably the most capital-intensive but land-cheap item on the list. At base, the energy we consume is used to keep our shelters and water at a reasonable temperature, cook our food, transport us long distances, and entertain us. That energy is usually supplied to us in a few basic forms: as electricity, as natural gas, as heating oil (though less common now), and as wood or other bio-fuels.

A solar array and battery bank is enough to supply any reasonable household’s electricity needs, and a bigger one in tandem with electric car(s) can supply their transportation as well. Systems like passive solar heating/water-heating, wood fires, homemade biofuels, and other distributed generation (remember back to that series of columns I wrote a few months back?) can fill the spaces that electricity can’t.

Clothing/Textiles/Materials. This is a little more situation-dependent. There are many sources of usable fiber, from linen (flax) and wood, to stinging nettle and cotton, to animal-based textiles like leather and wool. These can be grown/raised/harvested as a pretty natural extension of your food-growing endeavors, and even, in some cases, with just additional effort but no additional land or investment (i.e. wool from sheep being raised for meat/milk; nettle fibers from wild-growing stinging nettles; leather from beef cattle). These products also require a pretty extensive set of skills, but nothing that cannot be learned with a little effort and a book by John Seymour.

Next time, we’ll address the process- and community-level “products” (homestead skills, entertainment, community), and talk about a really good example of this effectively-complete self-sufficiency in action that I am currently experiencing. I want to bring up the way that these individual production systems can interplay, and how you would see that implemented in a holistic, community level.

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.