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Foss: Vale Urban Farm has ambitious plans for the future

Foss: Vale Urban Farm has ambitious plans for the future

Foss: Vale Urban Farm has ambitious plans for the future
Sharon Asteyk talks about the upcoming planting season in the Vale Urban Farm.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The vegetables have yet to be planted, the rabbit hutch sits empty and the chicken coop won't be built for another few weeks.

But there are signs of life at Vale Urban Farm in Schenectady.

When I first visited the farm, back in 2014, it was a large neighborhood garden that occupied about two-thirds of an acre in a quiet corner of Vale Cemetery. In exchange for a $25 annual fee and two hours of work per week, members received a variety of organic vegetables.

That large garden is still there, but it's just one piece of VUF's ever-expanding operations.

A dozen chicks will be introduced to the farm later this year, and a chicken coop building party will be held on May 5. The goal is to provide VUF members with free-range eggs produced in the heart of the Electric City.

The chicks — and the prospect of good, fresh eggs — is exciting enough.

But the group has other, equally interesting plans. 

They intend to build a children's garden that can be used for educational programming, and to install a beehive.

And they are working with the Capital Region Land Bank to acquire vacant lots on nearby Moyston Street, where they hope to plant flowers and put in an orchard, among other things.

The goal is to promote urban farming — and the notion that you can grow and produce healthy food for you and your family — in a city where there are few options for buying fresh vegetables at affordable prices.

It's a great project that could transform the lives of Schenectady residents for the better.

Much has been written about the dearth of grocery stores in Schenectady's poorer neighborhoods, and the Vale Urban Farm aims to put good food in the kitchens of city residents and teach people how to farm on their own property and other lots.

Urban farming might sound like a radical idea.

But VUF coordinator Sharon Astyk, who ran a goat farm in Knox, Albany County, prior to moving to Schenectady, doesn't see it that way.

She notes that in many places urban farming is perfectly normal — "25 percent of the world's food is produced on urban and peri-urban farms" — and suggests that Schenectady could become one of those places.

"We want to incubate more small farms in Schenectady," said Astyk, who has written four books on farming and sustainable living. "I'm astounded by the amount of vacant land here. ... We could be feeding Schenectady. We have lots of people who could use supplemental farming."

The Vale Urban Farm opened for the season on Friday, and will be open this weekend, weather permitting. The hours will expand as the weather improves, and on May 5 the group will host that chicken coop building party from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Until then, the 12 chicks will continue to reside at the home of Schenectady resident Chad Putman.

Schenectady residents are barred from owning chickens under city law, but they are permitted at educational institutions. Despite this, Putman, a former deputy city clerk and one-time candidate for state Senate, has been caring for the chicks at his home until it becomes warm enough to move them to the farm.

Putman said his interest in urban farming was sparked by the Beekman Boys, the Sharon Springs-based couple featured on a reality TV show that showcased their efforts to become farmers.

"I want to create opportunities (to farm) in the city," Putman said, noting that he found the idea of producing eggs in Schenectady especially compelling.

Right now, 21 families belong to Vale Urban Farm. The goal is to have 60 member households by 2020.

Last year the Vale Urban Farm added three rabbits (Apple, Banana and Carrot) who spent the winter in the homes of local residents. (Unlike chickens, rabbits are considered pets under city law.) When it gets a little warmer, the rabbits will return to their hutch.

As the VUF expands, it will confront new challenges and questions.

One is where the hens will go when winter comes.

Putman and Astyk would like to see the city allow residents to own hens. But unless the law changes, residents will not be permitted to take them in over the winter.

Putman said he'd like to see the city create an agricultural committee to study agricultural-related issues in Schenectady. This is a good idea, in part because it would also touch upon issues such as hunger and blight.

"Schenectady is newly hip and sustainable agriculture is part of that hipness," Astyk said.

041318-gardne02.jpg

The Vale Urban Farm off Brandywine Avenue in Schenectady on April 13, 2018. (Peter R. Barber)

When I visited the Vale Urban Farm on Friday, it was cool and overcast — not a great day for gardening.

But the less-than-stellar spring weather hadn't dampened Astyk's enthusiasm, and she spoke energetically about adding potatoes and grinding corn to VUF's long list of crops.

"We grow almost everything you can imagine," she said.

Standing there, listening to Astyk, it was easy to imagine how the garden would look toward the end of summer, when its beds will be overflowing with vegetables.

But it was also easy to imagine a city where residents grow their own food and work at VUF, taking home eggs and honey and fruit.

It's a lovely vision — one that's already taking shape and will become more and more real as the growing season unfolds.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Schenectady resident Chad Putman had permission to care for chickens at his home over the winter. The Corporation Counsel for the City of Schenectady gave the Vale Urban Farm permission to house chickens on site for educational purposes, but did not give Putman permission to keep them at his home.

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