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.

The Call, Column 60 – A Reminder

15 01 2017

(December 4, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Reminder

The Earth’s climate is changing, and human activity is the primary cause.          

            This statement is scientific fact, with no reasonable evidence against it. But it is also a call to action. And with each day that passes, as another 207 billion pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by human activity, it becomes a more dire warning.

Climate change is one of the simplest-to-understand atmospheric phenomena that exist. The Earth’s atmosphere undergoes what is known as The Greenhouse Effect. This is where certain “greenhouse gases”, which make up a small part of the atmosphere, trap the sun’s light as heat, preventing it from escaping back into space and warming the planet in the process. This is directly observable by the fact that you are not currently frozen solid. The Greenhouse Effect holds the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere stable around 58°F, quite a bit warmer than the -400°F of the surrounding space. It also prevents the temperature from changing significantly (by 100s of degrees) between the day and the night, as it does on the surface of the moon and celestial bodies without Earth’s type of atmosphere.

Despite being present in low concentrations, carbon dioxide has one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Geological records indicate that the Earth’s average atmospheric temperature has moved in lockstep with its carbon dioxide concentration. This is due to another straightforward chemical mechanism: the molecular structure of carbon dioxide makes it very effective at absorbing heat energy.

Prior to the growth of human industrial activity, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would change by very, very small amounts, or on a very large timescale, and within a limited range if at all, so that it was effectively constant on a short time-scale, and cyclic on longer ones. There are natural events which produce carbon dioxide – like animals exhaling, decomposition of organic matter, volcanic activity – and those which sequester carbon dioxide – plants inhaling, the formation of topsoil, deposition of fossil carbon within the crust of the earth. In a stable, cyclic system like our Earth’s carbon cycle, these effects naturally balance each other over reasonable periods of time.

This is called a “steady state”, and the same, in fact, is true of the Earth’s atmospheric temperature. While temperature isn’t the same one day (or season) to the next, it has always moved cyclically and predictably; so for example, the temperature in the week around the summer solstice of 1000 BC would be expected to be roughly the same as it had been in 1001 BC, 1025 BC, and 8000 BC. And the same variation in carbon dioxide concentration and temperature is expected – and observed – through every Ice Age Cycle (take a look at this graph: A similar carbon dioxide concentration and temperature occur at the peak of every Ice Age Cycle, and at every trough.

As expected, historically any event that shifted the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, over any timescale, was met with a similar change in the average global temperature and, as a result, changes in the Earth’s climate.

Burning fossil fuels has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is simple chemistry. When you burn any hydrocarbon – the type of chemicals that make up fossil fuels – it releases carbon dioxide as a direct result of combustion. In the past 150 or so years, we have burned the better part of all the fossil fuel stored beneath the Earth’s crust. The carbon stored in those hydrocarbons was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, when the concentration was higher, the atmosphere was warmer, and the planet had a lot less animals. The Earth has since created a new steady-state with a lower concentration of carbon dioxide. By burning that stored fossil carbon, we are increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This fact is also demonstrated by empirical observations. Carbon dioxide made up 280 ppm (parts per million) of the Earth’s atmosphere prior to the start of the industrial revolution, and has since increased by over 40%, to 400 ppm. This is likely the highest concentration in the last 20 million years, also shown in that graph I linked to above.

And that increased concentration of carbon dioxide over the past 150 years occurred simultaneously with an increase in average global temperature in the same timeframe.

Let’s review: The Earth’s atmospheric temperature is regulated by the Greenhouse Effect, which is driven by atmospheric greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is one of the most important greenhouse gases. Global temperature has historically moved in lockstep with carbon dioxide concentration, which itself has moved cyclically and predictably over large timescales. Burning fossil fuels releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, which was out of circulation for long enough that the atmosphere adjusted to its absence. Our use of fossil fuels over the past 150 years has been accompanied with a significant increase in carbon dioxide concentration – a 20-million-year maximum, well beyond natural geological cycles – and a similar increase in average global temperature.

Ipso facto…the Earth’s climate is changing, and human activity is the primary cause. This is the only logical conclusion to all of the evidence we have. And it is bar none the biggest problem we face as a species. The time to act is now.

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 58 – A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

13 11 2016

(October 23, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Long Winter’s Nap: Putting the Urban Farm to Bed for the Year

 Despite the unseasonable heat we’ve enjoyed this week, the fall is chugging steadily along. Soon enough, New England will be plunged into winter. The Farmers’ Almanac said it’ll be an exceptionally cold, snowy one this year, which is good reason for we urban farmers to focus well on preparing our homesteads for the cold and snow. Today, we’ll talk about a couple of important tasks that need to get done before that fateful time when the ground freezes, based on my own experiences.

The Vegetable Garden

            I hope you’ve had a good year in the garden, and that the last of your summer crops, as well as the glut of your fall ones, are maturing and ready to harvest. You’ll want to keep close watch of the weather, or at least put a weather alert app on your phone. Most annual crops, especially the remnants of the summer garden, need to be harvested before we get hit with a killing-frost. This usually happens in mid-to-late October, but we’ve been lucky so far (or unlucky, as the delayed onset of cold weather is an indicator of accelerating climate change). I usually wait it out as long as I can, and when the freezing temperatures seem imminent, I’ll do a “big harvest”, collecting everything edible and on-its-way to being edible (i.e. green tomatoes) in the garden, to be eaten, processed, or allowed to ripen. After that, it’s best to pull up all of the spent annuals to prevent overwintering diseases and pests, and either plant for the fall/winter or protect the soil.

It’s too late to plant most fall crops (I wrote a great column last August, about how to do just that!), but there are a few things you’ll want to plant and otherwise do for the health of your soil.

First off, plant garlic! This should go in sometime in the coming couple of weeks. I think I’ll plant my large selection of organic garlic this weekend, to allow it a bit of mild weather to establish itself.

Now is also a great time to plant cover crops, which are various cold season grasses, legumes, and the like that serve as a living mulch over the winter, and can be tilled into the soil for a fertility boost in the spring. As you pull up your spent vegetable plants, you should do some combination of the following, or ideally all of them: plant cover crops; apply manure, so it has the winter to compost and sterilize (or, at minimum, get some at leave it in a pile to compost); apply compost; and mulch the soil with anything from straw to grass to the coming onslaught of leaves (shredded, for faster breakdown).

Perennial Fruits

            In New England, now is actually a pretty good time to plant perennial fruit trees, bushes, and groundcovers. If they’re dormant when they ship from the nursery, they will not really start growing until next spring; if they aren’t, or you get them from a local nursery, they will grow a little and then go dormant as the weather cools. I tend to prefer to plant new perennials in spring, but I know of plenty of people who have made successful fall plantings.

For perennial fruits that are already established, late-October/early-November is when they need to be pruned. Grape vines should be cut down to a few feet above the ground; bramble canes that fruited for the first time this year or last year (depending on the specific cultivar) can be cut to the ground; and other fruit trees and bushes should be pruned carefully, to allow airflow between branches and facilitate whatever harvesting/plant-training program you have in mind.

New plantings and old should be mulched again in the fall, to keep the soil relatively warm and foster biological activity. For more detail on any particular crop, consult a reliable online source, or a homesteading book like John Seymour’s The New Self-Sufficient Gardener.

Irrigation System

            Rain barrels are sort of a sticky subject at this point in the year. You don’t want to empty them prematurely and waste the water. However, you have to make sure they are completely empty before the temperatures dip below freezing for an extended time, to prevent them from freezing solid and getting damaged. They should be cleaned at this point in the year, and either put away or otherwise cut off from your downspout (so they don’t fill up again).

Drip irrigation is a little bit of a different story. This is my first year with the system, so I’m writing based on my research rather than personal experience. What I have read has said the system can be left installed during winter. But you definitely want to flush all of the water out, disconnect it from the spigot, and open as many valves and holes as possible (similar to the way normal hoses are winterized). Even if the plastic is capable of withstanding the cold temperatures, the last thing you want is for water to freeze within it and breaking the tube. Refer back to the literature included with your system.


            Chickens don’t need to be winterized per se: they thrive happily down to -20°F. But their water is a different story. You need to find a way to prevent it from freezing. I’ve seen designs for passive water heaters, which use a combination of black materials (which absorb light and reemit it as heat) and the greenhouse effect (where a clear container traps sunlight as heat) to keep water above freezing and therefore potable.

I aspire to use something like that one day. But for right now, I use a run-of-the-mill heated waterer. It’s like any chicken watering fount, but has a plug and a heating element built into the base, which turns on when the temperature of the water drops close to freezing. It’s also possible to build one by resting a standard plastic waterer on a heating dog bowl.

Otherwise, just know that your chickens are in for a boring couple of months. There won’t be much garden waste, bugs, grass, and the like for them to enjoy, so you’ll have to give them something to do to prevent cabin fever – like hanging heads of cabbage for them to jump and peck, or just bringing them new and interesting treats (they seemed to really enjoy the acid whey from my homemade Greek yogurt, today). On a more practical note, you also want to make sure to have a good supply of your bedding(s) of choice, as well as their feed. Winter isn’t the best time to run out of these.


            If you have a vermiculture system, it’s best to bring it inside (a basement or unused room), or at least the garage during the winter. The worms don’t do well in the freezing temperatures. If they must stay outside, find the warmest place you can – like within the henhouse, which is naturally kept a little warmer, by the birds.

Finally, you generally want to make sure that the urban farm is clean as we enter the winter months. This is one I have struggled with in recent years, mostly because this time of the fall was usually when school would really pick up.

Make sure all of your tools are clean, sorted, and put somewhere that will be easily accessible come spring. Collect all seed-starting trays, plastic cells/pots, plant markers, and anything else that can get lost or damaged in the snow, clean them off, and bring them inside! I can’t tell you how many black plastic trays I’ve lost because of this type of neglect.

Finally, make sure you’re on the mailing lists of your favorite seed companies. December will be here before you know it, and you know what that means: time to start it all again!

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 56 – The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

13 11 2016

(September 25, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

In today’s installment of Renewable Energy 101, we’ll talk about some of my personal favorite energy technologies (I may have said that about every technology we’ve discussed). These are energy sources that come right from the Earth, and are some of the coolest, most democratic sources, accessible to anyone who cares to implement them. Enter: biofuels.

As promoted by the US Federal government, biofuels are not a good idea. They have sunk large amounts of research time and tax dollars into corn-ethanol biofuels, wherein heavily-subsidized commodity corn is turned into a sugar-rich syrup, and from there into ethanol, which can be burned. That’s great and all, but the majority of commodity corn is grown using a lot of fossil fuels, between the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, storage, and transportation. Estimates have it that one Calorie – a unit of energy, both in food and other situations – of “corn energy” requires around TEN CALORIES of fossil fuel energy to produce. When you look at the full lifecycle carbon emissions of that gallon of ethanol mixed into your gasoline, the picture you get is much bleaker. From seed-to-sparkplug, that gallon of ethanol created something like 10 times as much carbon dioxide as would have been created by just burning the gas. That’s hardly a win for the environment. No matter how good it makes us feel that we aren’t burning gas directly.

(This mockery of the name of environmental sustainability is only possible because of how much money the federal government invests in order to keep commodity crops cheap. By subsidizing commodity field corn heavily enough over the past few decades, the market has been flooded, and its wholesale price is next to nothing. This gives our population the illusion that we, in the United States, are incapable of suffering food shortages; but it has made farmers dependent on the federal subsidies to make a living and filled our diets with a rather unhealthy crop. That also answers the question: Why are grains at the base of the food pyramid? What’s more, this unholy subsidization hides the true costs, both in dollars and environmental destruction, of the products of commodity corn. Hence, biofuels are made to seem like a sustainable, financially-viable idea!)

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk real biofuels. First off, what exactly are they? As you know, plants and photosynthetic microorganisms capture the energy from the sunlight, and turn it into energy-rich chemicals like fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and fibers, which are sometimes eaten by other organisms, like animals. A “biofuel” is the general term for one of many different setups which allow us to turn this not-directly-useful chemical energy, stored in plants, bacteria, algae, and even things like animal waste – into useful forms, like heat, electricity, and substances that can be easily burned.

As you can probably guess, the biofuels that are actually in line with the goals of environmental sustainability do not come from corn, for the most part. Rather, they come from either 1) an organic waste stream – manure, yard waste, or agricultural byproducts; or 2) something grown for this particular purpose, whose lifecycle emissions are very low.

The most basic example of biofuel is probably the oldest human utilization of stored energy, other than by eating things: burning wood! Trees store a lot of energy in their long fiber molecules. Using this type of “biofuel” is as simple as burning logs in your fire pit or fireplace, extracting renewable solar energy from the contained fibers and using it to heat your house or, if you’re the next-level homesteader that I aspire to be, even to cook your food.

There are certain problems associated with wood-burning, but they aren’t inherent to it. First off, yes, it is absolutely a renewable resource if done correctly. A tree takes in x pounds of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, and burning it releases no more than x pounds of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This is over a very short overall lifecycle (unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide that’s been sequestered for millions of years), meaning that it has no net effect on global warming. But the full assessment of its sustainability comes down to how it’s farmed.

It is imperative that, as ecologically-conscious human beings, we maintain and grow our Earth’s environmentally- and economically-valuable forestland. It is customary in Western nations to clear-cut forests, logging all of the trees and destroying the entire forest ecosystem, and giving the land 20 or 30 years to grow back before cutting again. That’s ridiculous. Instead, we can log forests at a rate defined by what’s called the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – take a fraction of the trees every few months or every year, focusing on the dead, dying, and diseased. In any forest area, there is a specific rate of extraction – a number of trees harvested per month or per year – that maximizes the speed at which the forest produces usable wood. By harvesting at this rate, and taking the trees that, while perfectly usable for firewood (or lumber), contribute very little to the ecosystem, we make the forests better instead of worse. That is a sustainable harvest of a renewable source of energy.

The next type of biofuel that I want to talk about is biodiesel. Without getting into too much detail, there is a specific chemical process which turns oils – typically, used frying oils from restaurants or those extracted from algae – into hydrocarbon fuels that very closely resemble petroleum. This biodiesel can then be burned in much the same way as gas.

This is an example of a renewable biofuel energy that taps into a waste stream. By using frying oil, which is no longer valuable as food, and would otherwise just be dumped in a landfill, the biodiesel process reclaims a dense source of stored energy. But even this isn’t truly sustainable, because restaurants rely on oils extracted from soybeans, canola seeds, or corn, which all have huge carbon footprints. With that said, it is still a disruption to the waste stream and, depending on how you look at it, does create energy without using any additional resources. As long as restaurants continue frying food in gallons of oil, this type of biodiesel has its place in the renewable energy arena.

One special type of biodiesel is that made with algae oil. You see, there are certain types of algae – both wild species and the products of human breeding – which contain large amounts of long-chain fats. Like frying oil, these fats can be converted to biodiesel and used as a combustible energy resource. But algae can be grown nearly anywhere there is sunlight, is more efficient than plants at capturing solar energy, and is very easy to grow using 100% sustainable methods. It is even relatively simple to set up a system of clear tanks (i.e. plastic water bottles), and raise biodiesel-quality algae along a sunny exterior wall of your house!

Algae biofuels are an infant concept, but they’re picking up speed. And while some species can be used for biodiesel production because of their high fat content, there is promising research being done on algae with vastly different chemical composition, used instead for direct combustion or in other chemical reaction processes that yield usable energy.

Finally, we’ve gotten to anaerobic, or “methane” digestion. From a very high level, an anaerobic digester is a single tank, or set of 2 or 3 tanks in series, which convert a slurry of organic materials – animal manure, yard waste, agricultural byproducts – into carbon-neutral natural gas. That’s a pretty awesome idea!

This is done by taking advantage of a long list of chemical reactions, that already occur in nature but are catalyzed by a variety of bacteria. These bacteria can turn fiber, fat, carbohydrate, and protein molecules into methane, a purified form of natural gas which, like I described about wood above, adds no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The process is called anaerobic digestion because the tanks are maintained as low-oxygen (“anaerobic”) environments, and the methane they produce can be burned just as natural gas is, to heat homes or drive electricity-producing turbines.

I believe this to be one of the most useful renewable energy technologies within its own niche, because it doesn’t require a lot of special equipment (there are countless stories of conservation-minded individuals building methane digesters in their backyards), and can take such a wide variety of inputs that it is hugely effective at interrupting the organic waste stream. And guess what? As I write this, two digesters are being built in Rhode Island!

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 53 – Power From the Sun

12 11 2016

(August 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Power From the Sun

Solar energy is hands down my favorite renewable energy. I find a simple beauty – not to mention the efficiency – in capturing the sun’s energy directly from the source. What’s more, solar energy systems need few moving parts, they are scalable from a single panel or residential rooftop to a large-scale solar farm, and have a really cool look to them that increases the value and curb appeal of a home.

Today, we’ll talk about the technologies that have been developed to directly capture solar energy – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. I’ll give you a briefer on the science, and then discuss the current state of implementation and ways that we, as urban farmers, can get involved. Let’s begin!

What we call “light” – or more generally, electromagnetic radiation – is really a stream of little, condensed packets of wave energy called “photons”, which exist as particles in only the loosest definition of the word, but still contain lots of energy. The amount that a particular photon contains is inversely proportional to its wavelength, meaning that ultraviolet radiation contains more energy than visible light, which itself contains more than infrared radiation.

The sun outputs a very specific spectrum of light, which is a combination of visible (the rainbow) and non-visible (infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet, etc). That energy spreads away from the sun in all directions, and a small fraction of it gets directed at half of the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere (depending on the time of day). Some of this is filtered and dispersed by the atmosphere, and when all is said and done, roughly 1000 watts hit a one square meter area of ground in direct sunlight. Remember, a “watt” is a measure of the speed of energy transfer or usage, and your phone uses probably 3 or 4 watts while it is on. That 1000 watts/square meter is quite a lot!

The question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years is: how do we make use of that energy? Agriculture was our species’ first big answer to that question, when we figured out how to deliberately capture the sun’s energy in a chemical form (“Calories”) that we could use to fuel our bodies, feed our animals, and heat our homes.

We’ve developed a variety of different technologies since that time, which have culminated with the two centrally important methods for capturing solar energy that I mentioned above: solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

What’s known collectively as “solar thermal” is really a group of different technologies and building methods, unified by the underlying goal of capturing sunlight as usable heat energy. This idea is as old as human society, and is really easy to see in day-to-day life: leave a bottle of water out in the sun for a few minutes and observe the change in its temperature (don’t drink it after); or take note of which rooms in your house are the warmest when all heaters and air conditioners are shut off (hint: it’s the rooms with exterior walls with direct exposure to the sun).

There are a couple of basic types of solar thermal technology that are used all around the world. Solar architecture takes advantage of that “south-facing-room” effect, designing buildings that more effectively absorb the sun’s warmth in the winter, and do not absorb it in the summer. The knowledge that underlies this is as old as construction, but has recently made a comeback in the developed world.

Concentrated solar thermal is an up-and-coming technology, which utilizes mirrors and lenses in a variety of geometries. These concentrate sunlight into super-heated steam, which is most often used to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These require large areas and lots of direct sunlight, which makes them good candidates for desert development.

And of course, there is solar hot water. This is one I’ve mentioned before, when I visited Greece back in summer of 2014 and made note of the fact that nearly every house has a system of this type on its roof. This technology captures the sun’s energy by running water through a specially-designed (though easily made-at-home), dark-colored collector panel. The water heats up, and is stored for use throughout the day, either in a boiler or a separate tank that is often part of the standalone unit. These systems are hugely effective at producing large amounts of very hot water, which in turn is an effective way to store heat. There is a similar type of system that uses air instead, and which sometimes takes advantage of the way that air expands when it heats up.

Solar photovoltaic is a much more complex – but also more versatile – technology, which turns sunlight into electricity. Solar cells are thin sheets, usually made of silicon with small amounts of other elements deliberately added in, that turn light particles from the sun (photons) into electric current. When solar cells are connected together correctly, and then through output wires to some other electric circuitry, they form what are commonly known as solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels are the sleek, dark blue fixtures that I’ve been delighted to see popping up on houses in our area. The commercially-available ones are around 20% efficient – a similar fuel efficiency to the gasoline engine in your car – which means that, with an accompanying bank of batteries (so the energy can be stored) or a connection to the electric grid (so it can be sold back when it isn’t being used), the rooftop of a typical residence can supply 100% of that house’s electricity needs!

There are very few solar hot water fixtures in the United States, but I’ve started to see quite a few photovoltaic arrays on roofs in our area, and know of huge solar farms (fields of panels) that have been, or are being, built as I write this. We are  pretty far behind the energy-conscious folk of Europe, but the next few decades will be exciting as the solar industry in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. So what can we, as urban farmers, do to participate?

Passive solar architecture is probably the easiest way that we can take advantage of this amazing renewable resource. At its base, it’s as simple as knowing which curtains or blinds to open – and which to keep closed – depending on the season and outside temperature. There are retrofits that can be done to your house – adding insulation, changing your windows, sealing points where it’s open to the outside air – that increase its overall energy efficiency, partly by taking advantage of passive solar architectural design. And of course, if you’re in the process of building a new house, you’ll reap huge dividends by incorporating passive solar architecture into the design!

Solar thermal systems are another really good way for urban farmers to take advantage of free solar energy. They require a little more overhead – either having to buy the panel and water tank or building the system yourself, and then installing it – but when done right, they are capable of providing hot water even in the dead of a New England winter. There is a lot of information on the internet about building or buying these systems, and I encourage you to check it out.

And then, there are solar panels. It is my view that every new house should have solar panels installed on the roof – that’s how promising I think they are. There are quite a few companies that you can contract to install solar panels on your roof, which will allow you to pay them back simply by using the money you would otherwise have spent on your electric bill. In this way, your personal solar array is paid off in less than a decade (and is fully-functional for at least 25 years), without having any additional outlay of money. There are a variety of different financing programs, and

Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face as a species, and solar energy is and will continue to play a pivotal role in solving it. These types of renewable energy systems really are one of the most democratized solutions to climate change. For a small investment of time and money, almost anyone can take advantage of this free, plentiful energy source, powering their lives while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

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.