The Call and Times, Column 26 – The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

7 08 2015

(August 2, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

Cluck Urban Farm Supply in ProvidenceDrake Patten and her partner Wright Deter at the Best of RI Awards Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I see us starting to reconnect to local networks”, reflected Drake Patten with a measured optimism in the unfolding story of our agricultural economy, when I visited her Providence-based Cluck Urban Farm Supply store for an interview last week. Sitting atop a stack of chicken feed bags, we discussed the recent interest in local food systems and sustainable production, and the role that she hopes her store could play – and by my every metric, has already played – in their continued growth.

Visiting local farms in preparation for this series of columns has been a welcomed learning experience for me. Getting up-close-and-personal with the farmers, the farms, and the creatures raised there, and coming to understand how their lives figuratively and often very literally sustain our own, I am developing a deep appreciation for the power of a local foodshed.

And when considering the hands that feed us, we should remember to count two very important ones, whose work and toil is instrumental in filling our pantries and bellies – our own. And if, as urban farmers, we want to grow tomatoes, raise chickens, and keep bees, what do we need? Of course, a big dose of our own ingenuity and hard work is required. But we also need tomato seeds, chicken feed, and a beehive, to name just the basics, coupled with a whole bunch of knowledge. And that’s where Drake comes in.

Drake Patten grew up all around the world. She went to school for anthropology and worked as an archaeologist, and throughout her life, gravitated towards a career in the public sector and at nonprofits.

She lives in Cranston with her partner Wright, and her stepson Jackson, at Hurricane Hill, their historic, 48 acre farm. The family moved here this summer, having previously farmed for many years on a smaller property in Cranston.

It was the yearning for a big change in her profession life, combined with her frustration at the lack of a one-stop-shop for urban farmers, which ultimately led to the birth of Cluck in June of 2013. “I built the store that I wanted to shop at”, Drake explained. And as our conversation progressed in a room stocked with every conceivable good that a chicken-keeper could need, I echoed that sentiment, and chalked it up as the reason for my own, frequent visits to Cluck.

The store can be found at 399 Broadway in Providence, and online at cluckri.com. The store is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm, and Sunday, 12 to 4 pm. It’s currently closed on Mondays, but Drake says a seven-day week is in the works for the future.

At Cluck, “we focus on stuff to help people grow and raise their own food”, Drake explained. She offers everything an urban farmer could need – tools, materials, and knowledge – under one roof. She has created a space where she herself, her customers, and the impressive network of local small- and micro-businesses with which she is involved can share information, and build a community around local agriculture.

And with the goal of building a strong local foodshed, the products and services offered at Cluck are a much-needed catalyst. From the highlights that Drake pointed out, and my own frequent perusal and patronage of the store, here’s an idea of what Cluck has to offer: all manner of chicken-keeping supplies, including feed, bedding, herbal and mineral supplements, and chick-raising equipment; beehives, protective gear, and tools for beekeeping; seedtime-to-harvest garden stuff, from seeds, seed-starting equipment, and plant starts, to tools, soil and amendments, and raised beds, to canning jars, pickling ingredients, and apparatus for other types of preservation; cheese-making supplies; books on topics of agriculture and sustainability; and gifts and locally-made artisanal goods related to backyard farming.

While chicken feed and bedding, and books are popular year-round, many of the goods that Cluck offers are seasonal. Late winter brings demand for seeds, seed-starting supplies, and garden-planning knowledge. Spring requires soil and amendments. The summertime harvest means an uptick in food preservation. And now, in late summer and fall, you’ll find the makings of a fall garden – a last planting of greens and brassicas and eventually, garden cleanup and cover-cropping supplies.

When I asked her for some tips, Drake explained that now is the perfect time to plan your fall garden, to “end your season as you began it: with intention.” As the fall approaches, we should take care not to overlook this aspect of the garden – removing dead and spent plants; mulching and cover-cropping to support soil health during the winter; adding soil amendments in preparation for next Spring; readying a bed for a fall planting of garlic; and of course, prepping the chicken coop for winter and putting the beehive to rest after the honey harvest. “Eventually, I want to see people doing four-season gardening”, Drake said, explaining her goal of educating people on the crops that do well in-ground and in greenhouses year-round in our climate.

Cluck also hosts a wide range of seasonal demos, author events, and regular classes to help educate people about urban farming. These have covered topics like permaculture, chicken keeping, mushroom cultivation and identification, and cheese-making, and the classes are usually small and hands-on, and taught by experts from the local food community.

A common thread in our conversation was the historical normalcy of local food systems. When I asked her about her personal and agricultural philosophies, Drake said that they’re basically the same – “if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” She made it clear that she’s not against progress, but that she strongly objects to our modern tendency, in agriculture and in general, to “falsely imagine things as broken to justify replacing them.”

This statement struck a chord with me. This is precisely the reason that we are where we are, why it is necessary for me to write this column and engage in an otherwise broken political system. Within the past century, and especially in the past 60 or so years, we collectively evolved (devolved?) from a society of people who understood the seasons, who actively engaged in food production, who knew the “what” and “where” and “who” and “how” of their food, to…whatever we have now.

But Drake is optimistic. She believes, and I with her, that we are in the latter part of this unnatural period disconnect from our food and local economies. She is optimistic of the trend toward “a kinder, more local-focused food system”. And through her involvement in the local food economy, she sees educated consumers, who are more demanding in policy that aids in the growth of local economies and sustainable agriculture. And urban farming, she proposed, is a central part of this education. Growing their own food teaches people to manage a complex, small-scale food system, which in turn fosters demand for policies that do the same.

So urban agriculture will help save the world – I can get behind that. And it is going to require businesses like Cluck and people like Drake Patten to act as facilitators to this trend, playing an essential role in the revival of systems that have worked in the past. And the Rhode Island community, who voted Cluck the Best of RI Garden Store (Providence) in the Best of RI Reader’s Poll, seem to agree.

But don’t take our word for it. Take a trip to Cluck, and see for yourself.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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 and Times, Column 16 – As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

9 02 2015

(January 9, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

“Once you think you know about bees, you realize you don’t know a thing.” Thus began an enlightening conversation, when I sat down with my friend, The Beekeeper, for a chat about his sweet hobby.

The Beekeeper began his practice over a decade ago, at the suggestion of his wife and a neighbor. He began with little agricultural experience, but was immediately engrossed, and rose up the ranks in the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association within his first year.

“Bees are a communal insect,” he told me. “They actually live for each other, not for themselves. They will protect the colony with their life, because a honeybee can only sting once.”

This is a remarkable thing about honeybees – they literally work themselves to death, fulfilling their roles as laborers and protecting their colony. Immediately upon breaking out of their larval cells, bees are put to work as nurses, maintenance staff, and guards in the hive, while their older sisters are out gathering nectar.

I asked The Beekeeper about the differences between honeybees, bumble bees, and wasps, something I’ve often wondered. “You can tell the difference just by looking at them”, he explained. Bumble bees are bulbous and furry-looking, with yellow and black coloration and little tendency to sting. Wasps (hornets and yellow jackets) vary in color, but are all more aggressive. Honeybees are often “softer and cuter-looking”, and are not prone to aggression. A surefire way to tell them apart, he explained, is that wasps’ stripes are more distinct than honeybees’.

We moved on to our next topic, the benefits of eating honey. “Nutritionally, honey is very similar, no matter where you go, as long as it has not been super-heated or super-filtered”, The Beekeeper explained.

He made a point to define a locale as a place where “the same basic plants are growing in the fields”, citing the examples of Woonsocket, Cumberland, and Worcester on the one hand, and Bristol, Warren, and South County on the other. As The Beekeeper explained, eating local honey has the additional benefits of asthma alleviation, “increasing the good qualities of the foods that you’re already eating” by aiding digestion, and allergy mitigation, something I can attest to personally.

He offered a word of warning, that “cooking honey reduces a lot of the enzyme health benefits”. He suggested to use it raw, or to heat only to low temperatures in things like tea, lest we mistakenly pasteurize it and lose those benefits.

As the meat of the interview, I asked my interviewee about a typical beekeeper’s year, and when and how an aspiring urban beekeeper could get started.

The Beekeeper explained that winter is a relatively quiet time: the beekeeper is getting ready for the spring, buying equipment and preparing the hives, while the honeybees are at home, keeping themselves warm during the cold weather. In the spring, new bees are installed, and are fed supplemental sugar syrup if their stores are low; it’s a time of cleaning the hives, watching and waiting for the first nectar flow. This happens in early June, at which point bees produce enough for themselves and the beekeeper alike. After this point, sometime in June or July, a “honey super” (an additional box that will be harvested later on) is installed on the hive, and the goal is for the girls to produce as much honey as they can, which they will gladly do, “whether they need it or not”. Early fall is the time for the harvest, after which the Queen reproduces much less and the population decreases in preparation for winter.

If you’re a new beekeeper, he said, “this time of year is the time you want to start”. Mail-order bee colonies become available in March and April, but there are a lot of considerations to make before that: where to get the equipment and what type of hive you will get, and leaving time for the actual hive setup. He suggested http://www.betterbee.com and http://www.dadant.com as good sources for beekeeping supplies, with free catalogs to boot.

The Beekeeper was also adamant that “now’s the time to really whet your intellectual appetite”. He explained how talking to a beekeeper, contacting the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association (ribeekeeper.org), and even taking late winter classes at the RIBA Bee School all help an aspiring apiculturist to make decisions about their style and practice: where they will operate on the spectrum between aggressive chemical treatments and “earthy, crunchy” beekeeping.

He explained that, barring a fear of bugs, “if you want to get into agriculture, bees aren’t a bad choice for most people.” “They are much lower maintenance than any other pets”, and you can go on vacation without worrying about their immediate wellbeing, because they feed themselves. “It’s a good idea to start with two hives, so that you can compare them”. He directed me to http://www.beesource.com, which has tomes of information about building beehives and many other beekeeping interests.

But why should we care, why should we keep bees? “People don’t realize that you can get incredible quality honey in an urban environment”, The Beekeeper explained, praising the trees growing in Woonsocket as the reason for this. “It’s very primal, and yet also spiritual, to watch these girls work together”. What’s more, production distributed amongst many small beekeepers is the formula for sustainability – these alone are reason enough to keep honeybees. But I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit more.

Bees are directly responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. Considering this, The Beekeeper solemnly told me that “if you take away the honeybee from the equation, agriculture as we know it would collapse”. Our very continued existence rests on the health of local pollinator populations. Yet, like with freshwater, topsoil, and fossil fuels, our actions are threatening the long-term wellbeing of the honeybee.

Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious illness in which entirely honeybee colonies abruptly disappear, has surged in the past decade. Heavy winter losses, 25 or 30%, and even up to 90%, of American beekeepers’ colonies, have been destroyed as a result of CCD, raising a national alarm about the populations’ continued health. This affliction is associated with stress placed on the colonies by the “bigger, faster, stronger” mentality of industrial agriculture, and by dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides used by the same. But that’s the story of modern agriculture, eh? Bite the hand that feeds you, and at least you’ll be full for the rest of the day.

The preservation of as vital a natural resource as the European Honeybee is reason enough for me to sign up for bee school next month. I hope it is for you, too.

I will publish more information on this topic, including the full interview, on my blog.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. 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.