The pair's newest project, Truck Farm—a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and forthcoming film—sprouted from one unlikely question: How do you grow your own food in the big city if you don’t have any land?
Ian Cheney (left) and Curt Ellis prove food can be grown just about anywhere—including the back of a pickup truck.
Photo By Taylor Gentry
In their Peabody Award-winning documentary King Corn, Brooklyn-based filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney traveled to Iowa and planted a bumper crop of corn on 1 square acre of land. The pair's newest project, Truck Farm—a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and forthcoming film—sprouted from one unlikely question: How do you grow your own food in the big city if you don’t have any land?
What sparked the idea to plant a farm in the back of a pickup truck?
Ian: We wanted to grow some of our own food. But where to do it in New York City? The back of my granddad’s old 1986 Dodge pickup truck was the only land we had.
How much did it cost?
Ian: About two hundred bucks. Paul Mankiewicz, this brilliant, quirky scientist, has developed this awesome lightweight soil called GaiaSoil (gaiasoil.com). It cost a hundred bucks to buy enough to cover about 20 cubic feet. We also bought about 50 dollars’ worth of compost and potting soil. Another 50 dollars bought the seeds.
Curt: And a friend of mine gave us a big thing full of worms.
Did anyone help you out?
Ian: We have neighbors who are savvy community gardeners, and they have not only taught us how to weed, but also simply done the weeding themselves on the way to work. And when July became hot and we realized we needed to water the truck at least twice a day, Fulvio, the owner of Red Hook’s new Italian restaurant, O’Barone let us hook up our hose to the front of his restaurant. He also gave us wine.
Who told you to drill the holes in the bottom?
Ian: My brother. He used to be a green-roof advocate, so he walked us through how it would work and explained that we needed to have some way of getting rid of the excess water. But it was my brilliant idea to drill...
Curt: ...a hole in the gas tank.
Did you really drill a hole in the gas tank?
Ian: No, but I thought I did.
How did you know how many holes to drill?
Ian: I made it up. You get to know your pickup truck and where the water collects; I just put like ten holes in those corners. We have these videos on the Internet that show people how we made this thing. I wish we could’ve made the back of the truck transparent, though, so you could see a cross section of how it works. Because a lot of people ask what’s underneath.
You’re going to turn Truck Farm into a mobile greenhouse for the winter?
Ian: That’s the plan. We’re going to use thin strip steel to kind of keep with the aesthetic of the truck, and have it hooped over like a covered wagon. And the cover will be just standard greenhouse plastic, so people can still see in.
And you think things will grow?
Ian: Time will tell. I didn’t think Truck Farm would grow anything in the summertime!
What did you plant initially?
Ian: Tomato seedlings, basil, broccoli, parsley, nasturtium, arugula and three different types of lettuce. We got the seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. It’s a group that does two things: If you’re a member, you can exchange the seeds you’ve saved from your old heirloom plants for other funky, difficult-to-find seeds.
Curt: From somebody’s grandma somewhere in another country.
Ian: For nonmembers, the company grows a certain amount of seeds that anyone can order via their catalog.
Curt: The Seed Savers Exchange is the source of some of the nicest vegetables!
Ian: In exchange, Fulvio was encouraged to grab basil from the truck whenever he needed it.
How many harvests did you have?
Ian: Four! The last one was for the peppers. We got 15 to 20 jalapeño and habanero peppers and made hot sauce. I had been very worried that the jostling of the truck on my neighborhood’s old cobblestone streets would wreak havoc and uproot the plants. But they thrived. Truck Farm grew! It grew and grew!
Ian: We had one neighbor, a 13- or 14-year-old kid, who began decimating the parsley population. Because he loves fresh parsley. I was pleased that he was eating the parsley; I just didn’t want him to eat all of it.
Truck Farm has to be the smallest example of community-supported agriculture around. How much did you charge subscribers?
Curt: Twenty bucks each. We ended up with about twenty subscribers, each of whom, at the end of the day, is getting the DVD of our Truck Farm movie, a tiny, tiny bottle of Truck Farm Hot Sauce, and some of the produce—generally one or two bags of lettuce. Except for our European subscribers, who don’t get shit. But we can’t be held accountable for people in England trying to join a Brooklyn CSA.
People didn’t just swipe things from Truck Farm—they also put things in, right?
Ian: It changed almost daily. We would come out to find that people had put in plastic farm animals, superhero figurines, all kinds of little toys.
Curt: I really love that Truck Farm has that kind of changing dynamic. It’s a public space where—whether we invite them to or not—people feel welcome to pull weeds or have a green tomato or leave behind a toy or something. That’s pretty cool.
Truck Farm definitely seems to have a personality; it’s like a really great dog or something. What kind of response do you get from strangers when they see it?
Curt: If you drive Truck Farm around the block, it’s almost a guarantee that somebody will honk their horn, roll down their window, and tell you a story about their connection to growing food. And it’s people from all backgrounds. The last time we were in Truck Farm, in fact, a guy came out of the bodega next to where we were parked and told me all about his grandmother’s garden in Puerto Rico and how he loved the taste of a fresh tomato and how she grew the spiciest peppers he’d ever had in his life. He loved Truck Farm because it reminded him of his grandmother. And when we were driving along Third Avenue in Brooklyn a month or so ago, a guy in a big heating-oil delivery truck rolled down his window and yelled out the side that he loved what we were doing.
What’s ahead for Truck Farm—the truck, not the film?
Ian: Next year, I want to get into one of the farmer’s markets. And we’ll explore making the Truck Farm food available to food pantries and homeless shelters. And one of the projects for winter is to make our own compost. The soil inside the truck is a fixed, closed system; we had to buy some organic plant food this summer because it seemed like the plants were getting a little weary and nutrient-deprived. The food scraps we throw out every day could help rejuvenate the soil. The more we can loop our food, through compost, back into that soil, the longer we can keep the farm running. We would love to be able to close the energy loop a little bit more.
Have you heard from other people who have made their vehicles into farms?
Ian: There’s a guy, Daniel Bowman Simon, who somehow plunked an upside-down school bus on top of a regular school bus and planted a bunch of vegetables in it and drove around the country to try to spread awareness about local food [thewhofarm.org]. The idea was to get an organic garden planted at the White House. [Note: He succeeded.] People have also sent us pictures of expired trucks that have become gardens because they were left alone in a field too long. And we heard about people who have built beautiful, elaborate, high-tech greenhouses on the backs of their newer trucks.
Curt: I got added to the mailing list of this project in Chicago to make a railcar garden. There’s a really powerful thing going on right now: People are hungry for ways to reconnect to food, to the land, and to growing things. People love seeing food grow. And they love the taste of fresh garden produce. They just can’t get enough.
Ian: We see Truck Farm less as a leader of the pack and more of a joining the ranks of quirky agricultural projects.
What’s your favorite thing about Truck Farm?
Curt: The way that it has accidentally engaged people as they walk down the street. And made them laugh and smile and hoist their kids up on the bumper to show them what a tomato looks like on the vine. That makes me really happy. It’s going to be what helps that family decide to plant a flowerpot with some salad greens and herbs for a little kitchen garden the next spring.
Ian: Beyond the joy of conducting a humorous experiment that did not go completely awry, it’s just nice to grow yummy food in a rusty old truck. It’s like that feeling you get seeing a flower sprout up in some unexpected city sidewalk. It’s cheesy, but: Sometimes the smallest examples of how the world can change for the better are the most exciting ones. Because they’re empowering. They can make us feel not like the miniscule beings that we are, but part of a larger whole.
Curt: A lot of the bigger problems out there seem insurmountable.
Ian: Truck Farm doesn’t solve those big problems, but it does provide a glimpse of the kind of creativity and take-it-into-your-own-hands attitude that we need more of.
What lessons do you want people to take from Truck Farm?
Curt: Anybody can grow food, no matter where they live. We want people around the country to start growing food in window boxes, on their kitchen windowsills, on their rooftops, in the backs of their pickup trucks or their Toyota Celicas. We want to see more fresh food everywhere!
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