“Are you going to have a person stationed there so no one starts digging at the lettuce or getting into the herbs?” Sister Jane Stephen Rosko asks playfully as Elliott Hilton, Director of Dining Services for Cura Hospitality, concludes his presentation. “Well, there are doors on the farm, so I think it’ll be safe,” he says with a smile, excited to share all the details about the new Babylon Galleri Micro-Farm coming to the Motherhouse.
Farming technology has advanced quite a bit in the decades since Sister Jane Stephen’s first trip to the Baden grounds in the 1950s, then a working farm tended by her Aunt, Sister St. Mark Lesko.
“We had a lot of fun,” Sister Jane recalls of those childhood visits where she helped to pick berries and vegetables, enjoying time in nature and time with her Aunt, who let the children engage in just a little bit of tomato-tossing mischief now and then.
The Sisters’ tradition of stewarding the land for spiritual and physical nourishment is deeply rooted in our belief, as articulated in the 2007 Ecological Ethics of Place statement, that the “resources entrusted to us by God” are to be “nurtured and enjoyed to sustain the life of all creation for God’s greater glory.”
Today, our gardens supply thousands of pounds of fresh produce to the Motherhouse kitchen and to local food pantries each year, and the Sister St. Mark Garden Fund, named for Sister Jane’s Aunt, provides financial support to community gardens in the region who are bringing neighbors together in a shared mission to reduce food insecurity.
Installation of the Micro-Farm marks another significant step in this journey of care – for one another, for our dear neighbors and for all creation.
The glowing, six-by-seven foot vertical farm equipped with nutrient-rich seed pods from which lettuce and herbs will grow, rests in its new home inside the dining room mere feet from where Cura staff prepares meals for Sisters, staff, and Motherhouse guests each day. This is important, Elliott emphasizes, “because with conventional farming, the average distance that produce travels from farm to table is 1,500 miles, and about 40% of that produce ends up being thrown away before it even reaches the consumer.”
Cura Hospitality, which provides in-house nutrition services to the Congregation, shares the Sisters’ commitment to sustainability and is always searching for ways to reduce waste, conserve energy, and lighten their carbon footprint. By eliminating the need for transportation of highly perishable vegetables and growing them more efficiently with the help of hi-tech monitoring, Elliott estimates that the Babylon Micro-Farm will eliminate 97.5 pounds of food waste, save 13,128 gallons of water and prevent 676 pounds of single-use plastic from being discarded each year.
Elliott hopes its presence will serve as “a visual lesson about the value of local farm-to-plate efforts” and inspire more people to consider growing their own food in backyard gardens or making other Earth-friendly changes in their everyday routines. He’s recruited a team of Sisters to help in the farm’s maintenance, which swaps the gloves and garden tools of Sister St. Mark’s day for sensors and smartphone apps that monitor everything from temperature to nutrient levels to the precise timing of transplant and harvest.
“It’s all computerized,” Sister Sue Clay, one of the indoor farmers, explains of the off-site adjustments Babylon makes remotely to help the produce grow. “We did change the water out for the first time and since then, it’s been growing really strong. They email us when it’s time to harvest,” she says.
The first harvests have been a success, with Sisters enjoying fresh Red Butterhead and Romaine lettuce on sandwiches and in salads, as well as tasty herbs like Parsley, Kohlrabi and Micro Red Radish as garnishes. “The radishes, they look like little strings but they taste like radishes!” Sister Sue jokes.
Elliott is excited to bring more healthful options to meals at the Motherhouse, and to do it in a way that also helps to meet Cura’s and the Sisters’ goals for sustainability. “I always enjoyed putting in a little garden at home, growing vegetables and herbs” he shares, crediting his Dad’s father and Mom’s mother for his love of gardening. “I just think that nutrition is very important to living a fulfilled and enjoyable life, and I’m excited to work with Sisters to make healthy food choices and to help others be healthy.”