By Julia Sanders, SMARTACUS Creative Group
If you were to ask Murray Penney about his proudest accomplishments - which include assisting in the invention of instrumentation used in LASIK operations and growing a mean tomato -- he could readily recap myriad diverse achievements for you. Throughout his life, however, Penney has gravitated towards one thing in particular: agriculture.
“I grew up on a farm," Penney begins. "My father called himself a ‘gentleman farmer’ in Virginia, near the coast. He had a big job as an executive with Newport News Shipbuilding, but he too grew up on a farm and loved farming. So, he would plant crops."
His father would suggest working in the family garden in exchange for an allowance, a tempting offer for any adolescent with hobbies and a desire for entertainment. Farming would become a patient burr that would stick with Penney for his entire life, waiting for the right time to remind him of his roots.
"I swore that I would never ever touch a hoe again when I got away from home, but it just gets into your blood," Penney admits. After a break from gardening in college and graduate school, he was soon right back into it. There was no shaking his love for watching and helping plants grow.
Which explains why in early spring, Penney, at the age of 81, spends most of his time in a greenhouse at Olde Saratoga Home & Garden on Route 29. Carrying on an eight-year tradition he launched in 2011, he once again is organizing 20 volunteers in the Herculean task of growing 1200 plants for sale at the Annual Plant Fair hosted each Memorial Day weekend by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs. This year's event will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 25 and 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 26.
Noting that heirloom tomatoes today are being bred for both beauty and flavor, Penney takes particular pride in the 20 varieties that gardeners will find at this year’s sale. Among those Penney prizes most are Pruden's Purple, Traditional Beefsteak Mortgage Lifter, and Lucky Tiger.
“These are among the varieties that are both artistic and will explode in your mouth with deep tomato flavor and sweetness,” says Penney. “That’s what’s fun about giving people the opportunity to try them. They say, ‘Wow. I didn’t know that was a tomato.”
From Nuclear Engineer to Physicist
Although he studied nuclear engineering in graduate school, Penney grew to dislike reactors because they "made too much poison and too much bomb material." Instead, he made his way into physics at General Electric's Corporate Research Center, from which he retired in 1988 after 40 years with the company. That's where he got into lasers and LASIK, which has become one of the most frequently performed operations in the world.
Upon retiring, Penney continued to apply the scientific method in his approach to farming. "I wanted everything to be quantitative," he says. "I wanted to put numbers to fertilizer. How much do you use? When do you use it? How do you change the mixes as the plants mature? I try to teach people how to do that."
While he relishes the science of agriculture, Penney enjoys the results as much as the growing process. "The plants are just wonderful. They taste really good and I hope they're as healthy as they taste," he says humbly.
The Launch of Pitney Meadows Community Farm
Penney realized that farmers great and small could grow better by applying quantitative thinking. He has applied this thinking to his endeavors at Pitney Meadows, the community farm founded in 2015 on West Avenue. In late 2014, when Granville farmer Michael Kilpatrick sent out a letter detailing the vision of a community farm that would "teach people how to do the things we (farmers) do and make them work well," Penney joined about a thousand others in the community to make it happen.
Sandy and Paul Arnold, the owners of Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, drove the early development of Pitney Meadows. Now the biggest challenge is establishing a revenue stream, says Penney. One goal ultimately is to lease parcels to apprentice farmers who will be taught the skills required in renewable agriculture. “Farming is economics," Penney notes. "It's also managing employees, marketing, and it's making plants grow. It's all of those. A farmer must master a lot of different disciplines and that's the big opportunity at Pitney, to teach people how to farm."
Looking to the Future
All of this is in a clear pursuit of sustainability. Penney wants to see communities feeding their people. Most of our food in New York is imported from the California Valley. Their practices just are not sustainable, says Penney.
"They're running out of water. They're using so much irrigation, drawing up water deep within the desert, the soil is becoming overloaded with such minerals as iron and sulfur. Steadily, it's becoming less fertile." Strong local farmers in tune with the needs of the land can ensure that populations like Saratoga Springs will worry a lot less about their food supply, Penney believes. "A sustainable, local approach to food serves the community. Nationally, those who suffer poor nutrition don't do as well in school, don't learn as much, and aren't as well prepared to become producing members of society. That's a tragedy."
Penney believes the future of farming lies largely in hydroponics, where farmers grow crops with great efficiency year-round in indoor towers. "The process yields wonderful food that's marketed to wealthier people who can afford paying $3 to $4 per pound of tomatoes, which is about double the average market price," he notes. “The cost of expensive food needs to be brought down," he insists. "Because we can't sustain large-scale agriculture as we're currently doing, the cost of cheap food will go up. Somewhere in the middle, I hope they meet and people can afford to buy enough good food to be healthy."
Saratoga at Mid-Century
After 81 years, Penney can comfortably watch his life's work and lessons settle in to changing communities for the better. He trusts that the younger generations will take over influential positions that encourage sustainable farming practices and finding what is personally worth doing. By mid-century, Penney hopes that Pitney Meadows Community has 200 alumni who all become successful farmers and return to teach more. To become a source of accomplished farmers, he thinks that will require new buildings to provide training facilities for new farmers and the public.
City-wide, Penny envisions a well-integrated community with a good transportation center and a much-reduced reliance on automobiles. "We need to teach people to be happy doing things more efficiently. And that's the problem: getting people to want better food, efficient transportation, and to live together better." Penney seems to have planted another seed of responsibility in the younger generations. Fostering close-knit communities that constantly strive to better themselves and others may require turning over new leaves.
This story was originally published in Saratoga Today.
A senior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Julia Sanders is exploring a career in conservation biology. "I want to make a positive impact on humanity's relationship with the environment,” she says.