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.

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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 and Times, Column 16 – As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

9 02 2015

(January 9, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

“Once you think you know about bees, you realize you don’t know a thing.” Thus began an enlightening conversation, when I sat down with my friend, The Beekeeper, for a chat about his sweet hobby.

The Beekeeper began his practice over a decade ago, at the suggestion of his wife and a neighbor. He began with little agricultural experience, but was immediately engrossed, and rose up the ranks in the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association within his first year.

“Bees are a communal insect,” he told me. “They actually live for each other, not for themselves. They will protect the colony with their life, because a honeybee can only sting once.”

This is a remarkable thing about honeybees – they literally work themselves to death, fulfilling their roles as laborers and protecting their colony. Immediately upon breaking out of their larval cells, bees are put to work as nurses, maintenance staff, and guards in the hive, while their older sisters are out gathering nectar.

I asked The Beekeeper about the differences between honeybees, bumble bees, and wasps, something I’ve often wondered. “You can tell the difference just by looking at them”, he explained. Bumble bees are bulbous and furry-looking, with yellow and black coloration and little tendency to sting. Wasps (hornets and yellow jackets) vary in color, but are all more aggressive. Honeybees are often “softer and cuter-looking”, and are not prone to aggression. A surefire way to tell them apart, he explained, is that wasps’ stripes are more distinct than honeybees’.

We moved on to our next topic, the benefits of eating honey. “Nutritionally, honey is very similar, no matter where you go, as long as it has not been super-heated or super-filtered”, The Beekeeper explained.

He made a point to define a locale as a place where “the same basic plants are growing in the fields”, citing the examples of Woonsocket, Cumberland, and Worcester on the one hand, and Bristol, Warren, and South County on the other. As The Beekeeper explained, eating local honey has the additional benefits of asthma alleviation, “increasing the good qualities of the foods that you’re already eating” by aiding digestion, and allergy mitigation, something I can attest to personally.

He offered a word of warning, that “cooking honey reduces a lot of the enzyme health benefits”. He suggested to use it raw, or to heat only to low temperatures in things like tea, lest we mistakenly pasteurize it and lose those benefits.

As the meat of the interview, I asked my interviewee about a typical beekeeper’s year, and when and how an aspiring urban beekeeper could get started.

The Beekeeper explained that winter is a relatively quiet time: the beekeeper is getting ready for the spring, buying equipment and preparing the hives, while the honeybees are at home, keeping themselves warm during the cold weather. In the spring, new bees are installed, and are fed supplemental sugar syrup if their stores are low; it’s a time of cleaning the hives, watching and waiting for the first nectar flow. This happens in early June, at which point bees produce enough for themselves and the beekeeper alike. After this point, sometime in June or July, a “honey super” (an additional box that will be harvested later on) is installed on the hive, and the goal is for the girls to produce as much honey as they can, which they will gladly do, “whether they need it or not”. Early fall is the time for the harvest, after which the Queen reproduces much less and the population decreases in preparation for winter.

If you’re a new beekeeper, he said, “this time of year is the time you want to start”. Mail-order bee colonies become available in March and April, but there are a lot of considerations to make before that: where to get the equipment and what type of hive you will get, and leaving time for the actual hive setup. He suggested http://www.betterbee.com and http://www.dadant.com as good sources for beekeeping supplies, with free catalogs to boot.

The Beekeeper was also adamant that “now’s the time to really whet your intellectual appetite”. He explained how talking to a beekeeper, contacting the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (ribeekeeper.org), and even taking late winter classes at the RIBA Bee School all help an aspiring apiculturist to make decisions about their style and practice: where they will operate on the spectrum between aggressive chemical treatments and “earthy, crunchy” beekeeping.

He explained that, barring a fear of bugs, “if you want to get into agriculture, bees aren’t a bad choice for most people.” “They are much lower maintenance than any other pets”, and you can go on vacation without worrying about their immediate wellbeing, because they feed themselves. “It’s a good idea to start with two hives, so that you can compare them”. He directed me to http://www.beesource.com, which has tomes of information about building beehives and many other beekeeping interests.

But why should we care, why should we keep bees? “People don’t realize that you can get incredible quality honey in an urban environment”, The Beekeeper explained, praising the trees growing in Woonsocket as the reason for this. “It’s very primal, and yet also spiritual, to watch these girls work together”. What’s more, production distributed amongst many small beekeepers is the formula for sustainability – these alone are reason enough to keep honeybees. But I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit more.

Bees are directly responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. Considering this, The Beekeeper solemnly told me that “if you take away the honeybee from the equation, agriculture as we know it would collapse”. Our very continued existence rests on the health of local pollinator populations. Yet, like with freshwater, topsoil, and fossil fuels, our actions are threatening the long-term wellbeing of the honeybee.

Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious illness in which entirely honeybee colonies abruptly disappear, has surged in the past decade. Heavy winter losses, 25 or 30%, and even up to 90%, of American beekeepers’ colonies, have been destroyed as a result of CCD, raising a national alarm about the populations’ continued health. This affliction is associated with stress placed on the colonies by the “bigger, faster, stronger” mentality of industrial agriculture, and by dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides used by the same. But that’s the story of modern agriculture, eh? Bite the hand that feeds you, and at least you’ll be full for the rest of the day.

The preservation of as vital a natural resource as the European Honeybee is reason enough for me to sign up for bee school next month. I hope it is for you, too.

I will publish more information on this topic, including the full interview, on my blog.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.