The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.

Palmdale

I first heard of Palmdale in the Frank Zappa song “Village of the Sun” many years ago, turns out he grew up in the neighboring town of Lancaster. It is a high desert town, and although the surrounding San Gabriel Mountains and outlying desert are beautiful, the town itself is a series of strip malls and housing developments. They do have one thing going for them though, it is very windy, and the day I went there it was very, very windy.  Zappa’s lyrics say it all.

…good God I hope the Wind don't blow. It take the paint off your car And wreck your windshield too, I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do.

I went up there to photograph wind turbines, not the massive wind farms they have near Palm Springs, but smaller residential and business wind turbines that are a perfect energy source in this breezy desert town. You get to Palmdale on route 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, and the first thing you see from the bluff overlooking the town is a huge 318 foot wind turbine on the edge of Lake Palmdale. There is just the one, a giant sentinel standing guard over the town, and you can easily see it is the tallest structure for miles around. It was built in 2004 to help power the district's Lake Palmdale water-treatment plant and can produce up to 950kw of electricity.

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The Walmart/Sam’s Club just recently installed a mini wind farm on their parking lot. Seventeen micro wind turbines were humming along pretty furiously the day I was there, standing at respectful distances from each other and producing 76,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually for the store. You may not like Walmart for some of their business practices, but they are making an effort to make their stores more sustainable.  I included a video I took of it, it’s not very exciting, but it gives you an idea of just how windy it was.

I came across a few small residential wind turbines as I toured the town, but could not help but think how much more could be done to take advantage of the winds that whip pretty consistently across this high desert town. As I drove around I was listening to radio reports about the oil spill in the gulf, it was hard not to be discouraged by the lack of will to make a serious effort to get this country and the rest of the planet off our addiction to fossil fuels. It seems environmental disasters and the price of gas are the only things that get us to even start talking about alternatives. What a cliché, but it is the truth.

The travel photographer in me wanted to see if I could find any vestige of history in this town, but the only things I could find were an old schoolhouse and a motley graveyard called the Palmdale Pioneer Cemetery. No coonskin caps or stagecoach remnants I’m afraid, it wasn’t very inspiring. But passing through the town is the great California Aqueduct, bringing water from the north to Los Angeles and Southern California as it begins to wind down its journey in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. More on the aqueduct later.