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

28 01 2018

(January 28, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Call, Column 88 – Keep the Sun in Mind

14 01 2018

(January 14, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Keep the Sun in Mind

Last time, we started talking about this idea of the Sun as the Earth’s “passive clock”. Each place on Earth typically gets more sunlight (read: solar energy) during the day and less at night, and more sunlight during the summer and less during the winter. This is because of the Earth’s rotation about its own axis – which forms the 24-hour, daily “clock” – and because of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun – which forms the 365-day, yearly “clock”. This predictable, periodic ebb and flow in solar energy over the course of each day and each year influences basically every aspect of the climate and Earth’s geochemical cycles, especially the hydrological cycle.

I want to make a quick aside about my terminology before we continue. I’m using the word “passive” in a similar way to how it is used in engineering. The aspects of the Earth-Sun spatial relationship that form the clock I’ve described are just that…“passive”. Nothing on the Earth is making a decision, or anything like that, to heat up the air during the summer, or increase precipitation during the winter and spring. These happen because the Earth is the passive recipient of solar energy, and its geochemical cycles are driven directly by the ebbs and flows in this energy, and all of this correlates with the periodic clock of the day and the year. The Earth responds to the changes in solar energy because it is a passive relationship – because that’s just how its atmospheric and surface chemistry works.

In stark contrast, there exists something called an “active” relationship. In engineering, a thing’s behavior is active when it is able to make decisions about how to behave, based on some sort of “knowledge” of something else. If some aspect of the Earth were somehow able to adjust its behavior in response to the daily or yearly solar clock, it would be actively-controlled. That sounds odd, right? No part of the Earth is able to actively control its behavior based on the perceived position of the Sun, right? The “active solar clock” doesn’t exist, right?

It actually does! This type of control exists in a lot of different organisms on Earth, which are able to align their internal clock to the active solar clock – the perceived, relative position of the Sun, as it changes over the course of the day and the year – and make deliberate adjustments to their behavior based on this. Plants, fungi, some bacteria, and of course, animals (including human beings) have biological mechanisms within themselves that are able to keep track of the position of the Sun over time, and use – use, not just passively respond to – that information to maintain a regular, predictable time-base, upon which to shape their characteristics and behavior accordingly. How unbelievably cool is that?!

This process is called “the Circadian Rhythm”, and getting you all to geek out about it, as much as I am right now, is what prompted these two columns in the first place. If the discussion last time focused on the cosmological, physical, and chemical aspects of the solar clock, then today’s will be the biological and…shall we say, “computational” aspects.

Bacteria, fungi, and plants maintain their circadian rhythms using complex processes, wherein hormones and other chemicals are produced and consumed in their body tissue. They need to know when nighttime is coming, or when the seasons are changing, in order to affect various aspects of their reproduction, nutrient intake and assimilation, “sleep” cycles, and all sorts of other behaviors. This is arguably more impressive than animals’ circadian rhythms, because 1) it was evolved much earlier in these more primitive organisms, and 2) is done successfully without a central nervous system…without a real brain to regulate the process, like more highly-evolved animals have at their disposal.

But for the sake of maximum wow-factor, I want to limit the rest of the column to the animal (and mostly, mammal) circadian rhythm, which is easily the most interesting. Forgive the impending excited rant, but I want to make sure you understand how awesome this really is.

Our (mammals’) brains use actively-controlled chemical reactions, well-placed sodium and potassium ions, and cellular biology to maintain an internal clock that is synchronized with our eyes’ perception of the Sun’s position in the sky! This internal clock arose via evolution like two billion years ago, and forms an incredibly intricate feedback loop between us and our environment, which can be maintained even if the information about the Sun’s position is cut off for some period of time, which all takes place in the background of our logical and emotional thought, judgment, and free will.

It was optimized over time to both drive the performance of certain behaviors – feeding, breathing, sleeping, reproduction, etc – as a function of time, and also somehow utilize these behaviors to help keep the clock in sync. Our brains are able to do this by making chemicals and eating them, and storing it all with tiny bits of electricity!

This system is so finely tuned that it could be used to calculate the actual length of a solar day and solar year (which are a little longer than 24 hours and 365 days, respectively) better than human math and inventions could, up until relatively recently in our history. If you think about it one way, the very understanding of “time” and its passage is reliant on our circadian rhythms, and this understanding underwrote the invention of a mechanical clock. Rocks and algae didn’t invent timekeeping devices, because they don’t actually know what “time” is.

We only do, and were only able to, because our brains can somehow use melatonin and cortisol, our eyes’ light receptors, nerve endings and body temperature, and metal ions and neurons to keep track of and predict where the Sun is in the sky, even when it’s cloudy or nighttime. I hope you agree with me, when I say that this might be the coolest thing about biological life that I’ve ever heard.

So here’s a basic explanation of how this works. As an embryo, your genes were used to construct your central nervous system with the implicit expectation that there was a clock that needed to be maintained, and an as-of-yet unrevealed master clock with which it needed to synchronize. Your mom’s womb probably helped with this, and created an initial synchronization even though you couldn’t yet see the Sun. But shortly after birth, your brain used the photoreceptors in your eyes to start keeping track of the Sun – its brightness, its position, and the relative amounts of different colors of light – as well as things like air temperature, to gain an intuitive, neurological understanding of the periodic motion of the Sun, and aligned that happily-awaiting internal clock that your brain was constructed with, exactly to it. And using hormones and ions and electrical signals, it has endeavored and (mostly) succeeded to maintain this clock to this very day.

You get tired at night and awake in the morning, you sleep more during the winter and less during the summer, you get hungry and thirsty and even get the urge to use the restroom at certain times, your hormone levels fluctuate…all according to this clock. Even chickens lay far fewer eggs during the winter, because their brains understand it as a sub-optimal time to be reproducing and slow that biological process down as a result.

And, in my amateur understanding, how well each of these processes are able to be performed at the expected optimal time, gives feedback to your brain that further helps to entrain your circadian clock. When your brain thinks that it is sunrise, and spikes your cortisol to wake you up, there are cues that it looks for to check whether this assumption was right…and adjusts your circadian rhythm accordingly.

It is incredibly important that your brain is able to maintain this circadian rhythm, lest it not be prepared for stressors that may challenge your wellbeing. It has been proposed that obesity and some cancers are at least partially caused, or triggered, by “circadian dysrhythmia” – the mismatch between your brain’s internal clock, and the actual time of day and year.

Circadian dysrhythmia is not a biologically-normal state, and is actually caused by the way we live in modern, Western society. Bright, blue lights at night – from phones, TVs, and other screens, as well as some light bulbs – trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime; not sleeping enough and being woken up by an alarm, drinking too much coffee and messing with our cortisol levels, spending literally all day in a climate- and light-controlled building…all of these habits create the circadian dysrhythmia with which our species has found itself plagued.

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 87 – That Big Clock in the Sky

4 01 2018

(December 31, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

That Big Clock in the Sky

Imagine that you’re sitting alone in a kitchen with a leaky faucet. The water drips, drips, drip, in a steady and predictable rhythm, and it’s basically the only sound you hear.

There is a certain type of person – myself proudly included – who would slowly start tapping their fingers together with the dripping. Do you know what I mean? In this situation, I always find myself absentmindedly tapping my fingers, or hitting my knee, or clicking my tongue, aligning my own noise to that of each drip of water; or, to the clicking of the turn signal in my car, or the backup signal of a garbage truck, or any similar sound.

Right now, you’re probably wondering what I’m getting at. I know this was a weird lead in, but let me try to peak your interest. This type of activity is a good example of what we in the technical world call “clock synchronization”. A periodic ticking – whether the drumming of your fingers, or the second-hand on a walk clock, or even the digital clock signal inside basically every computer and electronic device you’ve encountered – is made to align with the rhythmic ticking of some other, “master clock”.

A human making noise in sync with a leaky faucet is probably just some psychological compulsion or whatever. But when it’s done in the technological world, it’s with an important purpose. Electronic devices synchronize their internal clocks to some master clock, whether over the internet, or a closed-circuit interconnection, or a radio signal, or something like that, because their behavior needs to be driven by some “standard” time-base. Your MP3 player needs to play Ke$ha’s, “TiK ToK”, at the correct speed, so it actually fits in the 215 seconds that are expected. Your phone needs to know the time of day, every day, so it can switch to night/day mode, monitor for notifications, and all sorts of other behavior. And your favorite clock – whether the digital alarm clock by your bedside, which uses the regular pulses that come from the electric grid to keep time, or the analog wall clock in your kitchen, which relies on finely-tuned gears and regular human adjustment – simply needs to display and maintain the actual time of day (and oftentimes the date), because the daily rotation of the Earth on its own axis, and its yearly rotation around the Sun, are the basic time-base for human society.

And with that last example, we’ve finally arrived at the main point of today’s column: the position of the Sun relative to the Earth

And it is in this last example that we’ve finally arrived at the main point of today’s column: the Sun is Earth’s “master clock”, and its position (relative to the Earth) is the steady, predictable ticking to which basically everything on the surface of our planet aligns itself.

I can’t overstate how cool that fact is. This “solar clock” was essential in the development of basically everything on the surface of our planet.

This was primarily due to energy. In the course of one 24-hour “day” – that is, one full rotation of the Earth its own axis – a location’s “daytime” in when the Earth is rotated so it has a direct line of sight to the Sun, and “nighttime” is when it does not. This correlates to solar energy delivery, with a lot of it being dumped into that area during the day, and very little at night, which is why day is generally warmer than night.

And over the course of one 365-day “year” – one full rotation of the Earth around the Sun – a location’s “summer” is when the Earth is tilted towards the Sun for the most time each day relative to other days in the year, and its “winter” is when the Earth is tilted away from the Sun for the most time each day. This also correlates to solar energy delivery, with the most energy being dumped into that area during the summer, and the least during the winter – hence why summer is generally warmer, and winter generally colder.

This regular variation in the amount of solar energy that hits Earth, over the course of one day and one year, is responsible for so much of the behavior we see in Earth’s environment. The temperature of the air, water, and soil is, of course, driven by the ebbs and flows of solar energy. The same is true of air pressure, humidity, and even the amounts of certain other gases in the atmosphere.

The entire hydrological cycle is driven by solar energy, as we’ve discussed in past columns. Evaporation is faster with higher environmental temperatures and more direct sunlight; condensation (the water turning into clouds) requires lower temperatures; the type of precipitation (snow versus rain versus hair) that forms, and the amount that falls, also has to do with atmospheric conditions like pressure and temperature.

To varying degrees, every biogeochemical cycle is driven by the delivery of solar energy, and therefore ebbs and flows over the day and the year. These, and all of the other examples above, I will call the “passive solar clock”. These are effects in our environment (and even, in some cases, in biological organisms) that happen because of the amount of solar energy reaching Earth, and change based on the periodic changes in that energy.

I call this the “passive” clock to distinguish it from (what I think is) the much more interesting “active solar clock”: information about where the Earth is in its daily and yearly rotation, based on the Sun’s position in the sky and other indicators. Many biological organisms are able to use knowledge of this active solar clock to maintain their own time-base, synchronized with the Sun, and shape their characteristics and behavior accordingly.

If what we’ve discussed today can be described as the cosmological, physical, and chemical aspects of the Sun as Earth’s master clock, then next week’s column will be the biological and…let’s say…“computational” aspects. That is largely more interesting in my opinion, and can shed a lot of light (see what I did there?) on the way things behave in our environment. I can’t wait!

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 75 – The Best Parts of Urban Farming

2 07 2017

(July 2, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Best Parts of Urban Farming

Ahh, summer! The garden is growing, the chickens are laying and loving the heat, and I’ve been spending a whole lot of time outside – both on the urban farm and off it. I’ve gotten a real, newfound enthusiasm for my homestead this year, in no small part because it’s actually off to a really good start, and poised for a productive season. Since I know we’re all busy, I wanted to take this week to quickly highlight a few of my absolute favorite things to grow and raise, and methods to use, to see if maybe you share my enthusiasm.

Raspberries. And blackberries. It was the ripening of my first summer raspberries a few days ago that really prompted this topic. I have been eating an ultra-strict version of the Paleo diet as an experiment over the past week, which temporarily excludes anything with any measurable about of sugar. But the sight of that first, ripe, plump raspberry on the plant on Thursday afternoon meant I had to make an exception – and I’m glad I did! The crop this year seems like it’ll be really great, so I’m excited for that.

So if I were talking to a new urban farmer, in probably every case I would recommend that they plant bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries) before anything else…including any vegetables. Not only are they the easiest fruit to grow, but these plants require basically no care. And as I’ve taken to telling people recently, their productive capacity is limited pretty much only by the farmer’s ability to keep them from spreading.

They can be planted in areas with very little sunlight and still produce bountifully, and I’m not kidding when I say that a single cane planted this year, with basically no effort on your part, will be dozens of productive canes in two years’ time. And when it comes to nutritional bang for the buck, bramble fruits might be second only to leafy greens. They are incredibly high in fiber, such that the sugar in them probably won’t create any negative metabolic effects in anyone. Unlike many other fruits, they have a healthy balance both of glucose/fructose and of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids. And as far as fruit goes, they are pretty dense in micronutrients. All of this, in a tasty, abundantly-growing package!

Mulch. I can’t quite express how much I love mulch, though I confess to not always use enough of it. Straw, leaves, grass clippings, mulched wood/bark…it doesn’t matter. With a few inches of mulch covering your garden’s soil, everything will grow better.

I’ve used more mulch (a combination of straw, a special shredded and heat-treated hay/straw mixture, and grass clippings) this year than ever before, and I’ve seen great improvements in soil health. Just the other day, I pulled back some of the mulch while planting, to find the soil, still damp, cool, and full of earthworms right up to the surface. This was three or four days after the last rainstorm, since when it had been 85°F and dry.

A thick layer of mulch keeps the soil moist and prevents water runoff and evaporation, encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms and bugs, cools down plants’ roots which aids in growth, prevents most weeds, keeps certain plants (like tomatoes) safe from soil-borne diseases, and preserves soil nutrient from depletion (a big problem in raised bed gardens like mine); not to mention, I think it makes my garden look a lot more natural.

Companion planting. This is a practice that I’ve been doing almost as long as I’ve been gardening (9+ years?!), based heavily on an old masterpiece, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte.

The basic idea is that, certain combinations of plants are mutually beneficial when planted near each other, others are mutually harmful, and yet others are neutral, and in some cases, there are pairs where one sees benefit and the other sees harm by their proximity.

This is a very holistic, inexact science, but I’ve definitely found it useful in deciding how to lay out my garden each year. The harms and benefits between plants come in many shapes and forms, and are causes by many different facets of each plant. In some cases, one plant exudes a compound from its roots and harms or helps others. Other times, the scent of one plant deters some insect pest that would harm the other. And then, like in the case of potatoes and tomatoes (respectively), some plants are vectors for a plant disease that doesn’t harm them, but can harm a related plant if they are close by each other, or planted in the same soil in subsequent years.

The types of effects range from soil-borne chemical exchange, to resistance or attraction of pests or beneficial insects, to disease harboring or prevention, to even shading or windbreak capabilities. You should definitely read a little about this (either in Ms. Riotte’s book, or on the internet), even if you just plan to use it as the baseline from which you plan your garden layout.

Leafy greens. And specifically, certain well-adapted lettuces. As long as you start them right, these are incredibly easy to grow. And like brambles, they yield quite the nutrient-bang for the buck (other than iceberg, that is).

I always grow a lot of lettuce plants of many different varieties, both by direct seeding in the spring and by starting in 72-cell trays (which tends to work better in my case). I stick them between newly planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and even brassicas early in the season. These provide a little protection from the summer heat at first (#companionplanting), but by the time they’re big enough to block the sun, the lettuce is long since harvested.

Organic/sustainable lettuce is pretty pricey, which makes it even better to grow it in your garden. I happen to get lots of leafy greens (at a very good price, when you break it all down) in my CSA share from Blue Skys Farm, so between those and what I’m soon going to start harvesting from my garden, it’s a good thing I eat so much lettuce!

Chickens!!!!! I would be remiss to not mention these feathery little garbage disposals, that I promise would integrate really well into any urban farm. You can supplement their diet with food and garden scraps which they turn into eggs; their penchant for scratching means you don’t really ever have to till your garden or turn over your compost pile; they have no more favorite food than insect pests; their manure can be composted into valuable fertilizer; and they turn very little feed into a valuable protein source, something not otherwise available from an urban farm (legumes don’t count, because in basically every case, plant proteins are biologically-inferior to animal proteins).

Robust, interwoven, holistic, permaculture systems. I know, that was a lot of buzz-words that probably don’t mean much to the general population. I meant to do that, to cover as much ground as possible with this last “favorite thing” of mine.

What I mean by this, is that I really value truly sustainable agricultural systems where nature is artfully emulated, where human knowledge is used instead of toxic, artificial chemicals and large machines, in order to produce and maintain a complex, productive, resilient ecosystem that is capable of both benefiting the natural world and feeding human beings. Wow, that was a mouthful!

I try to do this with my urban farm, between my chickens, fruit plants, garden, and compost, and I think everyone should. The basic idea is to use the inedible outputs of one entity as the inputs to another entity (i.e. chicken manure into compost and then into soil fertility), which steps your urban farm closer to true sustainability and minimizes the streams of external inputs and wastes.

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

The Call, Column 64 – It Happens in Iceland

29 01 2017

(January 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It Happens In Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call, Column 63 – The Land of Ice and Fire

15 01 2017

(January 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Land of Ice and Fire


Faxi (Vatnsleysufoss) Waterfall, Southern Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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