The small spinach, totsoi, kale, chard, parsley, basil and dill plants growing in the Science Barge greenhouse look sturdy and bright. It’s hard to imagine that 50 pounds of produce had been harvested and donated to a Yonkers, N.Y. food pantry in early May, two days before our visit. Even more food than that will be donated every two weeks when the string-trestled pea plants, climbing (and then wrapped-around) cherry tomato plants, stacked-up collard greens and the first of two cucumber crops start producing. Heavy melons will eventually dangle from vertical vines, which begin with their roots in a Dutch or Bato bucket hydroponic system.
The Science Barge has produced 35 tons of tomatoes in just 3 percent of the space that would be needed for traditional farming. The 1,300 square feet of protected, season-extending growing space on the Science Barge can grow as much as an acre of land.
Moored in the Hudson River on the Yonkers waterfront, the Science Barge has a view of the Palisades from one end, the bridges of New York City from the other and faces the commuter train station. The Science Barge was constructed and originally operated by New York Sun Works and acquired in 2008 by Groundwork Hudson Valley, the local chapter of Groundwork USA, a non-profit that promotes community-based efforts that improve environmental, economic and social well-being.
The Science Barge’s Director of Education, Gwen Hill, showed us around, explaining that the several different hydroponic systems not only produce more vegetables, but also grow them faster and cleaner. The Nutrient Film Technique setup, where the shallow-rooted greens and herbs grow, uses small plugs of rock wool, a fibrous growing medium, that fill the holes in a rack of simple pipes. Water- and salt-based soluble nutrients bathe the roots. Water is recycled in the systems too, which uses 1/10 the water of a soil system. The Science Barge also carries colorfully decorated 1,200-gallon rainwater collection tanks, a reverse-osmosis system to desalinate the Hudson’s brackish water, vermiculture and composting facilities, a passive solar-wind-backup biodiesel system, which supplies all their energy needs and a small onboard wetland that filters water before it is returned to the Hudson. Educator Rena Meadows showed us the Science Barge’s soon-to-be-perfected fish-growing loop, in which fish effluent nourishes plants that then clean the water and return it to the fish tanks.
The primary mission of the Science Barge is education, and the “cool” sustainable systems must thrill kids. Although funding for field trips has been threatened locally, schools from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have visited, as have garden groups, seniors and area college groups. The Science Barge is open to the public for tours on weekends. It’s amazing what delicious, vital produce this cost-effective model can grow in so little space, with such light environmental impact and a breathtaking view to boot.