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Only 200 more: Troy High School sophomores Amy and Chris plant strawberries.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Growing Troy

Community Gardens gives kids an opportunity to become farmers and help create an oasis in the urban food desert

By Chet Hardin

‘Day one, there was nothing,” says Amy. Chris agrees. “Rocks!” Yeah, rocks. Cement. Bicycle parts. A brick wall. A little Buddha and a Robocop action figure. “A lot of weird things, here,” Dominique adds, “digging up the dirt.”

It’s Thursday afternoon in Troy, after school, and these three sophomores from Troy High School are gathered next to a chest-high mound of compost. They all have dirty knees and hands, and sweat beading on their foreheads, and about 200 more strawberry plants between them to get into the ground. They are student employees with the Produce Project, an ambitious urban farming program started by Capital District Community Gardens.

“Nobody’s done this before on 8th Street,” says Amy. “It’s such an odd place for a garden. There’s the highway, and houses.”

“Police sirens on a daily basis,” Chris adds.

“You got North Central over here,” she says, pointing across Hoosick Street, “probably not the best place, I’d imagine.”

“Yeah, these plants are gonna get stolen!” says Dominique.

These students are half of the workforce that the project currently employs, and have been involved since the beginning. They are the ones who helped till the land by dragging a big hunk of steel, called a chisel plow, behind a tractor. They carried the unearthed rocks across the field and threw them over the fence, building a large pile in the tree line.

“I liked that part the best,” Chris says. “That was the easiest part. All you had to do was carry them over there.”

Gardening, they are finding out, is hard work.

“Plants need a lot of care,” Dom-inique says. “You can’t just throw a seed in the ground and expect it to grow.”

They also helped build the project’s unheated greenhouse, known as a high tunnel. The enclosed steel-pipe-and-plastic building can keep the air temperature inside considerably higher in the cold months and extend a farming operation to year-round.

“You should have seen these guys out here in the wintertime, freezing their butts off,” says Matthew Schueler, who oversees the project, “holding onto the steel in the ice cold. But now we can grow food all year long. And if we can extend the growing season to all year long, we can start talking about increasing local foods.”

The high tunnel is the first thing that Dominique has ever helped build. “But we got it together,” she says. “I’m proud of our work now, after the fact.”

Their parents, they say, like it that the Produce Project keeps them out of the house, puts them to work, keeps them out of trouble. But mostly, they like the vegetables. Dominique likes cabbage. Amy likes cucumbers. Dominique says that she is excited about the melons. Their favorite, though, are the strawberries, which will be ready to harvest, they say, in 97 days. And although they haven’t signed up yet for the summer program, they each say that they plan to be around to be the ones who harvest them.

Community Gardens’ 8th Street home for the Produce Project.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

While talking, Schueler walks along the raised rows planted with peas, bok choy, arugula, spinach, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard, winter rye, parsley, broccoli, collards, kale, and cabbage. He points to the high tunnel. Inside, tomato vines wrap their way up mesh. The first crop has been picked, and these tomatoes, which were planted only days earlier, are already climbing up in the humid heat. “They have shot right up,” Schueler says, “because it’s even hotter in there.”

Tomatoes like 80 degree days and 70 degree nights. The high tunnel creates an ideal environment for the Mexican natives, he says. “The high tunnel is an extremely low-tech structure that automatically extends our growing season two months longer without doing anything else.”

He says that the structure is integral to the mission and spirit of the project: increasing the region’s ability to grow fresh produce and feed its residents. The Produce Project is one of many programs managed by Community Gardens, a nearly-four-decades-old nonprofit that currently manages 48 gardens in three counties, mostly in urban neighborhoods. The project grew out of cooperation with the Troy High School, says Schueler, and currently employs six students. Next fall, they plan to employ 12.

“In terms of training and education for the kids, agriculture is just filled with opportunities to learn,” he says. It teaches them science and ecology, and since they are selling their food, there are entrepreneurial opportunities. “There are a lot of different skill sets that can find a home here.” There is a place for mechanically minded people, people who are good with tools, people who are good with science.

“Then there is all sorts of food knowledge,” Schueler says. “These are the things that we were hoping to improve. Improve their school performance, improve their math and science skills, improve their attendance, improve their health through giving them food and exercise.”

Along with the share of the crops they harvest, the kids are paid a modest stipend.

The money for the project, at the moment, comes through a combination of federal, private and state grants. “But the goal,” says Schueler, “is to create a project that would be able to generate enough sales to cover the stipends and the basic costs.”

The project is run like a business, and the aim, says project coordinator Stephen Corrigan, is to create a self- sustaining urban farm. So far, most of the food harvested has been sold through the Veggie Mobile and to local markets. They are also selling to two restaurants: Jose Malone’s and Jack’s Oyster House. The governor’s chef buys from them, as well. They would like to extend their reach by building a farm stand on the 8th Street location, getting into farmers’ markets and more restaurants.

It’s a goal that Corrigan believes is attainable, although rare within the nonprofit world.

He has spent a lot of time within that world, starting as a volunteer with community gardens in Chicago, and what he has found, he says, is a belief that urban farms ought to give their produce away, and rely on handouts. “I sort of fell out of love with that idea, because it is not a very sustainable model,” he says. “I wanted to do something that was self-sufficient. Because I didn’t want to just rely on grants, or money from the government, or donations.”

“A lot of people have a problem with that in the nonprofit world,” Corrigan says. “There’s this theory that, if you are going to grow food in the cities, you have to give it away. And Capital District Community Gardens has a lot of programs like that. But this project, for it to be successful, it can’t do that as well. With this, we’re more interested in reclaiming these properties so that they are productive again. And also working with youth to give them the best experience possible.”

The roughly two acres of 8th Street land was given to Community Gardens by the state. It is a beautiful piece of land up the hill in the residential neighborhood between Hoosick Street and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Where the trees have been cleared, you scan from the Route 7 bridge along to downtown. Amy is right, it is a strange place to find a farm.

Schueler says that in initial planning stages for the construction of the bridge that resolves into Hoosick Street, this land was claimed by the Department of Transportation for the construction of an off-ramp. The bridge originally was designed to be much taller; the plan was revised and the off-ramp moved to 6th Avenue, and these parcels of land sat vacant, buildings razed, for decades. Finally, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assemblyman Ron Canestrari saw to it that the land was reconsolidated and given to Community Gardens as the home of its future Urban Grow Center.

The Urban Grow Center is Community Gardens’ ultimate vision for this 8th Street land. The goal, according to its Web site, is to build a headquarters that will allow the nonprofit to develop “a hands-on education center to serve the entire region. It will use the production and distribution of local food to connect people and communities, strengthen the rural and urban economies, and fully utilize our area’s bountiful human and natural resources.” It would include demonstration gardens, a commercial kitchen and classrooms, and it would house offices for Community Gardens and serve as storage for the organization’s tools and Veggie Mobile.

Schueler says that the center will allow Community Gardens to utilize state-of-the-art agricultural techniques to increase the amount of local fresh produce available and to educate children and adults about healthy food. It is a futuristic notion, he says, and as cutting-edge as anything at RPI, to bring agriculture into the cities through intensive growing methods, and to teach people how to grow their own food. And it will be a step toward reversing the 50 years of the related social ills of urban and dietary neglect.

For now, the Produce Project is the first step toward this vision. Teaching kids job and life skills through agriculture, which in turn invigorates the local economy, “it is integral for the whole future of what the grow center will be. This is what we want to do with other segments of the community as well.”

“There is a growing understanding of the importance of local food and of agriculture’s importance in understanding the systems that we rely on,” says Schueler. “And there is a growing understanding about the importance of getting youth outside. This is going to be the first generation where we’re going to have kids dying earlier than the generation before, and this is due to dietary problems and the lack of mobility.” The Department of Defense, he points out, has even stated that obesity is the No. 1 reason for rejecting new recruits.

Schueler says that the program also gives the kids a sense of discipline. They work with at-risk youth, and have sought help with how to identify and deal with drug and alcohol problems, or problems the students might be having at home. Until this program, he says, he had no idea that truancy from school was such a problem.

“For me, philosophically, gardening gives you an opportunity to fail in a way that not much else does,” he says. “You can fail over and over, and it’s a good thing to realize that things don’t always work out. Sometimes you can do the best work possible, and a sudden wind can come up and your whole crop will be destroyed. And that’s difficult for everybody to understand. It’s hard to deal with, but it’s something that we have to deal with in life. It’s a heartbreaking thing. We all deal with tragedy large and small. It gives them perspective.”

But, he adds, there is just nothing as rewarding.

‘It’s rough to get kids out here on Saturday,” says Produce Project coordinator and resident farmer, Stephen Corrigan. Especially on a sunny spring day like today, the perfect kind of day to skip work and get into trouble. Only one of the scheduled students, 15-year-old Luqman, has shown up for work. “I am quite angry at them,” Luqman says of his coworkers who ditched. “I had to work at digging a trench by myself.”

This morning, he digs a trench for asparagus. After lunch, they head back to the 8th Street farm to prepare some more land for growing. That means hauling wheelbarrows of compost across the field, where it will be raked over tilled ground.

Luqman shows off his new blisters.

This is Luqman’s first job. At first he says he has no idea why he is working for the Produce Project, but after getting over his teenage reluctance to open up, he says that he finds it interesting to work with plants. “And it looks nice. Well, to me it looks nice.”

He says that he likes the end result. Plus, he says, “I get paid, so that’s good, too.”

Luqman enjoys gardening, and even has a small garden of his own at home. He’s growing peas and sunflowers, and has made his own miniature high tunnel. “Mine’s better. It only took a day, and it works. It’s made out of rusted metal wire. It does its job.” He plans on covering the sunflowers with it in the winter.

An honors student, Luqman figures that he will stay with the program throughout high school. His parents like it. His mom is cooking up his latest allotment of vegetables today. “Every time I bring home a bag, she gets so happy. I don’t know why, but she does.”

At the moment, though, he’s done with it. He’s tired of the sun crisping his skin. He’s slouching over, leaning on his wheelbarrow. It’s nearing the end of his workday. Corrigan bugs him about drinking enough water.

Exhausted, the two enjoy their break from work. Corrigan inspects the rows of pea plants, and plucks one of the pods hanging off the vines and pops it in his mouth. Hands one to Luqman. “No, I’ll get my own. It’s more rewarding that way,” the teen says.

He picks two, examines them, and eats them slowly. “They taste sweet, and then a little bit bitter. It’s good.”

Stray patches of lettuce and bok choy are growing outside the beds, and Luqman picks them as well. He munches on the leaves he peels off the bok choy. His favorite.

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