SCHENECTADY – With no dirt on her hands from soil, and a sweater nearby when the growing environment gets chilly, Elsa Bohl is not your typical farmhand.
Bohl, 24, helps run City Mission of Schenectady’s new hydroponic farm from a 40-foot shipping container on Hamilton Street.
In one week, the container can produce the equivalent of what a two-acre farm grows in a year.
Since the shipping container, called a freight farm, became operational in February, Bohl and fellow coordinator Liddy Zierer have grown more than 2,000 heads of lettuce that the City Mission uses in meals for its residents and program participants in its dining center, which serves about 500 meals a day.
They’re also placing the locally-grown lettuce and salad dressings in bags to dole out from the mission’s kitchen.
They can also grow root vegetables like radishes and turnips, while vine veggies and fruits don’t do as well because of their weight, Bohl said.
Soon, she said she will start growing herbs and other vegetables that can be used in salads, and perhaps strawberries.
The freight farm is a partnership between the City Mission and SEFCU in an attempt to address food insecurity while at the same time, teaching participants new skills through a social enterprise.
Bohl went “farm” to table by bringing a harvest of buttercrunch lettuce to the kitchen Monday morning, and, during the afternoon showed a reporter columns of Oakley lettuce that were close to harvest. She was also managing Rex butterhead and salanova lettuces.
Bohl, who has a background in nursing, explained the two-month seed-to-harvest process in the controlled environment that uses hydroponic LED lights to mimic sunlight.
The combination of the hydroponics and the LED simulates an ideal growing environment, said Executive Director Michael Saccocio.
Unlike on a real farm, the produce can be grown year-round in the shipping container, and Bohl and Zierer control the setting through a computer or a smartphone app.
Each night, Bohl said she goes on her app and makes sure the outputs are correct for dripping, pH levels and lighting.
The mission hopes to share produce with neighbors and other organizations and will sell extra products to local restaurants and at the Greenmarket.
Saccocio said those ventures will be an opportunity for program graduates to run the operation, with components in marketing, delivery, sales, and running a booth at the Greenmarket.
Bohl said the freight farm can be used to spur a community garden across the street that’s expected to be finished in two or three months.
The donor, SEFCU, has a freight farm at its Albany headquarters that’s run by Megan Meduna, whom Bohl said has been an invaluable resource when the City Mission operation hits a snag.
Saccocio said the operation is manageable because it’s not complex.
“If it takes PhDs in science or even people with agricultural degrees, it’s not going to be able to really proliferate,” he said. “Just take hard-working people who can learn the system, really.”
Since the neighborhood qualifies as a food desert, with Hamilton Hill on the next block, public housing across the street, and no major grocery store, Bohl said it’s very rewarding to offer fresh vegetables at City Mission.
“With our community members and our residents, I have heard such amazing feedback from them of just how it tastes, looks, how we’re growing it for them specifically,” she said. “Our first goal isn’t to give it to restaurants. Our goal is to give it to our community, and our community is our residents; it’s who lives here. So just that response of them knowing how much we value them and how they feel… It’s just amazing.”
“We’re talking nutrition,” said Saccocio, who noted he has dreams of having a salad wagon that would go into the community and make salads for people on the spot. “We all know it’s important. But for us to actually be able to provide the product, really, then to grow it over time. It’s one thing just to point and talk and say you should. It’s another thing to come with the main product and say let’s do this together.”
Bohl, who served as an oncology nurse at St. Peter’s before she was hired last fall for the freight farm operation, said she switched her career focus because “the Lord has taught me what we put in our bodies is what we’re going to get out.
“And so, I just want to have that opportunity to genuinely be able to grow food for myself. I put that in my body and know what’s good for me because I know that there will be benefits for that. I want to help other people and teach other people.
“Having this opportunity to learn how to grow food straight from seed right to a full head of lettuce is like, I couldn’t even believe that I got asked to do this. I’m just blown away still, every day, that I get to be here to do this.”