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 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 67 – “Adventurous Agrarians: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel”

12 03 2017

(March 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Adventurous Agrarians”: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel

 

What values do you use to drive your decision-making? Do you have an overarching worldview – a religion, environmental ethic, scientific mindset, political philosophy, or even a business-based set of ideals – that influences you on a daily basis? And maybe, do you have more than just one, and have to weigh them against each other when making decisions?
Today’s column is going to be a little different than normal. Rather than exploring an environmental or agricultural topic, we’re going to delve into two of the basic worldviews that help me, personally, to make decisions; worldviews that, I believe, many of my fellow urban farmers are also guided by. These philosophies exist simultaneously in my mind and, at different times, help to guide my decisions. But they don’t always appear to be consistent with each other…and today, I want us to figure out how we might make them so.
On the one hand, I would guess that almost every urban farmer, myself happily included, is an agrarian. We love the small-scale and local production model, the pastoral idyll, and distinct but closely-related philosophies like minimalism and conscious consumption. This is a mindset of slow-living, of love and intimate knowledge of your ecological place and your home, and the faith that the local landscape is capable of providing us with everything our bodies and minds and souls need. This is the philosophy of Wendell Berry, and of anyone who defines themselves as “a homesteader”.
But on the other hand, based in my personal experience, I think a lot of us possess that “jolly wanderer” type of mindset as well. That zest-for-life, which makes us want to travel the world and see far off places and people. The desire for new, varied experiences and adventures, and a love for nature and the environment that makes us want to soak in as much of this pale blue dot as we can, while we’re still here. Millennials sort of universally share this mindset, but so does anyone who finds value even in just being outdoors.
It is my style to constantly challenge my own beliefs, mostly in my mind, in order to test their validity. I figure that any logical person probably does the same. And with that, comes the desire to have a self-consistent set of beliefs and worldviews so I can never rightfully be called a hypocrite.
At first glance, these two worldviews – the “agrarian” and the “traveler” – are diametrically opposed; they are inconsistent, and so far, it has been kind of hard for me to accept their shared residence in my mind. I feel like many of you have the same problem. Which is why I am asking today’s question: how do we reconcile these seemingly competing worldviews? Are the world-traveler and the student of Wendell Berry really at odds, or might they be two sides of the same coin?
Having not yet explored either philosophy deeply enough, this apparent inconsistency is made obvious by my sleeping pattern – or lack thereof. Depending on my mood any given day, I either go to bed and wake up nice and early, because “that’s what a farmer would do, since there are cows to be milked and morning chores to do” (I do not have cows), or I insist to my friends that we stay out late and paint the town red, because we have to live life to the fullest. You can’t get much more contradictory than that.
Again, with a very basic understanding of both philosophies, there are some noticeable incompatibilities: agrarianism is a very community-based, selfless ideal, while the adventurer is more individualistic; agrarianism is associated with certain conservative principles, and is common amongst rural people, while adventurism, often with progressivism and the big city; the adventurer seems willing to use resources in order to gain experiences, while agrarianism concerns itself more with resource conservation; the agrarian extols the virtues of making roots and long-term connections to the local place, while the adventurer sees the whole world as home.
Right now, you are probably thinking: how can one person passionately hold both of these views? After writing that list, I’ll admit I’m thinking the same thing. But I have a 500 word outline of reasons why we can, so let’s see if we can’t answer that question together.
First off, I’ll say that I don’t think these two outlooks come from the same place in our minds or souls. I have come to believe that they were engrained into our DNA – and even, if we look hard enough, some ancient elements of our species’ culture – by our own evolutionary history on Earth.
We were hunter-gatherers for 2.6 million years prior to the start of agriculture: we lived in nature; we spent much of our day in recreation and play; our tribal communities, though small, were probably stronger than they have been since; and we moved around a lot, experiencing and reveling in the great big world around us. It’s funny, how that sounds a lot like the jolly traveler mindset put into perfect practice.
And then, we started agriculture 10 or 15 thousand years ago. Though not our best decision, it brought with it a slew of new experiences. For the first time, we settled down; we tied the idea of community not only to our tribe of people, but to a geographical location, a place; we as agriculturalists traded our ancestors’ lifelong quest for new, wild sources of food, water, energy, and shelter, for the deliberate production of our own (and the smart ones put up emergency stores and extracted at sustainable rates); we developed a cultural connection to the animals, plants, and geographic character of the lands we called home. That agrarian mindset is the same that exists, to this day, in the writings of people like Wendell Berry.
I think it’d be straightforward to make the argument that our time spent as hunter-gatherers encoded the traveler ethic into our DNA, while our time as agriculturalists left us with a penchant for agrarianism. And this might be exactly why the two modern philosophies don’t seem obviously consistent – they are two distinct elements of our genetics, our psychology, and our culture. But just because they come from our adaptations to different lifestyles, doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent.
To embrace agrarianism, or adventurism, or both, is to reject the worst elements of modern, Western, industrial life. Both of these worldviews reject the idea that a day in meaningful life is to wake up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, watch TV, and sleep. In fact, both worldviews are based in the idea of living a meaningful, fulfilling life!
They even prescribe similar definitions of what “a meaningful life” entails. Both reject the obsession with passive consumption and material goods that defines modern, western life. They embrace the vivacious elements of our species’ behavior – creation, recreation, love and kinship, appreciation of the natural world, and love of good food; and both worldviews value experiences over things, in full recognition of the fact that new experiences literally create more vivid imprints on our memories than repetitive ones. (Don’t believe me? Recall your last vacation, or camping trip, or the last time you spent time in your garden. Good, now tell me what you did at work on the Tuesday following that experience, or what you ate for dinner the following Thursday. See what I mean?).
Where agrarianism makes you hyper-focused on the ebbs and flows of your chosen place – the first sign of robins in the spring, the last warm day of summer, and the flowering of your favorite fruit tree are the “new experiences” that drive your life – the traveler ethic lets you connect to a variety of places like this, with less intimacy but more variety than agrarianism.
Both philosophies are based in an appreciation of nature, and also of the best aspects of humanity. As a traveler, you are exploring the world, going to see the natural wonders and the good, wholesome things that can be produced by human society. And the same is true of agrarianism, though you lean more towards being a producer and protector and preserver of those things.
My immediate motivation to write this column was actually that I will be leaving on a trip to Italy next week, after writing to you on the real and present dangers of climate change.
Now, I will be purchasing carbon offset credits for this and all future flights (which effectively negate my portion of the flight’s environmental impact). But still, I was bothered by the apparent inconsistency in being an agrarian soul who has recently found a love for travel and adventure. This column has given me a lot of peace in that regard. I’d love for you to email me with your thoughts, so see if it did the same for you.

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

13 11 2016

(October 23, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

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

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

The Vegetable Garden

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

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

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

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

Perennial Fruits

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

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

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

Irrigation System

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

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

Chickens

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

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

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

Other

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

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

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

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

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 54 – If At First You Don’t Succeed

12 11 2016

(August 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.