The Green Man On The Hudson
When Bob Walters was a child, he lost one of his shoes in the mud along the Hudson River’s edge. He hasn’t stopped giving to the river since. When he’s not physically on the Hudson, he’s probably reading about it or thinking of ways to help it along. Today he is the Director of the Science Barge, a model urban farm in Yonkers, New York that uses renewable energy to cultivate its crops. The barge is owned by Groundwork Hudson Valley, a hands-on environmental organization that promotes learning-by-doing projects.
Being the Science Barge’s Director allows Bob to talk about two things he loves dearly: the environment and the Hudson River. One thing Bob doesn’t talk much about is himself. He was a member of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, served as a tour guide on the Yonkers Water Taxi, wrote the “River Notes” column for a local newspaper, was President of the Pete Seger-founded Ferry Sloops, Inc., owned an “Energy Saver” store, was the Executive Director of the Beczak Environmental Center and was Chairman of Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Green Policy Task Force. In May 2011, the Riverkeeper organization recognized him as a “Champion of the Hudson.”
With the Science Barge’s wind turbines spinning above us, Bob and I sat down at a picnic table made from recycled plastics to discuss the barge and its goals.
(Interview by: Michael Coto)
Bob, What is the Science Barge and why should people visit?
The Science Barge is a floating urban farm. We’re on a barge in the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York. It’s the only place in the tri-state area that teaches about sustainable agriculture tied to sustainable energy. We’re growing hydroponic vegetables in the city and we’re powered by solar panels, photovoltaics, wind turbines and biodiesel. We’re growing food with zero carbon emissions.
What do you hope someone will learn by visiting the barge?
Someone that comes to the barge will learn to be self-sufficient and that, in my humble thinking, is the major thing. You can walk on the barge and see wind turbines in your backyard, you can look at solar panels, you can learn how a solar panel works, how it makes electricity and you’re going to learn about the future of biodiesel.
So the energy end of the barge is important in itself, but then when we tie it into the idea of urban agriculture, that we can use this renewable energy that we have on one end of the barge to power our hydroponic farm, it makes it even more important.
We talk about the efficiency of hydroponics because the quote has come up again and again that water is the next oil, that there are water shortages all over the world. With hydroponics we only use 25% of the water and we grow seven times the amount of vegetables in a smaller space, so people can learn to make their own energy and feed their populations very efficiently.
What is hydropnics?
Hydroponics has been around for years. It’s not a new concept. The basic idea is that we’re using water to grow vegetables. There’s no soil. We use different type of sub-straits. We use a sub-strait called Rockwool that is actually like a sponge. We use hydrotons, which are dried clay pellets. We give the plants the amount of water they need, the amount of nutrients that they need and sunlight. That’s a magic combination for the efficiency of growing vegetables very quickly and the quality of our food is the best that you’ll ever see in the world.
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is another interesting system. We’re still growing vegetables in water, but we’re introducing fish into the mix, whether it’s tilapia or catfish or other types of fish and we’re using the waste from the fish as the nutrients for the plants. So it’s a closed loop system that we’re feeding fish, in the case of tilapia we can even feed them vegetables that we grow in the greenhouse, and then the fish waste is recycled as the nutrients for the plants. It’s a very efficient growing system.
Do you think urban farms will be small private ventures or run by larger corporations?
We would hope there would be a mix of private and public. It’s definitely a commercial venture, where you would have commercial hydroponic farms in the city powered by renewable energy, but it’s also something the individual homeowner could set up as a hydroponic greenhouse on their property. They can walk out their kitchen door into a greenhouse and harvest the vegetables that they would eat for their meal, almost immediately.
Besides money, what other hurdles does urban farming face before becoming a common sight?
I think the hurdle is getting the zoning in place so that these farms would be buildable in the city. There are entrepreneurs down in New York City that are developing different sites to prove that this works. Once we have a change in the zoning codes and we have an acceptance by different city officials, then the farms will become more available.
Earlier you mentioned some mysterious men from Bhutan and a lady from India. Can you tell our readers about them?
You never know who’s coming across the gangway onto the Science Barge. It’s interesting to me that we get people from literally all over the world.
The two gentlemen from Bhutan were here for our nutrient formulas. They told me they had looked all over the internet and could not find the formulas that they needed. They were interested in growing vegetables in their country. We shared what we know and I took the book out and showed them the nutrient formulas.
The two gentlemen took out their cellphone cameras and they took pictures. As soon as they had that information they left the barge. That was the reason they came to the Science Barge.
The woman from India, she was from the village of Soda, in India, and she was interested in hydroponics because the groundwater in her village is so heavily contaminated that they can’t use it to grow vegetables. They rely on the water from the monsoons to fill their cisterns and being that hydroponics only uses 25% of the water of traditional agriculture, she felt that she could feed her village a lot more efficiently using hydroponics.
Is this considered organic farming?
Hydroponics isn’t organic. We use conventional fertilizer that we custom mix for the different cops that we grow, but we’re pesticide free. We use something called integrated pest management where we use different types of bugs, like ladybugs or different types of wasps to treat the different types of outbreaks that we have in the greenhouse .
So I think the major cause for a lot of people to worry is the pesticides. We are pesticide-free and the vegetables we grow are as delicious as anything grown anywhere in the world.
Have any people or organizations that haven’t necessarily been here contacted the Science Barge to report on how they’ve used these renewable energy techniques?
It’s interesting, New York Sun Works, which was the original manufacturer of the barge before Groundwork Hudson Valley took it over, has a goal of building 100 greenhouses on top of 100 schools in New York City. They just completed the first greenhouse down at the Manhattan School on 93rd Street. And then, Jen Nelkin, one of the entrepreneurs who helped design this greenhouse, she’s going to have the first commercial greenhouse in Brooklyn called Gotham Green.
Her first crop is actually in the ground and it’ll be harvested in June.
What do you personally like or enjoy most about the Science Barge?
I think what I enjoy the most are the people that come on the barge, being that they are from all over the world. They all have something to share. Something that they know that we on the Science Barge don’t know, whether it’s a young person that lives in the inner city or a person who’s from Germany.
We had a news person from Germany. Germany is very advanced in a lot of green technologies. He mentioned that the reason he was here was that in Germany nobody has combined what Ted Caplow (note: the Science Barge’s creator) did, you know, combining the renewable energy with the renewable agriculture, the hydroponics. He was here to do a radio show on the Science Barge because it is so unique.
Not even Portland, Oregon, one of the greenest cities in the U.S., has a Science Barge.
Not even Portland, Oregon. Well, the quote that I’ve been using because it is such an interesting observation that a clerk at one of the hydroponic stores I visit made is that, he told me, “Well, we know that Disney World has Epcot Center and they teach about hydroponics and they do an amazing job and we know about NASA, that they’ve been involved with hydroponics in the space program and we have the Science Barge.”
So I think the Science Barge ranks up there in the big three with what we teach and we’re accessible because we’re on the waterfront in Yonkers.
Bob, thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to leave our readers with?
Just come and visit the Science Barge. We look forward to having you.