The Call, Column 80 – Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

17 09 2017

(September 17, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Celebrating Terroir, Greek Style

Today, let’s take a quick break from self-sufficiency, to instead talk about the pretty remarkable brand of agriculture in which I recently got the chance to immerse myself.

Last week, I was on the island of Santorini, Greece, at the tail-end of a trip to see my family on the mainland. I learned quite a bit about community-level, effective self-sufficiency while spending time with my relatives, but today’s column is about the industriousness of the farmers on this small island in the Aegean Sea.

So, unbeknownst to me even as my plane touched down, Santorini is actually a semi-arid desert climate. It is hot and very dry during the summer, and cool, wet, and very windy during the winter. This, combined with the mineral-rich but humus-poor volcanic soil, makes agriculture generally kind of difficult there.

And here’s where the industriousness of the Greeks (like all Southern Europeans) is really made obvious: despite the harsh conditions, farmers on the island have found ways to grow world-famous, prized produce, and even capitalize on the native grape varieties and associated terroir, to produce some of the best wine in the world.

Now, keep in mind, they don’t really have to do this. Santorini is one of the most traveled-to islands on Earth, and tourism is probably more than enough to drive its economy. The people there are skilled at receiving tourists. Many of them speak fluent English, and some measure of Spanish, Italian, French, and even a bit of Slavic or Nordic; they are incredibly tolerant of tourists being…well, touristy…and have managed to preserve their culture and the beauty of their island despite having so many visitors from around the world, with far less of a personal stake in its preservation.

No, I don’t think their economic solvency as an island requires agriculture…but they still do it. A lot of it. I didn’t talk to too many farmers while I was there, but in talking to the few that I did meet, I recognized this extreme passion for the high-quality agricultural products that Greeks are known for, an appreciation for the land and its capabilities, and a cultural attachment to the farming culture that has sustained my country of origin since many thousands of years Before Christ.

The few types of produce they can grow in quantity, they grow very well. They are renowned for their intensely-flavored cherry tomatoes, a delicacy I sampled a couple of times in restaurants, and their tender white eggplants, edible even raw. One of the famous dishes on the island is “Fava Santorinis”, a mashed bean dish made with legumes grown in their soil, and they incorporate their locally-grown capers into much of their food.

And the islanders are very, very proud of their traditional agriculture. Restaurants, even those in very touristy areas, base their menus on traditional dishes from Greece and Santorini, making a point to use the island’s produce, and proudly advertise that fact. And having eaten many of these vegetables myself, I can attest to their quality and taste.

But the pièce de résistance, the type of farming that inspired me to write this column, was, of course, viniculture: the art of growing and harvesting grapes, and processing them into wine.

The island is well-known for their quasi-native Assyrtiko grapes, and along with these, they grow a few other traditional Greek varieties whose names I cannot recall. When I first began to explore the island, I was puzzled by the low-growing, bushy plants that seemed to be growing wild in every open parcel of land. It took a little while to realize that these were, in fact, the native grape plants from which the island’s prized wines are made.

Much of Santorini is covered with their unique version of vineyards, which are these Assyrtiko grape vines, grown as low-lying bushes (not on any sort of trellising), and spaced very distantly apart. In speaking to the owners of my hotel, who are themselves grape-growers, I learned that the vines are grown close to the ground to protect them from the harsh, killing winter winds, and are spaced so widely because of difficulties in keeping the arid soil properly irrigated.

Being the topsoil-loving hippy I am, I couldn’t help but wonder why the farmers didn’t use large amounts of mulch to try to build the organic matter in the soil, retain moisture in the summer dry-heat and winter wind, and prevent runoff. I asked my friends who owned the hotel, but the conversation quickly got beyond my skill level in the Greek language, so I’m still not sure of the answer. I can guess, though, that the unique terroir – the taste, smell, and quality of the wines that is characteristic of Santorini – may depend on those native grapes being grown in the specific – yes, dry, arid, and maybe even humus-poor – ecological conditions of the island.

And though I only had two days to sample the variety of wines produced in Santorini, I can totally see why the people care enough to preserve their viniculture! There were two traditional wines that I kept happening upon: the dry, white Assyrtiko, and the syrupy-sweet, technically white Vinsanto.

I like dry wines a lot, in no small part because I feel much better drinking them in the context of my low-carbohydrate diet. That said, with the low sugar content, the complex flavors of the grape are able to come through in the taste of the wine. This was some of the best dry, white wine I have ever had.

On the other end of the spectrum, though made – I came to understand – with the same grapes, is the world-renowned “Vinsanto”. To make this wine, as explained to me by my hotel friends, the grapes are cut and left in the field for a couple of days, to dry them partially into raisins and caramelize the natural sugars. From these grapes, the wine is fermented. This process produces a white wine that is more of an amber, light-maple-syrup-color. After explaining this process to me, the owners of my hotel brought me a flask of their homemade Vinsanto, aged a few years, for me to try. This was, again, some of the best wine I have ever had.

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 79 – On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

16 09 2017

(August 27, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

On The Quest For Practical Self-Sufficiency

After my second-to-last column about self-sufficiency was published, I thought about another important motivation behind peoples’ endeavor for “effective self-sufficiency”; one that is often overlooked in writings on the topic, but nonetheless a driving force for many people.

There is a certain comfort, a feeling of inherent security and freedom, that comes from systems where we – as individuals, families, and small communities – are in full control; systems whose operation is only otherwise subject to Acts of God/Nature, and not to the will and whim of external human entities that probably don’t have our personal best interests in mind. This is true across the board – who wouldn’t feel freer on a big plot of land, where they can raise chickens, or an orchard, or any herbal plant they want, without being watched, judged, and condemned by micro-regulation-happy locals and their municipality? And what internet user wouldn’t feel more secure with the knowledge that the information they transmit and receive is truly, honest-to-God not being looked at by private “Big Data” corporations and the NSA, despite there being nothing to hide?

Well, this is even truer of the systems by which our food, water, fibers (materials), energy, and production/processing/value-adding services – the basic goods and services responsible for keeping us alive and healthy – are produced. I can certainly say that I feel significantly different about a particular vegetable, or fruit, or egg, or gallon of water that I grew, raised, or gathered myself. When there is no industry, no force of government, no selfish private interest upon which you NEED to depend for the basic goods you require and no person or institution from which you must ask some permission in order to produce those goods; when your food is born of the soil and dies at your lips, with no entity of interests contrary to your own intervening in between…that’s a human life best lived.

So with that said, this column is about practically implementing a system as described above. I’m defining this as a system where we are capable of being secure and free in the production processes by which our goods are produced, though by no means ideologically bound to always be so; and where those goods are produced sustainably, on a small-enough scale to be considered “effectively self-sufficient”, without surpassing the point of diminishing returns in self-sufficiency.

The basic question is: If the stores were to close tomorrow, what do we need to be producing on individual and small community levels, to continue normal human existence for an extended time? Food, of course, which would include vegetables and animal protein at a minimum, with fruit and healthy fat sources added in for nutrient and palate variety. We also need potable water, shelter, some minimum amount of energy, (arguably) clothing, and the skills or services needed to 1) change all of these from raw materials into usable form and 2) keep us happy beyond the physical requirements for survival (entertainment, recreation, community).

Let’s go through each of the categories of goods above and discuss them in semi-isolation. For each, we can look at how the inherent limitations of your specific situation – that is, how much land you have, how much labor/time you are willing and able to exert, how much money you have to invest in startup, and your present repertoire of skills and ability to expand them – shape how you might implement them. We will discuss specific examples of each type of system, and consider the central goal of producing as much of that thing as is possible in a sustainable way.

Food. This is probably limited by land more than anything else. With a pretty investment in seed, plants, and some type(s) of animal, and a willingness to dedicate a moderate amount of time working and learning, the amount of food you grow is pretty much dependent on the amount of space to grow it.

For plants, your yield for each unit of time, labor, and money you invest will be highest if you use permaculture-type principles, focusing on perennial plants, rotating whatever annuals you do grow, practicing polyculture and guilding, and using beyond-organic methods that improve soil fertility and resilience in the long-run.

For animals, whether it’s a flock of chickens in your backyard or a herd of cows on a 10-acre plot, you should raise them in the type of environment, and the diet, on which they evolved. This will maximize their health and therefore yours; and when accounted for in the long-term spreadsheet demanded by sustainability, will produce the highest yields of any system.

Growing food can be scaled to almost any size of land available, and it’s worth focusing on the crops and animals that give the most bang-for-the-buck (and hour, and acre!). It is easy to be self-sufficient in herbs and spices, since a little space goes a long way. And because a big part of the diet of chickens and pigs, among others, can come from food waste, their space requirements on your land don’t necessarily need to include the space to grow their food (like pasture-land for cows).

Water. Collecting potable water is a very different game. This can come either from some sort of rainwater catchment, from a stream or other running water source, or from groundwater. Whichever source(s) are available to you, you need to decide the end uses that you’re willing and skilled enough to provide for. Drinking/cooking water is obviously the highest-value use, and I would urge you not to attempt this unless you are certain about the quality and purity of the final product before consuming it. For other uses that involve human contact – irrigation of foods, supplying animals, and even cleaning – water doesn’t necessarily need to meet human potability standards, but must minimally be free from sewage (obviously), high levels of pathogenic bacterial contamination, and toxic chemicals.

This is a more attainable state for even urban farmers, because rainwater is plentiful and easy to collect, and almost always meets these standards. A system as simple as a barrel on the end of a downspout is all that’s needed; alternatively, I have seen – at that heaven-on-Earth, Blue Skys/Urban Edge Farm, a rainwater and groundwater fed pond that is used to sustainably supply for irrigation needs.

Shelter. This is a little more implicit in whatever type of property you have. If you already have a house, you’re done with this section. If not, reason would dictate that you need a place to live, to protect you from the elements, and to maintain your body temperature within a healthy range (which does segue into the next section). By no means am I well-versed in construction, but there is a wide array of permaculture literature available for green, sustainable, low-impact, and actually pretty inexpensive building. Once your home (I hesitate to sound soullessly technical by calling it a “dwelling”) is built, especially if built in such a way that you are able to repair and maintain it yourself, and even more especially if the materials to do so can be locally-sourced (Earth-bags, anyone?), then you can call it effectively self-sufficient.

Energy. This is probably the most capital-intensive but land-cheap item on the list. At base, the energy we consume is used to keep our shelters and water at a reasonable temperature, cook our food, transport us long distances, and entertain us. That energy is usually supplied to us in a few basic forms: as electricity, as natural gas, as heating oil (though less common now), and as wood or other bio-fuels.

A solar array and battery bank is enough to supply any reasonable household’s electricity needs, and a bigger one in tandem with electric car(s) can supply their transportation as well. Systems like passive solar heating/water-heating, wood fires, homemade biofuels, and other distributed generation (remember back to that series of columns I wrote a few months back?) can fill the spaces that electricity can’t.

Clothing/Textiles/Materials. This is a little more situation-dependent. There are many sources of usable fiber, from linen (flax) and wood, to stinging nettle and cotton, to animal-based textiles like leather and wool. These can be grown/raised/harvested as a pretty natural extension of your food-growing endeavors, and even, in some cases, with just additional effort but no additional land or investment (i.e. wool from sheep being raised for meat/milk; nettle fibers from wild-growing stinging nettles; leather from beef cattle). These products also require a pretty extensive set of skills, but nothing that cannot be learned with a little effort and a book by John Seymour.

Next time, we’ll address the process- and community-level “products” (homestead skills, entertainment, community), and talk about a really good example of this effectively-complete self-sufficiency in action that I am currently experiencing. I want to bring up the way that these individual production systems can interplay, and how you would see that implemented in a holistic, community level.

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

The Call, Column 77 – Why Self-Sufficiency?

30 07 2017

(July 30, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Why Self-Sufficiency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call, Column 76 – The Concepts of Homesteading

19 07 2017

(July 16, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Concepts of Homesteading

            In many of my columns, I’ve throw around this concept of “homestead” without much of an explanation. I’ve described urban farms as “homesteads” in some cases, and discussed “homesteading” as a type of living, akin to urban farming on a much greater and more deliberate level.

This type of lifestyle, and the philosophy embedded within it, has been really inspirational to me in my slow journey towards sustainability and rejection of Western social norms. Over the span of a few columns, I think it would be really interesting to dive into these ideas, fleshing out what exactly it means to homestead, how much this can be done within the city, and the effect that an individual’s homestead may have on personal environmental sustainability, food security, and happiness.

Today, let’s start by going through some of the foundational concepts related to homesteading, to get a feel for the ideas and dialogue before diving deeper in future columns.

First off, what exactly is homesteading? The use of the word dates as far back as European imperialism, where the homes and land of small subsistence farmers, in the countries that Britain had temporarily seized, were called “homesteads”. The word carried through the English language, and in the US, it caught on after the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862. By this legislation, the federal government supported peoples’ Western expansion by guaranteeing families a pretty decent parcel of Native land on which to settle, farm, and live.

It has evolved quite a bit into its modern concept, which is surprisingly difficult to define. Today’s “homesteading” is more like the conscious act of maintaining your home and land, such that it supplies some measure of your resource requirements; and in addition, maintaining your land in the context of the area, so that it contributes to a strong local economy, minimizes local environmental pollution, and encourages a vibrant community of people.

I know, that’s quite the mouthful. The basic idea is that homesteaders want to view their homes as points of production, in addition to points of consumption. This can come in many different forms, depending on personal interests, as well as what types of resources can reasonably be produced from the home and land.

This list is pretty extensive. The basic, raw resources that many seek to produce are: food, through urban farming (!); water, from rain catchment, diverting flowing water sources, and extracting groundwater (i.e. through a well); shelter, which is kind of inherent in a house; energy, through any combination of renewable energy generation or (and this is REALLY stretching the definition of on-site production) a fossil fuel generator; and fibers/‘materials’, like wood, textiles, metals, hides, etc, through farming or sustainable logging/mining/gathering/hunting.

The homesteader may also want to produce “resources” beyond these basic ones. These include: the creation of value-added resources, like food processing, lumber milling, fiber spinning, water treatment, etc; entertainment and recreation; and, of course, community.

Obviously, this list is incomplete. What I want to do is to get you into the mindset of thinking about all of the resources that you, personally, and your household consume. What are ways that any or all of those could be produced on your land? We will discuss this more in the future, but that idea of producing ALL of your own resources leads us to the next concept I want to touch on.

“Self-sufficiency” or “self-reliance” is a particular type of homesteading, in which the homesteader seeks to produce all of their own resources. Or at least, all of the resources that they need to survive, should a hypothetical situation arise that would cut off the normal supply chain.

Self-sufficiency is pretty environmentally-agnostic. You can rotationally graze cows on your pastures, which is certainly a self-sufficient production system, at least in beef, dairy, cowhides, etc. But you can also raise them in a CAFO, feeding them grain grown on your own land, and technically still be self-sufficient.  See how both of these are technically self-sufficient in those products?

The basic idea being pursued in self-sufficiency, is to have production systems in place that some subset of required resources can be produced without any intervention from wider society. I believe that this is a good goal, in general, especially if it is conducted more on a community level than used as justification for isolationism. That is, every house doesn’t necessarily need to go completely off-grid, and have the equipment to make cheese, and brew beer, and weave fiber, and mill lumber, and process every kind of animal, and press paper, and make maple syrup, and…the list goes on. As long as people can provide basic needs – basic foods (meat and vegetables), water, energy – and allow a community to be built around creating the value-added resources. I hope to talk more about this in the future.

This leads to another, very important concept: resilience. Any homestead, self-sufficient or otherwise – and really, any system at all – should be measured by whether it is resilient, whether it is capable of surviving an inopportune event or situation and continue functioning more-or-less as normal.

This is a powerful metric, because it indicates whether a production model can be relied upon for consistent production, even in times of stress. Nature, as the basic measure for everything we do, is resilient. Life is self-perpetuating, and disastrous events (which are, ironically, also part of nature) can destroy natural systems in a certain area for a period of time, but the web of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial life, the biogeochemical resource cycles, sunlight, etc is resilient enough that even very big wounds can be healed.

Finally, we have the concept of individual environmental sustainability. We’ve talked a lot about this in the past, but it relates pretty strongly to the homesteading. As I said, homesteading and self-sufficiency don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, but sustainability is another good metric for the effectiveness of a homestead.

As you probably know, the simplest definition of a system that is environmentally sustainable is that, over time, it produces an environment which is at least as “fertile” – as capable of continued production of biological life and environmental services – as it was before the system started; meaning, that this system could theoretically be in place forever, and would never render the environment incapable of supporting it.

I think I’ll leave it at that for right now, because writing this has given me a lot of ideas for future columns on these concepts. See you then!

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

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

2 07 2017

(July 2, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Best Parts of Urban Farming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call, Column 70 – An Urban Farmer’s Springtime To Do List

24 04 2017

(April 23, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

An Urban Farmer’s Springtime To Do List

Spring is in the air – and the soil, the sunshine, the budding perennials, and the mating calls of every animal in Southern New England. And for urban farmers, that can only mean one thing…It’s time to start preparing your homestead for the growing season!

Today’s column is a very practical one. I’ll share with you some of the basic tasks you’ll want to get done in the next couple of weeks, taken right from my own “Garden To Do List” (I promise, I’m working on my compulsive list-making problem).

Make a garden plan. This is one of the most important steps between today’s patch of dirt and a flourishing garden. A garden plan can mean different things for different people, but it basically encompasses the intended use for each bit of your land under cultivation – garden and otherwise – and a rough timeline for how that will be implemented. You should start with a list of all of the crops you intend to grow, including any perennials that are already planted and those you plan to plant this spring. Then, draw out a map of your whole yard or garden space, roughly to scale. Fill in all of the perennials (present and future) and permanent fixtures in your garden, crossing them off the list. This leaves you with an idea of your available space, and a list of the other (annual) crops you will fill it with. Now, keeping in mind light/shading and water requirements, and the principles of crop rotation, companion planting, and, if you’re adventurous, permaculture or biodynamics, plan the layout of the rest of your annual crops. Ask yourself how much you will want to produce of each, and allocate space accordingly.

Start your seeds indoors. There is still time to start long-season crops from seed indoors, and the time is soon approaching to start the shorter-term ones inside. You can read my full columns from two years ago on exactly how to start seeds indoors ( and Basically, you’ll want to start them in good-quality seed-starting mix (like Fort Vee), in black plastic trays. They need a rack system to sit on, exposure to a South-facing window and daylight-spectrum bulbs, regular watering, and an organic source of nutrients. And if you’re particularly adventurous, a small fan blowing on them for a short time every day to make their stems strong.

It’s a little late in the spring, but you still may be able to start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and maybe even onions indoors. Now is the time to start some brassicas (cabbage, etc), most herbs, and leafy green crops (if you want to start those indoors). And squash/cucumbers/melons should be started inside in a couple of weeks.

Plant out early spring crops. It’s also finally the point in the spring when you can plant your first seeds outdoors. Greens, like lettuce and spinach, can be directly seeded in your garden at this point. As can most root crops, onions, peas, and even seed potatoes (but not sweet potatoes until late May). The seeds you start indoors should wait until after the last expected frost (around May 20th), as should non-cold-tolerant crops like beans and sweet potatoes.

New perennials, both those in dormancy and those already leaving out, should also go in before the weather warms too much more – as long as they can survive the frosts we will likely get between now and late May.

Prune your fruiting plants and repair/install supports. Pruning should ideally be done in the fall, but I rarely do that. I tend to prune my grape vines down to a few feet off the ground – this is entirely a practical decision, based on where they first make contact with the support system I have for them. And by waiting for the spring, I can be sure of which raspberry and blackberry canes are dead (meaning they fruited for at least one of the last two years), so I don a pair of gloves and get cutting. My other fruiting perennials – blueberries, apples, elderberries, and other, more esoteric plants – aren’t really old enough to be pruned yet, so I can’t really advise on these.

This is also a good time to repair and install supports for your bramble fruits, fruiting bushes, and even small fruit trees. Something as simple as a wooden stake, driven into the ground, can help to support the weight of a fast-growing bush or tree. I am planning to use something non-biodegradable as a more permanent support for my raspberry and blackberry patch, though, because the old wooden ones seem to have rotted over the years.

Clean out your garden. I can never find enough time in the fall to clean all the spent plants and last-generation weeds out of my garden. It always ends up happening in the spring – better late than never, right? So of course, the remains of last year’s annual crops should be removed and composted. And so should the spent parts of perennials (we’ll get to that below). But you also want to tidy up the tools and equipment in your garden, to make it a productive place to work this spring. And fix any fences or pathways that might need mending.

Apply soil amendments. The most important of these is, of course, compost. This can be homemade compost, making sure chicken manure was aged for six months to a year, or purchased compost products (think local, organic, and sustainably-derived).

You’ll also want to apply other organic soil amendments, balancing nutrient levels in your soil to whatever level you’re concerned about them (I tend not to be, especially when I use enough compost).

It’s also the time to till cover crops back into the soil, to provide a nice source of “slow-release” fertility for your spring and summer planting. If you have chickens, they’ll be happy to do this for you in exchange for whatever bugs they may find in the process. (It sounds like I’m joking, but I’m actually very serious. They are little rototilling machines.)

Thoroughly clean the chicken coop. What better way to get a kick-start on next year’s compost than by thoroughly cleaning out the chicken coop? Remove the nesting material and the soil and bedding as deep as you can, replacing them with fresh materials (leaves and wood shavings, perhaps). The chickens will thank you, and in six months, you’ll have some powerful new compost…just in time for fall planting.

Install irrigation systems. Now is the perfect time to do this, with the weather still marginally wet and the ground free of weeds, but with deep freezes (ideally) done for the year. You can make and install rain barrels on downspouts very soon. And as you plant your garden and prune your perennials, you should install a simple drip irrigation system. That’s my plan for the next few weeks!

Repair and replace garden equipment. Hoses break. Nozzles crack. Black plastic trays warp. When not ultra-durable, manmade materials are continuously exposed to the elements, they don’t always last long. Thankfully, the equipment that is required for urban farming is pretty minimal, so it’s often worth having quality stuff! Might I suggest that you check out Cluck! Urban Farm Supply, in Providence, for urban farming equipment and supplies? You won’t be disappointed.

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

The Call, Column 68 – What You Find in Italy

26 03 2017

(March 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Find in Italy

Yes, this is a real place. Tuscany, from the vantage point of San Gimignano castle.

“People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.” This was the comment made by our waiter, Clemente, at a small restaurant in Italy, that gave me my first taste of this country’s remarkable food culture.

I have spent the last week and a half in Italy. And, as has become my pattern when I travel to a new place, I pay lots of attention to their food culture, agricultural practices, and notions of sustainability…all so I can write about it for you. What should make my trip to Italy, the country known widely for its appreciation of good food, and the unofficial birthplace of the Slow Food movement to boot, any different? Here are some of the things I found here.

Let’s begin in the city of Florence, in the region of Tuscany, where my trip began and that enlightening conversation took place. Florence is a big city, on the same order of magnitude as Boston, with a lot of small restaurants that proudly serve locally-grown food. After visiting the Piazzale Michelangelo, we sat down at just such a place, the Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo. The serious discussion began when my mom asked our waiter, Clemente, to cook her steak well (all quotes here are paraphrased as well as I can remember them). “I’m sorry madam, but I can’t do that” was his reply. And to my mom’s puzzled look, he continued, “We are in Florence, and I can only find it in my heart to cook it to…medium rare at most. People take their red meat very seriously in this area. It’s kind of like a religion around here.”

This really piqued our interest, so my dad asked whether the steak was at least grass-fed. “Grass-fed?” asked Clemente; and thinking maybe the phrase didn’t translate well, my dad asked more directly whether the cows were fed exclusively grass.

What else would we feed them?” It was this response, and his surprise and general disapproval as we described how ruminants in the United States are raised, that let me know how great this country’s food culture really is.

We discussed further with him, and I explored this topic a little further. It turns out that the area surrounding Florence, and more generally the region of Tuscany, in which Florence is located, is known for their high-quality red meat. Cows that are exclusively grass-fed are seen dotting the landscape in all but the coldest months, when they are fed hay (dried grass) under shelter. And it was very telling, that the worst Clemente could say about the American industrial agricultural practices that had crept into the farms in the Tuscany region, was that cows were artificially inseminated, rather than allowed to breed naturally; artificial insemination, of course, is a common practice even on organic/sustainable farms in the United States, and nowhere near the worst thing that WE do to the animals in our care. (By the way, he allowed my mom’s steak to be cooked to medium, and she at it all.)

I ate beef at least once per day while we were in Florence and the surrounding area, and can’t say enough about the taste, texture, and terroir (the gastronomic experience of the land on which a food was grown) that characterized their meat dishes. I can truly see why they take it so seriously.

Next, we look no further than the center of Florence, a bustling city surrounded by farmland, for another prime example of Italian food- and agri-culture (see what I did there?). We visited the Mercato Centrale, a huge building in the middle of the city that is a “food hub” if there ever were one. On its bottom floor, it houses an almost continuously-operating farmers market full of local produce and value-added products; and on its top floor, around 20 small restaurants, specializing in different aspects of Italian cuisine and all making use of the local produce for sale below. Isn’t that awesome? It further speaks to this people’s love of good food and agriculture, and I think it should serve as an example for those of us in the US trying to build a better food system.

And guess what? I was talking to my friend Christina, at Blue Skys Farm, about this idea, and she had some good news. She said that David Dadekian, a proponent of local food and the president of Eat Drink RI, is working towards just this type of project – it’s called the Eat Drink RI Central Market. I’ll have more for you on that as the story unfolds.

But for now, let’s travel to the farmland of the Tuscany region, surrounding Florence and covering much of Northern Italy. I made two trips into the countryside while we were staying in Florence, and both left me longing for that pastoral idyll for which, I think, every urban farmer shares a bit of adoration…and which many are working to build in our own homes. Picture this: driving leisurely on a winding country road, rolling hills as far as the eye can see, covered in vineyards and wineries, citrus trees, olive orchards, and lots of pasture land. And nestled among these fields are small towns, houses and businesses of people, whose livelihoods come from the land in which they reside…what could be better?

We visited the old town of San Gimignano, set on a hilltop overlooking Tuscany, and a vineyard and winery at the Castello di Verrazzano in Greve, Chianti. The people in these places took their agricultural terroir very seriously; from the well-known fine cheeses of San Gimignano to the world-famous wines out of Chianti, they were immensely proud of the products of their agriculture.

Finally, let’s jump way down to the southern part of the country, to the Amalfi coast, a stretch of 25 miles or so of towns built onto the sides of cliffs. The first thing that struck me about this region was the lemon trees that were planted literally everywhere along the coast. And I mean everywhere: there were small orchards of the trees, of course, in terraced plots along the cliff side; but the trees filled peoples’ yards, the grounds of many of the hotels and inns we passed, and even grew seemingly wild, out of the cracks in certain walls and rocks like giant dandelions. Our hotel, the Locanda Costa Diva in Praiano, took this to the next level, with hundreds of lemon trees, along with oranges and other citrus, olives, and even some decorative flowers, planted all throughout their two and a half acres, defining the character of the grounds. Dare I say it, the citrus trees of the Amalfi coast outnumbered even the olive trees!

This should have come as no surprise to me, though. This region is famous for their limoncello, a sweet, astringent liqueur of lemon extract in pure grain alcohol; a drink that is based on the lemons grown in the residents’ yards and orchards. I was really intrigued by what I came to call the “lemon culture” present in the area. The lemon trees growing everywhere contributed to the agricultural backdrop, of course. But in every town, you would pass at least one “limoncello factory”, where the lemons were utilized to make not only the sweet liqueur, but all manner of value-added products like candles, soaps, extracts and essential oils, and cosmetics. The famous ceramics made and sold in the region were often painted with lemon-related themes, and lemons made an appearance even on many of the souvenirs in the shops.

I’ve had a really great experience in this country, and I have to say I’m going to have trouble leaving. There is the fact that the Greeks (my national and cultural heritage) and the Italians are pretty similar, in their lifestyles and their appreciation for food and agriculture…and I feel very culturally at-home here; so much so, in fact, that I automatically fill the holes in my broken Italian with Greek rather than English.

And there is one, really notable emotional change that has come out of this trip, that I want to share with you. After the underperformance of my garden last year, what with not being able to devote enough time to it and eventually just giving up on it emotionally, if not totally in action, I was still pretty down on starting again this spring. I know, that’s probably surprising to hear me say, but there it is.

But as we drove through Tuscany, I took in the vineyards and orchards and small little homesteads – and they started to rebuild that agricultural context in my mind. Seeing this place, it began to rekindle that same internal sense of the pastoral idyll, the romantic, optimistic notion of a small, sustainable, agricultural community that originally ignited my flame however many years ago. And then, we passed a small farm right on the side of the road.

The most vivid detail I can recall was the sandy farm pathway, running along the road for a few dozen feet, and then arcing off under a canopy of trees. There might have been a wheel barrow or a tractor, or even a shed of some sort; but what I remember is the flutter in my stomach as I looked at that scene, that feeling of elation reserved for pretty girls and any setting or idea that ignites my passions. My mind was flooded with memories of everything I have read and experienced about the joy of small-scale agriculture – including, fittingly, pieces about how the romantic agrarian lifestyle is still alive and well in the Italian countryside – and my excitement about homesteading and agriculture returned with a vengeance. It’s amazing, eh, what you find in Italy?

And with that said, as soon as I get home I think it’ll be time to seed my tomatoes.

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.