The Call, Column 91 – Low-Impact Urban Farming

25 02 2018

(February 25, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Low-Impact Urban Farming

I love urban farming, let’s get that out of the way first. I love the smell of the soil; I love the process of growing things; I love the calmness and serenity of nature; I love the act of creating sustainable food with the labor of my own hands. I love chickens, plants, and insects, soil microbes, and human beings. And I love the rebellious act of using land in the city not for passive consumption, but for active production.

As ideas, I love all of these things. And in practice, when I am able to do them successfully, and when I am able to dedicate enough of my time to them to bring them to fruition, and when I am in the right mindset to weather little difficulties like a woodchuck eating my cabbages and lettuce for the sixth time in one year, then I love all of these things.

But rarely is anything as perfect as I just described. Ignoring the mostly unavoidable Acts of Nature, I would guess that many of you suffer from the same types of frustrations as I do in your garden every year – intending, early in the season, to put in as much effort as is required to make it really awesome…and starting an elaborate garden that would require this effort…but then spreading your time so thin with other things that you end up not devoting the time and energy you need, and being frustrated with minor failures and setbacks.

This is a special shout-out to my fellow P-types (for those of you who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ENFP in the best and worst definitions); you, like me, probably have a dozen or so very important projects at any one time, that all require enormous amounts of your attention, and which are all very important to you…which unavoidably leads to frustration and disappointment when things don’t get done. Add in the fact that urban farming is supposed to be fun, calming, and productive, and so much of it is so lovable (see the above)…and it’s totally reasonable that this can leave some of us feeling disheartened at a certain point each year.

What’s the solution to this? Well, at first glance, it would seem that we should design our urban farming systems with the singular goal of maximizing production while minimizing labor inputs. But you know what you get when you approach something as sacred and inherently holistic as food production with that singular mindset? Factory farming. You get factory farming…and I know you don’t want that.

So today, I want to talk about my idea of low-impact urban farming. This combines two basic motivations: maximizing productive output while minimizing human input (time, labor, and money), but also reducing strain on the environment by considering it as another form of input that needs to be minimized. Now, it’s generally not good practice to maximize/minimize on more than one variable – what produces the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of human time/labor/money (which can be considered the same thing for these purposes) doesn’t necessarily produce the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of stress on the environment. And this logic, combined with the cold profit motive of industrial agriculture, is what dictates that chickens be kept in battery cages and cows should be fed chicken feces and expired Skittles.

But on the scale of urban farming, it is actually often true that those practices which minimize stress on the humans doing them, also minimize stress on the environment in which they’re being done. And there’s the remainder of this column: what types of practices have I learned, either by doing or intending to do, that accomplish this? Let’s find out.

Starting your plants: Each of the past 7 years or so, I have started all of my longer-season plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, brassicas, etc) inside, under grow lights, in late February. I enjoy doing this, watching as life springs forth from a seemingly lifeless seed, and nurturing it to the point where it can be planted outside. But, I realized last year, the amount of effort and time that I devote to this aspect of my garden is enormous, and it generally yields plants that are less healthy than if I had bought them (organic, sustainable ones) from a professional greenhouse. And by exerting so much effort, so early in the season, I have often burned myself out by the time the garden really picks up in June.

I’m not saying not to do this. But I think the benefits and drawbacks of raising everything from seed, as opposed to buying starts sometime in early May, should be considered in the context of maximizing output while minimizing human and environmental strain.

In my experience, it takes a lot of time to seed, tend to, plant up, and harden off plant starts when they’re done at home; it actually costs quite a pretty penny, with all of the equipment required and the energy needed for the grow lights; and there is a lot of mental effort (especially for a flighty P-type like myself) that goes into keeping track of all of this and remembering to do it all, correctly, on time, on a regular basis. And beyond all of that, the grow lights use a huge amount of energy and this setup uses a lot of plastic, neither of which are great for the environment.

All things considered, the inputs required to start your own seeds are much, much higher than if you were to buy equivalent plants (i.e. organic, sustainably-raised, from non-GMO seed) from a professional greenhouse. This is absolutely true of the mental effort, human labor/time, and environmental impact; and though I haven’t crunched the numbers, I spend so much money on this part of the garden every year that I suspect it would be cheaper just to buy them.

In my view, and in my personal context, all of this is a good argument for buying high-quality plant starts in May, rather than spending more time and money and electricity, and burning myself out by the real planting season, in order to do it myself. If at some point I am planting a much larger area, or began to place more of a value on the effective self-sufficiency of my endeavor, my view would absolutely change. And on the flip side, shorter-season and smaller-sized crops, like leafy greens and root vegetables, are much easier (and cheaper, and lower impact) to direct-seed in the spring than buy as starts…at least in my context.

Irrigation. If you have a big garden, watering can easily become a huge time commitment. And the penalty for doing it too infrequently is a huge reduction in your garden’s productivity. Mine requires like 45 minutes to water fully, and should be watered every second or third day; in my experience, it’s very easy to not have time to do this.

The solution: drip irrigation! I have intended to install a drip irrigation system for the past two years, but because I was already kind of burned out by when it came time to do that in late April (because of 2 months of seed-starting), I delayed and eventually didn’t do it. Not this year! By installing a system like this, you could conceivably not have to water your garden at all, instead just monitoring it to make sure soil moisture is good. This would reduce the time and labor impact on you, the busy gardener, and also reduce the amount of water used. Now, this system costs more than just the hose required to water manually, so that’s an assessment that you have to make individually. But in my context, saving a few hours per week in labor, and the mental effort of keeping track of a watering schedule, and reducing my water usage is all worth the cost and initial time investment of setting up the system. And my garden will be watered more, and more regularly, which will maximize production.

Mulching. This is one I’ve talked about a lot, so I won’t give it too much space here. There should always be a layer of mulch on your soil, short of when you’ve direct-seeded smaller crops like spinach, that need a few weeks to sprout and become established. But in general, you can find organic mulching materials (like leaves, grass clippings, straw) for free or very low price-per-area-of-coverage, and it takes very little time to apply mulch, and doing so minimizes the growth of weeds that would otherwise dominate uncovered soil. I’m slowly getting better at this, but if this year goes as planned, I won’t have to weed at all and my garden’s productivity will be all the better for it.

Regular maintenance. If you’re like me, you simultaneously hate tightly-scheduled activities, but also don’t have the organizational wherewithal to make sure those activities would get done if you tried to do them freely. God, I’m such a P-type. What are we to do?

I think the best solution is to schedule a very small amount of time – say 10 minutes a day, right after waking up/coffee/breakfast in the morning – in which to do basic garden maintenance tasks, combined with the other suggestions above. Without having to regularly weed and water, it is totally conceivable that 10 minutes per day is enough to take good care of your garden. Check that the irrigation is working; pull any weed-lings that have broken through the mulch (since they’re easier and quicker to pull at that size) and just throw them on top off the mulch; tie up staked plants like tomatoes; and harvest anything that needs to be. None of this takes very long, and when you do it as little bits of time every day, rather than larger amounts (say) once per week, it is less overwhelming, more likely to get done, and more effective at keeping your garden healthy and productive.

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

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The Call, Column 89 – It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

28 01 2018

(January 28, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

Two columns ago, we talked about the “passive solar clock”, the fact that many of the things happening on Earth’s surface are driven by the amount of sunlight received. This creates a sort of weather clock, which varies periodically over the course of one day and one year.

Last column, we moved on to the idea of the “active solar clock”, the ability of certain things on Earth – namely animals, plants, fungi, and some microorganisms – to keep track of the Sun’s position over the day and the year, and adjust their behavior accordingly. This is called the circadian rhythm. It is a feature of so many organisms, from fungi to chickens to human beings; and drive behavior like (more obviously) sleep and wake cycles, hormone levels, and reproductive capacity, but also (less obviously) mood and metabolic health.

Today, let’s expand on this last concept. I want you to fully understand how important the circadian rhythm is – including your own – and the possible side-effects of circadian dysregulation, when an organism’s brain (or whatever regulates its circadian clock) can no longer accurately discern the time of day and year.

So last time, we discussed some examples of how organisms are able to use their circadian rhythms to regulate biological things. I want to make one side note here: in general, though my language kind of indicates otherwise, it isn’t organisms making the conscious choice to use their brain’s record of solar time of day and year to do things. Rather, it is their brain (or whatever) automatically regulating lots of biological mechanisms and processes according to its record of solar time.

There are some very obvious examples of this in the natural world. Plants use a series of biochemical reactions to maintain a circadian rhythm, which they use to “know” when to flower, set seed, and go dormant for the winter. Most animals reproduce best in the spring and summer, which is why birds’ nests are filled with eggs in the spring, baby deer and turkeys emerge sometime during the warm season, and even chickens take a break in their egg-laying during the winter. Much of the life in the soil goes dormant during the winter. Almost everything – including plants – sleeps at night and is awake during the day, with the curious exception of nocturnal animals. In general, animals tend to store fat more easily in the fall, and have more difficulty shedding it in the winter. This is an adaption that helps to prevent starvation during lean months…not that that fact makes me feel any better about the numbers on the scale as of late. But all of this is driven by the circadian rhythm, and therefore by sunlight!

Looking specifically at human beings, this is regulated by the human brain. It uses a combination of neuron activity, electrical charges, and hormones to accomplish this intricate timekeeping endeavor. For example, your brain produces melatonin when it believes bedtime is approaching, and cortisol when it believes it is time to get up; these are respectively responsible for feelings of sleepiness at night and wakefulness in the morning. That’s a pretty powerful hormonal drive, huh?

So what is circadian dysregulation? I’m glad you asked! Your brain has a central clock that it tries to maintain on a roughly 24-hour cycle and another roughly 365-day cycle, based on 1) the brightness of sunlight you’re exposed to; 2) the spectrum of that sunlight (more blue light indicates morning and noon, while more red/yellow light indicates evening), and 3) possibly, the position of the sun in the sky. If you go outside, and those data points match the time of day and year that your brain thinks it is, that’s a positive feedback which reinforces your circadian clock; if they don’t match, that is negative feedback, which forces your brain to readjust. Again, how cool is that?

But there are some very widespread behaviors that can actively throw off this regulation…and nighttime exposure to blue light is probably the most significant. When you look at basically any electronic screen, or even at certain light bulbs (some fluorescents and LEDs, unfortunately), the exorbitant level of blue light in their spectrum tricks your brain into thinking that it is morning/noontime. This is the reason that, for many people, staring at their phone right before bed can jolt them awake or make them less tired, even if they were ready to fall asleep right before.

But the problem is much broader. We live in a society where it is perfectly possible – even considered normal – to not see the sun most days each week, for a few months of the year. If you work in an office, it is entirely possible that during the winter, you will go to work while the sun is rising, and leave after it sets…and spend the entire day under (bluish) fluorescent lights, staring at a (bluish) computer screen, without seeing the sun at all. The shortest day of the year was just a few weeks ago, so this problem is particularly relevant right now.

On top of this, we look at a lot of brightly-lit screens at night, we generally don’t get as much sleep as we should, and we rely on coffee to keep us awake. With all of these biologically-abnormal stimuli, it’s no wonder that circadian dysregulation is rampant in the West! But what does it look like, for a human being’s circadian rhythm to be misaligned?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one of the most relevant manifestations of circadian dysregulation. Some peoples’ brains seem to be more reliant than others on exposure to sunlight, in order to keep their circadian rhythm aligned. During the winter, inadequate exposure to sunlight can lead to this form of acute depression, which (at least in my experience) creates feelings of bitterness, hopelessness, and resentment. The exact hormonal mechanism isn’t quite understood yet, but the link between SAD and exposure to adequate sunlight for circadian alignment is obvious.

Another common manifestation of (probably) circadian dysregulation is metabolic disease (i.e. obesity). There is far less scientific evidence linking these two, but early studies (and lots of anecdotal evidence) have shown correlation between circadian dysregulation and metabolic dysregulation, and causation between circadian dysregulation and hormonal problems…and the relationship between metabolic health and hormonal health is indisputable. This is one connection for which I’m anxiously awaiting on more concrete science.

There are things you can do to prevent the worst effects of circadian dysregulation. Avoid looking at screens and other blue-containing light sources when it’s dark outside. If this isn’t possible, invest in a pair of blue-blocking/amber-tinted glasses, which filter out most of the blue light, and as a result prevent much of the negative effect on your circadian alignment. I have a pair that cost me $10, so if you want recommendations, just shoot me an email.

Try to get adequate sleep. I know how hard this is in modern society, and my personal demon is the shear amount of interesting things I could be doing at 10 pm and midnight and 2 am, instead of sleeping…but join me in trying to sleep at least 7 hours each night (the optimal amount varies by person), because it helps to fine-tune and properly-align the melatonin and cortisol spikes that drive sleepiness and wakefulness. Also, keep in mind that coffee helps to create an artificial increase in cortisol. This is probably fine earlier in the day, but cortisol should be very, very low at night as melatonin and sleepiness start to kick in. This means coffee in the afternoon and night = no bueno.

Finally, and this is probably the most important recommendation (alongside reducing blue light at night): get some sunlight each and every day! Last winter, which the first one of my life where I was working fulltime instead of either in school or on Christmas break, I suffered a little SAD. It took me a few weeks to realize what it was. But as soon as I did, I began taking 15 minute walks most days, during my breaks or lunch at work, and the symptoms almost immediately evaporated. When I began feeling inklings of it late this past November, I took that same action and haven’t really felt it since.

Now like I mentioned earlier, the effects of circadian dysregulation on metabolic health are much more indirect and ill-defined, so it would be harder to relate the solution of that back to taking daily walks outside. But if the disappearance of my SAD symptoms is any indication of the effect of more sunlight exposure on proper circadian alignment, I have no doubt believing that this is great for long-term metabolic health as well. (Side note: I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a doctor. This is a solution which worked for me, for a specific type of acute depression that is very well-linked to sun exposure, and more likely in someone of my genetic/geological origin. If you are suffering depression symptoms of unknown cause, I urge you to seek medical help.)

Ending on a bit more of a lighter note, there is another aspect of this that I have been giving some thought to, and wanted to share. There are some…“less scientific”, shall we say…topics that may potentially be linked to the human circadian rhythm.

The first is the possibility of a greater conscious awareness of the circadian clock, beyond its background (hormonal and other biological) effects. I tend to believe that other animals – whose circadian rhythms aren’t boggled by blue lights, sub-optimal sleep, coffee and alcohol, and spending all day in climate- and light-controlled boxes – may be more consciously aware of what solar time it is, and deliberately perform actions or adjust their behavior accordingly. Do you know how, if you find yourself in a random place and the sun is not too far above the horizon, you can sort of “intuitively tell” whether it’s sunset or sunrise? Also, do you ever have those mornings where there is something very important that you need to be up for, and your brain seems to wake you up shortly before your alarm? I feel that these may be manifestations of this phenomenon – something that other animals use all the time, like when my chickens obviously know that nighttime is approaching even before dusk.

The second is astrology. I don’t actually subscribe much to it, but there have been some cases, in my experience, that the solar horoscope accurately describes behavior. If there is any underlying scientific reason at all, that the time of year that one was born may affect their behavior, I think it is probably due to circadian effects. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that there may be subtle differences in the way a mother’s body forms and nurtures an unborn baby, depending on the time of year that this is happening, because of hormones or expected availability of resources or whatever…and that this could somehow affect the baby’s long-term behaviors. Additionally, the initial circadian alignment that a newborn baby’s brain has to perform shortly after birth, and the information about the time of day and year that its life began, could conceivably affect the formation of its brain and therefore behavior as well.

This is all speculation and “thinking out loud” so-to-speak, but those are my final thoughts.

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 85 – What You Learn on Thanksgiving

12 12 2017

(November 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Learn on Thanksgiving

Early Friday morning, I sat down to one of my favorite meals of the year, a heaping plate of Thanksgiving leftovers. Right as I was about the take the first bite, I paused and thought to myself: “I’m not nearly as reflective about the local-ness of my food as I used to be.”

When I started seriously urban farming five or six years ago, which was right around the same time that I started buying from local farms and farmers markets, I remember being obsessed about the origin of the things on my plate at each meal. I don’t mean that I was compulsive or anything; I didn’t require that everything I ate be local/organic/whatever, or lament over anything that wasn’t. I just spent a lot of time in self-congratulatory mode, meditating over whichever ingredients I had managed to source locally/organically/whatever, or had grown myself.

But over the past few years, I’ve gotten so good at sourcing my food mostly locally, that it’s second nature at this point. A majority of my food comes from the local foodshed and my own yard, because I’ve put “systems” in place – shopping regularly at the farmers market, structuring my diet around foods available year-round in our area, processing and storing some of my garden’s produce, and keeping my fridge and freezer always stocked with meats and vegetables of known and acceptable origin – to make sure of it. I’m used to it that it no longer even occurs to me to stop and think about that fact at every meal.

But something about Thanksgiving changed that. This meal was made up of layer upon layer of significance; layers of meaning that were deeper than just taste and nutrition. The same may be said about any meal, to a varying degree. But I thought it would be fun today for us to dissect this a little and really ruminate over the meaning hidden in the foods on our holiday plates.

The first layer is that the meal is made of local, quality ingredients. I don’t have to explain to you how important this is. Our entire Thanksgiving meal was made up of real, while ingredients, mostly vegetables and meat.

But beyond this, we were able to source many of the primary  ingredients from the local foodshed. The truly free-range turkey was from Radical Roots Farm in Canterbury, CT, a beyond-organic farm owned by my friends Aly and Ryan. It was among the best turkeys I’ve ever had; so much so, that there is another in my freezer.

The Brussels sprouts, cranberries, potatoes, apples, pumpkins, and onions were all from local, sustainable farms; the garlic, tomatoes, spices, and a couple of other ingredients were from my garden; even the olive oil was sourced as locally as possible (California). Basically every food on the Thanksgiving table can be sourced from the local foodshed; and absolutely every ingredient can come from sustainable farms that know what’s up. This is the most basic significance of the food, and one that I’m glad I was reminded of by my plate of holiday leftovers.

Digging down, the next layer of meaningfulness is that the work of so many hands went into creating the meal. At base, of course, is the fact that farmers grew the food.

And this meal represented three generations of my family: my grandparents cooked the turkey and stuffing, my mom made the vegetables and potatoes, I did the desserts (ironic, much?) and a couple of sides, and my sister and her boyfriend made a cheesecake and a nice batch of grain-free tabbouleh. And my dad, though he doesn’t cook too often, supports the effort by cleaning the house and helping where needed.

Though my family usually eats one meal together per day, the vast majority of cooking and preparation is done individually. I can’t overstate the significance of this big meal, where each of us made a significant contribution to the end goal.

The next layer of meaning, is the power of this meal to bring people together. The dinner (actually lunch) itself included the people above: my grandparents, my parents, me, my sister, and her boyfriend. But when it came to dessert, the circle got even bigger.

My grandfather’s sister, my mom’s brother and his family, and two of her cousins and their families, along with two of our oldest, closest family friends, all came to spend the latter part of the day. We talked, laughed, gossiped, and of course, ate more. This is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough for my liking, especially for a Greek family. And it demonstrates the power of food and celebration to bring people together.

The final layer is, of course, the cultural and historical tradition which led us to this feast day. Now, I will be the first to point out that the history of our country, especially at the time of the first European expansions into North America, is one of genocide and imperialism. We did not have any claim to this land, and the ensuing takeover of a relatively peaceful land of small hunter-gatherer and agrarian tribes was violent and uncomfortable.

But it happened long ago, and the best we can do now, as individuals, living in this country, is to remember and learn from those events (and make reparations, of course). Thanksgiving Day was established to commemorate the knowledge and help passed on from the Native American tribes to the first, relatively peaceful English settlers, which allowed them to survive in the harsh climate of New England.

In spite of the history, it is the selflessness of the Native Americans – acts which crossed religious, national, and cultural lines – that is commemorated in our continued celebration of Thanksgiving Day. It is the deepest layer of significance in that meal I was contemplating, and one that should occupy our thoughts each year as we celebrate.

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 84 – Lessons Learned Amongst the Cold Tomatoes

13 11 2017

(November 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Lessons Learned Amongst the Cold Tomatoes

It was 6:30am, and my hands were absolutely freezing. I was bundled up, sure, but my hoodie and bare fingers were no match for the early-morning dew and near-freezing temperature. And the cold air around me was filled with a pungent, not-exactly-unpleasant smell as I worked tirelessly against the clock.

OK, I’ll admit that was all pretty dramatic. Those were some of the thoughts racing through my head last Tuesday morning, as I hurriedly picked the last of the produce from my garden before winter set in. But the 45 minutes I spent in my garden that day sparked some interesting internal dialogue, and taught me a few lessons about our gardens and our world that I think would be worth sharing.

First off, I’ve come to realize that any outdoor activity, urban farming most definitely included, is actually pretty tough in the context of an 8-5 work schedule once Daylight Savings Time has ended. Had the frost been predicted for late the week before, I would have had a well-lit hour after work to do the last-minute harvest, in the waning (relative) warmth of the afternoon. But now it’s dark by the time we leave work, which meant a rather rushed harvest in the cold, bitter, pre-coffee morning before work, since I wouldn’t be home with enough light to harvest by until after the frost had already happened. I am only a part-time, amateur gardener, so I can only imagine how much this effect compounds for professional farmers who have full-time jobs off the farm.

The very fact that Daylight Savings had already ended by the time of my last harvest gave me pause, too. Normally, it is the middle of October when the first real killing frost happens, and it is at that point that I normally make the last harvest of the year. This year was almost a full month later. Climate change is real, we are the cause, and it is already resulting in dangerous alterations to the seasons, making them less predictable and less conducive to normal growing.

A kind of inflammatory thought I kept having was how much I hate morning glories…at least, the vines. I like the flowers themselves, and had planted some a few years ago in my garden. But they dropped seeds, and now, each year, my garden gets overwhelmed by volunteer morning glory vines. They have strangled many of my plants in the past, and it happened this year with the tomato patch I was in last week. Three or four of my garden beds were basically decimated by morning glory vines this year, so I really have to find a way to prevent that from happening in the future.

Speaking of preventing morning glory overrun…I did take note of a couple of things that should have been done over the course of the season but weren’t. Every year, I start off by saying that I will mulch religiously, that I won’t step on the soil after it has been planted and mulched, that I will keep everything weeded and watered, and that I will tie up the plants regularly.

Harvesting those tomatoes was kind of eye-opening. Because I had to fight through weeds and an untied patch to get at the tomatoes, stepping on the soil in the process. I did a great job this year with keeping everything mulched, but between the morning glories taking over again, other weeds springing up over the months, and not typing the tomatoes to their stakes often enough, it make it kind of hard to harvest.

Speaking of difficulty in harvesting…the rush to harvest everything before work (and the frost) helped to point out to me some of the flaws in how I had organized the layout of my garden. I plant things too close together, especially tomatoes, which makes them grow as a think mass. I also made an error when originally designing my garden, by making the beds six feet on each side instead of the standard four. This makes it exceedingly difficult to access the stuff at the center of the bed while standing on the outside path, which makes it tempting to step in while harvesting.

Next year, I will still plant according to a loose version of permaculture principles, but I need to remember to leave more space for the plants to grow, and give myself access to the center of each bed (even if it’s just one area that I’m allowed to step into) to make harvesting and maintenance easier.

The last lesson that I thought was worth sharing was the notion of what is really worth harvesting. I had limited time in which to harvest that morning, so I had decisions to make. I decided not to harvest the last of a quasi-perennial green that has taken over one of my beds. It cooks up nicely, but I didn’t think I would have time to use it, which meant the more-easily-storable tomatoes took precedence. I also made note of all of the cold-tolerant crops – carrots, potatoes, turnips, brassicas – that I could wait until next week to harvest (which actually might even be improved by the frost) – allowing me more time to harvest 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.





The Call, Column 83 – More Food for Thought

29 10 2017

(October 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

More Food for Thought

            What is food?

This question began my last column, starting us on an adventure through the history of hungry living things on our planet. We left off around 10,000 years ago, with the basic definition of “food” that has sustained essentially every single animal, since we first emerged from the primordial soup hundreds of millions of years ago: food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts, from which energy and nutrients can be obtained.

Every species on the planet – ourselves included, at least until 10,000 years ago when we started agriculture – eats according to this basic definition of food, defined by their particular evolutionary history. And I would argue that eating this species-specific definition of “food” produces the greatest likelihood for achieving individual health and longevity.

But then, at least for the human animal, everything changed. Our hubris put an end to the golden era of diet, as it does to most good things. We ate from the Forbidden Tree, choosing to toil in the field in order to eat our bread. And we took upon ourselves the responsibility of gods, but with neither the wisdom, nor the power, nor the benevolence of the One who originally established us as hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture turned food into a human creation. No longer was our diet extracted from the same basic plants and animals on whose flesh we had evolved; rather, it was the product of our own toil, the spoils of our conquest and subjugation of previously-wild land, previously-wild plants, and previously-wild animals. This allowed tribes of early modern human beings to settle in one area, enabling them to produce more food per square foot than at any time prior, but making them dependent on their own labor to keep closed the thin veil between survival and starvation.

I cannot overstate the significance of this event, probably more than any other in our history. This marked the birth of civilization, and was the original cause of everything, good and bad, that has come with civilization. Settling down as agriculturalists naturally resulted in the development of human communities…at the expense of the long-term health of the land on which we settled. It allowed for the division of labor, and also for caste systems and the exploitation of the lower classes. It sparked the beginning of commerce and trade, and resulted in warfare between neighboring tribes in competition for the same (unnecessarily-) limited resources. It provided us with a more stable food supply, but made us susceptible to basically every disease we struggle against to this day.

Civilization allowed for all of this. We can argue until the cows come home whether it improved or worsened our species’ overall wellbeing, but it happened. And at the root of every product of civilization, as the basic premise upon which all of human endeavor sits, is the fact that we cultivate, rather than the hunt and gather, essentially all of our food. Food became the foundation and basis of human society.

And then, as the story goes, the first tribal communities morphed into nation-states. Agriculture-based settlements set themselves apart by more than just geographical distance. Human beings began to bow to different leaders, worship different gods, trade in different goods and currencies; and all the while, each state was but one strategic maneuver away from their rightful expansion into their neighbors’ land, or one wrong move away from the loss of their own. Food was a finite resource to be guarded, stolen, traded for, and won, and every cow your neighbor owned, every acre he planted, every bite he took…was one fewer for you.

Simultaneous to the political differentiation enabled by agriculture was the cultural differentiation. The development of a quasi-stable society, which was set in motion by the start of agriculture, freed up peoples’ time and brain-power for more nuanced work than hunting and gathering their food, or even growing it. Some were free to create poetry, music, and art of all kind; they studied philosophy and science; they practiced astrology and founded complex, often politically-charged religions. Distinct cultures developed, and the diets, culinary practices, and agricultural strategies unique to a certain people became one of the ways to define and distinguish them from others. Food became culture.

These basic definitions – food as a finite resource, as an element of culture, as the elemental foundation of civilized society and community – persisted for much of modern human history. Nearly all of us were agrarians, by association if not as farmers ourselves. Food was politics; it was culture; it was vocation; and it was limited. But despite being under domestication, it was still understood as an outcropping of the natural world. That is, until the late 19th century. And here’s where it gets really ugly, really fast.

As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned in the Western World, efficiency and uniformity became the name of the game. It stopped mattering, how tasty or nutritious your tomatoes were; margins were tight and global demand was skyrocketing, so it only mattered how many pounds you could squeeze out of every square foot. The question “is this cow being raised as healthfully as possible” was replaced with a more economical one, “is this cow being raised as efficiently as possible”. And as an answer to that question, the CAFO was developed.

Food, like every other consumable good, became a commodity under industrialization. My ear of corn is the same as your ear of corn, which is the same as one grown in Mexico or Greece or Arkansas – they are distinguishable only by how cheaply each can be grown and shipped.

And here, my friends, something strange happened. Up until some point in the early 20th century, we were still heterotrophs, relying on other “food” organisms to gather solar energy (plants), or concentrate it in an easily-digestible package (animals). But with the widespread implementation of fossil fuels as energy sources, and their adoption into agriculture – as both fuels and fertilizers – we began to both figuratively and quite literally eat fossil fuels. We, the kings and queens of the heterotrophs, have come to the point of using more non-biological, chemically-stored energy to feed ourselves than biological! Food has become a commodity, and somehow, it is a non-renewable, fossil-fuel-based commodity

We would be justified to leave the conversation here. This is an accurate description of food as it is currently defined. But it isn’t the only definition…and they only get worse.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a cold, soulless, reductionist view of food and human nutrition, one I’m sure that you are intimately familiar with…though I hope you know to look beyond it.

Modern nutrition has taken the approach of defining food as a means to an end – foods are simply combinations of water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients, and eating is simply a means towards consuming the perfectly-understood amounts of each of these substances needed to maintain a healthy life. There is no nuance, according to nutritional science, and food is not only a commodity, but simply the sum of its parts…just like the human beings consuming it. It is measurable and quantifiable. “Food” is just a number of Calories and associated amounts of vitamins and minerals; and balancing these numbers with your body’s requirements is the only consideration that is needed in order to be healthy. Food is a means to an end, and that’s it. How utterly absurd!

And finally, we’ve reached modern day. From a political standpoint, food is a commodity; from a scientific one, it’s a means to a nutritional end. But there is one more definition that arose together with our Postmodern Western Corporatocracy; the idea that’s more immediately responsible for our horrible “relationship with food” (God, I hate that phrase) than any other: Food. Is. A. Vice.

We are bombarded by aggressive marketing campaigns whose basic message is that our lives can be made better if we just eat the product that they’re selling. We are told to consume alcohol, sugar, and fast food as methods to cope with the stress of modern life. Ads convince us that good taste is what we crave – that consuming their “cheezy”, or “lo-fat”, or “naturally-sweetened” product, as part of a balanced lifestyle of course, will make us enjoy our lives more. And we’ve been convinced that the conspicuous consumption of certain foods – specific brands, certain health foods, that special new box of reconstituted garbage – can help to advance our place in society. I know, it’s hardly an intelligent view of food. But I didn’t say it…the TV did.

And there you have it. Food has gone from the basic energy and nutrients required by a species to live, to an agricultural commodity, all the way to a means of mass mind-control. At this point, it’s just a way to sell flashy combinations of wheat, corn, soy, milk, and sugar, the commodity crops that governments around the world subsidize in order to prevent food shortages and the associated political unrest. We’re in a bad place; there’s no kinder way to say it. We’ve discussed solutions to this problem in the past, and will do so in the future. But today, I just hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

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 81 – Rest and Lie Fallow

1 10 2017

(October 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Rest and Lie Fallow

I am writing this column with more inspiration bouncing around my brain than for any one before…here goes.

In the past couple of years, as summer has transitioned over to autumn, I have often written a column or two about the hugely important “Fall Garden” – a second chance at a harvest; an extension of the season; one final push before we allow winter to envelop our urban farms for what will sometimes feels like forever.

This year, I am changing my tune. I still hugely support fall gardening, and encourage anyone with the energy, time, and motivation to put this paper down and go tend your broccolis and leafy greens right now.

But I won’t be planting a fall garden. At least this year. Before you disown me, please let me explain.

Since starting full-time work as an engineer last April (2016), I have slowly made myself more and more busy. I let this on a little in some columns during my Existential Period (last summer), but until fairly recently, I kept letting it get worse.

Now, I am the last person to glorify being “busy” – I don’t know if I’ve ever even used it as an excuse to get out of something (until this column, I guess). As far as I’m concerned, it is a matter of personal failure that a whopping majority of my time is pre-planned, and that I rarely allow myself time to relax. I just have so many interests, friends, family members, and the obligations that come with each, and also a very difficult time saying “no” to anyone, for anything, for any reason, that my lifestyle is the result. If any of you are fellow ENFPs, I know you can relate to my feeling that a meticulously pre-planned life is a horrible, ugly, nasty thing, one I am working very hard to change.

That’s enough complaining, though. You’ve just met the 2016-2017 version of Alex, and I can assure you he will be very different by 2018 (seriously hold me to it, under threat of every last one of my to-do lists being buried under a pile of chicken poop).

Today, I want to have a heart-to-heart with you. You don’t have to grow a fall garden. In fact, it might be better for everything and everyone involved if you let Nature reclaim that little parcel until next spring. Really, I promise, it’ll be fine.

Every year that I’ve been gardening (this was my 9th, I think), I have attempted some measure of fall gardening. In most of those years, it was just a way to keep the productive summer garden going. But this year, my garden has not done exceedingly well. I’ll chalk some of it up to the weather – periods of bone-dry heat, alternating with week-long stretches of cloudy skies and rain, that do not a strong tomato plant make – but it is certainly mostly my fault. Actually, given the pandemonium I spat out above, I’m genuinely amazed at the amount of tomatoes, green beans, and turnips that are ready for harvest as I write this.

And as always, the abrupt transition from summer to fall had me thinking about a fall garden. But this year, that garden would exist not as an extension of my beloved summer plot, but squarely as atonement for the sin of neglect. Hence why, I decided against it this year.

I need to get certain things in order, trim down some of my obligations, and recover some of the fire of passion that I used to have about my interests. Next year’s summer garden will be great, and if I find it in me, next year’s fall garden will also be great. But for right now, I’m looking forward to a lower-stress couple of months, without the impending certainty of failing at a fall garden, which itself would only have been an apology for the quasi-failure that came before.

And so with all of that said, I’ll share some good reasons (read: not excuses!) to harvest the last crops of summer, pull up spent plants and cut back perennials, and mulch the manure out of that bad boy until spring. I want to reiterate that I am not in any way discouraging fall gardening, which is a great activity that I will most likely do next year. I am merely giving a nod to those whose lives might make it more difficult for them to plant a second time this year, or whose underperforming summer garden has discouraged them from doing so: here’s why it’s ok to rest and lie fallow over winter…and let your garden do the same.

            It’s actually good for the land. If you look around in the middle of October, there is very little growing. Our climate is not exactly conducive to most plant growth during the late fall and winter, and has evolved certain biological and chemical rhythms in order to replenish itself during this time. Microbial activity is still occurring, and the winter is a chance for organic matter to break down, pathogens, weeds, and insect pests to be killed, and the soil to be given a rest from the extraction of nutrients that it endures the rest of the year. As long as you clean spent plants, mulch, and optionally plant some cover crops, your garden will be waiting for you, all the better for a nice rest, next spring

            It’s probably good for your family, friends, and pets. Gardening can be a time-expensive hobby. It is fulfilling, and productive, and a very natural thing for human beings to do. But allowing yourself the chance to rest for a few months of the year means you can devote more time to your family, friends, and pets.

The “family and friends” part should be self-evident, and so should the part about pets. But by “pets”, of course, I also mean chickens and other food animals. Obviously they cannot be allowed to lie fallow over winter (that’s called neglect). By temporarily removing your attention from the garden, you can give more of it to them – both empathetic attention, like you’d give any companion animal, and also productive attention – and they will be the better for it. You can use this opportunity to update the coop and give it a thorough cleaning, both of which I plan to do this weekend.

It’s good for the farmers, if you make it. We’ve already gone over the “you-probably-can’t-grow-all-your-food-yourself-so-buy-the-rest-from-local-farmers” thing plenty of times, but this might be especially true during the winter. As I said, it is not easy to grow winter crops in our area, and it requires a lot of overhead and investment (of time, money, and willpower) on the part of the farmers. I have seen Blue Skys Farm’s amazing winter greenhouses, and let me tell you that it is no easy task for Christina and her colleagues, even with passion like theirs.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t grow spinach for anything, in November or otherwise. Make sure, if you are taking a break, you support the experts by buying your vegetables from the many winter farmers markets in our state (might I suggest the Hope Street Market in Pawtucket). You won’t be disappointed.

            It’s good for you, if you need it. Considering everything listed above, I feel like you don’t need to be told twice why it might be good to take this season off. If it’s been a bad garden year, or you just can’t seem to find the time right now, you might be doing more harm than good, trying to make up for that by committing to a fall planting. It’s ok. Seriously.

If you are in the same boat as I, let your garden rest and lie fallow for the next couple of months. Get your commitments in order, enjoy the holidays, and get ready. Because come spring, it will come out of hibernation, and so will you, and you’ll be ready to fall in love with it 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 80 – Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

17 09 2017

(September 17, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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