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

            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.

Other

            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 and Times, Column 29 – The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

29 09 2015

(September 13, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Meat of the Problem: The Woes of Industrial Animal Agriculture

Take a trip to the meat section of your local supermarket. Pick up a package of ground beef; or a chicken leg; or a filet of cod. What do you actually know about that product? Sure, it came from a cow, or a chicken, or a fish. But how many (hundreds of) different cows did that ground beef come from? How small was the enclosure where the chicken was kept? Was the fish wild-caught, or farm-raised? How were these animals treated, what were they fed, and what was the effect of their production on the local environment? It is likely impossible to find the answers to these questions on the packaging. And in all honesty, that’s probably because you wouldn’t like the answers if they were there.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the current, abhorrent state of the conventional meat industry in the United States. I believe that knowledge drives changes in consumer buying patterns. I also believe that, when consumers reject the practices of an industry, it forces the industry to change or perish in its own filth. Therefore, it is my duty to scream this information from the rooftops – here goes.

First, let me introduce CAFOs – that stands for “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”. To envision what this means, imagine you and 1000 of your closest friends standing, shoulder-to-shoulder inside your house, in a few inches of your own excrement, for a few years of less-than-comfortable existence. When one of you gets sick, imagine how fast it spreads to the rest? When one of you dies, imagine the others simply cannibalizing him, for lack of something more mentally stimulating. Welcome to modern industrial agriculture in the good ol’ USA!

Cows live in feedlots, often a covered area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement; if they’re lucky, there’s no roof and they can see the sun. Pigs are raised in general, close-quarters confinement. Chickens live in squalid conditions in an enclosed barn, cooped in battery cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re egg layers, and sans the cages with too little space to even sit down if they’re meat birds.

In case you’re wondering, birds living in these filthy, crowded conditions engage in stress behaviors like rubbing their bodies against the side of the cages. We can’t have scarred meat if we wish to sell a perfect (-looking) product in the grocery store – hence, meat birds are cage-free! There was a bill in the Rhode Island legislature to also remove the battery cages in egg-laying operations, but one of our largest local egg producers, which sells its products at a premium price under the false guise of humane-treatment, adamantly and successfully opposed the bill. I guess corporate profits are more important than some minute semblance of animal welfare. That sounds reasonable.

Let’s take a look at diet. Chickens are natural seed-eaters, so I guess it’s good that they eat grains. But their diets in factory farms consist of other fun additions like arsenic and food dyes, so that the eggs are not so anemic that you can’t distinguish the yolk from the white.

Cows, goats, sheep, and llamas, on the other hand, are collectively called “ruminants” – they are herbivores with a special type of stomach that allows them to digest grass. Their natural diet is majorly grass-based, with some starchy plant matter, like roots and seeds, as would be found in a natural prairie. But by the magical logic that arises from ill-advised government subsidies and industrial agricultural practices, conventional farms feed these animals a diet exclusively of grains. That’s right: animals that are made to digest mostly grass are not fed grass, because that would cost too much. In case you are wondering, they are also fed supplemental goodies like chicken feathers and excrement (you read that right), and spoilt candy products – you know, food.

In addition, because there is little reason for these operations to use organic feed (scoff), some of the artificial pesticides and herbicides used on the grain fields can accumulate in the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat the grains.

As would probably be expected, the treatment of the animals in CAFOs is far from humane. They are also often given hormones to encourage unnaturally accelerated growth and increased milk production.

As a result of unnatural diets (especially in ruminants like cows) and stress, the animals are far more likely to get sick. A diet consisting entirely of grains makes the cows’ stomachs overly acidic; this encourages the development of e coli bacteria, which are capable of making human beings sick. To avoid this, they are often given therapeutic, daily doses of potent antibiotics with their feed, an incredibly reckless practice almost singly responsible for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria that we occasionally hear about in the news.

Just in case the animal treatment and human health conditions weren’t enough, the environment suffers under this system. Grain agriculture is generally horrible for the environment, so feeding these completely unnecessary crops to animals only compounds the problem. The large amount of manure that is produced by animals in confined operations (mind you, this is often laced with e coli) is rarely dealt with in an environmentally-constructive manner. Rather than being used to build the topsoil as is entirely possible, it becomes an environmental pollutant when it runs off into public waterways.

If everything above has made you sad, or angry, or queasy, I’m happy to hear it – that was my goal. But I want you to know: this applies only to industrial meat production. This applies to the system that produces the 10 cent chicken wings, and $2/pound ground beef, and cheap fast food.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. This system is the product of the past few decades of irresponsible, industry-driven agricultural policy. It is a huge, expensive mistake, and it is the job of everyone who knows about the issue – which now includes all of us – to relegate it to the history books.

The best way to change this is to starve Goliath, and instead feed David. We must entirely reject the system of factory farming, insofar as it is possible to do so, and substitute our own. Our health, our environment, and our collective karmic load will benefit from doing this.

Surprise, surprise: we can start by growing and raising food ourselves. Even if this only means a small organic vegetable garden, you can save money on food that can then be redirected to more responsible sources of animal products.

Better yet, raise micro-livestock. It is easy and inexpensive to raise a small flock of chickens for eggs and meat, and a small herd of rabbits for meat, in nearly any urban or suburban backyard. This ensures that your eggs and some of your meat are raised with human health and animal and environmental welfare as primary goals, and the savings can then be directed towards better choices for other animal products.

Skip the conventional meat, eggs, and milk from the supermarket, even if it’s labeled “natural” or “vegetarian fed” (unregulated terms that probably means the company is a factory farm). Buy from local farmers who you can talk to, whose operations you can see, who do it sustainably! Buy from farmers markets, making sure to actually ask the farmer about their practices. Buy from smaller grocery stores and marketplaces that themselves make an effort to source from local, sustainable operations.

To avoid everything I’ve mentioned above, you’re looking for pasture-raised, grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and dairy products; wild-caught or sustainably-farmed fish; and eggs and meat from truly free-range, pasture-raised birds. Don’t rely on labels for this information. The food industries are experts at making you believe that a product is superior so that you’ll pay more for what amounts to a well-drawn label. Please email me if you’d like some more detailed guidance as to where you can buy your animal products, and which companies to support or avoid.

For all of you out there who have pets as I do, I know you can empathize with the ills of animal cruelty. Proverbs 12:10 says that “the righteous care for the needs of their animals”. Curiously, the Hebrew origin for that word “needs” is much deeper than the English lets on – it means the emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as the physical. The animals whose meat, eggs, and milk we consume – they are our animals. Their lives, how they were treated, how well their needs were met, become our responsibility as soon as we pay the system that produces them. Choose wisely.

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





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

7 08 2015

(August 2, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call and Times, Column 20 – A Chicken Coop in Every Yard

14 05 2015

(May 10th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

A Chicken Coop in Every Yard

After last month’s discussion about applying for a backyard chicken permit in Woonsocket, here’s a little primer on actually keeping chickens. I should point out – I’m not an expert in this area. I have raised chickens for a combined 11 months, but have spent a good many hours reading about them. This column is only an overview, and I urge you to read at least one good book about chickens – I suggest Robert and Hannah Litt’s A Chicken in Every Yard, or anything on the topic from Storey Publishing as a helpful guide. As always, I welcome and encourage your emails.

Choosing your birds. There are more breeds of chickens than I could possibly list, and it’s worth researching what each one has to offer – egg production, foraging ability, temperament, and appearance are a few of the important qualities to keep in mind. Some of the more common backyard breeds, which are often a good balance of these qualities, include the Plymouth Rock, the Orpington, and of course, the Rhode Island Red. You can find everything you need to know in Henderson’s Chicken Chart, available at http://www.sagehenfarmlodi.com/chooks/chooks.html.

You also have to make the decision about whether to raise your birds from chicks (a few days old) or older birds. Books have been written about raising chicks, and I can barely scratch the surface here, so I suggest you read well about that particular facet.

The chicken coop. This is where your chickens will live, so it’s worth investing enough time and money so that it’s durable, predator-resistant, and comfortable. You can buy a pre-made coop for a few hundred dollars, or design and build it yourself for more work but less money. We built our coop in a few weeks’ worth of afternoons, which is the method I prefer.

There are a few basic components that every coop must have. The “henhouse” is the enclosed, solid-walled structure where the chickens will eat, sleep, and lay their eggs. The “run” is an open-air pen, surrounded on all sides by wire mesh and connected by a small door to the henhouse, which provides the birds fresh air, sunshine, and ground, while protecting them from predators. The “nesting boxes” are 1-cubic-foot boxes (milk crates, tote boxes, or wooden structures) in the henhouse that are lined with nesting material, where the birds are comfortable to lay their eggs. The “roost” is a wooden beam, affixed a few feet above the ground inside the henhouse, where the chickens will sleep at night.

Maintaining your flock. You need a few basic pieces of equipment to keep your chickens happy and healthy. A durable feeder and waterer are worth their weight in gold. They should be large enough to hold a few days’ worth of feed and water, and should both either be hung with rope a few inches off the ground, or otherwise affixed to a base on the floor, to prevent toppling, spilling, and wasting of feed and water. Unlike other animals, chickens will self-regulate how much they eat – you should provide unlimited access (“free choice”) to food and water, and they will eat what they need.

There is also the chicken feed itself. First, know that chicks need starter feed, adolescents need grower feed, and adults need layer feed – each are formulated with enough protein and minerals for the growth stage of the bird.

The big decision is organic versus conventional. Organic feed is somewhat more expensive than conventional, but ensures the absence of certain feed ingredients – knowing what goes into your chickens’ beaks is a big reason why many raise their own birds, so I am a strong believer in organic feed.

In addition to feed, the birds need grit and water. Grit is any type of (nontoxic) small particulate that they will ingest in order to help them break down their food. Allowing them access to the ground is usually sufficient as a source of small stones, but sand can also be provided as grit. Water should also be given free choice, sourced from the faucet or, as a potentially healthier option, from unchlorinated rainwater. Some chicken-keepers also give their birds crushed oyster shells, as a supplemental calcium source that helps with eggshell formation.

Another ongoing maintenance consideration is cleaning. Chicken manure is a valuable fertility asset for any urban farm, but it needs to be removed from the coop and composted before being applied to the soil. A quick cleaning about once a week is more than enough to keep sanitary conditions, and provide a steady stream of compost material.

This story would be incomplete without expressing my deepest gratitude to two people: former Councilman Marc Dubois, who was an advocate long before it was popular to be so, and Councilwoman Melissa Murray, who has worked tirelessly to make it popular enough to succeed. He planted and nurtured a seed in the uncertain spring soil, and she built a greenhouse that brought the plant to a harvest. Every family who gets a permit to keep backyard chickens in Woonsocket should be reminded of the devotion shown by these two leaders.

There are so many others – Councilmen Mancieri, Jalette, and Gendron, who co-sponsored the ordinance; the experts and residents who supported this idea; RI State Vet Dr. Scott Marshall, and Scott Scofield of Providence ACO, who testified before the Planning Board as expert witnesses; and Joan LeFrancois in the Zoning Office, Zoning Officer Larry Desormier, and the members of the ZBR, whose hard work and understanding made the application process straightforward for me, and set a good precedent for the future.

I’ve written this column while watching my chickens scratch and cluck contentedly, and I wonder – what does it mean for Woonsocket to have taken this step? It means urban farming, as an idea, a movement, and a way of life, is growing, and the government has taken notice. It means that Woonsocket, as a fledgling microcosm of the organic stronghold that our state and our region have become, understands its citizens’ wishes to live more sustainably, more self-sufficiently, and more healthfully. It means that we are beginning to view the land not only as the place where we build our buildings, but also as the place where we grow our food – the great Source and final Destination of all life on Earth, who’s most productive use includes tomatoes, wind turbines, and chickens, right alongside our homes, shops, and factories. This is urban farming. This is backyard chicken keeping. This is the future.

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





The Call and Times, Column 19 – Chickens Do Belong in the City!

3 04 2015

(April 3, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Chickens Do Belong in the City!

I’m going to cut right to the chase – the City of Woonsocket has officially granted me a permit to keep chickens!

I’ve waited patiently to publish this story since The Urban Farmer was conceived. This victory is but the quiet, oddly unobstructed end to a long, controversial, exhausting struggle. The story could fill a book, but allow me a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed.

Three years ago, in spring of 2012, I decided that my garden needed a trio of chickens. This decision unintentionally turned me into a “lying criminal” (as my detractors put it) because, as I came to find out a year later, chickens were illegal in Woonsocket. As I got ready to bid farewell to my birds, I reached out to Councilman Marc Dubois, who researched the issue and decided to draft an ordinance that would make it possible to raise backyard chickens in Woonsocket. Long story short – despite an enormous effort, logical argument that would make Aristotle blush, and an impression of greater political support than what actually existed, we were defeated harshly 5-to-2 in April 2013. And that was that.

But it wasn’t. Since then, some version of the law has always been on the table, built-up and torn down in order to fit the needs of our city. Newly-elected Councilwoman Melissa Murray took the reins late in 2013, and with some combination of persistence, luck, and unwillingness to let the opposition’s false claims go undisputed, the tides shifted in our favor. Mostly due to that mysterious force that Shakespeare rightly termed “the law’s delay”, it was October 2014 when the City Council finally passed the law. Woonsocket can now grant applications for its residents to keep chickens, and has successfully approved the first of (what I hope are) quite a few.

The rules themselves are pretty straightforward, almost identical to the version I described last July. Applications are limited to “owner occupied one and two-family homes in R-1, R-2, and R-3 zones”, and must comply with the regulations in the definition of “Backyard Chicken Keeping” in the Zoning ordinance. This definition limits it to five hens on one lot, and is otherwise basic – no roosters, a comfortable coop with setback restrictions, no unsupervised free-ranging, correct storage of feed and composting of manure, and no slaughtering in the city or selling the eggs. Lest I take up too much time repeating myself, I urge you to refer to my July 2014 column (on my blog), and to read and fully understand the ordinance that was passed – this can be found at http://clerkshq.com/default.ashx?clientsite=woonsocket-ri, under “Ordinance Book”, “2014-30”.

The application process is a little more involved. “Backyard Chicken Keeping” is a Special Use Permit, which requires you to submit an application to the Zoning Office, and go before the Zoning Board of Review (ZBR) to prove that you meet the requirements set forth. Here’s what you need to do:

Fill out an application in the Zoning Office (City Hall). They will provide you with an application packet, which requires some basic information. You will also have to pay the fee, around $300 – it seems like a lot, but it is a one-time fee for you to keep chickens on your property, which sure beats the $50-a-year permitting fee elsewhere.

Construct a “Plot Plan” – the more detailed, the better. This should include a satellite image of your property, with borders around your rear yard and a proposed coop location. You also want to get a layout of your house from the Tax Assessor’s office, and draw your property lines around it – shade out a 15 foot border around your rear and side property line, a 25 foot border around neighboring dwellings, and your entire front and side yards (as defined by the Zoning Officer) – then, everywhere not shaded is legal coop-placement territory. Again, fill in the proposed coop location, with distance measurements from each of your property lines.

Provide diagrams of the coop – again, the more detailed, the better. This could be a picture of the coop you plan to install, a manufacturer’s diagram, or a hand-drawn blueprint with major features and measurements.

Include other relevant documentation: pictures of your yard and an image of the enclosed compost bin or feed-storage container. You have to provide enough detail without providing too much – remember, it’s very likely that everything you document will become binding.

Schedule a short site visit with the Zoning Officer, to certify the accuracy of everything you’ve submitted – 5 minutes is all it takes, and it makes the whole process a lot easier. The Planning Department will also provide a legal recommendation.

Attend your hearing! The ZBR meets once a month, and your hearing will be scheduled by the Zoning Office. If you aren’t the owner, make sure they attend, or get the appropriate letter in the permit filled out and notarized. This hearing is your time to shine – you will give brief testimony regarding everything in your application, and will answer questions from the ZBR about specific legalities. Be prepared to back up anything you’ve provided, and know the law!

The Zoning Office can further advise you with all elements of this application, and I recommend you to look at their records of my application packet.

Go to the URL given above; within “Woonsocket City Code” > “Appendix C, Zoning”, you should know the following four pieces of law inside and out – in Section 18, the definition of “Backyard Chicken Keeping”, which lays out the rules; Section 1.2, which outlines the purposes of Zoning; Section 4.4, which lists Backyard Chicken Keeping (#13) as a Special Use; and Section 15.8-3, which defines the Special Use Standards. It is the ZBR’s job to assess whether you meet the requirements of the law. If you qualify, do your research, and follow the regulations to the letter, I believe victory is in your future.

This story would be incomplete without expressing my deepest gratitude to two people: former Councilman Marc Dubois, who advocated for chickens long before it was popular to do so, and Councilwoman Melissa Murray, who has worked tirelessly to make it popular enough to succeed. He planted and nurtured a seed in the uncertain spring soil, and she built a greenhouse that brought the plant to a harvest. Every family who gets a permit to keep backyard chickens in Woonsocket should be reminded of their devotion.

We have so many others to thank – Councilmen Garrett Mancieri, Roger Jalette, and Dan Gendron, who co-sponsored and passed the ordinance; the experts, organizations, and residents who supported this idea; Dr. Scott Marshall, Rhode Island State Veterinarian, and Scott Scofield, Supervisor of Providence Animal Control, who testified before the Planning Board as expert witnesses; and Joan LeFrancois in the Zoning Office, Zoning Officer Larry Desormier, and the members of the ZBR, whose hard work and understanding made the application process straightforward for me, and set a good precedent for the future.

In a special column next Friday, April 10th, I will go into detail about how to keep backyard chickens, and what benefits they can provide to your urban farm.

By the way, you’re probably wondering about the language in the title of the column. Throughout this process, the opposition’s argument was basically that “chickens don’t belong in the city.” Well, after two years, quite a few versions of the law, a 4-3 vote, and a successful Zoning hearing, I would politely beg to differ: yes, they certainly do.

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





The Call and Times, Column 13 – Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

5 10 2014

(October 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

Last month, I wrote somberly about the outdated and very unsustainable notion of waste – the idea that there are products and materials which are completely, irreparably useless, worth so little that their only meaningful purpose is to be trucked away and never seen again. I insisted that rational people in a rational economy can no longer accept this outdated idea as true, but I didn’t get as far as suggesting a solution. No, entire libraries could be written on the complex solution to this very complex problem, and because it is arguably the most valuable topic that I believe I will ever write about, I felt that it at least deserved its own column.

That solution, in a few words, is called “solving for a pattern”, and was termed and developed by my favorite writer and philosopher, Wendell Berry. The basic idea of his philosophy is that “the whole problem must be solved, not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it”. His definition of a good systemic solution is one that “solves more than one problem”, and which “does not make new problems” in being executed.

Looking specifically at the systems of agriculture, forestry, and every other industry that links production to the environment, this idea suggests that we have to find the irresponsible decisions that were made to construct those systems – decisions that amped up production, or which were very convenient or very profitable, at the expense of the health of the people, environment, and economy – and reverse them. On an even higher level, solving for a pattern means to understand a local ecosystem or culture well enough, that you can solve its problems by finding the ways in which it was forced to deviate from Nature’s own method.

Berry uses the perfect example of America’s food production system to put this idea into practice. Modern industrial agriculture produces plant products and animal products in two basically disconnected systems, with the only interaction being that grain is bought to feed the animals in concentrated feedlots. It is somewhat obvious why this was done. Animals require less room (as far as factory-like efficiency is concerned, anyway) and crops can be raised more efficiently if they are separated, and both systems are more immediately productive when specialized farmers manage them separately.

Looking only at the bottom line, this system is great – production, and therefore profit, is increased, and meat, eggs,  milk, and grains are raised with industrial efficiency. But when you take a step back, looking at the whole system rather than just the specific farms, it doesn’t look so pretty. By separating the animals and plants, we’ve created industrial quantities of manure on one side, and a severe deficit of soil fertility on the other. Can you see the pattern to which we might try to solve? We also see pest problems in our crops, and fowl with a wildly unbalanced, bug-less diet; giant monocultures of grains that require so much more carbon-emitting fuels than pastureland to grow, and grass-eating cows, goats, and sheep, that suffer terrible health problems from eating only corn; and lots of fossil fuel required to make this system work. By separating plants and animals in our agriculture, we have contributed to so many of the major environmental problems that we face as a species today. In light of this, it may be time to take Berry’s advice.

In a typical urban farm, there are dozens of different components that must work together to produce a functioning whole. These include the deliberate work of the farmer: vegetable gardens, fruit trees, chickens, rain barrels, solar panels, and compost. They also include more subtle interactions with the environment, called ecosystem services: rain, clean air, sunlight, decomposition, soil fertility, temperature regulation, and natural biomass production.

It is a principal job of the urban farmer to integrate all of these components, and many that I haven’t even thought to mention, into a functioning, productive, and sustainable whole – to “solve for a pattern”, to put it blatantly. Each component generally has inputs and outputs – materials, energy, and knowledge involved at both ends of its life. Normally, a process is done for the primary purpose of one of its outputs, as in chicken-keeping for eggs, vegetable gardening for produce, solar panels for energy. But by integrating these components, by using your knowledge to tie the many systems together into an interwoven whole, all outputs, including what we traditionally call “garbage”, can become inputs to other components. By doing this, the urban farmer can reduce costs, by eliminating the need for expensive inputs like fertilizer and energy and drastically increase sustainability, both of the economic flavor, by constructing a resilient system that isn’t apt to fail, and the environmental flavor, by reducing environmentally-destructive production that our modern economy creates in order to keep us alive.

Let’s look at an example that outlines this approach well in a typical urban farm, one that has caught some media attention in the past few years – let’s (theoretically) raise chickens. A typical flock of chickens requires inputs including water, grain-based feed, access to grass for roughage and bugs, and straw for bedding. The flock will produce outputs of eggs, nitrogen-rich manure, and, as agricultural services, pest control and soil aeration. Let’s say you grow some grain to feed to the flock, and give them access to your yard for pasture. From the get-go, the act of feeding themselves on pasture acts as natural and very effective pest control and lawn-fertilization and aeration. In growing grains, you provide not only feed, but also straw for their bedding. They can also be fed kitchen scraps and yard wastes, and their manure is composted to fertilize the soil so that it can continue to produce abundantly. So not only does the flock provide its primary output, eggs, but also produces manure and agricultural services (fertility and pest control), while most of its inputs can come directly from the garden. This, my friends, is a perfect example of solving for a simple but effective pattern.

This type of approach can and should be extended to whichever components of the urban farm it can, with the goal of integrating the whole system to require few, if any, external inputs, and which produces no waste, but only primary products (eggs, vegetables and fruit, energy, soil fertility) as its outputs. This relies on thinking not in terms of linear production, like is common in modern industry and (regrettably) agriculture, but rather in terms of nutrient and energy cycles, where our urban farms are integrated not only amongst themselves, but as parts of the larger ecosystem in order to provide for environmental sustainability and resiliency. But this principle, thinking in cycles and loops, is not limited only to urban agriculture, and brings us back to our original purpose.

I started off this two-part column with a staunch rejection of the notion of waste. I still hold to that belief, but this discussion is so much bigger than just trash. The systems upon which we have come to depend – for our food, our water, and our energy – are built to eventually fail. They were constructed with the assumptions that the Earth is a limitless source of raw materials, and an infinitely large dumping ground for garbage, neither of which is even remotely true. That our global food- and economic-production systems make so much waste is but a symptom of a much bigger problem.

But this problem is not unsolvable. By employing Wendell Berry’s principle of solving for a pattern, we can organize and integrate our economic and agricultural production such that the outputs of every process are necessarily the inputs to others, a very powerful idea in theory and practice. Doing so, we can eliminate the production of any significant amount of trash, and therefore, the requirement that the Earth be our dumping ground, and the very notion of “waste” in our society. We would no longer need the rickety, expensive economic system, which has been constructed and maintained by our governments and corporations, which exploits the Earth in the extraction of raw materials, and deals with the resultant environmental degradation and production of massive amounts of garbage. Instead, we can replace it with a truly sustainable system, the only acceptable way for us to live.

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





The Call and Times, Column 10 – A Good Idea

24 07 2014

(July 4, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

A Good Idea

The topic of my column this month is so important to me, and to the people of this city, that I will skip my normal, lengthy introduction, and get right to the matter at hand: the Woonsocket City Council is considering an ordinance that will legalize backyard chickens.

The law being discussed by the City Council is pretty straightforward, and similar in the regulations that it establishes to those in other cities and towns in the state. If the ordinance becomes law, I will write a much more detailed column, so my readers are well-informed of these regulations, and about the process required in order to apply for a permit. Right now, I will give a brief overview. The ordinance is a public document, and is available through the City Clerk, for anyone interested in reading it.

The ordinance establishes a list of rules that are termed “the proper care and keeping of chickens”, that must be followed in order to obtain a permit. These define where in the city chickens can be kept – R-1, R-2, and R-3 districts, on lots with at least 800 sq-ft of lot area per bird. They also define the situation of the coop in the applicant’s lot, limiting it to the rear yard and establishing distances from property lines and neighbors’ houses. They define essential requirements for the chicken coop – protection from predators and weather, cleanliness, and adequate space – and require that the feed be stored securely, and that manure be composted in enclosed containers. The regulations also include the basics in chicken-keeping etiquette – no roosters, no chickens indoors, no chickens allowed on neighbors’ property, and no slaughtering within the city – and limit the number of chickens to five in any lot.

Providing these regulations, the ordinance establishes Backyard Chicken Keeping as what is called a Special Use, a distinct type of land use that, according to the City’s Zoning law (Appendix C), is only permitted with “approval by the zoning board of review and [the] issuance of a special use permit”. In my understanding, this is done so an individual’s situation can be assessed, and the Zoning Board can be sure that they are fully informed of the law, are able and willing to follow all of the rules, and are doing so in consideration of their neighbors. In total, between the filing fee, the payment to the Zoning Board, and the abutter-notification (letter) fee, it will cost around $300 for an average homeowner to apply for this Special Use Permit. While this does seem like a lot, so long as the applicant follows all chicken-related laws, this permit is valid as long as they care to continue keeping chickens; in contrast, a $50-plus-per-year permit fee, like what is common in other municipalities, adds up very quickly over the years. Plus, the value of the eggs and the fertilizer makes up this cost very quickly (I’ve calculated it).

Having read this ordinance many times, and asked a few of the council-members about the motivations behind the regulations, I am confident that this ordinance will work well in our city.

On the one hand, this is far more restrictive than any other “pet law” in Woonsocket. Not to say that the law makes it difficult for responsible, industrious homeowners to get chickens, but this ordinance is much more specific in its permissions granted than other pet laws. While others are regulated with 1) a small fee to obtain a permit and 2) leash and droppings laws for when they are taken off the owner’s property, this chicken ordinance is more restrictive – not only are the chickens not allowed near others’ property, but the basic standards of everything from the coop placement to the treatment of the chickens is ensured by an agreement entered into by the homeowner and the Zoning Board, and only through that pretty hefty permit fee.

What’s more, this law is on the more restrictive side as far as chicken laws go in the U.S. Even with lower application fees and less restrictive regulations, many other U.S. cities and towns (including some major cities like New York and San Francisco) have legalized chickens with little problem. A local example is Providence, which has a population density nearly twice that of our own, and where chickens were legalized in 2010. Even with a lower (initial) application fee and less rules, their Animal Control Office reported only about five chicken-related complaints each year, most of which were easily rectified.

Probably the most important factor that guarantees the success of this ordinance is that it’s in the best interest of the people to follow it. On the one hand, the Special Use permit fee is a big initial investment, and together with the time and effort required to apply for the permit, makes it an investment that none will make haphazardly. What’s more, the regulations that the ordinance puts in place are the normal rules of good chicken-keeping, rules that an urban farmer will follow because they make for happy chickens. If chickens are unhappy, they will not produce eggs, and will become a money drain.

Before moving on, I’d like to make a brief comment on the closely-related issue of enforcement. When writing laws, there is never a guarantee that everyone will follow them – never. But in this case, no one in their right mind would invest their time, money, and effort into obtaining a permit (and, not to mention, buying a coop) if they do not intend to keep their chickens well, because the cost can only be justified if the flock is happy and productive. With the application fee, the Special Use Permit application process, and the various regulations that would be put in place, only those very dedicated to doing so the right way will opt to keep chickens – can any other law brag the same level of certainty?

So now that we know why this ordinance will work, I think it’s important to discuss why we need to afford people the opportunity to raise a few backyard chickens. On the most basic level, chickens are a very important element of sustainable urban agriculture. They eat food and yard wastes, turning fallen leaves, vegetable peels, and stale bread into eggs; they are efficient and inexpensive pest control, keeping the lawn and garden free from grubs, beetles, and caterpillars; their manure is an indispensible garden fertilizer, saving the gardener hundreds of dollars per year on soil fertility amendments; and most importantly, they produce delicious, nutritious eggs, adding an excellent source of protein and good fats to our tomatoes, raspberries, and green beans.

They also provide an array of benefits to the surrounding area, which in this case is the City of Woonsocket. Their manure helps to build the soil’s organic matter, which reduces water runoff and therefore stops further pollution of the river and groundwater, and increases the amount of pollutants that the soil filters out of the air. Furthermore because 20 to 30% of residential solid waste is food and yard wastes, chickens help to reduce the solid waste load on the city’s sanitation department. In addition, chicken-keeping provides for better use of land, by enabling a residential lot to serve the additional purpose of producing food – and productive land use is a concept central to our city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Finally, there is a lot to be said of the advantages of urban agriculture in general, of which a huge part is backyard chicken-keeping. Urban agriculture is a central concept to the idea of the “American spirit”, making homeowners into homesteaders, and adding a measure of self-sufficiency and security that is in serious deficit in our modern world. In this way, it also contributes to the financial well-being of the backyard farmers, who reap incredible benefits to their pocketbooks in the form of essentially free, organic food. And this food brings good health to the people, who are not exposed to the toxic chemicals, GMOs, and diseases present in the products of our modern, industrial food system (but not in small-scale, backyard agriculture). And finally, urban agriculture contributes to what some have termed the “greening of America” – the idea that, by using less harsh chemicals, practicing traditional rather than industrial factory farming, and using land that is already part of development (i.e. the residential backyard) rather than clear-cutting forests for our agriculture, urban agriculture will help to solve the dismal environmental problems that we face as a nation, a world, and a species.

Everywhere else on Earth, from the poorest countries in the developing world, to the richest countries in Europe, and even many cities and towns in the United States, people keep chickens without problem, because they are a necessary and incredibly productive part of urban agriculture. Chicken-keepers reap the benefits of fresh, nutritious eggs, a bond with their friends and neighbors that can come only with the sharing of food produced by the sweat of their own brow, and a concrete sense of security in their own home’s ability to feed them, and to thus keep them alive.

The passage of this ordinance would help to make Woonsocket, our home, one of those places. It is for this reason that I urge you all to reach out to the City Council members, whose contact information is available on the city’s website (http://www.ci.woonsocket.ri.us/), as soon as possible, to let them know that you support this ordinance. I applaud the city council for discussing this issue, and would like to specifically thank the four council-members who have signed on to express their support for its passage.

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