The Call, Column 76 – The Concepts of Homesteading

19 07 2017

(July 16, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Concepts of Homesteading

            In many of my columns, I’ve throw around this concept of “homestead” without much of an explanation. I’ve described urban farms as “homesteads” in some cases, and discussed “homesteading” as a type of living, akin to urban farming on a much greater and more deliberate level.

This type of lifestyle, and the philosophy embedded within it, has been really inspirational to me in my slow journey towards sustainability and rejection of Western social norms. Over the span of a few columns, I think it would be really interesting to dive into these ideas, fleshing out what exactly it means to homestead, how much this can be done within the city, and the effect that an individual’s homestead may have on personal environmental sustainability, food security, and happiness.

Today, let’s start by going through some of the foundational concepts related to homesteading, to get a feel for the ideas and dialogue before diving deeper in future columns.

First off, what exactly is homesteading? The use of the word dates as far back as European imperialism, where the homes and land of small subsistence farmers, in the countries that Britain had temporarily seized, were called “homesteads”. The word carried through the English language, and in the US, it caught on after the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862. By this legislation, the federal government supported peoples’ Western expansion by guaranteeing families a pretty decent parcel of Native land on which to settle, farm, and live.

It has evolved quite a bit into its modern concept, which is surprisingly difficult to define. Today’s “homesteading” is more like the conscious act of maintaining your home and land, such that it supplies some measure of your resource requirements; and in addition, maintaining your land in the context of the area, so that it contributes to a strong local economy, minimizes local environmental pollution, and encourages a vibrant community of people.

I know, that’s quite the mouthful. The basic idea is that homesteaders want to view their homes as points of production, in addition to points of consumption. This can come in many different forms, depending on personal interests, as well as what types of resources can reasonably be produced from the home and land.

This list is pretty extensive. The basic, raw resources that many seek to produce are: food, through urban farming (!); water, from rain catchment, diverting flowing water sources, and extracting groundwater (i.e. through a well); shelter, which is kind of inherent in a house; energy, through any combination of renewable energy generation or (and this is REALLY stretching the definition of on-site production) a fossil fuel generator; and fibers/‘materials’, like wood, textiles, metals, hides, etc, through farming or sustainable logging/mining/gathering/hunting.

The homesteader may also want to produce “resources” beyond these basic ones. These include: the creation of value-added resources, like food processing, lumber milling, fiber spinning, water treatment, etc; entertainment and recreation; and, of course, community.

Obviously, this list is incomplete. What I want to do is to get you into the mindset of thinking about all of the resources that you, personally, and your household consume. What are ways that any or all of those could be produced on your land? We will discuss this more in the future, but that idea of producing ALL of your own resources leads us to the next concept I want to touch on.

“Self-sufficiency” or “self-reliance” is a particular type of homesteading, in which the homesteader seeks to produce all of their own resources. Or at least, all of the resources that they need to survive, should a hypothetical situation arise that would cut off the normal supply chain.

Self-sufficiency is pretty environmentally-agnostic. You can rotationally graze cows on your pastures, which is certainly a self-sufficient production system, at least in beef, dairy, cowhides, etc. But you can also raise them in a CAFO, feeding them grain grown on your own land, and technically still be self-sufficient.  See how both of these are technically self-sufficient in those products?

The basic idea being pursued in self-sufficiency, is to have production systems in place that some subset of required resources can be produced without any intervention from wider society. I believe that this is a good goal, in general, especially if it is conducted more on a community level than used as justification for isolationism. That is, every house doesn’t necessarily need to go completely off-grid, and have the equipment to make cheese, and brew beer, and weave fiber, and mill lumber, and process every kind of animal, and press paper, and make maple syrup, and…the list goes on. As long as people can provide basic needs – basic foods (meat and vegetables), water, energy – and allow a community to be built around creating the value-added resources. I hope to talk more about this in the future.

This leads to another, very important concept: resilience. Any homestead, self-sufficient or otherwise – and really, any system at all – should be measured by whether it is resilient, whether it is capable of surviving an inopportune event or situation and continue functioning more-or-less as normal.

This is a powerful metric, because it indicates whether a production model can be relied upon for consistent production, even in times of stress. Nature, as the basic measure for everything we do, is resilient. Life is self-perpetuating, and disastrous events (which are, ironically, also part of nature) can destroy natural systems in a certain area for a period of time, but the web of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial life, the biogeochemical resource cycles, sunlight, etc is resilient enough that even very big wounds can be healed.

Finally, we have the concept of individual environmental sustainability. We’ve talked a lot about this in the past, but it relates pretty strongly to the homesteading. As I said, homesteading and self-sufficiency don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, but sustainability is another good metric for the effectiveness of a homestead.

As you probably know, the simplest definition of a system that is environmentally sustainable is that, over time, it produces an environment which is at least as “fertile” – as capable of continued production of biological life and environmental services – as it was before the system started; meaning, that this system could theoretically be in place forever, and would never render the environment incapable of supporting it.

I think I’ll leave it at that for right now, because writing this has given me a lot of ideas for future columns on these concepts. See you then!

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 75 – The Best Parts of Urban Farming

2 07 2017

(July 2, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Best Parts of Urban Farming

Ahh, summer! The garden is growing, the chickens are laying and loving the heat, and I’ve been spending a whole lot of time outside – both on the urban farm and off it. I’ve gotten a real, newfound enthusiasm for my homestead this year, in no small part because it’s actually off to a really good start, and poised for a productive season. Since I know we’re all busy, I wanted to take this week to quickly highlight a few of my absolute favorite things to grow and raise, and methods to use, to see if maybe you share my enthusiasm.

Raspberries. And blackberries. It was the ripening of my first summer raspberries a few days ago that really prompted this topic. I have been eating an ultra-strict version of the Paleo diet as an experiment over the past week, which temporarily excludes anything with any measurable about of sugar. But the sight of that first, ripe, plump raspberry on the plant on Thursday afternoon meant I had to make an exception – and I’m glad I did! The crop this year seems like it’ll be really great, so I’m excited for that.

So if I were talking to a new urban farmer, in probably every case I would recommend that they plant bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries) before anything else…including any vegetables. Not only are they the easiest fruit to grow, but these plants require basically no care. And as I’ve taken to telling people recently, their productive capacity is limited pretty much only by the farmer’s ability to keep them from spreading.

They can be planted in areas with very little sunlight and still produce bountifully, and I’m not kidding when I say that a single cane planted this year, with basically no effort on your part, will be dozens of productive canes in two years’ time. And when it comes to nutritional bang for the buck, bramble fruits might be second only to leafy greens. They are incredibly high in fiber, such that the sugar in them probably won’t create any negative metabolic effects in anyone. Unlike many other fruits, they have a healthy balance both of glucose/fructose and of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids. And as far as fruit goes, they are pretty dense in micronutrients. All of this, in a tasty, abundantly-growing package!

Mulch. I can’t quite express how much I love mulch, though I confess to not always use enough of it. Straw, leaves, grass clippings, mulched wood/bark…it doesn’t matter. With a few inches of mulch covering your garden’s soil, everything will grow better.

I’ve used more mulch (a combination of straw, a special shredded and heat-treated hay/straw mixture, and grass clippings) this year than ever before, and I’ve seen great improvements in soil health. Just the other day, I pulled back some of the mulch while planting, to find the soil, still damp, cool, and full of earthworms right up to the surface. This was three or four days after the last rainstorm, since when it had been 85°F and dry.

A thick layer of mulch keeps the soil moist and prevents water runoff and evaporation, encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms and bugs, cools down plants’ roots which aids in growth, prevents most weeds, keeps certain plants (like tomatoes) safe from soil-borne diseases, and preserves soil nutrient from depletion (a big problem in raised bed gardens like mine); not to mention, I think it makes my garden look a lot more natural.

Companion planting. This is a practice that I’ve been doing almost as long as I’ve been gardening (9+ years?!), based heavily on an old masterpiece, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte.

The basic idea is that, certain combinations of plants are mutually beneficial when planted near each other, others are mutually harmful, and yet others are neutral, and in some cases, there are pairs where one sees benefit and the other sees harm by their proximity.

This is a very holistic, inexact science, but I’ve definitely found it useful in deciding how to lay out my garden each year. The harms and benefits between plants come in many shapes and forms, and are causes by many different facets of each plant. In some cases, one plant exudes a compound from its roots and harms or helps others. Other times, the scent of one plant deters some insect pest that would harm the other. And then, like in the case of potatoes and tomatoes (respectively), some plants are vectors for a plant disease that doesn’t harm them, but can harm a related plant if they are close by each other, or planted in the same soil in subsequent years.

The types of effects range from soil-borne chemical exchange, to resistance or attraction of pests or beneficial insects, to disease harboring or prevention, to even shading or windbreak capabilities. You should definitely read a little about this (either in Ms. Riotte’s book, or on the internet), even if you just plan to use it as the baseline from which you plan your garden layout.

Leafy greens. And specifically, certain well-adapted lettuces. As long as you start them right, these are incredibly easy to grow. And like brambles, they yield quite the nutrient-bang for the buck (other than iceberg, that is).

I always grow a lot of lettuce plants of many different varieties, both by direct seeding in the spring and by starting in 72-cell trays (which tends to work better in my case). I stick them between newly planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and even brassicas early in the season. These provide a little protection from the summer heat at first (#companionplanting), but by the time they’re big enough to block the sun, the lettuce is long since harvested.

Organic/sustainable lettuce is pretty pricey, which makes it even better to grow it in your garden. I happen to get lots of leafy greens (at a very good price, when you break it all down) in my CSA share from Blue Skys Farm, so between those and what I’m soon going to start harvesting from my garden, it’s a good thing I eat so much lettuce!

Chickens!!!!! I would be remiss to not mention these feathery little garbage disposals, that I promise would integrate really well into any urban farm. You can supplement their diet with food and garden scraps which they turn into eggs; their penchant for scratching means you don’t really ever have to till your garden or turn over your compost pile; they have no more favorite food than insect pests; their manure can be composted into valuable fertilizer; and they turn very little feed into a valuable protein source, something not otherwise available from an urban farm (legumes don’t count, because in basically every case, plant proteins are biologically-inferior to animal proteins).

Robust, interwoven, holistic, permaculture systems. I know, that was a lot of buzz-words that probably don’t mean much to the general population. I meant to do that, to cover as much ground as possible with this last “favorite thing” of mine.

What I mean by this, is that I really value truly sustainable agricultural systems where nature is artfully emulated, where human knowledge is used instead of toxic, artificial chemicals and large machines, in order to produce and maintain a complex, productive, resilient ecosystem that is capable of both benefiting the natural world and feeding human beings. Wow, that was a mouthful!

I try to do this with my urban farm, between my chickens, fruit plants, garden, and compost, and I think everyone should. The basic idea is to use the inedible outputs of one entity as the inputs to another entity (i.e. chicken manure into compost and then into soil fertility), which steps your urban farm closer to true sustainability and minimizes the streams of external inputs and wastes.

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 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 72 – “Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

21 05 2017

(May 21, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

Cows grazing on one of the pastures at Blackbird Farm

Making hay, as the sun sets on the farm

If you ever want to talk serious local agricultural strategy, sit down with Ann Marie Bouthillette of Blackbird Farm. She is a tireless advocate for the entire farming community in Rhode Island, starting with her family’s own pasture-based beef- and pork-farm in Smithfield, but reaching even as far as her own competitors. She has her finger on the pulse of the local food movement here and around the country, and you can tell that she is always thinking up some new, creative way to better promote and practice appropriate-scale agriculture. You can probably imagine how thrilled I was for the chance to talk to her again about some exciting things going on at her farm and statewide

Blackbird Farm sits on over 200 acres along Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise their Black Angus cattle, which you can sometimes see grazing in one of the road-side pastures, on a diet of grass supplemented with non-GMO grains; and their free-ranged American Heritage Berkshire pigs, what Ann Marie calls “the angus of pork”, on a diet of non-GMO feed supplemented with woodland roughage.

Their farm stand is at 660 Douglas Pike (Rt 7), right at the intersection with Limerock Road. This is where the public can purchase frozen cuts of the farm’s beef and pork, along with other agricultural products from around the state. They also sell to local institutions, like Johnson and Whales University and Roger Williams University. Check out their website, at http://blackbirdfarmri.com/, to learn more.

I visited the farm last Thursday afternoon. The warm air and approaching sunset put the farm in a particularly beautiful light, and set an appropriate backdrop for our long conversation about the state of agriculture in Rhode Island.

As we drove and walked through the farm’s 200+ acres, Ann Marie expressed the importance of truly-local animal agriculture. At Blackbird, she explained, the whole cycle takes place right on the farm: their animals are born, weaned, raised, bred, fattened, and ultimately sold right on the farm.

Their operation is a far-cry from a feedlot, where the scaled-up, product-at-the-cheapest-cost-possible business model means that the cattle are bought at an older age, put into confinement, force-fed massive quantities of the cheapest sources of calories possible, pumped with drugs and hormones, and shipped off to be slaughtered and sold God-knows-where.

In talking to Ann Marie, you can tell how carefully she thinks about each step of the process of raising animals, each method and practice that her farm uses. She makes decisions consciously, with the welfare of the animals and her customers in mind, and each one is very deliberate and not simply based on the often-flawed conventional wisdom. Walking through the rolling pastures and wooded areas of Blackbird, I was more than a little reassured that local, appropriate-scale agriculture can give the CAFO business model a run for its money.

Running a business like this is no small task, so make no mistake: Blackbird Farm is truly a family affair. It takes a huge amount of work to raise, feed, care for, move, and sell meat animals, grow and harvest 600+ bales of hay for winter feed, manage the finances and operation of a farm, and market their brand. So while Ann Marie is the public face of the farm, her husband Kevin, their sons Brandon and Troy, their daughter Sam, and their daughter-in-law Sarah all play crucial, laborious roles in the farm’s day-to-day operations and management.

And that is why Ann Marie has become such a tireless advocate for local, small-scale agriculture. By getting the public to think about where their food comes from – fostering public awareness of farmers markets, starting conversations with the farmers whose hands grow and raise their food, and, to borrow her awesome pun, getting their minds down to the grassroots of local agriculture – Ann Marie is confident that we can grow the local agricultural economy and create a sustainable environment for the farmers, their farms, and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

On that note, one of the major reasons for my visit to the farm was to discuss the grand opening of their farmers market this week.

The market will be located at Blackbird’s Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike. It will run every Friday, starting this week (May 26th), from 4-7 pm. It is being organized by Eat Drink RI, with the intention of making consumers more aware of local products and giving a boost to Blackbird and other local producers.

There will be at least 6 farms selling in the first week, with plenty more getting on board as the season progresses. Customers will be able to buy a huge range of local products, from the meat, produce, eggs, and dairy, to baked goods, sodas, and honey, to maybe even sea salt. There will be information on local farms and a horse-drawn wagon for the kids. This is a big deal, so make sure you’re there!

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 70 – An Urban Farmer’s Springtime To Do List

24 04 2017

(April 23, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

An Urban Farmer’s Springtime To Do List

Spring is in the air – and the soil, the sunshine, the budding perennials, and the mating calls of every animal in Southern New England. And for urban farmers, that can only mean one thing…It’s time to start preparing your homestead for the growing season!

Today’s column is a very practical one. I’ll share with you some of the basic tasks you’ll want to get done in the next couple of weeks, taken right from my own “Garden To Do List” (I promise, I’m working on my compulsive list-making problem).

Make a garden plan. This is one of the most important steps between today’s patch of dirt and a flourishing garden. A garden plan can mean different things for different people, but it basically encompasses the intended use for each bit of your land under cultivation – garden and otherwise – and a rough timeline for how that will be implemented. You should start with a list of all of the crops you intend to grow, including any perennials that are already planted and those you plan to plant this spring. Then, draw out a map of your whole yard or garden space, roughly to scale. Fill in all of the perennials (present and future) and permanent fixtures in your garden, crossing them off the list. This leaves you with an idea of your available space, and a list of the other (annual) crops you will fill it with. Now, keeping in mind light/shading and water requirements, and the principles of crop rotation, companion planting, and, if you’re adventurous, permaculture or biodynamics, plan the layout of the rest of your annual crops. Ask yourself how much you will want to produce of each, and allocate space accordingly.

Start your seeds indoors. There is still time to start long-season crops from seed indoors, and the time is soon approaching to start the shorter-term ones inside. You can read my full columns from two years ago on exactly how to start seeds indoors (https://tinyurl.com/TOFseeds and https://tinyurl.com/TOFseeds2). Basically, you’ll want to start them in good-quality seed-starting mix (like Fort Vee), in black plastic trays. They need a rack system to sit on, exposure to a South-facing window and daylight-spectrum bulbs, regular watering, and an organic source of nutrients. And if you’re particularly adventurous, a small fan blowing on them for a short time every day to make their stems strong.

It’s a little late in the spring, but you still may be able to start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and maybe even onions indoors. Now is the time to start some brassicas (cabbage, etc), most herbs, and leafy green crops (if you want to start those indoors). And squash/cucumbers/melons should be started inside in a couple of weeks.

Plant out early spring crops. It’s also finally the point in the spring when you can plant your first seeds outdoors. Greens, like lettuce and spinach, can be directly seeded in your garden at this point. As can most root crops, onions, peas, and even seed potatoes (but not sweet potatoes until late May). The seeds you start indoors should wait until after the last expected frost (around May 20th), as should non-cold-tolerant crops like beans and sweet potatoes.

New perennials, both those in dormancy and those already leaving out, should also go in before the weather warms too much more – as long as they can survive the frosts we will likely get between now and late May.

Prune your fruiting plants and repair/install supports. Pruning should ideally be done in the fall, but I rarely do that. I tend to prune my grape vines down to a few feet off the ground – this is entirely a practical decision, based on where they first make contact with the support system I have for them. And by waiting for the spring, I can be sure of which raspberry and blackberry canes are dead (meaning they fruited for at least one of the last two years), so I don a pair of gloves and get cutting. My other fruiting perennials – blueberries, apples, elderberries, and other, more esoteric plants – aren’t really old enough to be pruned yet, so I can’t really advise on these.

This is also a good time to repair and install supports for your bramble fruits, fruiting bushes, and even small fruit trees. Something as simple as a wooden stake, driven into the ground, can help to support the weight of a fast-growing bush or tree. I am planning to use something non-biodegradable as a more permanent support for my raspberry and blackberry patch, though, because the old wooden ones seem to have rotted over the years.

Clean out your garden. I can never find enough time in the fall to clean all the spent plants and last-generation weeds out of my garden. It always ends up happening in the spring – better late than never, right? So of course, the remains of last year’s annual crops should be removed and composted. And so should the spent parts of perennials (we’ll get to that below). But you also want to tidy up the tools and equipment in your garden, to make it a productive place to work this spring. And fix any fences or pathways that might need mending.

Apply soil amendments. The most important of these is, of course, compost. This can be homemade compost, making sure chicken manure was aged for six months to a year, or purchased compost products (think local, organic, and sustainably-derived).

You’ll also want to apply other organic soil amendments, balancing nutrient levels in your soil to whatever level you’re concerned about them (I tend not to be, especially when I use enough compost).

It’s also the time to till cover crops back into the soil, to provide a nice source of “slow-release” fertility for your spring and summer planting. If you have chickens, they’ll be happy to do this for you in exchange for whatever bugs they may find in the process. (It sounds like I’m joking, but I’m actually very serious. They are little rototilling machines.)

Thoroughly clean the chicken coop. What better way to get a kick-start on next year’s compost than by thoroughly cleaning out the chicken coop? Remove the nesting material and the soil and bedding as deep as you can, replacing them with fresh materials (leaves and wood shavings, perhaps). The chickens will thank you, and in six months, you’ll have some powerful new compost…just in time for fall planting.

Install irrigation systems. Now is the perfect time to do this, with the weather still marginally wet and the ground free of weeds, but with deep freezes (ideally) done for the year. You can make and install rain barrels on downspouts very soon. And as you plant your garden and prune your perennials, you should install a simple drip irrigation system. That’s my plan for the next few weeks!

Repair and replace garden equipment. Hoses break. Nozzles crack. Black plastic trays warp. When not ultra-durable, manmade materials are continuously exposed to the elements, they don’t always last long. Thankfully, the equipment that is required for urban farming is pretty minimal, so it’s often worth having quality stuff! Might I suggest that you check out Cluck! Urban Farm Supply, in Providence, for urban farming equipment and supplies? 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 69 – Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

9 04 2017

(April 9, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

Greens growing in one of Blue Skys high tunnels

Christina, in front of the new high tunnel

“If every person were to volunteer at a small-scale farm just once in their life, they would never complain about the price of food again.” This candid comment was made by one of the most passionate farmers I know, as we sat, deep in conversation, at a table in her farm’s solar-powered CSA building. In the fading light of dusk, as the sun set over one of her soon-to-be-planted fields, she actually forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

I was at Blue Skys Farm in Western Cranston, and I had spent upwards of three hours that afternoon talking to Christina Dedora, the farmer herself, about the trials, successes, and innate difficulties of being a small farmer. If you’ve read my column long enough, you may remember Christina; she and her farm were the subjects of the first edition of my “The Hand That Feeds You” column series, in late summer 2015.

It’s amazing, that Christina and I have already been friends for over two years. In that time, and especially since I wrote that first column about her farm, she has taught me so much about how small-scale, sustainable farming works.

She has been farming in RI now for 11 years, the last seven of them as a full time farmer. Her farm, Blue Skys, is part of the Urban Edge Farm agricultural collaborative, a collection of seven independent farms on land that is owned by the RI DEM and managed by the Southside Community Land Trust. One of the central themes of my last column about Christina’s farm was the underlying collaborative business model between the farmers, a fact which is still very true. Oftentimes, Christina’s table at the farmers market will feature produce grown by other farmers at Urban Edge.

At this point in the year, Blue Skys sells at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, at Hope Artiste Village (1005 Main St, Pawtucket), which runs Saturdays 9 am to 1 pm, from November to May. During the summer, from May to October, they sell at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. That is at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet (60 Rhodes Place, Cranston), and runs Saturdays 9 am to 12 pm. All of this information and a whole lot more can be found at the farm’s website, https://blueskysfarm.com/.

Christina describes her growing methods as chemical-free. She is not certified organic (I’ve written before about how inaccessible the organic certification can be for small farms), but she uses practices that well surpass the codified organic standards. All of the farms’ water comes almost exclusively from a small pond on the land. They grow their winter produce (along with very warm-season summer crops) in passively-heated, high-tunnel greenhouses, and meticulously manage their land’s soil fertility with organic amendments.

The layout of the farm hasn’t changed too much since that last time I wrote about it. But they are excitedly constructing their third high-tunnel, which was funded by a grant from the NRCS and USDA, and will enable them to hugely increase their production of greens during the winter and tomatoes during the summer. They also finished building their new drying room, which has allowed them to dry the many types of fragrant herbs that they grow on the farm. Christina told me that they have tripled the amount of herbal products being sold, most of which are both culinary and medicinal. There is a lavender-chamomile tea blend that caught my eye at the farmers market last week, which is a good example of the type of cool herbal products they grow, dry, and sell.

Right now, Blue Skys is in the end of their winter growing season. In my view, it’s pretty awesome that they have perfected their winter growing system, to continue growing and selling during the otherwise bleak months of the year. By using the passive-solar-heating properties of a high-tunnel, Christina and the crew are able to support a pretty substantial crop cool-season greens and roots. Right now, the tunnels are full of red and green spinach, chard, Mâche (a French salad green), lettuce, arugula, kale, mustard greens, sorrel, radishes, and even dill.

They carefully select crops that are able to survive mildly low temperatures, but which will flourish in the high-tunnels during winter conditions. Christina explained that she gets very little pest pressure during the winter, spare some cabbage worms and aphids. And because the soil in the high-tunnels doesn’t get directly rained on, sodium salts can accumulate in the soil and cause problems for the crops. For that reason, she amends with gypsum and the same organic fertilizers she uses elsewhere on the farm.

As I write this, the crew is busy seeding their summer crops in two massive greenhouses on the farm. Christina explained that their summer crop selection is pretty steady at this point, and includes beets, carrots, eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, pole beans, potatoes (specifically, a nice purple-fleshed variety), along with many different types of flowers and herbs, all in many varieties.

This brings us to one of the main reasons I wanted to write this column: Blue Skys Farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. The way this program works is that the consumer pays for a “share” early in the season and then gets a box of vegetables (or other type of share) each week for a predetermined span of time. This system puts capital in the farmer’s hands early in the season, when it is needed most, and in return, the consumer gets 10-15% more produce for their money.

Blue Skys offers a full share (for 3-4 people) and a half share (for 1-2 people) of their vegetables, which span 20 weeks and work out to $40 per week for the full share, and $20 per week for the half share. They also offer herbal tea and flowers in their own CSA structures. In addition, eggs from Pak Express Farm and fruit from Barden Orchard can be bought as CSA shares. The program runs from June 9 through October 20, and the shares can be picked up either at the farm in Cranston, or at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. All of this information is available at https://blueskysfarm.com/csa/, and you can also sign up right on that page.

Christina described that there are greens and lettuce in the box pretty much every week, and otherwise, it is filled with crops that are in season at the time (i.e. tomatoes and cucumbers starting in July). Certain crops are constant, while others are only available some weeks or at certain times of the summer, and she expects that there will usually be five to six different types of vegetable in the box in any given week. I already signed up for a share, and I urge you to as well!

Unlike the last time I toured the farm, when I viewed it through the rose-colored glasses of the pastoral idyll, our discussion was much deeper and more serious last week. Christina described some of the difficulties of being a small farmer: the crop losses, the food politics, the stagnation in the growth of the local customer base, and the complexity inherent in simultaneously growing food and also running a food distribution business. Christina works long days, often seven days a week; and in her words, and the words of every farmer whom I have talked to or whose work I have read, she isn’t going to get rich doing this.

And that’s what I meant earlier, when I said that my long conversation with her forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale agriculture. While it’s been a long time since I legitimately thought of agriculture as peaceful, serene, and easy, I still do fall into the trap (and I’m sure you see it in many of my columns) of idealizing the life of a small farmer.

It definitely isn’t the pastoral idyll; it isn’t a series of lazy summer days, sitting out in a field, shucking peas with grandma. That lifestyle might have been common at some time in history, and may be achievable again, if we are willing to place a higher value on sustainable agricultural production than we currently do. But it doesn’t describe agriculture today.

Blue Skys farm, like many other small farms, is in no small part a labor of love. It is very hard work, and it is Christina’s livelihood. But it’s more than that. Agriculture is also her vocation, her way of using her unique skills and knowledge and time to improve the world.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Christina what she wished she could tell people about her farm, herself, and local agriculture. Rather than any sort of marketing plug for Blue Skys, she had one simple request: “I want the world to eat more vegetables.” She believes that everyone would benefit by shopping at the farmers market, having access to fresh, seasonal, local produce every week. She wants people to eat more fresh vegetables and less processed food, and to appreciate the love that farmers put into their craft. She has high hopes for the future of small-scale, sustainable agriculture in Rhode Island and the rest of the world, and she’s doing her part to bring us there.

I concur. Being a regular at Rhode Island’s local farmers markets, eating produce grown in the local foodshed and making it a big part of my diet, has changed me. I urge you to sign up for Blue Skys’ CSA program and visit them at the farmers market. You can find more information about all of this at http://www.farmfreshri.org/ and https://blueskysfarm.com/.

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 68 – What You Find in Italy

26 03 2017

(March 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Find in Italy

Yes, this is a real place. Tuscany, from the vantage point of San Gimignano castle.

“People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.” This was the comment made by our waiter, Clemente, at a small restaurant in Italy, that gave me my first taste of this country’s remarkable food culture.

I have spent the last week and a half in Italy. And, as has become my pattern when I travel to a new place, I pay lots of attention to their food culture, agricultural practices, and notions of sustainability…all so I can write about it for you. What should make my trip to Italy, the country known widely for its appreciation of good food, and the unofficial birthplace of the Slow Food movement to boot, any different? Here are some of the things I found here.

Let’s begin in the city of Florence, in the region of Tuscany, where my trip began and that enlightening conversation took place. Florence is a big city, on the same order of magnitude as Boston, with a lot of small restaurants that proudly serve locally-grown food. After visiting the Piazzale Michelangelo, we sat down at just such a place, the Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo. The serious discussion began when my mom asked our waiter, Clemente, to cook her steak well (all quotes here are paraphrased as well as I can remember them). “I’m sorry madam, but I can’t do that” was his reply. And to my mom’s puzzled look, he continued, “We are in Florence, and I can only find it in my heart to cook it to…medium rare at most. People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.”

This really piqued our interest, so my dad asked whether the steak was at least grass-fed. “Grass-fed?” asked Clemente; and thinking maybe the phrase didn’t translate well, my dad asked more directly whether the cows were fed exclusively grass.

What else would we feed them?” It was this response, and his surprise and general disapproval as we described how ruminants in the United States are raised, that let me know how great this country’s food culture really is.

We discussed further with him, and I explored this topic a little further. It turns out that the area surrounding Florence, and more generally the region of Tuscany, in which Florence is located, is known for their high-quality red meat. Cows that are exclusively grass-fed are seen dotting the landscape in all but the coldest months, when they are fed hay (dried grass) under shelter. And it was very telling, that the worst Clemente could say about the American industrial agricultural practices that had crept into the farms in the Tuscany region, was that cows were artificially inseminated, rather than allowed to breed naturally; artificial insemination, of course, is a common practice even on organic/sustainable farms in the United States, and nowhere near the worst thing that WE do to the animals in our care. (By the way, he allowed my mom’s steak to be cooked to medium, and she at it all.)

I ate beef at least once per day while we were in Florence and the surrounding area, and can’t say enough about the taste, texture, and terroir (the gastronomic experience of the land on which a food was grown) that characterized their meat dishes. I can truly see why they take it so seriously.

Next, we look no further than the center of Florence, a bustling city surrounded by farmland, for another prime example of Italian food- and agri-culture (see what I did there?). We visited the Mercato Centrale, a huge building in the middle of the city that is a “food hub” if there ever were one. On its bottom floor, it houses an almost continuously-operating farmers market full of local produce and value-added products; and on its top floor, around 20 small restaurants, specializing in different aspects of Italian cuisine and all making use of the local produce for sale below. Isn’t that awesome? It further speaks to this people’s love of good food and agriculture, and I think it should serve as an example for those of us in the US trying to build a better food system.

And guess what? I was talking to my friend Christina, at Blue Skys Farm, about this idea, and she had some good news. She said that David Dadekian, a proponent of local food and the president of Eat Drink RI, is working towards just this type of project – it’s called the Eat Drink RI Central Market. I’ll have more for you on that as the story unfolds.

But for now, let’s travel to the farmland of the Tuscany region, surrounding Florence and covering much of Northern Italy. I made two trips into the countryside while we were staying in Florence, and both left me longing for that pastoral idyll for which, I think, every urban farmer shares a bit of adoration…and which many are working to build in our own homes. Picture this: driving leisurely on a winding country road, rolling hills as far as the eye can see, covered in vineyards and wineries, citrus trees, olive orchards, and lots of pasture land. And nestled among these fields are small towns, houses and businesses of people, whose livelihoods come from the land in which they reside…what could be better?

We visited the old town of San Gimignano, set on a hilltop overlooking Tuscany, and a vineyard and winery at the Castello di Verrazzano in Greve, Chianti. The people in these places took their agricultural terroir very seriously; from the well-known fine cheeses of San Gimignano to the world-famous wines out of Chianti, they were immensely proud of the products of their agriculture.

Finally, let’s jump way down to the southern part of the country, to the Amalfi coast, a stretch of 25 miles or so of towns built onto the sides of cliffs. The first thing that struck me about this region was the lemon trees that were planted literally everywhere along the coast. And I mean everywhere: there were small orchards of the trees, of course, in terraced plots along the cliff side; but the trees filled peoples’ yards, the grounds of many of the hotels and inns we passed, and even grew seemingly wild, out of the cracks in certain walls and rocks like giant dandelions. Our hotel, the Locanda Costa Diva in Praiano, took this to the next level, with hundreds of lemon trees, along with oranges and other citrus, olives, and even some decorative flowers, planted all throughout their two and a half acres, defining the character of the grounds. Dare I say it, the citrus trees of the Amalfi coast outnumbered even the olive trees!

This should have come as no surprise to me, though. This region is famous for their limoncello, a sweet, astringent liqueur of lemon extract in pure grain alcohol; a drink that is based on the lemons grown in the residents’ yards and orchards. I was really intrigued by what I came to call the “lemon culture” present in the area. The lemon trees growing everywhere contributed to the agricultural backdrop, of course. But in every town, you would pass at least one “limoncello factory”, where the lemons were utilized to make not only the sweet liqueur, but all manner of value-added products like candles, soaps, extracts and essential oils, and cosmetics. The famous ceramics made and sold in the region were often painted with lemon-related themes, and lemons made an appearance even on many of the souvenirs in the shops.

I’ve had a really great experience in this country, and I have to say I’m going to have trouble leaving. There is the fact that the Greeks (my national and cultural heritage) and the Italians are pretty similar, in their lifestyles and their appreciation for food and agriculture…and I feel very culturally at-home here; so much so, in fact, that I automatically fill the holes in my broken Italian with Greek rather than English.

And there is one, really notable emotional change that has come out of this trip, that I want to share with you. After the underperformance of my garden last year, what with not being able to devote enough time to it and eventually just giving up on it emotionally, if not totally in action, I was still pretty down on starting again this spring. I know, that’s probably surprising to hear me say, but there it is.

But as we drove through Tuscany, I took in the vineyards and orchards and small little homesteads – and they started to rebuild that agricultural context in my mind. Seeing this place, it began to rekindle that same internal sense of the pastoral idyll, the romantic, optimistic notion of a small, sustainable, agricultural community that originally ignited my flame however many years ago. And then, we passed a small farm right on the side of the road.

The most vivid detail I can recall was the sandy farm pathway, running along the road for a few dozen feet, and then arcing off under a canopy of trees. There might have been a wheel barrow or a tractor, or even a shed of some sort; but what I remember is the flutter in my stomach as I looked at that scene, that feeling of elation reserved for pretty girls and any setting or idea that ignites my passions. My mind was flooded with memories of everything I have read and experienced about the joy of small-scale agriculture – including, fittingly, pieces about how the romantic agrarian lifestyle is still alive and well in the Italian countryside – and my excitement about homesteading and agriculture returned with a vengeance. It’s amazing, eh, what you find in Italy?

And with that said, as soon as I get home I think it’ll be time to seed my tomatoes.

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.