Sweatered and sandaled 50-somethings mill about the Farm en masse, their eyes alight with talk of vermicompost and stormwater pollution reform. Students and other community members peruse the scene with ice cream in hand, pausing to examine soil samples and taste fresh veggies while a klezmer band serenades onlookers. Such is the scene at the Urban Wilderness Festival and Environmental Fair, coordinated by the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve and Dutchess County Environmental Management Council.
The organizations came together to co-host the event with the hope of promoting environmental awareness and activism among residents of the greater Dutchess County area, inviting 20 local groups to participate in the fair and advocate various platforms for change; these groups include Riverkeepser, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Environment Program, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and more. The Environmental Cooperative’s newly-appointed manager Jen Rubbo noted, “The Festival’s objectives are to increase awareness of ways residents and students can connect with the environment around them despite living in an urban or suburban area. We hope to accomplish this by helping people become more aware of local organizations that they can get involved in, teaching about ways they can improve the habitat in their own backyards and giving them specific methods and ideas they can use at home that will have a positive impact on their environment.”
I concede that I knew very little regarding Dutchess County’s ecological concerns prior to attending the fair and I still have much to learn. However, after looking into the mission statements and research efforts of both the Vassar Farm and Preserve and the Dutchess County EMC, I was able to establish a few of the top-priority issues that local organizations are currently working to combat. In a 2012 environmental report issued by the EMC, water quality ranks highest in a list of the area’s preeminent worries, along with biodiversity conservation and waste management. The Farm and Ecological Preserve has been focusing on related conditions over the past couple of years, studying the quality of water in the Casperkill, a stream that runs through the Farm and the overpopulation of white-tailed deer in the area. Overall, from what I could glean from a surface-level investigation of their causes, both organizations are deeply invested in improving not only the ecological state of Dutchess County, but also community health and wellness.
One of the topics pertinent to the locale that I am relatively versed in is food security, so I head straight for the Vassar Food Project’s stand upon entering the fair. Curious as to whether or not their work corresponds with solutions for Poughkeepsie’s dearth of accessible groceries and produce, I ask about their operations. Maria Cali ’18 responds, “Poughkeepsie Farm Project really focuses on counteracting the hunger in the area and the food desert that Poughkeepsie is, so we have vegetable shares and we have a mobile market which goes into the community a few times a month…and that’s a farmers’ market in a sort of food truck, and there’s recipes and free samples of food to get people in the community who can’t make it out to the Farm access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Considering our urban/suburban setting in Arlington and Poughkeepsie, I’m curious about the ways in which the Environmental Co-op and the EMC have integrated city planning into the fair’s program. I spot a table promoting the Middle Main Initiative, an affordable housing center that manages a homeless shelter and housing units while striving to reinvigorate the robust cluster of businesses in downtown Poughkeepsie. Discussing Middle Main’s current projects, Volunteer Coordinator Ted Marrinan explains, “Specifically, we’re focusing on the underwear factory, which has been closed for years, decades. It’s some affordable housing units, community spaces, community kitchens, workshops and art studios.” I ask Ted if he can foresee further collaboration with Vassar orgs in Middle Main’s efforts to promote food and financial security. He replies, “We’ve been working with the Cooperative on organizing cleanups in downtown Poughkeepsie. I personally coordinate the volunteers that we have … We’ve been talking to the Vassar Catholic Community, the Co-op, and we’d love to get more individual students involved. The Poughkeepsie Farm Project donates produce to our kitchen.”
Groups concerned primarily with climate change action are in abundance here. I watch as an effervescent local teacher connects with some volunteers at a table marked “Solarize Wappingers,” pitching a collaboration effort that she’s trying to put in the works with her students. I interject, sorry to intrude on the fruits of Vassar’s community assimilation efforts but intrigued by the discussion of alternative energy. Duncan Gilchrist addresses my interest with the following: “So, we’re tabling for two different organizations today, but the two organizations are working in conjunction with one another to launch Solarize Wappingers. Solarize Wappingers is a campaign to make it more affordable and easy for residents and businesses to install solar energy. We’re also tabling to educate people about Wappingers Climate Change Action, which is a grassroots, youth-led organization advocating for local solutions to climate change.” Of course, my first question surrounds both the affordability and feasibility of a widespread transition to solar power. Thea Bjornson jumps in, simply stating, “It’s worked in a lot of other communities before, so it’ll probably work here too.” Hannah Karp elaborates, “Solarize Wappingers is a program of Solarize Hudson Valley. We’re a three-year program funded by a grant from NY state. Currently, or in the last year, there’ve been dozens of solarize programs running throughout the state, and this is a program that’s in multiple states. So far, we’ve gotten almost 400 contracts for solar, and people have a lot better understanding of how solar works and how we can make it work for them.”
Leaving the event, I’m reminded of the school science fairs of my youth. I picture the jubilation of second graders scrutinizing ant farms and rubbing their hands in compost, and somehow, seeing the same, albeit inhibited form of passion present at the Farm comforts me. Perhaps I’ve just forgotten that the message of community betterment espoused in my childhood has not disappeared with the years of Crayola and Play- Doh, but persisted among my compassionate, forward-thinking peers.