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New York barges into sustainable urban farming

The Science Barge, a floating hydroponic farm on the Hudson River, opened Friday in Manhattan.Photos: N.Y.'s Energy Barge
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
NEW YORK--Standing behind a podium in front of a crowd of several hundred people, Ted Caplow lifted a ripe green vegetable and said, "This is a pretty cool cucumber."

The cucumber in Caplow's hand had been grown with no pesticides or net carbon emissions, and with recirculated water--in a hydroponic barge floating on the Hudson River. Caplow, executive director of the nonprofit New York Sun Works Center for Sustainable Engineering, is the designer of the Science Barge, a combination of an environmental education center and potential model for sustainable urban agriculture.

On Friday morning, a press conference kicked off the barge's opening to the public at Pier 84 off of Hudson River Park, with short speeches by Caplow as well as several other local politicians and environmental advocates.

Many of the speakers echoed PlanNYC 2030, the set of goals and initiatives spelled out by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg last month to address population growth, infrastructure improvement and environmental sustainability in the city over the next 25 years. The mayor's parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, spelled out a few of them: to plant a million more trees, construct 800 new "green streets" and convert many of the city's industrial waterfronts to park space.

Powered by a combination of solar energy from photovoltaic panels, five wind turbines and a generator that runs on biodiesel and waste vegetable oil (commonly known as "french fry grease"), the Science Barge generates zero carbon dioxide emissions.

N.Y.'s Energy Barge

An on-board greenhouse uses hydroponic technologies to grow vegetables using a quarter of the water that traditional agriculture would. Inside the greenhouse, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, herbs and lettuce are germinated in "rock wool" made from basaltic rock spun into cotton candy-like fibers. They're grown using recirculated water, and a mix of coconut husks and rice hulls--waste products that otherwise would be sent to landfills--in lieu of soil.

Over the next few months, school groups from the city's five boroughs, as well as members of the general public, will visit the floating farm. Students will not only be able to learn about how the barge works, but will be able to experiment with hydroponic growing themselves. They'll also be able to snack on the vegetables--additional "crops" from the Science Barge may be sold at farmers' markets or to local restaurants.

The Big Apple's big picture
But more than just a way to show off trendy (and educational) environmental technologies like solar panels and hydroponics, New York Sun Works sees the Science Barge as a prototype for a solution to many of the ecological threats that currently face the planet.

"Growing the food to feed the people of greater metro New York City takes 60 million acres," Caplow said in his speech at the press conference, speaking into a microphone powered by the barge's biodiesel generator. "That's an area the size of Wyoming."

Cities aren't exactly agricultural epicenters. Food and water are shipped over hundreds, even thousands of miles to reach urban areas, and that consumes a massive amount of processing and transportation fuel, which in turn contributes excess carbon dioxide to Earth's atmosphere. Traditional agriculture, too, consumes energy and large amounts of water, and despite the popularity of organic food, toxic pesticides are still in wide use. And since the world population is continuing to grow rapidly, Caplow explained, it's going to get worse. "As our city grows with new people and new buildings, it will place increasingly huge demands on the countryside for food, for power, and for water," he said to the crowd.

In a speech that followed, this point was reiterated by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who cited the PlanNYC statistic that another million people will be coming to New York City over the next 25 years. "Learning to manage our natural resources and in particular our renewable resources," Sachs said, "will be essential if we're going to get through this very, very difficult phase ahead."

But if the speeches at Friday's event are to be believed, there is reason to be optimistic. In human cultural and economic development, Sachs said, "science and technology have played a critical role," and the potential for innovation is stronger than it ever has been. "We have a flowering of leadership, and this is thrilling," he added, referring to support for environmental initiatives from politicians like Mayor Bloomberg and New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer.

Caplow's visions, too, go beyond the Science Barge. He claimed that New York Sun Works studies indicate that there is enough rooftop space in the five boroughs to grow fresh vegetables for the entire city of New York. It's a bold assertion that will undoubtedly encounter plenty of red tape ahead, but the New York Sun Works team is optimistic--an attitude certainly bolstered by the fact that green technology is such a hot topic these days.

The other speakers at the press conference were quick to say that while the Science Barge is the first step in a long journey, it was a significant one. "Getting a project of this magnitude designed, funded, built, and launched in a few short years is an amazing feat," noted Alaina Colon, chief of staff for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Colon spoke at the gathering on Stringer's behalf.

"This barge is a metaphor for us and for the future of this planet," said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner. "We can float together, or we'll surely sink together."

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