As part of our Ignite series, @Urban brings you stories about extraordinary people who are doing extraordinary things, promoting positive changes in the lives of those around them. Like them, we hope to inspire you to think outside the box, to enrich your life and your community.
@story MARCUS COKER
@image NEW YORK SUN WORKS
A popular nursery rhyme asks, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” That’s an excellent question, but if Mary were part of the average urban population, she’d answer, “I don’t have a garden. My food comes from the grocery store.” But let’s assume Mary has a tomato garden somewhere in the countryside and feels like being honest about it. She’d say, “My garden grows with a lot of dirt, a lot of water, and plenty of pesticides. It also takes up a great deal of space and produces a good amount of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.” No wonder Mary’s quite contrary. I bet Mother Earth isn’t too happy either.
Fortunately, there’s a greener way to go about gardening. New York Sun Works is a non-profit organization in New York City that aims to educate schoolchildren about the environment and farming in urban areas. In 2006, they started a project called The Science Barge, a floating greenhouse and education facility that currently resides in the Hudson River in Yonkers. The barge is powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and a generator fueled by waste vegetable oil and biodiesel (made from agricultural and food industry byproducts). These features reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental pollutants.
New York Sun Works has taken every measure to ensure the barge is environmentally friendly. The office is constructed from a refurbished shipping container, something you might see on the back of a semi.
Evaporation is used for cooling, which decreases the need for electricity, and there’s even a composting toilet (feel free to Google it). The barge has an outdoor classroom and two greenhouses that produce tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, and herbs, right in the middle of New York City. The only thing you won’t find in the greenhouses is dirt. And no, that’s not a misprint.
The Science Barge uses a process called hydroponic farming technology. “Hydroponics speaks very well to the challenges of urban farmers,” says Laurie Schoeman, director of New York Sun Works. “Hydroponics is actually as old as soil farming and is practiced in the wetlands and the Nile. It essentially uses nutrients instead of soil to support plant growth.” Having no soil means that hydroponics takes up seven times less space than soil farms and yields more crops. “There’s never a point when you’re not growing. Traditional farms have one or two harvests a year, and hydroponic farms have four or five,” says Laurie. “Additionally, it uses up to sixty percent less water than traditional farming methods.”
One goal of The Science Barge is to educate people in urban areas about sustainable living, which means the ability to produce the food we need without damaging the environment. For example, the barge doesn’t use pesticides, which pollute the air and soil and contaminate lakes and rivers. Instead, they use beneficial insects like ladybugs to control plant-damaging insects like aphids.
The Science Barge operates primarily during the spring and summer, is open to the public, and relies on donations. The food that is grown on the barge is given to a food kitchen in Yonkers.
Since opening The Science Barge, New York Sun Works has started an initiative called The Greenhouse Project, which further works with schools to promote science and agricultural education. “The barge is an amazing field trip, but only provides a one-off experience. We wanted to enter the schools to provide support in the classroom,” Laurie explains. The Greenhouse Project helps schools build and maintain their own gardens, which not only produce usable crops, but also instill confidence in students as they gain hands-on experience answering the question, “How do you produce food in an urban environment?”
Some schools build their own greenhouses, maybe on a rooftop or in a parking lot. Others use planters and artificial light to create small hydroponic farms in their classrooms. “You can take this model and scale it to any school that has classroom space available. It’s the least costly model.” A full-scale greenhouse can cost $325 a square foot, so many of the schools have partnered with corporate sponsors to offset expenses.
The food that’s grown in the schools is used in their cafeterias, as well as distributed to community restaurants and parents. “Our goal is not to grow food, although that’s a nice side benefit. Our goal is to provide innovative science education, to get kids thinking outside the box, to become critical thinkers.”
Clearly, The Science Barge and The Greenhouse Project are doing a lot to challenge the way we think about our food and our environment, about how we educate ourselves and our children. Their work begs the question, “How could a community like ours benefit from programs like theirs?” With the Arkansas River winding through our area, the opportunities seem boundless. Perhaps their example will ignite a scheme for our own barge on the Arkansas, or inspire you to try more sustainable methods in your own garden. I’d bet even Mary, Mary, quite contrary, would like that.
For more information about New York Sun Works and The Science Barge, visit nysunworks.org.