The Call, Column 83 – More Food for Thought

29 10 2017

(October 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

More Food for Thought

            What is food?

This question began my last column, starting us on an adventure through the history of hungry living things on our planet. We left off around 10,000 years ago, with the basic definition of “food” that has sustained essentially every single animal, since we first emerged from the primordial soup hundreds of millions of years ago: food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts, from which energy and nutrients can be obtained.

Every species on the planet – ourselves included, at least until 10,000 years ago when we started agriculture – eats according to this basic definition of food, defined by their particular evolutionary history. And I would argue that eating this species-specific definition of “food” produces the greatest likelihood for achieving individual health and longevity.

But then, at least for the human animal, everything changed. Our hubris put an end to the golden era of diet, as it does to most good things. We ate from the Forbidden Tree, choosing to toil in the field in order to eat our bread. And we took upon ourselves the responsibility of gods, but with neither the wisdom, nor the power, nor the benevolence of the One who originally established us as hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture turned food into a human creation. No longer was our diet extracted from the same basic plants and animals on whose flesh we had evolved; rather, it was the product of our own toil, the spoils of our conquest and subjugation of previously-wild land, previously-wild plants, and previously-wild animals. This allowed tribes of early modern human beings to settle in one area, enabling them to produce more food per square foot than at any time prior, but making them dependent on their own labor to keep closed the thin veil between survival and starvation.

I cannot overstate the significance of this event, probably more than any other in our history. This marked the birth of civilization, and was the original cause of everything, good and bad, that has come with civilization. Settling down as agriculturalists naturally resulted in the development of human communities…at the expense of the long-term health of the land on which we settled. It allowed for the division of labor, and also for caste systems and the exploitation of the lower classes. It sparked the beginning of commerce and trade, and resulted in warfare between neighboring tribes in competition for the same (unnecessarily-) limited resources. It provided us with a more stable food supply, but made us susceptible to basically every disease we struggle against to this day.

Civilization allowed for all of this. We can argue until the cows come home whether it improved or worsened our species’ overall wellbeing, but it happened. And at the root of every product of civilization, as the basic premise upon which all of human endeavor sits, is the fact that we cultivate, rather than the hunt and gather, essentially all of our food. Food became the foundation and basis of human society.

And then, as the story goes, the first tribal communities morphed into nation-states. Agriculture-based settlements set themselves apart by more than just geographical distance. Human beings began to bow to different leaders, worship different gods, trade in different goods and currencies; and all the while, each state was but one strategic maneuver away from their rightful expansion into their neighbors’ land, or one wrong move away from the loss of their own. Food was a finite resource to be guarded, stolen, traded for, and won, and every cow your neighbor owned, every acre he planted, every bite he took…was one fewer for you.

Simultaneous to the political differentiation enabled by agriculture was the cultural differentiation. The development of a quasi-stable society, which was set in motion by the start of agriculture, freed up peoples’ time and brain-power for more nuanced work than hunting and gathering their food, or even growing it. Some were free to create poetry, music, and art of all kind; they studied philosophy and science; they practiced astrology and founded complex, often politically-charged religions. Distinct cultures developed, and the diets, culinary practices, and agricultural strategies unique to a certain people became one of the ways to define and distinguish them from others. Food became culture.

These basic definitions – food as a finite resource, as an element of culture, as the elemental foundation of civilized society and community – persisted for much of modern human history. Nearly all of us were agrarians, by association if not as farmers ourselves. Food was politics; it was culture; it was vocation; and it was limited. But despite being under domestication, it was still understood as an outcropping of the natural world. That is, until the late 19th century. And here’s where it gets really ugly, really fast.

As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned in the Western World, efficiency and uniformity became the name of the game. It stopped mattering, how tasty or nutritious your tomatoes were; margins were tight and global demand was skyrocketing, so it only mattered how many pounds you could squeeze out of every square foot. The question “is this cow being raised as healthfully as possible” was replaced with a more economical one, “is this cow being raised as efficiently as possible”. And as an answer to that question, the CAFO was developed.

Food, like every other consumable good, became a commodity under industrialization. My ear of corn is the same as your ear of corn, which is the same as one grown in Mexico or Greece or Arkansas – they are distinguishable only by how cheaply each can be grown and shipped.

And here, my friends, something strange happened. Up until some point in the early 20th century, we were still heterotrophs, relying on other “food” organisms to gather solar energy (plants), or concentrate it in an easily-digestible package (animals). But with the widespread implementation of fossil fuels as energy sources, and their adoption into agriculture – as both fuels and fertilizers – we began to both figuratively and quite literally eat fossil fuels. We, the kings and queens of the heterotrophs, have come to the point of using more non-biological, chemically-stored energy to feed ourselves than biological! Food has become a commodity, and somehow, it is a non-renewable, fossil-fuel-based commodity

We would be justified to leave the conversation here. This is an accurate description of food as it is currently defined. But it isn’t the only definition…and they only get worse.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a cold, soulless, reductionist view of food and human nutrition, one I’m sure that you are intimately familiar with…though I hope you know to look beyond it.

Modern nutrition has taken the approach of defining food as a means to an end – foods are simply combinations of water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients, and eating is simply a means towards consuming the perfectly-understood amounts of each of these substances needed to maintain a healthy life. There is no nuance, according to nutritional science, and food is not only a commodity, but simply the sum of its parts…just like the human beings consuming it. It is measurable and quantifiable. “Food” is just a number of Calories and associated amounts of vitamins and minerals; and balancing these numbers with your body’s requirements is the only consideration that is needed in order to be healthy. Food is a means to an end, and that’s it. How utterly absurd!

And finally, we’ve reached modern day. From a political standpoint, food is a commodity; from a scientific one, it’s a means to a nutritional end. But there is one more definition that arose together with our Postmodern Western Corporatocracy; the idea that’s more immediately responsible for our horrible “relationship with food” (God, I hate that phrase) than any other: Food. Is. A. Vice.

We are bombarded by aggressive marketing campaigns whose basic message is that our lives can be made better if we just eat the product that they’re selling. We are told to consume alcohol, sugar, and fast food as methods to cope with the stress of modern life. Ads convince us that good taste is what we crave – that consuming their “cheezy”, or “lo-fat”, or “naturally-sweetened” product, as part of a balanced lifestyle of course, will make us enjoy our lives more. And we’ve been convinced that the conspicuous consumption of certain foods – specific brands, certain health foods, that special new box of reconstituted garbage – can help to advance our place in society. I know, it’s hardly an intelligent view of food. But I didn’t say it…the TV did.

And there you have it. Food has gone from the basic energy and nutrients required by a species to live, to an agricultural commodity, all the way to a means of mass mind-control. At this point, it’s just a way to sell flashy combinations of wheat, corn, soy, milk, and sugar, the commodity crops that governments around the world subsidize in order to prevent food shortages and the associated political unrest. We’re in a bad place; there’s no kinder way to say it. We’ve discussed solutions to this problem in the past, and will do so in the future. But today, I just hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

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

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The Call, Column 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 77 – Why Self-Sufficiency?

30 07 2017

(July 30, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Why Self-Sufficiency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 71 – Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

8 05 2017

(May 7, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Woonsocket’s New Kitchen Incubator

Today, I want to tell you all about something really exciting happening right now in Woonsocket. NeighborWorks, the Woonsocket-based nonprofit whose goal is the revitalization and enrichment of our community, is in the final stages of creating a kitchen incubator…right in Market Square!

If you aren’t sure what a kitchen incubator is, please don’t fret. I wasn’t that hip to the concept myself, at least not until I got the opportunity to attend the “Woonie Foodie Night” last Thursday. This was the monthly event held by I ❤ Woonsocket, and the attendees got the privilege of touring the state-of-the-art kitchen, sampling the creations of two up-and-coming chefs, and learning all about NeighborWorks’ newest project. I see so much promise in this idea, so let’s dive right in.

This kitchen incubator is located at 40 South Main Street in Woonsocket, right next door to the Museum of Work and Culture, in the old Mulvey’s building. The event was managed by Margaux Morisseau, Tamara Burman, and Meghan Rego, three of the forward-thinking leaders at NeighborWorks who set up this project.

The idea of the kitchen incubator is straightforward. The space is a certified commercial kitchen stocked with state-of-the-art, Hobart-brand equipment. It is designed to be accessible to up-and-coming chefs and food producers, who after a vetting process and being guided through any necessary individual licensing, will soon be able to become members of the kitchen. From that point on, they can schedule as much or as little time in the kitchen as their business requires (paying a per-hour rate and a small monthly membership fee), and the food and products produced there are certified for commercial sale.

So you may be asking: “Alex, why does this matter to me, an urban farmer?” Good question! One of the major goals of kitchen incubators like this is to make the food industry accessible to many more people that it would otherwise be. It makes it possible to start a certified food business – including training, help with licensing, finances, and marketing, and of course, access to high-quality equipment in a certified commercial kitchen – with an outlay of only a few thousand dollars, instead of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What’s more, NeighborWorks will be opening up a bazaar-type market in Market Square, Woonsocket, on Saturdays during the summer (more on this soon!). The chefs and food businesses in the kitchen incubator will have access to this market as a place to sell their goods.

There is pretty remarkable potential in a space like this, as evidenced by the success of other kitchen incubators around the country. This kitchen makes it relatively easy to create a food production business at whatever level one is looking to do so. From the grandmother, who wants to produce herbal teas or her special cheese recipe such that she can sell at the farmers market; to the beginning chef that needs to make his name in the community; to the recent culinary school graduate, working towards her dream of one day opening a restaurant; to the want-to-be wholesale producer and distributor of packaged cookies: this kitchen incubator is the place to start.

During the tour, we got the opportunity to hear the stories of the first potential members of the kitchen incubator – Andrea Russell of Rustic Roots Baking, and Roscoe Gay of Every1sChef (both businesses have Facebook pages where you can check them out). Andrea is focused on “comfort pastries” – the cookies and cakes and pies that your grandmother might make – while Roscoe wants to offer something to please the tastes of any and every customer.

Both chefs emphasized the daunting overhead of starting a food business – the quality equipment, the licensing process, the limitations of home-cooking, and of course the startup capital – as a major factor that brought them to the kitchen incubator.

That type of motivation will likely be true of the 20+ chefs that NeighborWorks hopes to attract to its this new location, which is precisely why they have worked so hard to build it.

One of the aspects of Andrea’s production model that really stood out to me was her selection of ingredients. Having worked in agriculture, and seen firsthand the well-established farm-to-table economy in Vermont, she makes it her goal to source as much as possible from local farms that use sustainable practices. Her honey, maple syrup, cranberries, eggs, dairy, flour, and even cooking oil come from local producers. She even buys nuts from Virginia and Spanish Peanut Company in Providence.

And this really drives home one of my main points of enthusiasm in this space. In my column in the past, we’ve talked quite a bit about local, sustainable, small-scale agriculture, and the many reasons that it is necessary to the goal of creating a robust, sustainable food system.

The next pieces of the puzzle, though, involve the construction of a system wherein the products of that agriculture can actually be used to feed people, and to wholly supplant the unsustainable products of industrial agriculture so that it can be eliminated from this planet. The growth of farmers markets is a promising trend, providing a direct, farm-to-table connection between producers and consumers. But what about value-added products? Sauce made from Blue Skys’ tomatoes, or jerky from Aquidneck’s beef, or pies full of Hill’s apples? These products, things that consumers reasonably demand alongside their whole-foods from the direct farm-to-consumer markets, require a little more effort.

And while industrial agriculture itself is bad, the industrial food processing chain, which consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel to ship, process, ship again, package, ship again, distribute, store, and sell agricultural products, robbing the farmers – the actual food producers – at each step of the way…that system is bad too.

So in order to fully supplant the industrial model, in order to reject the reality of factory farms and the white-collar food processing and distribution chain, we need to encourage and endorse local food businesses alongside the farmers that grow. And to that end, we owe NeighborWorks a pretty big debt of gratitude. I am so excited to see how this project pans out.

Before I forget, I recently had the idea for a column about individuals in our community who have installed renewable energy systems on their homes. I have some people and homes (I make a mental note every time I see solar panels) in mind, but if you or someone you know has a system and would want to answer some questions and maybe entertain a quick visit, please shoot me an email and we can set something up.

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





The Call, Column 61 – Bah Humbug!

15 01 2017

(December 18, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Bah Humbug!

            “I say, ‘Bah Humbug’ to these things! We don’t need these things to feel the holidays. We feel the holidays – the holy days – by focusing on the Kingdom of God, here and now!”

These words were part of a particularly fiery sermon, given by my Pastor, Lynn McCracken (of Arnold Mills United Methodist) a couple of weeks ago. Pastor Lynn was holding up a catalog that advertised Black Friday sales, rejecting its claim that the feeling and enjoyment of the Christmas season is dependent on buying the goods it was advertising.

I think you all know how I feel about consumerism. There are some goods that we need to survive, of course, and others that truly add meaning to our lives – I’m not talking about those things. I’m talking about the widgets and devices and cheap plastic stuff. I’m talking about the stuff that we have all, myself included, been convinced to buy by insidious marketing campaigns, designed to make us feel unfulfilled with our lives and then appeal to that feeling of insecurity.

I dislike consumerism. I dislike it, in no small part, because the very idea is based on cold economic models which define us not as individuals, with hopes and dreams and creativity and ingenuity, but as easy-to-manipulate consumers, lowly cogs in an industrial machine. The economic system built on the foundation of consumerism values our lives only insofar as they fit into a tight mold: repeatedly perform a highly-specialized task, buy as much as that situation will allow, have offspring that will continue to do the same, and die as soon as possible, after being unable to complete steps one through three.

I cannot respect – no, I cannot even accept as valid or unavoidable or somehow desirable – any economic system that produces this ugly mess; that reduces each of us to a dollar-figure and tally-mark, and doesn’t have much better to say about the natural world; that distracts us from the true purpose and nature and importance of life on this magnificent ball of rock. My Pastor was right-on in her condemnation of this, and her call to focus on the Kingdom of God. I’ve been thinking a lot about her ideas on this topic, and my own, and I want to bring it a bit further.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I have had some quotes from Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol” bouncing around my head in relation to this column, at least as long as Pastor Lynn has been weaving references to the book into her sermons.

When first confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge is astonished by the fate that has befallen his long-dead business partner, praising him as “always a good man of business”. Marley’s Ghost responds with the book’s seminal quote: “‘Business!…Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”

This, I think, is our first clue into what is truly meant by “the Kingdom of God”, “the Tao”, and so many similar references made by our religious texts. It is this idea that collaboration between human beings, of using our gifts towards the betterment of all and not just ourselves, should be the underlying driving force of human society.

This flies directly in the face of the western economic system as it is made to exist today. It is based on competition, on the idea that life on Earth – for human beings and every other creature – is a competitive struggle for limited resources; and that individual success is defined by control over the greatest amount of these resources, and societal success by achieving the highest rate of growth in their exploitation. We will discuss the disastrous environmental implications later on, but this mindset and the system that it brings about are DIRECTLY responsible for the poverty, inequality, and suffering, the ills of the world that Scrooge was so content to overlook from the safety of his Counting House.

In the Gospel of Mark (9:35), Jesus summarizes the Kingdom of God, explaining that “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” This is no short order. To meaningfully celebrate the Christmas season, to focus on the Kingdom of God now and at all times during the year, we have to live our lives toward the betterment of all of humanity. Consumerism and competitive economics are incompatible with this goal.

I think this is a good place to leave off for now. In the next column, we’ll expand more on this idea of the true meaning of the Kingdom of God, and how it pertains to the human economy and the environment in which we live.

For right now, I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom. This season is one of the best opportunities we get every year to put our beliefs into practice, to spread the cheer and goodwill that exists in all our hearts, to our fellow human beings. It is the time of year, in yet again the words of Charles Dickens, “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. With that in mind, may you all have a Merry Christmas, and a joyous Holiday Season!

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 55 – Meet Me At The County Fair!

12 11 2016

(September 11, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Meet Me At The County Fair!

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Woodstock County Fair, just over the border in Woodstock, Connecticut. I have only gone once before, a few years ago: if you know me or read my column regularly, you’re probably shocked to hear that. But with all of my hobbies, school, work, and the other stuff I get myself into, the time has just never been there in past years (recall, if you will, my tell-all exposé last month about my time-anxiety; do you see what I mean?).

But anyway, I am glad that I finally made the time and took the day to visit the fair. Every part of the experience – from my fellow fairgoers, to the animals and attractions, and even the drive there and back – really strengthened my zeal for the deliberate, almost primal agrarian lifestyle, which I believe we could all use a little more of in our lives. Today, I want to explore the value of these types of experiences, specifically in the context of the county fairs whose season we’ve happily just entered.

County fairs have been around for at least a few hundred years. They began as a fun way to show off the work of an area’s farmers to the public, and have since expanded to fulfill a much broader purpose. They’ve become a public celebration of harvest time, the time of year when nature gleefully yields her bounty, and people respond in kind. Even to this day, and even in developed areas, these celebrations have preserved their agrarian roots, by continuing to showcase the food, art, entertainment, culture, and community belonging to the local economy.

As I said earlier, every single part of that experience gave me those particular feelings of contentedness, happiness, and inward reflection, much like what my mind reserves for when I am in the woods or my garden without a phone or to-do list.
The drive down Rt. 102, through North Smithfield, Burrillville, and Glocester, and on Rt. 44 through to Putnam and Woodstock, was really beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever driven down that way, and I couldn’t believe that the bucolic atmosphere described in John Denver’s “Country Roads” existed just 10 minutes from my home.

And of course, there was the Woodstock Fair itself. I was immediately greeted by the just detectable scent of cow manure – a smell I’ve come to appreciate over the years – mixed with the rich aromas emanating from the food stands near the fair’s entrance.

I spent two hours or so wandering around the fair, loosely following the map they had given me but going wherever my legs and eyes (and sometimes stomach) took me. I really didn’t know or care what time it was, and looked at my phone only to take pictures of what I saw (which is the truest mark of how good a time I was having). And wow, was there a lot to see!

There were stands selling almost any kind of food you could ask for, most of it prepared by local restaurants and other organizations; in the center of the grounds was a huge stage, where the area’s bands and entertainers were filling the air with music; there were carnival rides, of course, and showcases of local artists and home goods; and, lest I forget my main reason for going to the fair, there were lots of prized farm animals and agricultural produce on display, including some really big pumpkins.

So why did I appreciate my trip to the fair so much? Well, for one, I experienced a lot of the same things and feelings that I do at Woonsocket’s annual Autumnfest. The only thing missing is the agricultural exhibits, though maybe that should change in the near future (I can name a few members of our City Council who would react very passionately to this idea!).

These county fairs – Autumnfest included – serve to bring us closer to the local, agrarian community in which our separate cities and towns are collectively nested.

On the one hand, I mean that quite literally: the trip to pretty much any county fair brings you through some of the most beautiful parts of your geographic area, through the country roads and rural townships where life is more deliberate and the air smells cleaner.

But I also mean it figuratively. County fairs do the important job of preserving our connection to the local economy and agrarian community that, despite being drowned out by the sounds, sights, and smells of urban and metropolitan areas, still underlies our very existence.

You’re the last people I need to say this to: we are intimately dependent on rural America. We all eat food, drink water, wear clothes, take shelter in buildings, and use energy; the raw materials for much of that comes from farms and mines and forests in agrarian communities, whether in our proverbial backyard or one 2000 miles away.

County fairs remind us of that. They keep alive the population’s interest in agriculture, in local artisans, in the local community. They connect us to our neighbors who grow food and make things, and remind us of the agricultural roots of our past (and hopefully, not-so-distant future).

The Woodstock County Fair gave me an appreciation for all of this, and I’m sad to say we’ll have to wait another year to go again. But there are plenty of amazing agricultural fairs in our area of Southern New England. Take a look at this list – http://www.newenglandexplorer.com/statefairsne.htm. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

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