Monday, April 12, 2021

She lives an Earth-friendly life through composting

        Jayne Merner Senecal says there is a stigma about farming and working with one’s hands, a belief that labor-intensive careers shouldn’t be revered as much as white-collar jobs. But the owner of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown takes issue with that belief, and she is making progress convincing others of the value of farm work.
        Her efforts were recognized last year when Providence Business News named her one of the “40 Under 40” to watch in the Rhode Island business community.
        “It was exciting, because it felt like what I had been working toward for 20 years, to bring more reverence to the agriculture community, was finally successful,” she says. “When you look at those kinds of lists, it’s always the traditional white-collar jobs represented. And now, farming is getting more respect.”
        Senecal grew up at Earth Care Farm, a commercial composting operation that her father, Mike Merner, started in 1977 at a time when composting was a newfangled concept.
        “He was part of the hippie generation, wanting to do no harm and realizing that the chemicals he’d
Jayne Merner Senecal at Earth Care Farm (Mike Derr)

learned so much about in college were having an adverse effect on soil and water and human health,” she says. “So he re-educated himself, practiced composting at a small scale and used it for his landscaping business, but it kept growing. And there were no other compost operations around.”
        She recalls driving around the area with her father collecting whatever they could find to compost.
        “Dad said we had an organic eye,” Senecal says. “We’d go to the Big Apple Circus and collect elephant manure; we’d go to the fishing pier for fish scraps. You come to realize that there’s no reason for waste because there’s no waste in nature.”
        After earning a degree in environmental economics from the University of Rhode Island and running her own community-supported agriculture farm for six years, Senecal started Golden Root Gardening, a garden design, installation and maintenance service she still operates year-round with a staff of women who care for about 25 properties throughout the region. As her father began thinking about retirement, a transition plan was developed, and Senecal took over Earth Care Farm in 2017.
        “I always knew I wanted to farm at some level, but I had seen farmers struggling financially, and I didn’t want that to be the case with me,” she says. “My heart was always at the farm, and it needed me, so we figured out how to make it work. And Dad was thrilled.”
        The compost made at the farm – long called Merner’s Gold by its customers – comes from a wide variety of organic materials sourced from the local area, including bedding and manure from the animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo, fish scraps from New Bedford fish processors, seaweed from beaches in Groton, and woodchips and leaves from throughout the region, all of which is given to the farm for free. It’s a year-long process to transform those materials into compost.
        Senecal describes compost as “a soil amendment meant to increase the organic matter in the soil. But for us, it’s also about increasing the diversity of life in your soil. It’s when you have a living soil that your crops are going to be healthier and be able to defend themselves against pests and disease. Compost brings life into your soil.”
        It’s not a concept that everyone intuitively understands, so Senecal spends considerable time educating gardeners, farmers and others through videos and social media postings. She also hosts a variety of events at the farm, from story hour for young children to school field trips and gardening and cooking classes for adults.
        “Last fall we had a class of third graders come, and we were supposed to plant garlic but it was raining, so we went into our high tunnels (open greenhouses) and dug sweet potatoes,” she says. “It was sort of like an Easter egg hunt. They dug up some huge sweet potatoes, one that was six-and-a-half pounds. You could see the sparks of wonder and curiosity on their faces. They were really into it.”
        Her customers range from local gardeners looking for a single bag of compost – available for pickup at Earth Care Farm or at local garden centers – to landscaping companies and large agriculture businesses who buy it by the truckload, including a farm on Martha’s Vineyard that ordered 130 yards of compost in January.
        Demand for compost increased dramatically during the early stages of the COVID19 pandemic when many people started gardening for the first time while in lockdown at home. Compost sales doubled in 2020, making it the farm’s busiest year ever, and Senecal and her small staff had difficulty keeping up with the orders.
        “We really had to scramble, but in a positive way,” she says. “We figured it out, though, and for the first time ever, we sold out of compost.”
    To ensure the farm’s continued success, Senecal has participated in training programs for entrepreneurs and small business owners, met with innovative farmers from across the country, and supported efforts by the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association to encourage others interested in careers working in the soil. She also practices yoga regularly to avoid the physical pains associated with the farming life.
        She has even developed a successful new compost blend for the cannabis industry that is tailored to the particular needs of the cannabis plant, including a slightly different pH and a little more calcium.
        Other than investing in some new equipment, however, Senecal isn’t planning to change much about the compost manufacturing process that her father perfected over the previous 40 years. “I’m still settling in here at the farm and looking forward to continuing on this path,” Senecal says. “Nature is abundant, and the farm mirrors the abundance of nature.”

        This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Watching the decline of a giant

        It was my closest encounter with one of the rarest species on Earth, and a moment I’ll never forget, especially since their outlook remains quite grim. And yet the remarkable experience made me feel slightly more optimistic about the world, like the animal was signaling that it had the situation under control. Which I know it doesn’t.
        I was on a boat in Cape Cod Bay with scientists from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, conducting research for my first book. We were surveying the bay for North Atlantic right whales, whose global population today hovers around 360 individuals. We had just finished seven hours of 
Right whale mother and calf (PCCS)
scanning the calm seas for the 50-ton whales and observing several feeding groups from a considerable distance.
        As we approached the harbor at the end of the day, three right whales surfaced in front of the boat and began skim feeding – lifting their massive heads out of the water with their mouths partly open and skimming the surface of the water for copepods, the tiny crustaceans that make up the bulk of their diet. Back and forth the animals went in front of us, sometimes just 30 feet away, while the researchers and I stood with our own mouths open enjoying the spectacle.
        That’s when one whale changed direction and came straight at us, still skim feeding, giving us a view straight down its throat. A view that perhaps only Jonah has had before. And then it reversed course and disappeared.
        I was enthralled by the experience, alternating between excited gibberish and stunned silence, knowing that I’ll never have that opportunity again.
        And yet right whales travel through Rhode Island waters every year in late winter and early spring on their way to Cape Cod Bay to feed for a few months before heading further north for the summer. This year, nearly one quarter of the total population of right whales was observed in the bay at the same time, and most of them probably swam within hailing distance of Block Island after leaving their breeding grounds on the coast of Georgia and North Florida.
        Not many of us spend much time in offshore waters in early spring to catch a glimpse of the whales on their way through, but I bet some of our local commercial fishermen have some whale stories to tell.
        Sadly, the future isn’t bright for the North Atlantic right whale. With just 100 breeding age females in the population, and a minimum of three years between pregnancies – and increasingly more like four or five years – they can’t seem to produce enough calves to keep up with the death rate. Which means the population is declining.
        This year has actually been a good one for right whales. At least 17 newborn calves have been observed so far, more than three times the average of the previous four years, but still not enough to reverse the population decline. More than 10 percent of the population has died or suffered serious injury in the last five years.
        I visited Provincetown a couple weeks ago to try to get a glimpse of a right whale and was thrilled to see a single whale from a beach. It remained near the surface as it swam parallel to shore, probably because it had found a dense aggregation of prey, which is what attracts them to the area each year.
        I felt like cheering each time it surfaced, until I noticed that I was holding my breath, wondering if I’d ever have that opportunity again.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on April 10, 2021.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

An Avian Affection

        Gently holding a sparrow in his hand as nearly two dozen students stand in a socially-distant circle around him, Professor Peter Paton quizzes his Field Ornithology class members about bird anatomy and identification. After noting feather types, preferred foods, migration routes and other details about the species, he hands the bird to a student to release into the nearby forest. And then he repeats the process until every student has released a bird.
        For most students, it’s the first time they have ever held a wild bird, and it’s a magical moment. The glittering smiles on their faces suggest it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.
        The class is gathered at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station, where thousands of birds have been captured, banded and released every fall for more than 60 years, a site that is the highlight of
Kate Iaquinto at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Paton’s weekly class field trips. Located less than a mile from campus, the research station is the former home of the late Douglas Kraus, a long-time chemistry professor whose interest in birds occupied as much of his time as did chemistry. Before he died in 2000, he donated his house and 82 acres of land to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island with a stipulation that URI manage the property for wildlife research.
        Ever since then, graduate students in the Department of Natural Resources Science have lived and worked at the property and continued to band birds on a daily basis during fall migration to learn about trends in bird populations. They capture birds using a series of nets like fine-meshed volleyball nets, collect physical measurements about each bird, and place a metal band around one leg so if they are captured again elsewhere, their migratory movements can be determined. With nearly 60 years of data, the field station is one of the nation’s longest running bird banding stations.
        “The number of species we capture each year hasn’t really declined over time, but the number of individual birds has seen a major decrease,” says Paton, who has managed the research station with Professor Scott McWilliams since 1998. “We’re probably down by about 30 percent, which is similar to national figures. On a really good day, they used to capture 150 to 200 birds, and now a good day is 100 birds. That’s a substantial decline.”
        A recent study found that North American bird populations have decreased by about 3 billion birds in the last half century, due largely to habitat loss. Scientists worry that human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.
        The activity at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station is just one element of a wide variety of bird-related research, education and outreach undertaken by URI faculty and staff. The Field Ornithology class has also helped to introduce hundreds of students to the bird world, turning many into bird scientists, birdwatchers and bird photographers. Many other former URI students turned to birding as a hobby sometime after graduation as a way of getting exercise, enjoying nature or reducing stress. And the lockdown due to the pandemic has found even more alumni discovering the joy of birds and birdwatching, whether in their backyard or beyond.
        Paton had planned a career as a medical doctor, but when he got hooked on birds while in college, those plans changed. “I like to be outside, and birds bring you outside,” he says. “You can go anywhere on the planet and see a bird, and because they have wings and can fly, you never know what you’re going to find in a given area.”
        In addition to overseeing the bird banding station, Paton has conducted research on sparrows, seabirds, shorebirds and other varieties. Some of his current work aims to determine the potential impact of offshore wind turbines on migrating birds.
        McWilliams calls himself a physiological ecologist who studies the physiology of bird migration.
        “My group studies any bird that migrates, and over the years we’ve studied songbirds, woodcock, sea ducks, Arctic nesting geese, and everything in between,” he says. “The common denominator is that they move across the landscape throughout the annual cycle.”
        According to McWilliams, one of the biggest challenges for birds during migration is their need to store large quantities of energy to fuel long-distance flight. To maximize their ability to do so, they have evolved the ability to increase the size of their digestive system in preparation for migration, reduce it while migrating, and increase it again when they stop to refuel.
        “Migration is a fasting and refeeding cycle, which the gut makes possible,” he says. “That’s why we say that migration takes guts. They’re trying to maximize the amount of energy and nutrients they get from what they eat.”
        McWilliams and his graduate students have spent two decades studying the physiology of migration by capturing and studying birds and the foods they consume in Kingston and Block Island. He also has a long-term research project on the woodcock, an unusual gamebird sometimes called the timberdoodle, which involves studies of...

        Read the rest of the story in the Spring 2021 issue of URI Magazine.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Aquatic invaders taking over Rhode Island's freshwater ponds

        When a Cranston resident planted a sacred lotus in the pond at Meshanticut State Park in memory of a family member in 2014, she didn’t realize the plant was an aggressive invasive species. The lotus, which features enormous floating leaves that shade out native plants, quickly took over a large area of the Rhode Island pond.
        Five years later, 75 volunteers spent 12 hours cutting it back, but they eradicated just 10 percent of the ever-expanding plant, which today covers 1.83 acres of the 12-acre pond.
        It’s one of many examples of the challenges the state faces in trying to control and eliminate aquatic invasive species. More than 100 lakes and 27 river segments in Rhode Island are plagued with at least one species of invasive plant, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental
Sacred Lotus at Meshanticut Pond, Johnston (RIDEM)
Management (DEM). These plants pose threats to healthy ecosystems, reduce recreational opportunities, and negatively impact the economy.
        “Aquatic invasives are definitely a problem for water quality, but there aren’t a lot of resources dedicated to mapping them and trying to contain them,” said Kate McPherson, riverKeeper for Save The Bay. “The problem is they can show up in really pristine areas of the state for a variety of reasons, and a lot of the plants only need a couple of cells or a leaf to reproduce. They don’t need seeds. So unless you’re really diligent about scrubbing down your boat and other equipment after each use, it’s really hard to prevent their spread.”
        In its 2020 fishing regulations, DEM prohibited the transport of invasive plants on any type of boat, motor, trailer, or fishing gear as a strategy to prevent the inadvertent movement of aquatic invasive species from one waterbody to another.
        “It’s essentially an incentive for boaters or anglers to clean off their gear to make sure they don’t move any plants unintentionally,” said Katie DeGoosh of DEM’s Office of Water Resources. “It’s part of a national campaign known as Clean Drain Dry to remind anyone recreating on water how they should decontaminate their gear to avoid spreading invasives.”
        DEM’s latest effort to combat aquatic invasive species is proposed regulations to ban their sale, purchase, importation, and distribution in the state. Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast that has yet to regulate the sale of these plants.
        The proposed regulations have the support of Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society.
        Those with aquatic plants in backyard water gardens aren’t the focus of the regulations because those residents aren’t selling the plants, DeGoosh said.
        The proposed regulations list 48 species of aquatic invasive species whose sale would be prohibited. All but one — sacred lotus — are included on the Federal Noxious Weed List, are banned by other states in the region, were nominated by the Rhode Island Invasive Species Council or are included in the Rhode Island Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan.
        Among them are Carolina fanwort, a problem species in numerous locations, like Stump Pond in Smithfield; American lotus, which covers 18 acres of Chapman Pond in Westerly; Brazilian waterweed, which has invaded Hundred Acre Pond in South Kingstown; and common water hyacinth, an Amazonian species now found in the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
        Perhaps the worst of them is variable milfoil, which has been recorded in 69 lakes and ponds and 19 river segments in Rhode Island.
        “Milfoil means a million tiny leaves,” said McPherson, who monitors local rivers for invasive species. “It looks like a submerged raccoon tail, and if you’ve been paddling in any pond in Rhode Island, you’ve probably seen it. A tiny little fragment can spread it.”
        In many waterbodies, especially in urban communities, multiple species of aquatic invasives have colonized.
        “They’re a problem because they can choke out native species and they may not be as good a food source for animals that eat aquatic plants,” McPherson said. “They’re also indicative of a water-quality problem. We’re seeing them more commonly in areas with too much phosphorous or nitrogen in the water. Areas with pollutants encourage these plants to grow.”
        David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, also noted the impact of pollution in helping aquatic invasives take hold.
        “People really care about their lakes, but most lakes in Rhode Island are man-made, shallow, and polluted by surrounding development — lawns, septics, road runoff — and so they grow invasive plants like nobody's business,” he said.
        Like at Meshanticut Pond, once the plants become established in a waterbody, they are difficult to eradicate.
        “It’s a cyclical problem,” McPherson said. “It’s super satisfying to go as a volunteer to rip it out, and super discouraging to go back a year later and find that it’s still there. If you don’t get all of the root system, it grows back.”
        Natural History Survey staff documented the first occurrence of invasive water chestnut in the state in 2007 at Belleville Pond in North Kingstown. They led numerous volunteer efforts to manually remove it every year for a decade, and yet the plant remains. A similar endeavor to battle water chestnut at Chapman Pond in Westerly barely made a dent in the abundance of the plant.
        “It’s a big problem,” McPherson said. “We need to get folks to think about how their activities can spread the plants and get them to think about aquatic invasives as a kind of contaminant.”
        The proposed regulations, if approved, would be enforced via business inspections by DEM staff. Violators could be fined up to $500 per violation.
This article first appeared on on March 31, 2021.