The Call, Column 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Call, Column 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 48 – Water-Wise Gardening

6 06 2016

(June 5, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Water-Wise Gardening


Despite the heavy rain in the forecast for today, I’m guessing that you’ve also noticed the sudden onset of warm, dry weather over the past few weeks. Though our southern New England climate has pretty much always been characterized by alternating stretches of warm, dry weather and cool, wet weather, the extremeness of this effect is being intensified by climate change. In the spirit of being well-adapted to the changing climate, and more generally with the important goal of resource conservation that underlies urban farming, today’s column is about a few key gardening practices and system-level approaches that aim to make the best possible use of water, both that which falls from the sky and that which is delivered through the faucet.

The name of the game is water-wise gardening. That begins with applying the best water you can as time-efficiently as you can, and ends with making sure that water stays where you put it for as long as possible. There are two classifications of methods and systems that we will discuss: gardening techniques that require little additional time or money, and more elaborate systems, that need some additional planning, but have a more pronounced benefit.

Let’s start with the so-called “low-hanging fruit”, simple gardening practices that have a pretty significant baseline effect with little overhead time or money:


  • Mulching. This is the single easiest and most effective water-wise gardening technique. By covering the soil around your plants with an inch or two of any fine organic material – grass clippings, shredded leaves, wood mulch, shredded newspaper, straw/hay, or even partially-broken-down compost, you can drastically slow down the rate at which the water evaporates. On a hot day, any un-mulched soil in my garden dries out within maybe 12 hours of watering or rainfall; mulched soil stays wet for at least a few days under the same conditions. Mulch also breaks down slowly into compost, which brings us to the next method.
  • Building organic matter content. Incorporating finished compost, manure, leaf mould, decomposed mulch, and other organic matter into your soil also drastically increases its water storage capacity with little effort. Organic matter contains a high level of what’s called “humus”, a not-well-understood organic chemical cocktail that is essentially the glue that holds our planet’s biosphere together. Among its many features, a high humus content is what gives soil its ability to store many times its own weight in water, thereby providing the plants’ roots with much longer-term access to water without more frequent watering.
  • Watering methods. Some measure of your water usage efficiency is the result of how and when you water the soil. By watering later in the evening or early in the morning, when the sun is not strong and the temperature is at the day’s lowest, the water will be able to percolate into the soil before being evaporated.
    In addition, much of the water that leaves the nozzle of the hose doesn’t make it to the soil, because it evaporates in mid-air. Following the above schedule helps to alleviate this, as does watering with the hose output as close as possible to the surface of the soil (that is, choosing those garden shower wands over sprinklers).
  • Layout of plants. There is a school of agricultural thought called permaculture, which theorizes that our agriculture performs best when it mimics the behaviors of natural ecosystems. Taking cues from this, you can maximize the soil’s moisture retention by being deliberate with the layout of plants in your urban farm. Specifically, by planting your main crops closer together than generally recommended, they will shield the ground from sunlight and slow water evaporation; a similar effect is produced by planting a “groundcover” of low-growing plants (i.e. strawberries, leafy greens, some smaller leafy root vegetables) amongst taller plants (like tomatoes), and has the added benefit of producing an additional crop from otherwise unused space. (Permaculture is a nuanced and very interesting set of theories, which warrants a few columns of its own sometime in the near future.)


Next, let’s talk about some not-very-costly systems that require a bit more planning, but have a more pronounced effect on your water usage:


  • Rain barrels. These are a great, self-sufficient way to meet your urban farm’s water needs, providing non-chlorinated, non-fluoridated water to your plants and animals while conserving our rapidly dwindling freshwater supply. Essentially, a rain barrel is any container (the bigger the better!) that is placed beneath a gutter downspout in order to catch and store rainwater. This water can then be used to irrigate your garden (especially with a drip irrigation system – more on this below). I would urge you to look at the much more in-depth column about building an urban rainwater catchment system that I wrote last June (you can find it here:
  • Drip irrigation. This is another planning-intensive but relatively inexpensive system to maximize your water usage efficiency. I am just beginning to install my own drip irrigation system in my garden, so I’ll tell you what I know so far. It is essentially a network of ½” and ¼” tubes, laid along the soil (hopefully on top of a nice layer of mulch). Water runs through the tubes and drips out of either small holes pre-drilled every few inches, or through specialized, fixed-flow-rate drippers that you install where you want. This network is initially connected back up to either a rain barrel or the spigot, first being filtered (to remove particles), pressure regulated (so that flow rates are predictable), and backflow regulated (which prevents a water cutoff from sucking the water back up into the spigot) by special attachments. For my large garden, I expect to spend $100 to $150 when all is said and done, and this system will save me 4 or 5 hours per week for years to come.
    This type of irrigation is beneficial because it delivers water directly to 1) the soil, preventing a lot of evaporation, and 2) the desired plants, reducing weed growth that results from broad watering. It lowers your water usage significantly, and (as mentioned above) does not require you to invest time every day or two watering, so is a huge time-saver!

Feel free to email me with any questions you have about how you might get started with any of the techniques or systems I’ve discussed above, or for more detail about starting a drip irrigation or rainwater catchment system.

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 47 – HELP! What to Do About Critters in the Garden

6 06 2016

(May 22, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

HELP! What to Do About Critters in the Garden

A few days ago, I woke up for work in a great mood, like most other days. I put the coffee on and went outside to greet the day, peruse the garden, and feed the chickens. I was especially eager to check out the progress of one particular garden bed of brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) and leafy greens that I planted a few weeks ago. And as I approached the bed, I found my plants…

…completely mowed down! Gone, eaten right down to the roots! It was most likely the work of the family of woodchucks that have lived in the wooded area behind my house for years, and have definitely visited my garden before. But it stings the same every time to find plants, especially those to which you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort, just gone.

I’ll admit to having used a bit of colorful language after seeing this bad-mood-inducing sight, and imagining (at minimum) half-heartedly the proper way to hunt and cook those greedy little rodents. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it…yet.

Fittingly enough, that unfortunate experience was the inspiration for this column. High-time in the garden is quickly approaching, so we’re going to talk about the best “disruptive, but not destructive” methods to control critters in your garden. What I mean by that is to better define what I would generally call “sustainable” methods – ways to prevent wild animals from exercising their God-given right to eat plants they find growing in the dirt, that don’t contribute to the wholesale destruction of nature.

Now, we’ve talked about weed control before, but there’s something fundamentally different about pest problems and weed problems in the urban farm. As you all know first-hand, weeds are always there, but they don’t move nearly fast enough for you to wake up one morning to the unexpected sight of them having destroyed your garden. Animals (including bugs), on the other hand, are blessed with the gift of mobility, and they prefer the tasty plants in my garden over the grass growing right next to it for exactly the same reasons that I do. There are four loose categories of “disruptive, but not destructive” methods of critter control that we can and should all employ in our gardens. Let’s begin.

First up, there are biological controls. These use a harmless or less-harmful living creature to prevent an unwanted creature from visiting your garden, either by out-competing it, preying on it, or becoming its prey.

  • Planting trap crops: where a less valuable plant is used to lure insects and animals away from your food crops
  • Keeping a guard animal: whether a dog, a cat, or flock of chickens (not something I’ve ever tried myself), any animal that prefers the taste of insects and rodents over that of the plants in your garden does the trick
  • Encouraging wild bird activity: this seems counterintuitive, but by planting things that encourage birds, which may graze your plants but likely won’t decimate them, you are sure to keep harmful insect populations very low. This is sort of a non-domesticated version of guard-chickens.
  • Encouraging beneficial insects: introducing and encouraging ladybugs, praying mantises, and other beneficial insects, has the indirect effect of keeping harmful insect populations down. And my personal favorite…
  • Use poisonous or otherwise defensive plants: this can range from (simply) interspersing plants in danger of being attacked  with tomatoes/potatoes (whose leaves contain low levels of toxic alkaloids) or fragrant herbs (which tend to be deterrent to animals), to more sophisticated methods like taking advantage of wild-growing stinging nettles, which act sort of like a natural electric fence to unsuspecting animals, and even double as a tasty (cooked) spinach substitute since Mother Nature’s furry menaces probably won’t let me enjoy the crop I planted.

Next up, chemical controls, which use some chemical compound to deter or destroy a particular pest. I am generally hesitant to use these methods, because even so-called “natural” products can often be dangerous or polluting (poison ivy and deadly nightshade are “all-natural”). That said, naturally-derived pesticides like pyrethrum and retonone, and biological agents like bacillus thuringiensis, can be used as minimally-destructive pest control.

There are also ways to take advantage of some evolutionary quirk of the critter in question. For example, the urea-rich urine of predators (like foxes or human beings) literally smells of danger to small mammals, and can be sprinkled around your garden every so often as a natural defense mechanism. The same idea is what drives the use of fragrant plants, as described above.

Furthermore, there exist some truly harmless, natural chemical controls that I’ve used with a lot of luck in the past. Dried, ground chili pepper can be sprinkled on the soil to keep critters away: one accidental taste and I doubt they’ll stick around. Also, any type of fragrant onion (whether bits of garlic leaves, onion peels, or the inedible stalks of overwintered scallions) torn up and sprinkled in the garden seem to deter birds and small mammals.

There are also so-called physical controls, which utilize barriers and other contact-based mechanisms to prevent critters from eating your plants. Everyone knows the basics – fences, coverings like bird netting, wire mesh, and cloth, and any type of greenhouse/cold-frame structure – that are used to physically block animals (and sometimes bugs) from entering your garden. Furthermore, copper and table salt are effective physical (or maybe chemical?) slug deterrents, and open-topped containers of beer, buried with their openings flush to the ground, will attract, intoxicate, and drown all manner of unwanted bugs.

In addition, I would classify electrical-type phenomena as physical controls: a solar-powered electric fence is a great feature for an urban garden, and some companies make “gopher spikes”, which emit a high-pitched noise intended to deter rodents (a method that I actually believe I’ve had success with in the past).

When all is said and done, though, the best pest control is holistic management – plan your garden thoughtfully, and be willing to accept the low levels of damage that are usually inevitable.

By rotating crops, you prevent insect (and disease) populations from accumulating in the soil and confuse the radar of persistent rodents; by planting a good diversity of crops, one insect pest population or animal with particular tastes won’t destroy your entire garden; and by always having more seeds or plant starts than I need, I am able to reseed or replant (and replant, and replant) a bed with often minimal loss to long-term productivity.

In the end (and I assert this as much to myself as any of you), we can’t be mad at so-called pests. They live in nature, with no understanding of the human constructs of property rights and agriculture. They would prefer not to starve, and so when they see a plant that they like to eat, they eat it. Period.

I’ve said it before, and it’s even more apparent to me now: agriculture is by no means a completely pro-environmental pursuit. Nature would much rather “garden” that patch of land herself (doing so far more effectively) and feed her children in the process. We belong to the Earth’s ecosystem, not the other way around, and it’s up to us as responsible urban farmers to find ways to do our work that benefit both parties involved. And when it comes to critter control, the motto is simple: disrupt, but do not destroy.

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 46 – Compost: It Does An Urban Farm Good

9 05 2016

(May 8, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Compost: It Does An Urban Farm Good

Urban farming is a good way to care for the land, take part in the production of the food we eat, and match human ingenuity with nature’s accumulated wisdom in a system that benefits both parties. Unlike much of human industry, which conforms to the model of (raw materials)-(labor)-(product)-(end use)-(waste), natural processes are all part of an indefinitely-sustainable, cyclic system. As you can probably guess, a major component of this system is the mechanism where the “waste products” are turned back into “raw materials” – a process called decomposition, which is driven by erosion, microorganisms, and other slow but effective actions taking place on and in our planet. And, like in so many other areas of human-environmental relations, the careful injection of a little ecologically-inspired human manipulation into an otherwise natural process can actually make it work better, to both our benefit and that of the natural world. In the case of decomposition, this is an activity that almost all of us can do, and produces the most useful product for the least amount of effort of anything you can do as an urban farmer. Let’s talk about composting!

What is Compost

            For those of you that don’t know, “compost” is a loosely-defined term for any organic matter –from manure, to leaves, to grass clippings, to food scraps – which has decomposed to the point of “biological stability”, where it will not decompose further. In a natural, geological timescale, this decomposition can take decades or centuries, but is a vital linkage between the waste and death that are unavoidable, necessary occurrences in the Earth’s biosphere, and the formation of new life. It is the mechanism by which the Earth recycles its unneeded products back into the non-biotic “spheres” (into water, air, and most importantly, soil), which in turn actually increase the Earth’s ability to make new life!

But when an urban farmer makes a compost pile, a very small amount of effort at the right times makes the slow, natural process of decomposition happen in less than a year, and in as little as a few weeks.

How and What to Compost

  1. Throw all of your organic matter into a pile on the ground.
  2. Turn it with a pitch fork or shovel (or let your chickens do it) for five minutes every few weeks.
  3. Repeat

That’s it. You may think I’m joking, but I’m really not. In the most minimalist way, organic matter that’s concentrated into a pile and aerated (turned, to make sure there is fresh air dispersed throughout) will become rich, usable, biologically-stable compost in between a few weeks and a year, depending on ingredients.

But with a little more conscious effort, you can make the process happen faster, and produce more, better compost. First of all, I want to stress that aeration is key. Decomposition can happen either as an aerobic process – where the chemical reactions, and the bacteria that are involved, thrive in an oxygen-rich environment – or an anaerobic process – where there is little-to-no oxygen, and the reactions and microbes are different as a result. Anaerobic decomposition produces more of a sludge end-product, in addition to copious amounts of methane – which itself is useful as a fuel source, but nonetheless explains the smell of a landfill. But unless you’re planning on compacting and encasing your food scraps in concrete, your compost is already an aerobic decomposition process. By turning it regularly, and therefore injecting air throughout, you make sure those aerobic microbes thrive, and those oxygen-based chemical reactions can happen uninhibited. I can attest to this from personal experience – for years, my compost took a long time to break down and did not do so satisfactorily; I started turning it more frequently this year, and the level of decomposition that used to take months now takes a week or two.

The next consideration is the types of materials you compost. As I said: if you throw any organic matter into a pile and turn it occasionally, it will decompose. But by maintaining a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio in the pile, you can speed up the process and make better, more fertile compost. I won’t go into too much detail here, but the “brown”, carbon-rich materials include fallen leaves, twigs/branches, paper products, and other dry, often brown-colored plant material; “green”, nitrogen-rich materials include food waste, recently-living (green-colored) plants, grass clippings, and manure. To make the best, fastest compost, you should aim for about three parts brown materials to one part green materials, by volume; this can be as simple as throwing on a copious amount of saved fall leaves each time you bring out your food waste, or adding a handful of pulled weeds (I’m sure we all have some to spare) together with the branches you’ve picked up in your yard. You’ll also want to break compost materials down into the smallest pieces possible, to quicken the process.

Complete lists are available in many places on the internet and in the library, so I’ll just give a basic idea here: any material that came directly from an animal, plant, or microorganism, or which could be consumed by one, is fair game in composting. But if you’re like me, you want to use all waste for its highest value purpose, which is oftentimes not compost. Answer the following questions in order, to determine what to do with a particular item of organic waste:

  1. Is it still edible for humans? If so, find a way to eat it. This could be candied citrus peels, vegetable-scrap-soup, or bread pudding (not that I would otherwise advocate eating bread or sugar).
  2. If not, is it still edible for animals? Bearing in mind the toxicity of some things (i.e. chocolate for dogs, avocados and citrus for chickens), you can feed many food wastes to animals. Consult a trusted source, but I can tell you that my chickens are like garbage disposals, turning spoiled milk, garden weeds, and pepper seeds directly into eggs.
  3. If not, is it otherwise usable by humans, like in the garden? Rather than composting big branches, they may be usable as stakes in your garden; shredded leaves and grass clippings also make nice mulches. Crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and improperly dried hot peppers can all be used in specific ways in the garden, that maximize their value above and beyond composting.
  4. If not, is it otherwise usable by animals? I often grow small amounts of grains; rather than immediately composting the stalks, I use them as nesting material for my chickens first; leaves are similarly used to line the bottom of the coop.
  5. If not, can you use it for energy? This is heavily dependent on what systems you may have set up, but is essentially making use of the energy stored in organic material that would otherwise be lost as heat in composting. This could range from burning wood (at the simplest) to using an anaerobic methane digester to turn waste into natural gas (at probably the most complex) and everything in between, most of which produce an end-product (ashes, sludge, etc) that is then compostable.
  6. If not, compost it! It may not seem like it, but since the bulk of your urban farm’s organic wastes are leaves and grass clippings, and since there are limited 1-5 uses for these beyond garden mulch (especially if you don’t have chickens), you’ll still have plenty of composting materials.

My Uncle Lambri is my de facto mentor and co-conspirator when it comes to all things compost. He meticulously manages the fallen leaves, grass clippings, food waste, rabbit manure, and garden waste in and around his home in order to produce perfect, valuable compost, which he uses to build up the soil in his yard and garden. His primary motivation for such enthusiastic composting is simple economics – rather spend the time collecting and bagging all of that organic material to be hauled to the state landfill (or town composting facility), he spends less time and effort to compost most of it – and produces rich topsoil, which he then doesn’t have to buy. He has turned a waste stream into a source of natural resources, looping the standard, linear model of (fertilizer/loam)-(lawn/ornamental plants)-(yard waste)-(landfill) unfortunately employed by most home-owners, into a regenerative cycle.

Why You Should Compost

            If I haven’t already convinced you that you should drop this newspaper (or turn off the monitor) and find a suitable location in your yard for your new compost pile, then prepare for that to change. Compost completes the nutrient cycle in every natural environment, and therefore closes the production loop on an urban farm, contributing to resilience and self-sufficiency. It turns nutrient- and energy-rich, but otherwise unusable organic wastes into an ultra-fertile component of topsoil (called “humus”), so you gain space in your garbage can (side note: since we started composting, our garbage can is half the volume it was before) and eliminate the need to buy soil and amendments, saving you money.

By adding compost to your soil, you increase its biological activity, and (curiously) both its water storage capacity and drainage capability; it aerates the soil, acts like a potent probiotic, complete with earthworms and other beneficial insects and microbes, and boosts the soil’s mineral and organic matter content, and therefore generally its fertility.

The making and using of compost saves money, increases food yields, and is beneficial to the natural environment. And you can reap all of this benefit with as little as a small container in your kitchen to collect food waste, and 10 minutes of effort per week. Now go start that compost pile!

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 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.