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.

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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 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 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.