The Call, Column 72 – “Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

21 05 2017

(May 21, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

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

Cows grazing on one of the pastures at Blackbird Farm

Making hay, as the sun sets on the farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 71 – Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

8 05 2017

(May 7, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

Today, I want to tell you all about something really exciting happening right now in Woonsocket. NeighborWorks, the Woonsocket-based nonprofit whose goal is the revitalization and enrichment of our community, is in the final stages of creating a kitchen incubator…right in Market Square!

If you aren’t sure what a kitchen incubator is, please don’t fret. I wasn’t that hip to the concept myself, at least not until I got the opportunity to attend the “Woonie Foodie Night” last Thursday. This was the monthly event held by I ❤ Woonsocket, and the attendees got the privilege of touring the state-of-the-art kitchen, sampling the creations of two up-and-coming chefs, and learning all about NeighborWorks’ newest project. I see so much promise in this idea, so let’s dive right in.

This kitchen incubator is located at 40 South Main Street in Woonsocket, right next door to the Museum of Work and Culture, in the old Mulvey’s building. The event was managed by Margaux Morisseau, Tamara Burman, and Meghan Rego, three of the forward-thinking leaders at NeighborWorks who set up this project.

The idea of the kitchen incubator is straightforward. The space is a certified commercial kitchen stocked with state-of-the-art, Hobart-brand equipment. It is designed to be accessible to up-and-coming chefs and food producers, who after a vetting process and being guided through any necessary individual licensing, will soon be able to become members of the kitchen. From that point on, they can schedule as much or as little time in the kitchen as their business requires (paying a per-hour rate and a small monthly membership fee), and the food and products produced there are certified for commercial sale.

So you may be asking: “Alex, why does this matter to me, an urban farmer?” Good question! One of the major goals of kitchen incubators like this is to make the food industry accessible to many more people that it would otherwise be. It makes it possible to start a certified food business – including training, help with licensing, finances, and marketing, and of course, access to high-quality equipment in a certified commercial kitchen – with an outlay of only a few thousand dollars, instead of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What’s more, NeighborWorks will be opening up a bazaar-type market in Market Square, Woonsocket, on Saturdays during the summer (more on this soon!). The chefs and food businesses in the kitchen incubator will have access to this market as a place to sell their goods.

There is pretty remarkable potential in a space like this, as evidenced by the success of other kitchen incubators around the country. This kitchen makes it relatively easy to create a food production business at whatever level one is looking to do so. From the grandmother, who wants to produce herbal teas or her special cheese recipe such that she can sell at the farmers market; to the beginning chef that needs to make his name in the community; to the recent culinary school graduate, working towards her dream of one day opening a restaurant; to the want-to-be wholesale producer and distributor of packaged cookies: this kitchen incubator is the place to start.

During the tour, we got the opportunity to hear the stories of the first potential members of the kitchen incubator – Andrea Russell of Rustic Roots Baking, and Roscoe Gay of Every1sChef (both businesses have Facebook pages where you can check them out). Andrea is focused on “comfort pastries” – the cookies and cakes and pies that your grandmother might make – while Roscoe wants to offer something to please the tastes of any and every customer.

Both chefs emphasized the daunting overhead of starting a food business – the quality equipment, the licensing process, the limitations of home-cooking, and of course the startup capital – as a major factor that brought them to the kitchen incubator.

That type of motivation will likely be true of the 20+ chefs that NeighborWorks hopes to attract to its this new location, which is precisely why they have worked so hard to build it.

One of the aspects of Andrea’s production model that really stood out to me was her selection of ingredients. Having worked in agriculture, and seen firsthand the well-established farm-to-table economy in Vermont, she makes it her goal to source as much as possible from local farms that use sustainable practices. Her honey, maple syrup, cranberries, eggs, dairy, flour, and even cooking oil come from local producers. She even buys nuts from Virginia and Spanish Peanut Company in Providence.

And this really drives home one of my main points of enthusiasm in this space. In my column in the past, we’ve talked quite a bit about local, sustainable, small-scale agriculture, and the many reasons that it is necessary to the goal of creating a robust, sustainable food system.

The next pieces of the puzzle, though, involve the construction of a system wherein the products of that agriculture can actually be used to feed people, and to wholly supplant the unsustainable products of industrial agriculture so that it can be eliminated from this planet. The growth of farmers markets is a promising trend, providing a direct, farm-to-table connection between producers and consumers. But what about value-added products? Sauce made from Blue Skys’ tomatoes, or jerky from Aquidneck’s beef, or pies full of Hill’s apples? These products, things that consumers reasonably demand alongside their whole-foods from the direct farm-to-consumer markets, require a little more effort.

And while industrial agriculture itself is bad, the industrial food processing chain, which consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel to ship, process, ship again, package, ship again, distribute, store, and sell agricultural products, robbing the farmers – the actual food producers – at each step of the way…that system is bad too.

So in order to fully supplant the industrial model, in order to reject the reality of factory farms and the white-collar food processing and distribution chain, we need to encourage and endorse local food businesses alongside the farmers that grow. And to that end, we owe NeighborWorks a pretty big debt of gratitude. I am so excited to see how this project pans out.

Before I forget, I recently had the idea for a column about individuals in our community who have installed renewable energy systems on their homes. I have some people and homes (I make a mental note every time I see solar panels) in mind, but if you or someone you know has a system and would want to answer some questions and maybe entertain a quick visit, please shoot me an email and we can set something up.

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





The Call, Column 69 – Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

9 04 2017

(April 9, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

Greens growing in one of Blue Skys high tunnels

Christina, in front of the new high tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 68 – What You Find in Italy

26 03 2017

(March 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Find in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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 64 – It Happens in Iceland

29 01 2017

(January 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It Happens In Iceland

Last time, I started to tell you about my trip to the geological masterpiece that is the country of Iceland. I described the geysers and glaciers, volcanoes and black sand beaches, and the waterfalls. The country’s natural beauty is reason enough to talk and write about it, but what I found there inspired me on a much deeper level.

As I started to discuss, the country prides itself on local, sustainable agricultural production. They raise 90% of their own animal products – grass-fed, of course – and 80% of the vegetables that they eat the most, in geothermally-heated greenhouses. All this in part because of a government that has implemented policies that encourage sustainable production, and discourage imports of inferior-quality foods (read: American feedlot meat). As a point of example, the McDonald’s restaurants in the country were forced to close in 2009, because the company’s policy of sourcing its low-quality meat from American, grain-based feedlots instead of Iceland’s local product was against Icelandic law. Iceland kicked out the offender and replaced it with a local chain called “Metro”, effectively rejecting the overtly unsustainable American system and proudly substituting their own.

Because of the weather there, grain is very difficult and resource-intensive to grow, which is part of the reason that they graze their cows and sheep on pasture. They also eat a diet very similar to the one that I follow and have advocated for – plenty of grass-fed red meat and dairy, seafood, vegetables, and some eggs, with very little grains, legumes, sugars, and seed oils. As a result, the population has one of the highest lifespans in the world, with one of the greatest number of people over 100 years of age and an overall low incidence of chronic disease.

Their zeal for self-sufficiency goes way beyond food, as we quickly found out. The country’s freshwater comes from natural, renewable sources – glacial runoff for much of the cold water, and naturally-hot geothermal water for the hot. And they pride themselves on not only a healthful and renewable public water supply, but on being able to drink from almost any natural body of water without fear of contamination.

Their energy sector is no different. Other than gasoline for their cars, Iceland is very nearly self-sufficient in its energy production. Nearly all of their electricity comes from hydropower plants and geothermal generation, and all of their heat energy is geothermal. In fact, geothermal energy is so plentiful in the country, that they freely use it to heat the sidewalks in busy areas so ice does not build up.

Even within the bigger city of Reykjavik, the people have an intimate, affectionate understanding of their country’s food, fuel, and water production systems. It is clear that the Icelandic people take pride in their local products, which is one of their greatest motivators to work towards sustainable self-sufficiency.

Beyond that, though, is their passion for environmental protection and ecological preservation and growth. I described last time how there are not many trees in Iceland. This isn’t because there aren’t any species of trees that are capable of growing there, but with the year-round cool/cold weather, short growing season, and minimal biological exchange with any other landmasses, it’s not easy for forest ecosystems to get a foothold. The people have taken this as a challenge. Experimenting by planting trees is a hobby of many, and a form of volunteering for many others (sponsored, of course, by the government). Their passion for ecological health has actually allowed quite a few stands of evergreens to flourish throughout the country.

The reason, I think, that the Icelandic people are so passionate about environmental health is because they are painfully aware of the effects of global climate change. During our visit to the Solheimajökull glacier, our tour guide explained, in a somber tone, how it was receding…a predictable but very worrying effect of global climate change. Glaciers cover about 11% of the island, and are an important part of the ecological balance – not to mention a primary source of fresh water – in the country. Being an island nation, their ecosystem is particularly fragile, and I worry that increasing global temperatures will throw it completely out of whack. And I think they know it too, which is one of the reasons they care so much about renewable energies.

It’s fitting that, in the 2014 film “Noah”, the last scene where the family wakes up in a post-flood paradise was filmed on a black sand beach in Iceland. The country – from its geological marvels and ecological beauty, to its local and sustainable food, fuel, and water systems, to its kind, pleasant, conscientious people – is like paradise.

They are an almost arctic, island nation, that has nonetheless gotten very close to complete self-sufficiency in renewable energy, renewable agriculture, and renewable water. There are the environmental motivations, of course, and economic ones. But I think that obsession goes a little deeper. The people can see the whole production process laid out before them. They understand raw materials – seafood, pasture grass, fresh water, geothermal heat – to be the products of their environment; and they understand that the “away” where you throw garbage is also another word for “their environment”.

They have no choice but to view economic production as circular, to recognize that, no matter what we do, the environment is the only actual sink, and the only actual source, of every material and good that we use. Production is not linear; it is circular. And by finding renewable, infinitely-sustainable sources, the people of Iceland are able to manage the whole circle in a way that is good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

The thing is, we are not Iceland. We don’t have plentiful geothermal energy and uncontaminated waters; we don’t have a government remotely interested in investing in sustainable self-sufficiency, and we aren’t forced to work towards self-sufficiency at any level, because government-subsidized agriculture, trade, and warfare make it appear that resources are plentiful and inexhaustible. But they aren’t. You know that, and I know that, even if our government no longer does.

So maybe we should try to be like Iceland. We have access to plentiful sources of renewable energy – solar, wind, hydropower, and truly sustainable biofuels; we have a small but rapidly expanding sustainable agriculture sector; we have the financial resources to clean up public water supplies and improve our production systems. We may not live on an isolated island nation, but we – as humans – live on a spaceship Earth. This planet is a closed system, driven only by the light from the sun, and we have no choice but to implement production systems similar to Iceland’s if we hope for the Earth to continue to support life.

While we were on a tour of the Southern Coast of the island, our guide Julia was describing a geological process, concluding with, “It doesn’t happen very often in the world, but it happens in Iceland.” The scope of her comment was narrow, but it really punctuated the thoughts that I had had throughout the trip.

Every environmental, and agricultural, and energy-related issue that I care about – and I think you care about too – has a solution. These solutions aren’t always easy, but if we work together, they are achievable. Do you want to know how I know that for sure? While it may not happen in the rest of the world, it already happens in Iceland.

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 63 – The Land of Ice and Fire

15 01 2017

(January 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Land of Ice and Fire

iceland-faxi-waterfall

Faxi (Vatnsleysufoss) Waterfall, Southern Iceland

One week ago, I got back from what, I am now convinced, is the most geologically interesting place in the world. If you’d asked me six months ago where I want to travel in my life, I doubt Iceland would have made the list. But sometime last August, my sister decided that seeing the Northern Lights from the small, almost arctic European country was on her bucket list. She asked if I wanted to go sometime in the coming winter, and I promptly objected. I had big plans – albeit, pretty vague ones – for my vacation time, and it didn’t involve going to a country I knew next to nothing about.

But we are related, and we are Greek, so needless to say she didn’t let up. She sent me picture after picture of the Northern Lights, of course, but also of the extensive list of geological marvels that fill the terrain of the small island nation. And I started doing some research of my own, recalling tidbits I had heart about the culture’s sustainable-meat-based cuisine, their environmental awareness, and their reliance on renewable energies. And so, maybe three weeks later, and much to my surprise, our tickets were booked for the first week of the New Year. But it took until a few days before our trip, while we attempting to plan our itinerary, for me to get really pumped about the journey. And Iceland did not disappoint.

Let me tap the brakes for a second. This isn’t a travel column, and though I’d like nothing more, I’m not writing a Guide to Traveling to Iceland.

Rather, I’m writing this because I went to Iceland looking for natural beauty; and I found not only that, but a people, culture, and government so passionate about every issue and practice that we discuss in this column – sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency, renewable energy, environmental protection, ecological preservation – that if we all approached life the same way they do, our environmental and agricultural (and probably political) problems would be solved.

First and foremost, the natural, geological beauty of the country is utterly astounding. You can’t drive for five minutes on a road without coming upon something – some river, or rock formation, or farm, or waterfall – that makes you want to stop. Because neither of us had ever been there, we took a couple of guided bus tours. With them, we saw the immense, thundering waterfalls, Gullfoss, Skógafoss, Faxi (Vatnsleysufoss) and Seljalandsfoss, the latter of which grants the wish of any traveler brave enough to venture behind it. We visited the hissing, boiling geothermal area, site of the Strokkur Geyser and the neighboring (currently inactive) Geysir from which the English word originates. We walked on the picturesque, black-sand beaches of Vík and Reynisfjara, with the unforgiving waves of the North Atlantic (almost Arctic) sea on one side, and the looming, volcanic caves of crystallized lava columns on the other.

We walked along the edge of the Keriđ Crater Lake, and stood in the shadow of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose eruption shut down most of Europe’s air traffic in 2010. We made the trek to the immense Solheimajökull Glacier, 600 meters (over 1/3 of a mile) at its tallest, and amid a valley of volcanic ash.  And, much to our unbelievable luck, we saw what was described as the best showing of the Northern Lights the guides had seen that season, in skies that not five minutes before, had been the overcast remnants of the day’s snowstorm. These sights are just the beginning, the major landmarks within one day’s driving distance from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. The country is a naturalist’s dream, but not only for the geology.

Other than a redwood forest in the East, there are few trees in Iceland. The major flora is wild grasses and low-lying shrubbery. And because of its relatively harsh climate, the natural fauna of the country is limited to a few wild species – reindeer, minxes, mice, rabbits, and arctic foxes – along with the country’s farm animals. Most of these species have been introduced relatively recently, either by natural accident (crossing over a land-bridge) or with travelers.

One of the aspects of the country’s culture that really struck me was their passion for resource self-sufficiency. The government has actually – dare I say it – implemented policies to promote self-sufficiency in food, water, and energy. They levy a tariff on foreign imports of low-quality (think: American feedlot) meat and dairy, so the country raises something like 90% of the animals it consumes. And of course, with fishing as their main industry behind tourism, they keep themselves in seafood as well.

They are also incredibly proud of their produce. Geothermal greenhouses allow them to grow around 80% of their tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, the vegetables consumed most in the country. The farmers seem to make a sport of their craft, having taken on the challenge of growing more exotic plants like wasabi and bananas – yes, bananas – in their greenhouses.

Having finally hashed out this column on paper, I realize how much I need to say about this amazing country, this dream of urban farmers and environmentalists everywhere. I’ll end today’s column here, and we will pick up next time with more on their agriculture, energy, and environmental relations. Until then, as they say in Iceland, “Bless!”

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.