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.

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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.





The Call, Column 79 – On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

16 09 2017

(August 27, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

After my second-to-last column about self-sufficiency was published, I thought about another important motivation behind peoples’ endeavor for “effective self-sufficiency”; one that is often overlooked in writings on the topic, but nonetheless a driving force for many people.

There is a certain comfort, a feeling of inherent security and freedom, that comes from systems where we – as individuals, families, and small communities – are in full control; systems whose operation is only otherwise subject to Acts of God/Nature, and not to the will and whim of external human entities that probably don’t have our personal best interests in mind. This is true across the board – who wouldn’t feel freer on a big plot of land, where they can raise chickens, or an orchard, or any herbal plant they want, without being watched, judged, and condemned by micro-regulation-happy locals and their municipality? And what internet user wouldn’t feel more secure with the knowledge that the information they transmit and receive is truly, honest-to-God not being looked at by private “Big Data” corporations and the NSA, despite there being nothing to hide?

Well, this is even truer of the systems by which our food, water, fibers (materials), energy, and production/processing/value-adding services – the basic goods and services responsible for keeping us alive and healthy – are produced. I can certainly say that I feel significantly different about a particular vegetable, or fruit, or egg, or gallon of water that I grew, raised, or gathered myself. When there is no industry, no force of government, no selfish private interest upon which you NEED to depend for the basic goods you require and no person or institution from which you must ask some permission in order to produce those goods; when your food is born of the soil and dies at your lips, with no entity of interests contrary to your own intervening in between…that’s a human life best lived.

So with that said, this column is about practically implementing a system as described above. I’m defining this as a system where we are capable of being secure and free in the production processes by which our goods are produced, though by no means ideologically bound to always be so; and where those goods are produced sustainably, on a small-enough scale to be considered “effectively self-sufficient”, without surpassing the point of diminishing returns in self-sufficiency.

The basic question is: If the stores were to close tomorrow, what do we need to be producing on individual and small community levels, to continue normal human existence for an extended time? Food, of course, which would include vegetables and animal protein at a minimum, with fruit and healthy fat sources added in for nutrient and palate variety. We also need potable water, shelter, some minimum amount of energy, (arguably) clothing, and the skills or services needed to 1) change all of these from raw materials into usable form and 2) keep us happy beyond the physical requirements for survival (entertainment, recreation, community).

Let’s go through each of the categories of goods above and discuss them in semi-isolation. For each, we can look at how the inherent limitations of your specific situation – that is, how much land you have, how much labor/time you are willing and able to exert, how much money you have to invest in startup, and your present repertoire of skills and ability to expand them – shape how you might implement them. We will discuss specific examples of each type of system, and consider the central goal of producing as much of that thing as is possible in a sustainable way.

Food. This is probably limited by land more than anything else. With a pretty investment in seed, plants, and some type(s) of animal, and a willingness to dedicate a moderate amount of time working and learning, the amount of food you grow is pretty much dependent on the amount of space to grow it.

For plants, your yield for each unit of time, labor, and money you invest will be highest if you use permaculture-type principles, focusing on perennial plants, rotating whatever annuals you do grow, practicing polyculture and guilding, and using beyond-organic methods that improve soil fertility and resilience in the long-run.

For animals, whether it’s a flock of chickens in your backyard or a herd of cows on a 10-acre plot, you should raise them in the type of environment, and the diet, on which they evolved. This will maximize their health and therefore yours; and when accounted for in the long-term spreadsheet demanded by sustainability, will produce the highest yields of any system.

Growing food can be scaled to almost any size of land available, and it’s worth focusing on the crops and animals that give the most bang-for-the-buck (and hour, and acre!). It is easy to be self-sufficient in herbs and spices, since a little space goes a long way. And because a big part of the diet of chickens and pigs, among others, can come from food waste, their space requirements on your land don’t necessarily need to include the space to grow their food (like pasture-land for cows).

Water. Collecting potable water is a very different game. This can come either from some sort of rainwater catchment, from a stream or other running water source, or from groundwater. Whichever source(s) are available to you, you need to decide the end uses that you’re willing and skilled enough to provide for. Drinking/cooking water is obviously the highest-value use, and I would urge you not to attempt this unless you are certain about the quality and purity of the final product before consuming it. For other uses that involve human contact – irrigation of foods, supplying animals, and even cleaning – water doesn’t necessarily need to meet human potability standards, but must minimally be free from sewage (obviously), high levels of pathogenic bacterial contamination, and toxic chemicals.

This is a more attainable state for even urban farmers, because rainwater is plentiful and easy to collect, and almost always meets these standards. A system as simple as a barrel on the end of a downspout is all that’s needed; alternatively, I have seen – at that heaven-on-Earth, Blue Skys/Urban Edge Farm, a rainwater and groundwater fed pond that is used to sustainably supply for irrigation needs.

Shelter. This is a little more implicit in whatever type of property you have. If you already have a house, you’re done with this section. If not, reason would dictate that you need a place to live, to protect you from the elements, and to maintain your body temperature within a healthy range (which does segue into the next section). By no means am I well-versed in construction, but there is a wide array of permaculture literature available for green, sustainable, low-impact, and actually pretty inexpensive building. Once your home (I hesitate to sound soullessly technical by calling it a “dwelling”) is built, especially if built in such a way that you are able to repair and maintain it yourself, and even more especially if the materials to do so can be locally-sourced (Earth-bags, anyone?), then you can call it effectively self-sufficient.

Energy. This is probably the most capital-intensive but land-cheap item on the list. At base, the energy we consume is used to keep our shelters and water at a reasonable temperature, cook our food, transport us long distances, and entertain us. That energy is usually supplied to us in a few basic forms: as electricity, as natural gas, as heating oil (though less common now), and as wood or other bio-fuels.

A solar array and battery bank is enough to supply any reasonable household’s electricity needs, and a bigger one in tandem with electric car(s) can supply their transportation as well. Systems like passive solar heating/water-heating, wood fires, homemade biofuels, and other distributed generation (remember back to that series of columns I wrote a few months back?) can fill the spaces that electricity can’t.

Clothing/Textiles/Materials. This is a little more situation-dependent. There are many sources of usable fiber, from linen (flax) and wood, to stinging nettle and cotton, to animal-based textiles like leather and wool. These can be grown/raised/harvested as a pretty natural extension of your food-growing endeavors, and even, in some cases, with just additional effort but no additional land or investment (i.e. wool from sheep being raised for meat/milk; nettle fibers from wild-growing stinging nettles; leather from beef cattle). These products also require a pretty extensive set of skills, but nothing that cannot be learned with a little effort and a book by John Seymour.

Next time, we’ll address the process- and community-level “products” (homestead skills, entertainment, community), and talk about a really good example of this effectively-complete self-sufficiency in action that I am currently experiencing. I want to bring up the way that these individual production systems can interplay, and how you would see that implemented in a holistic, community level.

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 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

So, while I was writing my last column, it occurred to me that many of my readers may be new, either to my column or the subject of sustainable agriculture, and might not be fully aware of the issues that exist with industrial agriculture as it is currently practiced. Before moving deeper into our ideological quest for the ideal sustainable, self-sufficient homestead, I think it’d be great to give you all a little briefer (or just a reminder) on the woes of industrial agriculture. Queue the foreboding music and the lightening!

To start: what is industrial agriculture? This column is not about the small-scale family farm. It is not about the sustainably-managed vegetable operations. It is not about the pastured cattle or poultry or hogs. It is not about the integrated-livestock-and-plant operations, the small orchards, the pick-your-own-whatever farms, or the local apiaries. With the notable exception of one farming empire that wields quite a bit of political clout, this isn’t really about any farm in Rhode Island, or most places in New England (because we’re just that awesome).
This column is about industrial agriculture. Make that “Industrial Agriculture”, with the capital letters designating it as a namable, diagnosable, and most importantly, treatable disease of society. It is about the 5000 contiguous acres of corn, the 12,000 chickens kept in battery cages, the intensive, undocumented-labor-exploiting vegetable operations. Industrial Agriculture is what happens when food is treated as a mere commodity, and the land as a factory, from which as much of that commodity must be produced as possible, with as little expense and human intervention as possible. It is what happens when the government subsidizes productivity at the expense of quality, and the people demand that cost be minimized at the expense of their own health.

It is what happens, in short, when too few people in our country experience anything to do with agriculture (except, of course, its final product); when too few know remotely enough make responsible choices.

And what does that look like? I’m so, so glad you asked.

Carbon dioxide. Lots of it. Between farm equipment, cold storage, processing, and shipping and distribution, Industrial Agriculture uses huge amounts of fossil fuels. Natural gas is even used to manufacture artificial fertilizers; a chemical reaction called the Haber-Bosch Process turns methane into ammonia, releasing carbon dioxide as if it were burned. Not to mention, the large-scale tillage that must be done in order to satisfy our country’s addiction to high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils, forces the soil to off-gas huge amounts of carbon dioxide. All-in-all, Industrial Agriculture is responsible for a double-digit-percentage of the climate-changing carbon dioxide released by our species.

The socio-economic issues associated with Industrial Agriculture shouldn’t be diminished, either. Products, both animal- and plant-based, are considered commodities. This makes them subject to global price fluctuations, which harms not only farmers in the U.S./West, but abroad. The federal government subsidizes certain crops – wheat, corn, soy – in such a way that farmers are forced to continually increase yields, planting “hedgerow-to-hedgerow” at risk of not remaining solvent. This subsidy program and these crops form the basis of our unhealthy food industry (more on this later). And because of the number of steps between the farmer and the end-user’s corn chips, soda, or white bread, the farmer ends up getting paid only a few cents out of every dollar spent at the grocery store. Not to mention, undocumented workers are taken advantage of by industrial farms, paid grossly less than the minimum wage, given no benefits, and made to work long, laborious hours doing jobs that most Americans wouldn’t dream of wanting.

The growing practices of Industrial crops leave much to be desired, and leave even more that can’t be washed off, in the way of chemical residues. The land is forced to conform to a rigid set of industrial standards, not the least of which is monoculture – where thousands of contiguous acres are planted to the same crop – and leaving the soil bare. These issues bring about insect pest and weed problems, for which toxic pesticides and herbicides are sprayed liberally on our food. And to boot, minimally-tested, questionably-safe, and only marginally-effective genetically engineered seed is used in place of open-pollinated.

Over-tillage, lack of groundcover, and a slew of other bad land-management habits result in huge amounts of topsoil washing off into the ocean – causing an environmental nightmare in its own right. The soil loses its natural water-retention capabilities, so more is used in irrigation. And artificial fertilizers are used as a band-aid for the loss of fertility, replacing the naturally-fixed nitrogen so that plants can still grow, but never able to replenish the beneficial microbes, organic pH buffers, biological residues, and that golden humus responsible for the continued existence of life on this planet.

On Industrial animal farms, the conditions are even worse. Instead of being fed from the pastures and forests on which they evolved, animals are fed largely unnatural diets, consisting of the commodity crops above and, in many cases, the waste products of industrial food processing (a nice way to say, “garbage”). They are generally treated horribly, concentrated in very tight quarters and denied the ability to perform their natural behaviors.

These diets and lifestyles make them sick, with pretty nasty strains of E. coli, salmonella, and the like, which risk tainting the food. They are treated with antibiotics – both because of these diseases, and also because antibiotics make animals gain weight (think about that, next time you’re prescribed one for a virus) – and those antibiotics definitely taint the food, no question about it. And the manure they produce is…let’s say…not the same, high-quality compost material you’d get from a local farm. Tainted with antibiotics and harmful pathogens, and present in such high concentrations, it becomes an environmental nuisance. Instead of nourishing the ground, it poisons it.

And all of this is to say nothing of the effects of Industrial Agriculture on human health. I’ve written pretty extensively about this in the past, but the huge subsidies given to grain and soy operations means that these are the things that are grown, and these are the things fed to us in as many ways possible, including (unnaturally) through ruminant animals. A processed-food- and grain-based diet, deplete of vegetables and pasture-raised meat (the basic foods not subsidized by industrial agriculture) is the cause of chronic disease, hands down.

So…bad for the land, bad for the creatures being grown and raised, bad for the farmers, and bad for the consumers. Can you see why I feel the way I do about Industrial Agriculture?

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





The Call, Column 77 – Why Self-Sufficiency?

30 07 2017

(July 30, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Why Self-Sufficiency?

Have you ever been at the market, buying a blog of cheese, a head of lettuce, or a dozen eggs, and found yourself wishing you could grow or raise or produce that thing yourself? Or maybe you do grow a garden a raise a few chickens, but hate that you still have to buy water and higher-value consumer goods, when the only thing stopping you is a good catchment system or the skill of your own hands?

I’m pretty sure that a lot of us have these thoughts. Stemming from either wanting to save money, or a desire to be acquainted with the production process, or even aversion to support a harmful industrial model, I think it’s pretty standard that well-informed people begin to resent our role as meager end-consumers of goods and services, wishing instead that we could be make and do more things ourselves.

This, my friends, is how I define self-sufficiency. If you remember from last time, I promised that I would write a couple of columns on some of the vague concepts that surround that grandiose idea of “homesteading”. I figured we could start with this concept of self-sufficiency – producing more, most, or all of the things one consumes within one’s own homestead. I am going to look at all of this with a moderately critical eye, and discuss how we might implement some of measure of self-sufficiency within our own urban farms without getting bogged down in extremes. Let’s begin!

Before getting to practical considerations, we need to discuss the different forms or “levels” of self-sufficiency, and the motivations that might drive each of them.

The first of these is what I’m going to call “modular self-sufficiency”. That is, choosing certain goods and services that you and your household consume, and integrating production models for those goods into your life. Nearly every person on Earth, even in the consumerist West, engages in some form of this modular self-sufficiency. Activities like cooking and baking one’s own food, managing one’s own finances, and even providing one’s own entertainment (i.e. recreation) are all moderately good examples of self-sufficiency in services. There is a short list of goods we require to keep ourselves alive, and a longer list of goods and services that we desire to keep ourselves comfortable, and a giant list of goods and services that we consume in order to live standard Western lives, and any individual act of providing ourselves with one of these goods or services instead of buying it (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), is at, its base, modular self-sufficiency.

But the real magic happens when we go beyond the basic activities that everyone around us does to keep themselves alive and comfortable. Though subsistence farming is pretty standard in much of the rest of the world, it is not so in the United States. Here, growing a three- or four-season garden or raising a flock of chickens is quite the revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of providing yourself with certain food items instead of buying them.

And so it goes. This idea of modular self-sufficiency is applicable to any good or service you consume. Deciding to collect rainwater to irrigate your garden, raising fruit trees and bushes, chopping your own firewood, taking on some kitchen or workshop craft (i.e. cheese-making, brewing, furniture making, canning, whatever) is a revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of rejecting the industrial production model of that good or service, and using your time and resources to substitute your own.

And it is great, to be modularly self-sufficient in as many goods and services as you can. But some people desire to take this further. Some people with enough land, and time, and know-how, make their goal to be completely self-sufficient. But what does that mean?

In my view, there are two types of complete self-sufficiency – truly complete self-sufficiency, and effectively complete self-sufficiency. Truly complete self-sufficiency is when you, on your own land and using your own resources, produce literally every good and service that you consume. There is something romantic about this idea, about being completely independent of any external production model for anything you consume, from the produce and meat and water you eat to every toy and widget you would otherwise buy. But to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever read about or encountered anyone who is successfully, happily, “truly completely self-sufficient”…and that’s probably a good thing.

In economics, there is a principle called The Law of Diminishing Returns on Investment. The basic idea is that, within a specific context, each additional unit of something that you utilize yields less benefit than the unit before. The typical example that is given is artificial fertilizers. But because we are well-informed urban farmers with nuanced views of agricultural production, we should substitute compost for artificial fertilizers in the example (just like in real life). If the first cubic foot of compost you put in your tomato bed increases your tomato yield by 30%, the next cubic foot will likely have less of an exaggerated effect…and the next one less, and the next one less, until, at some point, more compost does nothing in terms of increasing production. This is the point of diminished return on investment.

I would suggest that we can apply this reasoning to the modular acts of self-sufficiency that one can take towards the goal of truly complete self-sufficiency. Depending heavily on your individual situation, there are certain acts of modular self-sufficiency that produce huge benefits. For a relatively small amount of effort and money, you can grow much of your own produce; for maybe 20% the cost per dozen of free-range, organic eggs, you can raise a flock of chickens and become self-sufficient in that arena. And it goes like this, for quite a few general categories of items, from fruits and even meat (rabbits, anyone?), to rainwater catchment for irrigation, renewable energy systems like solar arrays, and a good many services (cooking, financial management) and value-added products (things like cheese, alcohol, etc).

But what about that Pinterest recipe that requires tarragon, quail eggs, and mustard greens? Truly complete self-sufficiency requires you to grow these yourself, so do we set aside some garden space, and build another coop, in order to have these specialty foods? And then, consider goods that cannot be grown in the Northeast – citrus, olives, avocados, coffee…do we abstain because we can’t grow them ourselves?

In the standard, “come-to-Jesus” education of a well-informed urban farmer, there is a point where he or she would probably answer “yes” to both of those questions. For years, I sure would have! Now, of course, I’m not knocking any of those foods. If you use tarragon every day, or have a penchant for quail eggs, then they are probably within the previous list of effective acts of modular self-sufficiency. But these examples are well-beyond the point of diminishing returns for most people, and it’s not worth the time, effort, and expense to produce a specialty good if it can even be done in your climate, nor the deprivation of abstaining from those that cannot, merely to satisfy the black-and-white notion that everything you consume, no matter how small, must be produced at home.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The globalized, commodification-based, environmentally- and socially-exploitive, fossil-fueled production model is the problem, not the urban farmer that grows elderberries to avoid having to potentially buy cough syrup, even though he doesn’t get sick (*blushes*). I figure that you probably already recognized that, as readers of my column. But that doesn’t change the fact that a socially-, environmentally-, economically-, and globally-conscious urban farmer such as yourself, would be using an unnecessary amount of your time in forcing yourself to make furniture or grow a half-acre of pineapple mint (there, I’m not only picking on tarragon), when your neighbor is a skilled carpenter and your friend is a farmer of specialty herbs and spices, simply on the vague notion that you need to do these things yourself. Do you see where I’m coming from?

So what’s the solution? What is the goal to strive towards? The answer: effectively-complete self-sufficiency! You need basic food (fruit, vegetables, meat), water, energy, and shelter at a minimum to stay alive. And you need community, recreation and entertainment, certain value-added foods, and a slew of case-specific services to keep you comfortable and happy.

Instead of spreading yourself too thin, trying to produce a little of every possible thing you consume, a more fruitful path towards self-sufficiency is to satisfy your needs and wants for each of these general categories in an environmentally-sustainable manner, and allow yourself to buy or trade for specific things that you don’t produce yourself from other people producing them similarly!

Next time, we will take a look at what this effectively-completely self-sufficient production system looks like in practice, on a community level, and discuss some practical ways you can make it happen.

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





The Call, Column 76 – The Concepts of Homesteading

19 07 2017

(July 16, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Concepts of Homesteading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 73 – “A Species Out of Context”

4 06 2017

(June 4, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“A Species Out of Context”

Last fall, I ventured way out to Western Mass, to attend a talk given Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. I wrote a column about this in January, reposted on my blog in case you’re interested in reading more detail.

One of the most inspiring ideas that I took away from this conversation, was something that Wes Jackson said on the topic of agriculture. “Starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture,” he explained, “we became a species out of context.”

A species out of context. A vague form of this idea has been the basis for my understanding of the world for many years, long before attending that talk. But Wes Jackson put it into words more effectively than I ever could have, and helped me to understand it as one of the underlying reasons for many of the things we do and experience.

Most broadly, this idea perfectly characterizes our species’ overall negative interactions with our environment. Each and every harmful aspect of industrial agriculture – the artificial soil fertility, the toxins sprayed into the environment, the horrible conditions of factory animal farms, the treatment of laborers, the vast amounts of energy being wasted – is best described as a deviation from ecologically-appropriate farming methods, as food production “out of context”.

Beyond just agriculture, this characterization is true of any and every damaging interaction we have with the natural world; from we in the developed world causing dangerous climate change by using fossil fuels for energy to releasing pollutants into the air, water, and soil, and dumping massive amounts of garbage into landfills to clear cutting forests; every case of pollution and ecological destruction is just a big sign that we forgot how to live in relative harmony with our environment.

Jackson’s description of “a species out of context” is intriguing from a biological standpoint as well. This is the basic principle behind the Paleo diet, which I have followed for over two years (and suggest that you should, too). It is the idea that our evolutionary development as a species was driven by our natural context over many millions of years, and that the start of agriculture removed us from that context.

Our diets, our movements, our sleep patterns, our stress triggers, and even our communities and cultures, began to adhere to a set of rules written by our human society, rather than those implicit in the natural world. The start of agriculture changed the way we interface with the environment, each other, and our own minds, and introduced a whole plethora of health woes – some might argue, most of the chronic diseases we experience as a species.

Finally, we are “a species out of context” in the ways that we, as individuals, live our day-to-day lives and interact with our culture and society, our “human world”. We spend nearly all of our time in large, climate-controlled boxes (houses, cars, workplaces, stores), and the things that we experience and consume are pretty much all human-made. It is culturally standard to live by the words of Sheldon Cooper’s character on The Big Bang Theory (the irony of quoting a TV show is not lost on me): “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?”

And that, my friends, brings us to my true motivation for writing this column. You see, as has been the case with countless other of my columns, I think exploring this idea together could help us deal with a little problem in our lives; one I started noticing in myself a few weeks ago.

The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and the subsequent start of civilization, shifted the context of a human life from a completely natural environment to an almost completely artificial one.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate from nature; we procreated in nature; we lived and experienced only natural surroundings. The sound of the birds singing, the visuals of green plant life, the scents of soil and flowers and animals, the feelings of the rain and wind and sun and snow – for better and worse, these were our bodies’ biological context. And they were our minds’ sensory context, too. Whatever we were doing at any given time, be it hunting, gathering, building fires, recreating, sleeping – it was in the context of a natural environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the world around us, the landscape and “space” that our species should passively consume as we go about living our lives, is supposed to be a natural one. We are supposed to live in the wild.

But now, it isn’t. And we don’t. For the first time in a very lengthy human history, agriculture – civilization – has resulted in a world where, in complete defiance of what is natural to our bodies and minds, the “surroundings” that we passively consume as we live our lives is the built environment; it is completely artificial, controlled by our own species.

It’s difficult to make a scientific argument as to why exactly this is not a good thing. The closest we can come is to measure our emotional response to built versus natural environments. A team at Exeter University in the UK did just that (https://tinyurl.com/y8xb5ccf), measuring brain activity in response to urban (effectively artificial) environments versus rural (effectively natural) ones. They found that human brains responded much more calmly and meditatively to natural environments, including dull ones, and exhibited an alarming delay in response time (indicating more arduous processing) to built environments, including visually appealing ones. Our brains are much more at ease with nature as the passive backdrop to our lives. Who would have expected that?

Beyond this, though, I think anecdotal evidence may be enough to prove to ourselves that what I’m suggesting is true. I have two personal stories that might get the ball rolling.

I first had the idea for this column while sitting on the bank of the Blackstone River, in Cold Spring Park. It began while I was driving home from an evening out with friends a few weeks ago. The sunset was so beautiful, but all I had on my mind was my to-do list once I got home. And then, I just stopped the car on the side of the road and watched the sky in awe. And when I got home, instead of doing the things on that list, I walked around my neighborhood to get the best view of the sky, and ultimately ended up on the bank of the Blackstone River. I sat there for an hour, listening to a few clips of Wendell Berry reading his poetry, but mostly just taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, and watching the sun’s light disappear behind the horizon.

This experience was so…deliberate. I was controlling precisely nothing about the environment, other than allowing my mind to be present, to passively consume my natural context. This improved my mood immensely in the days following, and it’s something I’ve done a few times since.

My second anecdote is a more regular occurrence. When I get to my (standing) desk at work each morning, I have a mental checklist of things to do – changing my calendar, updating my planner, checking emails, etc. I work “inward”, towards my computer, in a subconscious attempt to minimize the scope of artificial things over which my mind has to exert control. By condensing the things I need to do to a limited physical and therefore mental space, and allowing the rest of my environment to just…Be, without my intervention…my mind is calmer.

What all of this means, I think, is that in order to be most happy, we need to limit the scope of the things that we control to the smallest size practical, and surround ourselves as much as possible with nature as our life’s context. As we in the West live our lives right now, this is very much not the case. We live almost completely in artificial environments, passively consuming built things instead of natural ones. There would be measurable benefits to changing the way we do things.

This is true on an individual scale, where even the smallest actions – opening the windows of your house or car or office, to let in the breeze, and the sounds and smells of outside; eating meals outside whenever possible; spending time in nature instead of watching TV – bring notably more peace.

And it is true on a societal scale. Now, it’s not practical or desirable to take this idea to its extreme and reject all of civilization. Architecture and other elements of the built environment are important, valuable human achievements, and agriculture is necessary since there are too many of us to be true hunter-gatherers. But we can use this awareness to effectively change our context, to the advantage of our mental and physical health.

On a societal scale, we must use the built environment insofar as it is beneficial to us – for safety and shelter, for community-building recreation, for art – and make sure much of the rest of our time is spent in a natural context. We must restructure our agriculture to operate more in line with nature, taking advantage of the environment’s inherent productive potential and allowing wild things to coexist alongside our cultivated things.

And as individuals, we must allow our interaction with the environment – our sensory perception of our surroundings and the minimal level of control we exert on them – to be in line with what our Paleolithic ancestors would have experienced. Go barefoot as often as possible; eat a Paleo-style diet comprised mostly of vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, and nuts; get as much bare skin sun exposure as possible every day (without allowing yourself to burn); exercise with short bursts of cardio and longer sessions of muscle-building; let your eyes see the sun in the  morning and midday, and minimize artificial light at night (or wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses); spend as much time as you can, outside, away from technological stimuli.

We are hunter-gatherers in every respect but behavior, and our minds are hardwired to exist in the context of nature. As I said in my favorite column about a year ago: “We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside and be free.

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