The Call, Column 72 – “Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

21 05 2017

(May 21, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Getting to the Grassroots”: Another Visit to Blackbird Farm

Cows grazing on one of the pastures at Blackbird Farm

Making hay, as the sun sets on the farm

If you ever want to talk serious local agricultural strategy, sit down with Ann Marie Bouthillette of Blackbird Farm. She is a tireless advocate for the entire farming community in Rhode Island, starting with her family’s own pasture-based beef- and pork-farm in Smithfield, but reaching even as far as her own competitors. She has her finger on the pulse of the local food movement here and around the country, and you can tell that she is always thinking up some new, creative way to better promote and practice appropriate-scale agriculture. You can probably imagine how thrilled I was for the chance to talk to her again about some exciting things going on at her farm and statewide

Blackbird Farm sits on over 200 acres along Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise their Black Angus cattle, which you can sometimes see grazing in one of the road-side pastures, on a diet of grass supplemented with non-GMO grains; and their free-ranged American Heritage Berkshire pigs, what Ann Marie calls “the angus of pork”, on a diet of non-GMO feed supplemented with woodland roughage.

Their farm stand is at 660 Douglas Pike (Rt 7), right at the intersection with Limerock Road. This is where the public can purchase frozen cuts of the farm’s beef and pork, along with other agricultural products from around the state. They also sell to local institutions, like Johnson and Whales University and Roger Williams University. Check out their website, at http://blackbirdfarmri.com/, to learn more.

I visited the farm last Thursday afternoon. The warm air and approaching sunset put the farm in a particularly beautiful light, and set an appropriate backdrop for our long conversation about the state of agriculture in Rhode Island.

As we drove and walked through the farm’s 200+ acres, Ann Marie expressed the importance of truly-local animal agriculture. At Blackbird, she explained, the whole cycle takes place right on the farm: their animals are born, weaned, raised, bred, fattened, and ultimately sold right on the farm.

Their operation is a far-cry from a feedlot, where the scaled-up, product-at-the-cheapest-cost-possible business model means that the cattle are bought at an older age, put into confinement, force-fed massive quantities of the cheapest sources of calories possible, pumped with drugs and hormones, and shipped off to be slaughtered and sold God-knows-where.

In talking to Ann Marie, you can tell how carefully she thinks about each step of the process of raising animals, each method and practice that her farm uses. She makes decisions consciously, with the welfare of the animals and her customers in mind, and each one is very deliberate and not simply based on the often-flawed conventional wisdom. Walking through the rolling pastures and wooded areas of Blackbird, I was more than a little reassured that local, appropriate-scale agriculture can give the CAFO business model a run for its money.

Running a business like this is no small task, so make no mistake: Blackbird Farm is truly a family affair. It takes a huge amount of work to raise, feed, care for, move, and sell meat animals, grow and harvest 600+ bales of hay for winter feed, manage the finances and operation of a farm, and market their brand. So while Ann Marie is the public face of the farm, her husband Kevin, their sons Brandon and Troy, their daughter Sam, and their daughter-in-law Sarah all play crucial, laborious roles in the farm’s day-to-day operations and management.

And that is why Ann Marie has become such a tireless advocate for local, small-scale agriculture. By getting the public to think about where their food comes from – fostering public awareness of farmers markets, starting conversations with the farmers whose hands grow and raise their food, and, to borrow her awesome pun, getting their minds down to the grassroots of local agriculture – Ann Marie is confident that we can grow the local agricultural economy and create a sustainable environment for the farmers, their farms, and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

On that note, one of the major reasons for my visit to the farm was to discuss the grand opening of their farmers market this week.

The market will be located at Blackbird’s Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike. It will run every Friday, starting this week (May 26th), from 4-7 pm. It is being organized by Eat Drink RI, with the intention of making consumers more aware of local products and giving a boost to Blackbird and other local producers.

There will be at least 6 farms selling in the first week, with plenty more getting on board as the season progresses. Customers will be able to buy a huge range of local products, from the meat, produce, eggs, and dairy, to baked goods, sodas, and honey, to maybe even sea salt. There will be information on local farms and a horse-drawn wagon for the kids. This is a big deal, so make sure you’re there!

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 69 – Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

9 04 2017

(April 9, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Another Visit to Blue Skys Farm

Greens growing in one of Blue Skys high tunnels

Christina, in front of the new high tunnel

“If every person were to volunteer at a small-scale farm just once in their life, they would never complain about the price of food again.” This candid comment was made by one of the most passionate farmers I know, as we sat, deep in conversation, at a table in her farm’s solar-powered CSA building. In the fading light of dusk, as the sun set over one of her soon-to-be-planted fields, she actually forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

I was at Blue Skys Farm in Western Cranston, and I had spent upwards of three hours that afternoon talking to Christina Dedora, the farmer herself, about the trials, successes, and innate difficulties of being a small farmer. If you’ve read my column long enough, you may remember Christina; she and her farm were the subjects of the first edition of my “The Hand That Feeds You” column series, in late summer 2015.

It’s amazing, that Christina and I have already been friends for over two years. In that time, and especially since I wrote that first column about her farm, she has taught me so much about how small-scale, sustainable farming works.

She has been farming in RI now for 11 years, the last seven of them as a full time farmer. Her farm, Blue Skys, is part of the Urban Edge Farm agricultural collaborative, a collection of seven independent farms on land that is owned by the RI DEM and managed by the Southside Community Land Trust. One of the central themes of my last column about Christina’s farm was the underlying collaborative business model between the farmers, a fact which is still very true. Oftentimes, Christina’s table at the farmers market will feature produce grown by other farmers at Urban Edge.

At this point in the year, Blue Skys sells at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, at Hope Artiste Village (1005 Main St, Pawtucket), which runs Saturdays 9 am to 1 pm, from November to May. During the summer, from May to October, they sell at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. That is at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet (60 Rhodes Place, Cranston), and runs Saturdays 9 am to 12 pm. All of this information and a whole lot more can be found at the farm’s website, https://blueskysfarm.com/.

Christina describes her growing methods as chemical-free. She is not certified organic (I’ve written before about how inaccessible the organic certification can be for small farms), but she uses practices that well surpass the codified organic standards. All of the farms’ water comes almost exclusively from a small pond on the land. They grow their winter produce (along with very warm-season summer crops) in passively-heated, high-tunnel greenhouses, and meticulously manage their land’s soil fertility with organic amendments.

The layout of the farm hasn’t changed too much since that last time I wrote about it. But they are excitedly constructing their third high-tunnel, which was funded by a grant from the NRCS and USDA, and will enable them to hugely increase their production of greens during the winter and tomatoes during the summer. They also finished building their new drying room, which has allowed them to dry the many types of fragrant herbs that they grow on the farm. Christina told me that they have tripled the amount of herbal products being sold, most of which are both culinary and medicinal. There is a lavender-chamomile tea blend that caught my eye at the farmers market last week, which is a good example of the type of cool herbal products they grow, dry, and sell.

Right now, Blue Skys is in the end of their winter growing season. In my view, it’s pretty awesome that they have perfected their winter growing system, to continue growing and selling during the otherwise bleak months of the year. By using the passive-solar-heating properties of a high-tunnel, Christina and the crew are able to support a pretty substantial crop cool-season greens and roots. Right now, the tunnels are full of red and green spinach, chard, Mâche (a French salad green), lettuce, arugula, kale, mustard greens, sorrel, radishes, and even dill.

They carefully select crops that are able to survive mildly low temperatures, but which will flourish in the high-tunnels during winter conditions. Christina explained that she gets very little pest pressure during the winter, spare some cabbage worms and aphids. And because the soil in the high-tunnels doesn’t get directly rained on, sodium salts can accumulate in the soil and cause problems for the crops. For that reason, she amends with gypsum and the same organic fertilizers she uses elsewhere on the farm.

As I write this, the crew is busy seeding their summer crops in two massive greenhouses on the farm. Christina explained that their summer crop selection is pretty steady at this point, and includes beets, carrots, eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, pole beans, potatoes (specifically, a nice purple-fleshed variety), along with many different types of flowers and herbs, all in many varieties.

This brings us to one of the main reasons I wanted to write this column: Blue Skys Farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. The way this program works is that the consumer pays for a “share” early in the season and then gets a box of vegetables (or other type of share) each week for a predetermined span of time. This system puts capital in the farmer’s hands early in the season, when it is needed most, and in return, the consumer gets 10-15% more produce for their money.

Blue Skys offers a full share (for 3-4 people) and a half share (for 1-2 people) of their vegetables, which span 20 weeks and work out to $40 per week for the full share, and $20 per week for the half share. They also offer herbal tea and flowers in their own CSA structures. In addition, eggs from Pak Express Farm and fruit from Barden Orchard can be bought as CSA shares. The program runs from June 9 through October 20, and the shares can be picked up either at the farm in Cranston, or at the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. All of this information is available at https://blueskysfarm.com/csa/, and you can also sign up right on that page.

Christina described that there are greens and lettuce in the box pretty much every week, and otherwise, it is filled with crops that are in season at the time (i.e. tomatoes and cucumbers starting in July). Certain crops are constant, while others are only available some weeks or at certain times of the summer, and she expects that there will usually be five to six different types of vegetable in the box in any given week. I already signed up for a share, and I urge you to as well!

Unlike the last time I toured the farm, when I viewed it through the rose-colored glasses of the pastoral idyll, our discussion was much deeper and more serious last week. Christina described some of the difficulties of being a small farmer: the crop losses, the food politics, the stagnation in the growth of the local customer base, and the complexity inherent in simultaneously growing food and also running a food distribution business. Christina works long days, often seven days a week; and in her words, and the words of every farmer whom I have talked to or whose work I have read, she isn’t going to get rich doing this.

And that’s what I meant earlier, when I said that my long conversation with her forced me to mature in my understanding of small-scale agriculture. While it’s been a long time since I legitimately thought of agriculture as peaceful, serene, and easy, I still do fall into the trap (and I’m sure you see it in many of my columns) of idealizing the life of a small farmer.

It definitely isn’t the pastoral idyll; it isn’t a series of lazy summer days, sitting out in a field, shucking peas with grandma. That lifestyle might have been common at some time in history, and may be achievable again, if we are willing to place a higher value on sustainable agricultural production than we currently do. But it doesn’t describe agriculture today.

Blue Skys farm, like many other small farms, is in no small part a labor of love. It is very hard work, and it is Christina’s livelihood. But it’s more than that. Agriculture is also her vocation, her way of using her unique skills and knowledge and time to improve the world.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Christina what she wished she could tell people about her farm, herself, and local agriculture. Rather than any sort of marketing plug for Blue Skys, she had one simple request: “I want the world to eat more vegetables.” She believes that everyone would benefit by shopping at the farmers market, having access to fresh, seasonal, local produce every week. She wants people to eat more fresh vegetables and less processed food, and to appreciate the love that farmers put into their craft. She has high hopes for the future of small-scale, sustainable agriculture in Rhode Island and the rest of the world, and she’s doing her part to bring us there.

I concur. Being a regular at Rhode Island’s local farmers markets, eating produce grown in the local foodshed and making it a big part of my diet, has changed me. I urge you to sign up for Blue Skys’ CSA program and visit them at the farmers market. You can find more information about all of this at http://www.farmfreshri.org/ and https://blueskysfarm.com/.

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 57 – ‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

13 11 2016

(October 9, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

‘Fall’ In Love with Local Agriculture

Wasn’t it 80 degrees one day last week? And now, as if by magic, it seems like fall has been thrust upon us. I’ve definitely said this before, but the fall is my favorite time of year. It is, of course, harvest time, when the plants vigorously bear their fruits as the threat of an early frost bears down upon them. It’s also the time of year when everything starts to slow down and become more deliberate – in nature, of course, but in human society as well.

The deciduous trees paint the landscape with color and drop their leaves, preparing for a revitalizing winter’s rest. The animals are busy storing seeds and fruits and nuts away to keep them fed, or eating whatever they can now in preparation for a long hibernation. And people, even, start to live more deliberately, as the hustle and bustle of summer dies down and is slowly replaced with the contented joy of an extended holiday season.

In New England, the fall is an awesome time to get up-close-and-personal with your local agricultural scene. The farmers have been sweating away since February or March, working towards a bountiful harvest that, in many cases, is only now coming to term. The fruits of that harvest, along with the farms that grew them, are the cornerstone of many of my favorite fall activities. Let’s talk about a few that I think you’d like.

            Visit a farmers market. I’d love to know that you already buy most of your food as one of our areas many farmers markets. But if you don’t, or if you haven’t been in a while, now is a great time to stop by! The summer crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers and melons, garlic, and onions – are still in full swing; but it’s also the time when many nutritious late-season crops, like cabbage, broccoli, kale, winter squash of so many varieties, and heat-sensitive leafy greens make their appearance. The Woonsocket Thundermist market (Tuesdays 3-6pm) was buzzing with great people and great produce this week. Check out farmfresh.org to find a market near you, and make a point to go!

Visit a local farm. For many different reasons, now is a great time of year to pay a visit to one of your local farms. Many will have open houses or visiting hours, and it gives you the opportunity to shake the hands that feed you, enjoy the scenery as the fall color descends upon the farm, and more fully immerse yourself in the process of growing food. As a bonus, many farms in our area have farm stands where you can purchase produce that was picked that very morning. Farm Fresh RI’s website is a good source for information on most of the farms in your area.

Go apple and pumpkin picking. This is a more specific example of the above. I make it a point every year to go apple picking in a local orchard, and I often buy a couple of big pumpkins while I’m there. There’s nothing like plucking an apple (or 50 right) off the tree, or a pumpkin right from where it grew in the field. This type of activity is a winning situation, both for the farmer and you, her customer. It brings people out to the orchard, creating a market for the raw produce as well as value-added products like warm apple cider  (a treat for which I will gladly consume a little extra sugar!). And you get to make memories with your friends and family, enjoying the experience of apple picking on a crisp autumn afternoon, all while buying (literally) bushels of apples for lower prices than in the supermarket, because you’re taking the work out of picking. Two of my favorite orchards are Barden Family Orchard (Scituate) and Hill Orchards (Smithfield). And what do we do with all that local produce?

Cook seasonal foods! Apples and pumpkins are the distinctive flavors of fall, used in all many of recipes, both sweet and savory, alongside the customary palette of spices. I regularly make baked apples, winter squash bisque, fresh-pressed apple cider (and one that’s, shall we say, “aged” a little), thyme- and butter-sautéed winter squash, and apple and pumpkin pastries, of course. (Eating a paleo diet has made this a bit of a challenge, but you’d be surprised how many great recipes utilize coconut and almond flour, and more nutritious sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. I make do!).

Decorate your house. Not only are our local farms the place to get some great, healthy produce. They can also be your go-to source for traditional fall decorations – from wreathes and corn stalks, to straw bales and pumpkins for carving into jack-o-lanterns. The very idea of decorating for the fall season seems to be a byproduct of our agrarian roots, where the waste products of agriculture – corn stalks, straw, leaves, pinecones, and the like – could be used to create decorative art. How cool is that! As a plus, pretty much any decorative plant material can be composted or fed to your chickens as the fall color gives way to winter weather.

Enjoy a fall or Halloween attraction. This has got to be one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s become something of a yearly tradition with my friends. From family-oriented corn mazes and hayrides, to more sinister, haunted attractions, fall is the time when New England farms show their creativity as entertainers. These are another great excuse to make the trip out to a local farm – spend the day outside with your family or friends, enjoy some hot apple cider, and get scared senseless by zombies and clowns lurking in the woods. Halloween New England’s site (halloweennewengland.com) is a good place to start if you want to check out some of these attractions.

Fall is one of the best times of year to really get involved with your local, small farms. These types of activities provide us with out-of-doors, nature-based entertainment, unmatched by electronic device. They make us more aware of the seasons, and how those seasons affect agricultural production. And they bring an influx of revenue to our hard-working local farms, right as we approach the lower-productivity winter season. Enjoying these activities is a win for everyone, so let’s get out there this autumn and FALL in love with local 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 55 – Meet Me At The County Fair!

12 11 2016

(September 11, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Meet Me At The County Fair!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 39 – Local Agriculture: Greek Style

8 02 2016

(January 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Local Agriculture: Greek Style

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

As I write this, I arrived home not 16 hours ago from my month-long trip to Greece. I spent a lot of great time with my family around the country, and one of my most vivid memories was the context that surrounds you as you explore the cities and landscapes – the Greek agriculture.

I’ve made it pretty obvious in the past, that small-scale, local agriculture forms the basis of Greece’s economy. We’ve discussed this from the perspectives of urban farming, energy efficiency and sustainability, community resiliency, economics, and international politics. Today, let’s talk about the farmers markets and the farmers themselves.

Last week, I visited two huge farmers markets. The first was the Varvakios Agora, Athens’ central market, and it was a pretty incredible experience.

Imagine walking down a long hallway, with standard sized market booths on either side, each of which belongs to a meat farm or farm collective. You can find almost any kind of meat you want – lamb, goat, beef, pork, chicken, duck, and every kind of fish swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. And many of the animals are still whole – entire lambs or chickens, with the heads and (if you’re lucky), organs still attached, hanging on display – having obviously been slaughtered just that morning.

And here’s the fun part: the vendors talk directly to you as you pass by. They are constantly yelling their products and prices – “Fresh lamb, 5 Euros per kilo!” But as you walk by, they address you specifically, explaining how the meat is “just for you, sir”, holding a lamb-chop or whole chicken out in front of you, urging you to examine and smell it for quality.

And that’s not the half of it. Along one adjoining road is the fruit and vegetable market, where in-season produce from around Southern Greece is laid out in farmers-market style. They have a longer growing season and warmer year than us, so in addition to the root vegetables, leafy greens, and brassicas, I found a plethora of fruits and vegetables that I wouldn’t otherwise dream of eating in January. And along the other joining road was the dried goods – nuts and seeds, dried fruits, cured meats, and spices of all kinds.

A few days later, I went to a “small” farmers market (called a Laiki) in Piraeus, the suburb of Greece where my dad’s mom and sisters live. That was an experience in itself.

Four or five city blocks along one road were lined with upwards of 100 vendors from the local foodshed. Like in the Varvakios Agora, Greece’s warm, extended growing season was made obvious by the shear diversity of produce available – fruits and vegetables, eggs, olives and oil, and honey, among others.

And in similar fashion to the agora, the farmers and vendors were shouting their competitive prices, and addressing sales pitches at specific passersby. This market reminded me a lot of the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market going on now in Rhode Island, but was generally louder (and there were lemons).

Despite the positive and inspiring atmosphere in these markets, I couldn’t help but recognize that it wasn’t a good reflection of the situation that the farmers in Greece are facing.

If you thought my description last time of the labor crisis and tax rates was unbelievable, it is even worse for the farmers. When all is said and done, their income is taxed at something like 85%, despite their not being the best-off financially. Their social security is being cut significantly, and their insurance rates are increasing as well. And having to honor the European Union’s regulations and embargos – specifically with Russia, one of the Greek farmers’ biggest customers – is making it even less financially stable to be a farmer in the country.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that there have been massive farmer protests in the recent months, and quite often while I was there. They used their tractors to block the National Highway in Northern Greece earlier this week, and in some cases stage protests where they spill unsold/unsellable produce (milk was what I saw) in the street. I generally don’t condone food waste, but if they are being driven to waste the product of their own hard work, it shows the magnitude of the struggles they are facing.

And while I celebrate the farmers standing up for their interests against the European Union government that obviously doesn’t care, I write it all with a heavy heart – I have a personal attachment to these goings-on, because a good part of my family in Greece is farmers.

On both sides of my family, my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generation were mostly full-time farmers, and now, many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, are at least part-time. I have experienced this fact first-hand, enjoying the fruits – and vegetables, and eggs, and olive oil – of their labor each time I visit Greece. But with this also comes stories: of peaches and kiwis, which are bought for so little money by Northern European packing companies that it’s barely worth growing them; of cherries that had to go to waste, because EU regulations have closed market channels and there isn’t enough demand at local farmers markets; and of produce that was grown and harvested, only to be made unsellable overnight by an unexpected embargo with Russia.

If, through conversations with my family members, friends, and baristas at local coffee shops, I could feel the struggles facing every citizen of Greece, I could feel it tenfold amongst my farmer relatives. Farming was and still is considered a noble job in Greece – whether full- or part-time, it is a common and positive thing for a family to spend their free time collectively managing a few acres of agricultural land.

As I have said a few times, agriculture is the basis of Greece’s economy. And I think the farmers are all fully aware of that, which is why they seem hopeful that they can use it to their advantage in protesting.

But with all of this said, the local agricultural scene in Greece is still vibrant and strong. They aren’t allowing the problems with the European Union and the Greek government to get in the way of their chosen profession, their calling – to raise a good product, and make it available to their fellow Greeks.

They are blessed with good soil, abundant sunlight, lots of pollinators, and a culture of people who know that agriculture is a dignified occupation and who respect, and can empathize with the lives of farmers. They live in a perfect environment for agriculture; and guess what: They sure know how to put on a good farmers market.

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





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

7 08 2015

(August 2, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Cluck Urban Farm Supply

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call and Times, Column 25 – The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

7 08 2015

(July 26, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

The Hand That Feeds You – Blackbird Farm in Smithfield

Blackbird Farm Cows

For this week’s edition of The Hand That Feeds You, I spent an afternoon with the Bouthillette family, the owners of Blackbird Farm in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Ann Marie and Kevin Bouthillette, with their sons Brandon and Troy, and their daughter Sam, own and operate a cow and pig farm that sits on over 200 acres on Limerock Road in Smithfield. They raise 100% Angus beef and 100% American Heritage Berkshire pork, breeds whose genetics they’ve carefully selected for over many years to produce a high-quality, great-tasting product.

They sell all cuts of beef and pork at their Farm Stand, 660 Douglas Pike (Rt. 7) in Smithfield, which is open Fridays 1 – 6 pm, Saturdays 9 – 6 pm, and Sundays 9 – 4 pm. They also sell at the Providence Downtown Farmers Market in Kennedy Plaza, on Tuesdays 3 – 6 pm, and the Providence Armory Farmers Market at the Cranston Armory, on Thursdays 3:30 – 7 pm, both through the end of October. You can find more information on their website (http://blackbirdfarmri.com/), their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/blackbirdfarm), and their Farm Fresh RI profile page (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2134).

Sitting at their kitchen table, Ann Marie described to me the long history of what was to become Blackbird Farm. Her father had a life-long love for Angus beef, and always had the desire to become a farmer. After marrying her mother and traveling around the US, they settled down on some land in Glocester, Rhode Island and did just that, raising turkeys and eventually Angus cows.
Ann Marie grew up in the 4-H Club, and her interest in agriculture began with breeding Angus cattle for shows. Here, she learned firsthand how to selectively breed in order to improve the genetic characteristics of the herd, a practice that her son Brandon specializes in today.

After studying Animal Science at the University of Connecticut, Ann Marie married Kevin Bouthillette, who had lived on four acres of what was to become Blackbird Farm since the mid-1970s. Over the next few years, they had kids and made some sacrifices (including, as Ann Marie fondly told me, Kevin selling his prized Corvette) to expand the farm to 40 acres, but still weren’t doing much farming. They were breeding for cattle shows, and a trip to Montana yielded 20 pregnant cows, high-end Angus cattle whose genetic characteristics just happened to be perfect for beef agriculture.

As the family grew and went in the different directions that life took them, the focus on cattle showing became too costly and hard to sustain long-term, and they considered selling the cows. It was then that the couple made a life-altering decision. They had the “carcass cattle”, specifically bred for beef production; they had the land; and they had the know-how – they had become a beef farm. That decision was made a decade ago, and they’ve since expanded to over 200 acres.

When the rain finally let up, we took a drive around the farm. Ann Marie explained how the Angus cattle are broken into three groups, based on the point in their lifecycle: the cows (females who have carried young) and their calves, the feeder cattle, and the finishing cattle.

Ann Marie showed me two of the pastures where the cows and their calves graze on some of the healthiest, greenest, most bio-diverse grass I’ve ever seen. When the calves are a few months old, they are moved to a feeder area, where they eat a wet hay (called “bailage”) grown on-site, and supplemented with free-choice local brewer’s grain, apple peels, and non-GMO corn. Finally, a few months before slaughter, they are moved to the finishing area, where they are finished on hay and non-mega doses of non-GMO corn.

The cattle are given no hormones or antibiotics. Because they are fed a pasture-based, grain-supplemented diet natural to their species, they gain the necessary weight and are naturally very healthy – a world of difference from industrial agriculture.

We then visited the American Berkshire pigs. They are fed a diet of non-GMO corn and soy, and live in large, wooded lots, where they root and forage for tubers, shrubs, and berries, a behavior very natural to their species.

Through the course of the afternoon, the family described the diverse range of markets where they sell their product. There are the Farm Stand and farmers markets, of course. But there is also a long list of restaurants (available on their website) and local processing companies, like Daniele, Inc Fine Charcuterie. In addition, they are planning to start offering monthly farm tours.

One theme that seemed to permeate into many of our conversations, and indeed into much of Blackbird’s agricultural model, is the burgeoning farm-to-table movement in Rhode Island. “I want people to be educated about industrial farming”, Ann Marie explained, so they know the reasons to support local farms that use responsible, sustainable practices.

She explained that “everything Blackbird Farm does, is done in Rhode Island” – RI Beef and Veal harvests the animals, Westerly Meat Packing cuts the beef and pork, Central Falls Provisions makes their sausages and hotdogs, and Eat Drink RI manages their media and cooking classes.

And as many things in life do, our conversation came to the cost of their products. “It’s going to cost a little more” than industrial meat, Ann Marie said plainly. As she explained, every part of their production model focuses on quality – the superior breeding of Angus cattle; the pasture-based feeding; the local processing; and even small-scale packaging. Pasture is not subsidized by the federal government, and federal agricultural policy actually makes non-GMO feed more expensive than GMO (despite little actual increase in yields), and artificial drives up demand for meat grown in factory farms and in foreign countries, as compared to local, sustainable farms.

Decisions at Blackbird are made “to bring superior quality to the consumer”. This motivation is in direct contrast to that of industrial agriculture, where quantity and profit are the only driving factors, and questions of animal welfare, the growth of local economies, the appropriateness of diet regimens, and the use of pharmaceuticals are largely ignored.

Looking at Blackbird Farm, and at the local, sustainable food economy in Rhode Island to which it is so intimately tied, it’s hard to even directly compare it to industrial agriculture. Blackbird Farm’s model is a completely different paradigm than that of industrial agriculture; their meat, a completely different product.

“Once people come here, see what goes into our product, and taste it, they’re sold”, Ann Marie said candidly. This sentiment is validated by the number of repeat customers that they have, and I can personally attest to it myself. The marbling, the color, and the taste are all vastly superior to industrial meat, and the pasture-based diet means that the meat is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Ann Marie left me with a reiteration of the phrase that has grown in popularity in recent years: “know who your farmer is, know where your food comes from”. Personally, my journey towards local, sustainable food over the past few years brought me to Blackbird Farm as a principle source of my family’s meat. I have come to know my farmers, and I see where my food comes from; and you know what? From the animal treatment and the pastures to the sustainable practices and local production – I really like what I see.

 

 

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