200 more: Troy High School sophomores Amy and Chris
Gardens gives kids an opportunity to become farmers and
help create an oasis in the urban food desert
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.”
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
done this before on 8th Street,” says Amy. “It’s such an
odd place for a garden. There’s the highway, and houses.”
sirens on a daily basis,” Chris adds.
got North Central over here,” she says, pointing across
Hoosick Street, “probably not the best place, I’d imagine.”
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.
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.
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
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.
Gardens’ 8th Street home for the Produce Project.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.