The challenges of growing food in the city -- pretty much any city, really -- are well documented, and topping the list of obstacles is the issue of space. In packed metropolises like New York, where back yards, patios, and roof decks are something of a luxury, finding the necessary square footage beneath adequate sunlight can be a tall order. Still, determined growers make due, farming in container gardens on their front stoop, snagging a coveted plot in a community garden, sneaking their crops onto roofs and fire escapes, maintaining small windowsill gardens, and even engaging in some guerrilla gardening in unused public space. Commercially, rooftop farms and indoor farming techniques are becoming increasingly popular means of supplying urban dwellers with fresh, locally grown produce.
Upon moving to Brooklyn in 2009, filmmaker Ian Cheney came up with an unusual solution to his search for a suitable plot. After noting that the bed of his Dodge pickup truck was roughly the size of a typical garden plot, Cheney got to work. After a little research, he found that the same technology used on rooftop farms could be used to grow a Truck Farm.
Cheney documented the process of building, growing, and sharing his unusual garden with the community in his documentary Truck Farm. His adventures include starting a small CSA, selling his produce to famed chef Dan Barber, visiting schools and farmers' markets, and coping with setbacks such as theft. The documentary also explores other unique ways city dwellers are taking maximum advantage of available space to grow food.
Given its fun, quirky nature, it's perhaps not surprising that Cheney's roving garden grew into something of a movement -- or, as he calls it in the documentary, “a family of unusual farms.” According to the Truck Farm website, as of 2011 the Truck Farm Fleet included 25 farms across the United States, and in a 2012 interview with Link TV's Earth Focus Cheney notes that the most recent addition to the Truck Farm family had taken root overseas in the shape of Truck Farm Palestine. Other members of the family of unusual farms include participants in Cheney's annual garden contest, which encourages entrants to grow food in the strangest places they can think of.
Though Cheney began his Truck Farm with the intention of feeding himself, most truck farmers -- including Cheney -- treat their farms as roving classrooms rather than personal subsistence gardens. These projects are often supported by larger organizations with missions relating to food, the environment, and/or public health and nutrition. And while all are welcome to visit the wonder that is a truck farm, the target audience -- and often the most receptive -- are schoolchildren. For many of these kids, a truck farm is their first encounter with the process of growing food.
Reshaping the Way We Think About Food
Food is […] a window onto larger issues. It's a window onto environmental issues, onto social issues, onto political issues. So by understanding how we eat and how we grow our food we can understand a lot about what makes our world tick.
-Filmmaker Ian Cheney on Earth Focus, December 12, 2012
Truck farmers are quick to concede that their methods and others like them are by no means intended as a comprehensive solution to the world's food problems; rather, these agricultural enthusiasts view their unusual gardens as educational tools, encouraging visitors to think critically about the food they eat, where it comes from, and how the system can be improved.
Of course, each community is different, and each truck farm's educational scope is shaped by the conditions that surround it. In places like New York City, home of the original Truck Farm, the lessons can be as general as an introduction to how plants work and how easy and satisfying the process of raising one's own crops can be. In his interview with Earth Focus, Cheney notes that in an increasingly urban world people are becoming more and more disconnected from the processes that bring food to our tables.
The truth in Cheney's observation was felt particularly acutely by the interns at Square Root, a truck farm operated by Avalon Park & Preserve's STATE (Students Taking Action for Tomorrow's Environment) program. Since it was first planted in February of 2013, Square Root has toured mainly within the confines of its native Long Island, but made an exception in May when it journeyed to Manhattan for the Ideas City Festival where the team shared its unusual approach to agriculture with other innovative thinkers. Square Root intern Sabrina Cohn describes the experience as something of a culture shock:
It was very different for me to be teaching people who have lived in a city their entire life about gardening. For some it was a very foreign concept. [....] They were truly amazed by the idea of it and genuinely inspired to garden in unconventional spaces. It really made me realize how much of a difference just driving a couple of hours off of Long Island can make.
Her fellow intern Jake Welde agrees. Says Welde:
So many people, especially in the city, don't realize what they can do with whatever space that they have. We got to talk to so many people of so many different ages, ethnicities, lifestyles, backgrounds, homes, and anything else you could think of [...] [I]t was rewarding to hear all the people tell us they were gonna go home and try their hand at gardening.
For the Square Root team, the benefits of growing one's own food relate largely to the idea of self-sufficiency -- a concept that might seem particularly appealing to NYC residents, who rely almost entirely on suppliers outside the boroughs for sustenance. Welde recalls talking to “ some guys with wild haircuts who said they grew 80 percent of their food in their garden” as a highlight of the farm's visit to the city. Mikaela Neary, another Square Root intern, says of the project's mission, “We're trying to show that people can grow things in the most ridiculous spaces, so even if you don't have a big backyard, or you live in a tiny apartment, you can still grow some of your own food.” Neary also points to the health and financial benefits of growing for oneself, noting, “[O]rganic food is healthier, but it costs more. So even if people want to eat healthy, they might not be able to afford it. I think educating people about gardening, especially when they're young, is important, because (especially in the summer) you can save money on food if you just grow it yourself.”
Neary's point that growing one's own food can help defray higher costs associated with organic produce reflects a reality, common to struggling New Yorkers, where consumers must weigh health benefits against cost when it comes to their buying and eating habits. Elsewhere, however, circumstances are even more challenging. For residents of South Chicago's infamous food deserts, the difficulty of getting to the grocery store can make eating well even harder.
Food deserts are complicated places. A 2006 report by Mari Gallagher examining the impact of Chicago's food deserts on public health defines food deserts as “large geographic areas with no, few, or distant grocery stores.” In many such neighborhoods, the report noted, the problem is compounded by the fact that fast food outlets are often more accessible than grocery stores. Perhaps not surprisingly, this phenomenon disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods, and in Chicago, African-American communities are particularly hard-hit. Because low-income residents are less likely to own vehicles, the difference of half a mile can be a crucial factor in determining one's food choices. Moreover, fewer years, on average, of formal education, combined with restricted access to medical care can result in a population with a limited understanding of nutrition and health.
The result of all these factors is a population that is more at risk for diet-related health problems. The Mari Gallagher report found that residents of neighborhoods with the worst food balance scores -- i.e., neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food is significantly closer -- had higher body mass indexes (BMI) on average than those living in neighborhoods with easier access to grocery stores, and had higher death rates from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Under these circumstances, the question of self-sufficiency becomes less a novelty and more a tool for eating better and living better.
These are the circumstances that Shari Brown, Petunia, and Truck Farm Chicago seek to tackle. Brown is a co-founder of Truck Farm Chicago, and Petunia is the name lovingly bestowed upon the vehicle she cares for. Like Square Root, Truck Farm Chicago seeks to inspire people to think creatively about where food can be grown and arm them with the know-how to go about planting their own gardens. But another major focus of Truck Farm Chicago's programs, which, Brown says, are tailored according to needs and age groups, is nutrition. Says Brown:
Making healthy choices can be challenging, especially when good fresh food and education about why it's important and how to cook it is not always accessible. The neat thing about Truck Farm is its ability to spark conversations and facilitate hands-on activities linking multiple subjects together. It's the ultimate interdisciplinary wellness tool with components that engage children in all sorts of health, wellness, and environmental issues that affect the way we live. We've designed lessons and activities around themes of nutrition, gardening, composting, cooking, and garden installation.
In areas affected by poverty and food deserts, the mobility of truck farms also takes on greater importance, bringing the learning experience to people and communities who might otherwise lack the means to travel to a similar experience. When explaining the reasoning behind planting a truck farm instead of a more traditional farm, Chelsea Taxman, an educator with Truck Farm Omaha (another city affected by food deserts), says, “The mobility of Truck Farm and its educational potential was a priority for Truck Farm Omaha. We wanted to be able to reach areas designated food deserts and bring the garden 'classroom' right to the schools.”
Brown concurs, saying, “I was excited about this project as a fun, unique, and creative way to bring gardening and nutrition education to children all over the city[,][ e]specially those who may not otherwise get to see how food grows up close [….] Every child has the right to good food and education on where it comes from. A farm on wheels allows us to bring an educational garden experience anywhere.” In 2011, Truck Farm Chicago's inaugural year, Petunia visited 47 schools and 16 festivals in the Chicago area, reaching 2,738 kids.
Technicalities: Making a Truck Farm
… is really rather simple, it doesn't take a genius to do...
-The Fishermen Three, Truck Farm
Cheney's film documents the process of converting his pickup into a mobile farm -- miraculously, without destroying any components crucial to the truck's functioning. As previously mentioned, the original Truck Farm relied heavily on technology used in rooftop farming -- technology such as drainage mats to drain excess water, erosion blankets to prevent soil from being carried away by that water, and synthetic lightweight soil to reduce the farms weight (and, presumably, its impact on gas mileage). But of course, the beauty of a truck farm is its ability to inspire innovation, and that includes adaptations to the original truck farm design.
“We deviated a bit from what the mothertruckers (as I affectionately call them) did,” says Brown when discussing the process of building Truck Farm Chicago. “Chicago Specialty Gardens took on our challenge as a pro-bono project and helped us engineer a raised bed within the back of the pickup truck. The bed is divided into a few sections to ensure the soil stays put on the road. Water drains through a permeable layer of landscape fabric into the space beneath the raised bed. When we park it on a hill, the water drains out!” Another noteworthy modification is that Truck Farm Chicago is powered by biofuel rather than petroleum. Says Brown, “Petunia is an environmental stewardess […] We incorporate education about recycling, composting, and energy into our lessons, so we lead by example. Perhaps one day she'll be powered by wind and solar energy.”
Truck Farm Omaha also experimented with its design. According to Taxman, the original design of Truck Farm Omaha utilized materials such as pond liner and fabric liner, though recently they've adopted green roof technology that more closely resembles Cheney's approach. Like Truck Farm Chicago, Truck Farm Omaha addresses drainage issues with an elevated bed that allows water to drain out the back of the truck bed.
For most truck farmers, the project has more to do with the experience than the yield, and estimates of how much food can actually be grown on a truck farm are often imprecise. “We are constantly sharing our produce from the garden bed, so we haven’t kept track of each pound of food grown,” says Taxman, adding that the yield of Truck Farm Omaha's recent season included a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, including “potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, tomatillos, sunberries, 10 different types of herbs, celery, carrots, spinach, and swiss chard to name a few.” Most of that food, says Taxman, is given away as samples at street fairs and farmers' markets or offered to kids at school visits. “Some of the students simply snack from the truck and some of the students put together simple recipes using ingredients from the truck, like Basil Pesto,” she says.
“Over the last three years, we've grown enough to give samples of fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs to over 10,000 kids!” Brown says of Truck Farm Chicago. “All of the food we grow is used in workshops with kids and families[.]” The folks at Square Root, meanwhile, have estimated that about $400 worth of food can be grown on their truck farm, though for now it's mainly consumed by the staff or offered as samples to kids during school visits. “In the future I hope to be able to not only share the truck farm with people but also the crop,” Cohn says.
Of course, challenges inevitably crop up. Brown recalls hitting the highway with Petunia for the first time, only to watch the top inch of soil, along with an entire crop of spinach, carried off by the breeze. To address the problem, Brown says, “We ended up engineering a hoop house for the bed of the truck with help from our friends at We Farm America so we could travel without the perils of the wind.” The Square Root team attempted to build a similar cover to protect the truck bed, but eventually scrapped the idea after running into complications. To avoid wind damage, says Neary, “we just have to drive slowly.”
Even by driving through a neighborhood or even by being parked on the side of the street, they're this visual reminder that food comes from somewhere; it grows; it comes up out of the dirt; it needs resources to survive[.]
- Ian Cheney on Earth Focus, December 12, 2012
By all accounts, the reception to these strange farms has been overwhelmingly positive; words like “amazement” and “inspiration” are often used to describe the response of truck farm visitors. “A lot of the time [kids] don't believe that we have a farm back there until they stand up on the tailgate,” says Cohn. “It is priceless to watch their faces light up when they see it. It pretty much blows their mind.”
Brown recounts the story of an eight-year-old girl who was so excited after meeting Petunia that, in lieu of birthday presents, she asked her friends and family to help raise money for Truck Farm Chicago. In response to her generosity, the Truck Farm Chicago crew surprised the enterprising youngster by dropping in on her cooking-themed birthday party.
It's not just kids who are inspired by truck farms. Perhaps one of the most interesting adaptations to the truck farm premise was encountered by the Truck Farm Omaha team. Taxman describes meeting a teacher at a local high school who was seeking funds to start her own truck farm as a school-wide project that would engage students across multiple disciplines, including automotive maintenance, horticulture, and business. The teacher also hoped to start a mentorship program with a nearby elementary school.
For now, Square Root, Truck Farm Chicago, Truck Farm Omaha, and a host of other members of the truck farm fleet are gearing up for a busy fall; harvest is just around the corner, the next planting season will be here before you know it, and end is nowhere in sight.
Author's note: Special thanks to Sabrina Cohn, Mikaela Neary, Jake Welde, Shari Brown, and Chelsea Taxman for sharing their insights on the Truck Farm experience. Square Root is a program of STATE (Students Taking Action for Tomorrow's Environment) of Avalon Park & Preserve, Stony Brook, NY; Truck Farm Chicago is a program of Seven Generations Ahead, Oak Park, IL; Truck Farm Omaha is a project of No More Empty Pots, Omaha, NE.
To find a Truck Farm near you, visit the Find a Truck Farm page on the original Truck Farm website.
More on Ian Cheney and the original Truck Farm:
More on Farms in Unconventional Spaces:
In Cities, Mobile Farms Give New Meaning to the Term “Food Truck” by by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Leslie McIntyre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://urbansculpt.com/blogs/2013/9/9/in-cities-mobile-farms-give-new-meaning-to-the-term-food-truck.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://urbansculpt.com/terms-and-conditions.