It’s been five years since crops were grown in the large green lot on Fehr Avenue, a gently sloping expanse of land once cultivated by local youth.
The site is overgrown and a bit raggedy, but it’s no longer quiet.
On Monday a small group began the labor-intensive process of transforming the property back into a functional garden. When I stopped by, they were taking measurements for the initial plot, where onions, broccoli, winter squash and beans will be grown in raised beds.
“There’s great soil here,” the group’s leader, Melissa MacKinnon, told me.
MacKinnon is the executive director of the Schenectady Urban Farm, a group that was, until very recently, known as the Vale Urban Farm.
The new name reflects the organization’s gradually expanding reach and ever-evolving efforts to provide city residents with the tools to grow their own fruits and vegetables.
In past years, the group’s sole focus was its garden in Vale Cemetery, which was established in 2012.
This year, SUF will operate two additional gardens, the one at Fehr Avenue, and another, smaller garden on Hulett Street. They’re also distributing free garden supplies to people who want to start gardens at their homes, working to create a seed library and offering Facebook Live video tutorials on how to garden.
The timing for these new endeavors couldn’t be better.
Schenectady Urban Farm has seen a surge of interest in gardening, a development that’s likely due to COVID-19.
Going to the grocery store has become a fraught and unpleasant activity for many, and empty shelves have fueled concerns about food shortages.
The nation’s food supply has held up reasonably well so far, but that could change: Earlier this month, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warned that a “cascading series of events” is disrupting the U.S. food supply chain. Some meat processors have been forced to close as a result of coronavirus outbreaks, a development that could make it harder to find certain products in stores.
Amid all this uncertainty, gardening is empowering.
“We’re trying to establish a local, regional food system,” MacKinnon said. “We think there’s going to be a real issue with food shortages, because our food sources are far away.”
SUF gives shares of produce grown at the Vale Cemetery plot to members who pay a $25 annual fee and volunteer two hours a week. That garden also has hens, rabbits and bees.
“It’s been an amazing spring,” MacKinnon said. “Our garlic and shallots are coming up already. We’re planting potatoes. There’s lots of stuff in the ground already.”
Schenectady resident Ellie Pepper has produced two Facebook Live videos for VUF on gardening, with the goal of making it seem like something anyone can do. In her first video she talked about how gardening is not an exact science - how some things won’t work, but other things will.
“I’m not an experienced farmer,” Pepper said. “I’m just doing my best to grow stuff in my yard, and I’m trying to make people feel like they can grow stuff in their yards.”
Pepper has had a front-yard garden at her house for four years, and she’s had success with carrots, beans, kale, collards, tomatoes and basil. Two crops that haven’t worked out: zucchini and spinach.
“(SUB) has been talking about how to support the community, because access to fresh food is going to become necessary,” Pepper said, noting that SUF also has potting soil, pots and seeds that are available to Schenectady residents for free.
The fruits and vegetables grown at Fehr Avenue and Hulett Street will go to Schenectady Community Ministries, the Albany Street non-profit that runs the city’s biggest food pantry.
This new partnership will see SUF and SiCM working together to bring low-income residents locally grown, nutritious food and offer classes on canning, making jams and jellies and drying and preserving food, among other things.
MacKinnon and the other SUF members working at the Fehr Avenue site wore masks as they moved about the site - the only sign, on a sunny spring day, that anything might be amiss.
The land was once maintained by Roots & Wisdom, a youth agriculture program run by Cornell University Cooperative Extension, but in recent years it had fallen into disuse. Now the city of Schenectady is leasing it to SUF for $1, and the arrangement should yield dividends for a community where many neighborhoods lack full-service grocery stores.
I’m not surprised that more people are looking to grow their own food.
I’ve had a garden for the past five or six years, but I’m hoping to do a better job of tending to it this year. Growing your own food is rewarding in the best of times, but seems especially meaningful now, when it’s unclear what the future holds.
“There are mental and physical benefits to getting your hands in the dirt,” MacKinnon told me.
Amen to that, and happy gardening.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.