To farm properly, Sharon Astyk used to think, a person had to move out into farm country.
“That’s what I thought, but since then people have pointed out to me that we need to grow things where the people are,” said Astyk, a science blogger and author who has written four books on agricultural, energy policy and food preservation. “It’s amazing to me how much land and agricultural possibilities there are in cities.”
A recent newcomer to Schenectady after living 16 years in the town of Knox in rural Albany County, Astyk has her own garden in the backyard of her Eastern Avenue home where she lives with her husband, University at Albany physics professor Eric Woods, and their 10 children. This spring, however, Astyk has also become a key member of the Vale Urban Farm team in Schenectady, a small plot of land – about two-thirds of an acre – in which city dwellers can plant crops. Nearly every Saturday this spring, Astyk and others, including members of Union College’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, have spent part of their Saturdays with hoes, rakes and shovels, doing all they can to ensure that the ground produces a good harvest later this year.
“I’m really excited about the urban garden at Vale,” said Astyk. “It’s a beautiful space that was once farmland, and it’s not on land that was once used as a cemetery. We’re growing a lot of beautiful food there, we’re hoping to get more people involved, and we’d love to expand.”
Astyk, who grew up just outside of Boston and went to Brandeis University, moved to the Capital Region in 2001 when her husband got a teaching job at UAlbany. In 2003, she and her husband’s concern for the environment resulted in them doing as much as they could to reduce their carbon footprint.
“I grew up in a thrifty family, so I was always aware of economic issues,” she said. “When I was getting my master's in English literature at Boston College, my field of study was demographics and the way demographics affected people and the food supply issues of the 19th and 18th century. As I was learning more about that, it became clear to me that with the climate and energy issues we have today we can’t live exactly the way we want to live.”
During her time in Knox, Astyk produced four books, beginning with “Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front” in 2008. She followed that up with “Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation” and “A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil” in 2009, and then wrote “Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place” in 2011.
“I’m working on another book about my family’s experience farming the land in Knox,” said Astyk. “We were happy there, but we’re also very happy in Schenectady. With 10 children, some of them are adopted with special needs, we needed to move to be able to use some of the resources that aren’t that easy to get in a rural area.”
Vale Urban Farm. (Provided)
Astyk and her husband serve as foster parents, and over the last eight years have opened their home to 26 different children.
“We have 10 kids right now, and they’re all my kids, not just the biological ones,” she said. “The ones that could go home went back to their own families and that is the best option. The ones that couldn’t have stayed with us.”
Astyk’s example and her books have made an impression on Dr. Bernard McEvoy, the man, who along with his wife, Barbara, saved the Vale Cemetery caretaker’s cottage on State Street 12 years ago from demolition, and infused new life into the Vale Cemetery Board of Trustees and the cemetery itself.
“I was something of a skeptic on global warming, but when Sharon came to town I took another look at things,” said McEvoy. “I googled her, I read her books. They were fascinating so I’m a convert. I know when I have a banana or an orange in my hand, it didn’t come from Scotia or Glenville. I think about how many times I jump in the car and take a trip somewhere and use gas. She got me thinking about all those things.”
Cathy Winter, one of the volunteer leaders of the Vale Urban Farm, said Astyk is a valuable addition to her farm community.
“She’s an established author who knows a lot about food sourcing and the importance of urban farms,” said Winter. “She has so much information and so much experience. We’re very happy she wanted to get involved.”
Astyk admits that living an environmental-friendly life hasn’t been easy.
“It was a gradual decision for us,” she said. “You want to use as few resources as possible; your fair share of what’s left on the planet without your kids feeling deprived or sad. We wanted to treat it like an art, and become as involved as we could with CSA [Community Supported Agriculture.]”
Astyk said it is America’s responsibility to serve as a role model to the rest of the world when it comes to dealing with issues such as climate change and dwindling resources.
“I’m certainly not a Trump fan, but I don’t think either presidential candidate had a viable plan for dealing with climate change,” she said. “The reality is that our kids and our grand kids are going to be paying the price. The world is going to be a completely different place by the end of this century and it’s not fair for us to leave it to the next generation to clean up this mess.
“Neither Trump or Clinton had the moral courage to do the kind of things America needs to do,” continued Astyk. “We led the way into industrialization, and we should be leading the way morally into the future. Unfortunately, everyone is so concerned about short-term economic gains, and those are debatable, they don’t want to worry about the future. I don’t think any politician, anyone in Congress, has the moral courage to really address these issues.”
While Astyk expects to spend this Saturday working at the Vale garden, she will be taking notice of what happens in Washington, D.C. at the Peoples Climate March. Organizers are asking for visitors to begin meeting at the Capitol Building at 11 a.m. with the march to the White House expected to start at 12:30 p.m.
There are also sister marchers being held around the country, including New York City (Queens and Staten Island) and the Greater Capital Region (Glens Falls, Hudson and Cherry Valley).
At the Glens Falls Climate March and Rally, marchers will gather at 10 a.m. at City Park and march to a rally at Crandall Park. The Hudson Valley People’s Climate Sister March and Rally will begin in Hudson at 11 a.m., and the Climate Change Sister March in Cherry Valley will be held at the Cherry Valley Old School at 11 a.m.