The Call, Column 75 – The Best Parts of Urban Farming

2 07 2017

(July 2, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Best Parts of Urban Farming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Call, Column 74 – Some Notes From My Urban Farm

18 06 2017

(June 18, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Some Notes From My Urban Farm

Hey everyone, I hope your gardens are coming along nicely despite the abnormal weather (characteristic of a fossil-fueled changing climate, of course). I decided to use today’s column to discuss a few observations, notes, thoughts, and updates from my own urban farm, as it has developed this year. I’ve never done something exactly like this before, but I think it might be helpful to share my experiences with my nearby urban farmers, who can hopefully relate and put them to good use.

This year has NOT been a good one for leafy greens in my garden. It was cold and wet pretty late in the winter, which delayed planting my spinach and lettuce until like April. And it’s been cloudy and cool far too often since then, so now that they are finally established, this onslaught of dry heat is making them bolt! It’s a shame because leafy greens are my favorite vegetables, in no small part because they are the most nutrient-packed plants you can eat. Hopefully you all are having better luck than I am.

It makes me particularly glad that I’m a member of Blue Skys Farm’s CSA program. Each week’s bag is packed with vegetables, including plenty of high-quality greens. Christina and the crew sure know how to grow them, even when the rest of us aren’t having such luck!

Gone are the days of a nice, gradual increase in temperature, and regular, light rain showers over the course of the spring. Climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc on our growing season in the Northeast US. While it’s intellectually irresponsible to attribute a particular weather event to increasing CO2 concentrations, it’s pretty safe to say that we are seeing the effects of climate change in the general shift of our day-to-day weather.

These torrential downpours, alternating with stretches of dry, oppressive heat…this weather is horrible for agriculture. It’s hard to make up for the heat with routine watering (especially if you don’t have 6 inches of mulch), and the massive downfall of rain is only beneficial if it’s followed by a kiss of sun, not another week of clouds. Until we get our act together and globally reduce carbon emissions, this unpredictability and extremeness is the new normal – and it’s only going to get worse from here.

With that said, I think the above-freezing temperatures are here to stay for the season, so I’m planning to plant my warm weather crops over the next few days. I put it off a week or two this year because of how busy I was in late May and early this month. But they’re hardened off and ready to go.

The tomatoes are a little leggy, probably because my house isn’t super temperature-controlled and my seed-starting setup isn’t heated, so they fell victim to the fluctuating temperatures over the past few months. But the eggplants and peppers are generally doing pretty well, so I’m excited for some home-grown, homemade melitzanosalata (a garlicky, Greek eggplant paste that I could eat at every meal) and meat-and-cheese-stuffed-peppers later this summer. Now, let’s hope the weather stays warmish and the rain comes a bit more regularly, so these babies can take off once they’re planted.

My raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries are doing great this year, which is hardly a surprise considering how closely related they are to their wild ancestors. They leafed-out beautifully, they’ve made a surprising number of new canes, and there is a good mix of buds, flowers, and immature fruits on the plants as I write this. This is great news, because bramble fruits are my second favorite foods from the plant kingdom after leafy greens, again and in no small part because of how nutrient (and fiber!) dense they are. Now, if only I could raise red meat animals in my yard, I would never have to buy food again! (Hmm, maybe it’s time for another change to Woonsocket’s Zoning Laws?)

My grapes, blueberries, and other fruiting bushes are doing moderately well this year. I’m hoping for a better crop than last year’s dismal one, so I’m trying to water them more than normal. But the strawberries: they’re doing awful. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the general sentiment I’ve heard is that strawberries in our area are pretty bad this year. It’s likely the same abnormal weather patterns I discussed above, especially because groundcovers tend to like cooler, sunny weather and even moisture. I might dig them all up this fall and move them to a new location, being a little more methodical with the layout, and mulching like it’s my job. We’ll see. I’m enjoying what is being produced, but it isn’t much thus far.

This year was being forecast as the Gypsy moth apocalypse. I haven’t seen that much evidence of the larvae, not nearly as bad as a few years ago, but it may just be a function of my microclimate. Anyone else have a problem in their yard? I’ve talked to some people who live in the central part of RI, who said it’s bad down there. The one good thing that might come from this weather is that they don’t thrive like they were supposed to; that, or it’ll aid in the proliferation of those much-sought-after viruses and fungi that are said to keep the larvae populations in check. Time will tell.

Are you all aware of the origination of the Gypsy moth problem? They were indigenous to Europe, and brought over to Southern MA in the mid 1800s, by a scientist who wanted to experiment on them to produce cheaper silk. They escaped into the wild and spread like wildfire across the Northeast, because they didn’t (and, I believe, still don’t) have natural predators in our area. And now, they needlessly risk the health of our gardens and farms. Have you ever benefitted from cheaper silk prices? I sure as heck haven’t.

This should be a lesson for everyone who scoffs at the DEM and EPA for regulating the movement of plant and animal materials. Regulations like this are in place for a reason. Ecosystems are pretty resilient, but in a perfectly wild setting, they aren’t supposed to be constantly bombarded by species or populations from the other side of the world, or even from hundreds or thousands of miles away. And when they do, there is a significant possibility that the new organisms harm the natural environment.

Other than the Gypsy moths, I’ve always had a huge problem with winter moth larvae, on my apple trees in particular. I started to see it sometime in late April/early May this year, when the trees began budding out, so I made an executive decision: I used foliar Bt spray for the first time in my life. Bt is a soil-borne bacteria, which seems to have evolved to keep populations of destructive insect larvae in check. The spray is approved for use in organic farms, and of all crops, ultra-hybridized, grafted, non-well-adapted apple trees probably wouldn’t survive without a little extra help (but please let me know if you have proof to the contrary). I didn’t make the decision lightly, but the organic spray is certainly effective and is not harmful to human health and not persistent in the environment, so I deemed it acceptable.

Finally, here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In the most general sense possible, we all have different personalities and drives and motivations, which mean that different approaches to the same problem work well for each of us as individuals. This is very true of how we approach creating and maintaining our gardens and urban farms.

In my case, looking specifically at the Myers-Briggs Type Index, I test as an ENFP (“Extroverted-iNtuitive- Feeling-Perceiving”), which explains why I get very enthusiastic about projects at the beginning, but often lose interest if they require a lot of repetitive, mundane maintenance tasks. Thus far, I have gardened in the typical way, which has produced a lot of mental fatigue around having to weed and water (especially if pests or other things beyond my control detract from the success of the garden), and often means I don’t keep up with that type of upkeep as well as I should.

I could certainly force myself to do these tasks, but it significantly detracts from the enjoyment of the garden. Armed with this knowledge, I have more incentive to create what I’m calling “passive maintenance systems”, that allow most of my mental effort associated with the garden to be used for creative pursuits (i.e. planting the next thing, reacting to good and bad weather events, harvesting) than routine maintenance (weeding and watering). These passive maintenance systems include things like drip irrigation to supplant direct watering, mulching to prevent weeds (and actually reduce the amount of water necessary), and permaculture design to make the whole thing function more like an independent ecosystem.

That’s my type. In general, it’s important to the success of our urban farming endeavors to tailor them to the way we think and behave, to maximize the likelihood of success and make it as fun and rewarding as possible. And in the end, there is nothing more enjoyable than a bowl of raspberries or tomato salad that was on the plant 20 minutes before.

I have one quick request. I have been writing this column for three and a half years now (!!!). I’ve written about a lot of exciting topics, and I have a long list of ideas for the future. But I want some input from you. If there is a topic you’d like me to discuss – anything from “hands-on” gardening ideas, to exposés on agricultural or environmental issues, to philosophical discussions about our place in the world – email me about it and I’ll try to 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 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at http://blueskysfarm.com/. As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at http://aquidneckfarms.com/.

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

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 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to https://sos.ri.gov/vic/ and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

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 37 – The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

8 02 2016

(January 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

Despite the snow, frozen soil, and minimal egg yield, the winter is one of my favorite times of the year in terms of urban farming. Why, you ask? Two words: seed catalogs!

It’s time to begin the preparations for next year’s garden, and the eight or so seed catalogs I’ve received in the mail over the past month make that task a whole lot more fun. They form the basis for my spring garden plan, how and what I decide to plant come springtime. Today, I want us to go over how an urban farmer should go about making this plan: what types of decisions you will have to make and how to go about making them, my personal methods for planning my garden each year, and some resources that I’ve found helpful in the process.

The first two decisions that you must make are: what you want to grow, and how much. These decisions are nuanced, and how you make them depends very much on your and your family’s goals in planting a garden.

If the purpose of your garden is the simple quest for good food, you probably want to focus on tried-and-true favorites: culinary herbs, heirloom potatoes and beans, and varieties of fruits and vegetables bred for taste. A good yield is important to you, but a bushel of tomatoes is worthless of they are bred for industrial production or cooking down into sauce, and taste like mushy water raw.

This is even more true if you make a few, specific recipes often, and are growing the garden to supply the ingredients for those recipes. If Italian food, for example, is a personal forte, then basil, oregano, and good Italian tomatoes are a must.

On the other hand, if you are growing with the goal of maximizing production in the confines of your backyard, whether for some measure of food self-sufficiency or even just to stock the cupboards for the winter, your focus will be different. High-efficiency, high-calorie-density crops like grains, beans, brassica vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, and root vegetables are the best way to accomplish these goals.

If, instead, you have found that eating a sufficient quantity of vegetables and low-sugar fruits (10 servings per day) can get cost-prohibitive, you might endeavor to supplement your food budget with a garden. The crops you’ll want to focus on are those that give you the greatest return on your labor investment – for example, nutrient-rich and calorie-poor crops like leafy greens, can run a pretty big food bill if you want to make them a significant part of your diet. It’s a great idea to combine what you buy at the farmers market (which is already cheaper than what’s in the supermarket) with the products of your own garden.

Personally, as I’ve grown and matured in my knowledge of agriculture, ecology, and human nutrition, the emphasis of my diet has shifted from high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to “high-nutrient” foods. In turn, the subtle focus of my garden has and will continue to shift in this direction – rather than spending so much effort and space on things like white potatoes, sugar beets, corn, and other manner of grains, this year’s garden will be largely based on all manner of nutrient-dense vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and especially leafy-greens (with some sweet and white potatoes and other root crops mixed in, for the self-sufficiency aspects).

In all cases, how much you decide to grow of each crop should be made to match its intended uses. If you’ve decided on a “stock-the-cupboards, self-sufficiency” garden, you need to look at how many potatoes, how much cabbage, and how much corn your family eats throughout the year, both fresh while it is in season, and preserved, if there is a good way to do that.

In my case, tomatoes and peppers are a high-yielding, easily-preserved, nutrient-dense crop that my family uses a lot of. By growing many plants of these types in my garden, the goal is for us to have enough for much of the year. In terms of leafy greens, there are some that we like more than others – I go through a lot of spinach, kale, lettuces, arugula, and cabbage, so I will grow a lot more of that this year than, say, Swiss chard (which I like, but only in small doses).

Now that you have an idea of the types of crops you want to grow, and how much you should plant, you need to actually order the seeds! Here’s my organizational strategy.

It all starts with seed catalogs. If you haven’t bought seeds or plants from an online supplier before, you will need to go to each website and request a catalog; if you have, they usually begin sending you one around this time each year. I normally get catalogs from Fedco Seeds (along with their other plant divisions), Gurneys Seed and Nursery, Bountiful Gardens, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burnt Ridge Nursery, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Some of these are from the local area, and otherwise they specialize in very high quality seeds and plants (organic, heirloom, permaculture-based, etc).

While you are deciding which companies to order catalogs from, and again after perusing their catalogs (which have way more information than a website ever could), you have to decide which companies you actually want to order your seeds and plants from. This decision can be based on many factors, but usually includes their prices in comparison to the others, how local they are, whether they offer specific seeds or plants you desire, and other company’s policies – about GMOs, organic seed, business structure and practices, and even practical considerations like ordering timelines. I usually limit it to two or three companies to order my seeds and plants, because there are a few whose quality has been proven (Fedco is my go-to for seed!), and otherwise because shipping can add up if you spread your order too thin.

For those who have grown a garden in recent years, you then need to make a seed inventory of what you already have. This is a big step for me, because I easily have over 200 seed varieties that I use every year (I know, this is excessive), and this step helps me organize my thoughts about what I liked, what I didn’t, what I still have, and what I need to order again.

Everyone’s inventorying strategy is different, but I use an Excel document and list out all of the different seeds that I have, based on crop type (Nightshades, the tomato family; Alliums, the onion family; Cucurbits, the squash family; Herbs; Brassicaceae, the cabbage family; Leaf Crops; Root Crops; Beans and Grains; Flowers; and Fruit). Next to each type of seed, I write the year that it was packed for (which can be found on the seed packet), a rough estimate of the amount of seed I have left of that type (either a number or, as I did this year, a designation of “few”, “some”, or “lot”), and a guess at the viability, based on how long seeds of that type or family usually last (I designate “viable” or “questionable”, based on my experience and tables like this one at fedcoseeds.com/seeds/seed_saving.htm). I also designate which varieties I actually ran out of this year.

            From this, I extract a rough list of specific cultivars and general crops that I want to plant again; and therefore, for those that I did not save any seed (which I admit happens far too often for my liking in my own garden), those cultivars and crops that I have to order again, and which company I got them from (if applicable). Start by designating those cultivars which are definitely viable (i.e. tomatoes or lettuce marked for last year) and which you also have a lot of left, as “in inventory” (and therefore don’t need to be ordered), while those that probably aren’t viable and/or you have little left, but that you liked as “out of inventory” (and therefore need to be ordered).

            You can then peruse the offerings of each company by the above crop categories, keeping in mind 1) which crops and how much you decided to grow; 2) what you already have for seed; and 3) what you definitely need to order again. For me, this is the Year of the Leafy Greens – I have some lettuce and kale seed from last year, but I’m stepping up my game and need to include quite a few of them in my order.

            Finally, I create another Excel sheet (can you tell my mom is an accountant?), organized by company, of the specific seed varieties (and plants) that I need to buy. Include their name, as well as other identifying information – production number, weight or count, and price – to keep you organized, make it easy to build your shopping cart (if ordering online), and keep a rough estimate of total prices. Also, if shipping is calculated by weight or total order cost, you can include a formula to calculate it for each company in a cell below the company’s listing.

            Good luck, and happy (seed) hunting!

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 21 – Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

27 05 2015

(May 24th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

Yesterday [Saturday], millions of people around the world took to the streets in the annual March Against Monsanto, including in our own capitol of Providence. All were united under a common belief – our food system is sick, and genetically modified (GMO) crops are a symptom, not a cure.

Last year, I wrote about GMOs, and why they might not be such a great bargain for the consumer. Without repeating too much, here’s a quick recap.

Genetic engineering is when the plant’s DNA is changed in such a way that would not otherwise occur in nature. Few legitimate safety assessments have been done on these crops, but in light of the modern understanding that of the complex expression of genes, and a study performed by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked GMO corn to cancer and hormone imbalance, there’s genuine reason for concern.

These crops were first grown in the US in 1994, but have now dominated the market – upwards of 85% of the corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets grown here are GMO.

Around 70 countries worldwide have mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. These people and their governments are weary of GMOs for a variety of reasons, which mostly boil down to: the negative effect on human health of carcinogens, toxic chemicals, and novel allergens; the environmental dangers of increased topsoil loss, pesticide use, and crop monocultures, and uncontrollable “genetic drift”; and the social and political inequities involving Intellectual Property (IP) laws and lax federal regulation, which result in lawsuits and farmer suicides.

Monsanto is the biotechnology company that controls a significant portion of the seed market worldwide. While genetic engineering is more generally used to force crops into the broken mold of industrial agriculture, there are two major varieties of GMO seeds that Monsanto produces. Bt crops have been engineered so that the plant produces it own toxic pesticide, and RoundUp Ready crops are engineered to survive liberal applications of the toxic herbicide glyphosate – both result in toxic residues, destined for your dinner plate.

In response to all of this, concerned consumers have a simple request for their government – label foods produced with GMO ingredients so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. It’s a shame that this simple label has stirred up such controversy, and is opposed so strongly by (emphasis) industrial farmers and special interest groups. Here’s the simple, reasoned argument for the labeling GMOs:

1) Consumption of GMOs is risky for the consumers. As discussed earlier, our health, environmental welfare, and social equity are all negatively affected by GMO agriculture.

2) But it doesn’t provide us any benefit. Flavor and nutrition aren’t improved, and yields don’t really increase on the long-term, so the end product isn’t better, cheaper, or more abundant.

3) They’re easy to label. Farmers know what they’re growing, distributors and retailers know what they’re buying, and companies often change a few pixels of ink without so much objection.

4) Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask for labels. The society-wide benefit of truthful labels is much greater than the benefit of continued misinformation. For capitalism to function correctly, consumers need the information to make rational decisions.

5) People want labels! Polls consistently show 80 to 90% of people want their food labels to be truthful about GMO ingredients, because, surprisingly, they care about what they put in their and their families’ bodies.

6) The duty of the government is to provide for the common welfare. This is in our founding documents and is central to the definition of a representative democracy.

And so, labels are reasonable, they are desired by the people, and they are the government’s duty – in the paraphrased words of Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield yogurt, “just label it!”

So now, the question that I hope is on all of your minds: “What can I do about this?” I’m glad you asked.

Personal changes – buying organic or certified non-GMO when possible and growing your own food – are good ways to minimize risk to your family in the short-term. However, the most difficult battles are won by armies, not individuals.

There are currently bills in the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives that would mandate the truthful labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. They have a lot of support, but are currently sitting on committee tables, waiting for us – the consumers, the electorate, the eaters – to convince our elected officials to pass them. We have an opportunity to stand with Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont in a regional push for common sense transparency in food labeling, setting the precedent for the rest of the nation.

I’m working with Right to Know Rhode Island, the organization responsible for promoting the GMO labeling law in our state. Yesterday marked the beginning of our 2015 Week of Action: each day, we invite you to engage your family, friends, and elected officials in different ways, so that we can send a strong, unified message that we have a right to know what’s in our food.

Tuesday, you should Call Your Legislator; Wednesday, we want to Grow the Network of our institutional partners; Thursday in Movie Night, where we will host screenings of the documentary film, GMO OMG; Friday, we need to Stop the DARK Act, in which the federal government is attempting to illegalize state GMO labeling laws; and Saturday, we will be Targeting Leadership by canvassing the district Senator Josh Miller, and chair of the Senate Committee where the bill is being held.

Please go to http://righttoknowri.org/, and http://righttoknowri.org/woa2015/ for more information about each day of action, and to find out how to get involved.

I will be hosting a screening of GMO OMG in the Woonsocket Harris Public Library the next Monday, June 1st, at 7pm. There will also be a screening in the Rochambeau Library in Providence. We hope to see you there.

And now, like I often do, I’ll leave you with a bit of an enigma to ponder as you participate in our Week of Action. The opponents of truthful labeling argue that a mandatory label is as good as a skull-and-crossbones – “if we label it, people won’t buy it!”

Now, readers, if knowing a simple fact about their food would actually make people less likely to buy it, if people would choose not to consume something because their personal assessment, to which they are absolutely allowed in our free society, finds the risks too great and the benefits too few – how, then, is the appropriate, governmentally-endorsed response to withhold that information from them? At what point are we no longer entitled to make such decisions for ourselves?

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





The Call and Times, Column 16 – As Sweet As Honey: The Art and Science of Urban Beekeeping

9 02 2015

(January 9, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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