A farm in a pickup truck
Two documentary filmmakers plant vegetables in the back of a pickup truck to show that food can be grown just about anywhere.
Story by Jessica Ilyse Smith, "Living on Earth"
Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers behind the documentary, "King Corn," are at it again. This time they've planted rows of vegetables in the back of a Dodge pickup to show that food can be grown just about anywhere.
Rev up the engine; throw that truck into gear; and be careful -- don't shake the tomatoes off the vine! Such is the life of Cheney and Ellis, who take the term "truck farming" to a whole new level in New York City.
Brooklyn isn't known as a hotbed of organic vegetable gardening, but then again neither are flatbed trucks.
Cheney proudly shows off the neat rows of lettuce, arugula, herbs and tomatoes in his midnight-black flatbed. Plastic cows and chickens guard the hot peppers, and the dark brown soil makes a nice background for the growing greens.
"Lots of trucks in Brooklyn, not a lot of farms," he says.
When he and Ellis moved to New York they wanted to grow their own food, but space was an issue. So, Ellis says they took a cue from others who were growing food in the city. They sought out rooftop gardeners to find out how to garden with minimal soil.
"The technology is pretty elegant and pretty simple," said Cheney. "It's a plastic membrane on the bottom of the truck that prevents the roots from winding down into the gas tank."
On top of this membrane, a plastic structure that looks like an egg carton fills with water to hold moisture in the soil. When it rains, water that doesn't fit in the small cups drains out of the truck. Then a layer of lightweight soil is covered by potting soil and compost.
A man from the neighborhood stops by the truck. With a big grin, the passerby samples the basil.
Neighbors are welcome to graze. And bags of fresh pickings are delivered when there is an ample harvest to people who sign up around the city.
Cheney says its community-supported agriculture, and that about 20 members subscribe to the CSA and get fresh salad-makings, herbs and wickedly hot peppers throughout the season.
"It's probably New York's tiniest CSA -- people pay $20, but it turns out they've been able to get a fair bit of produce out of the back!"
The urban farmers have found a way to grow a lot of vegetables in a truck bed that's only five by eight feet.
Cheney picks a few leaves of lettuce and then jumps into the driver's seat. Ellis navigates by iPhone.
Driving through the dense Brooklyn traffic, the farmers wave to people on the street who look at the farm with equal parts bewilderment and joy. Ellis says this farm brings out the childish sense of wonder in almost everyone.
"It's kind of amazing how many people busily making their way to work, stop and smile and laugh when they see that there's a farm growing on the back of a truck!"
Farming is not new to Cheney and Ellis. In 2004, the two teamed up to grow corn in Iowa and turned their experience into the documentary, "King Corn." In Iowa, they grew one acre of conventional corn, using the techniques of modern industrial agriculture.
During the filming, they were shocked to learn that their bounty would not end up directly on people's plates, but instead would be processed into high fructose corn syrup for soft drinks, and fed to cattle.
Now, the filmmakers-by-day-and-farmers-in-their-spare-time plan to turn their current adventures into another documentary to illustrate the creative ways people can grow food in the city. And they hope Truck Farm shows that healthy foods can be grown in neighborhoods where fresh produce is generally not found.
"Right now, we're in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn," said Ellis. "It's a pretty industrial neighborhood and there are no large supermarkets in Gowanus.
"I think that's where urban agriculture comes in. We've got all these rooftops around New York City and we've got all these empty parking spaces in New York City. We should be growing food there however we can."
Farming in the truck is fun, but Ellis says he and Cheney are also on a mission to improve people's health by giving them more ways to get fruits and vegetables.
"The CDC's statistic is that one in three current first- or second-graders is on a path to develop Type 2 diabetes, and if we don't change the way we eat, we're gonna be in a serious problem in terms of healthcare in this country."
They say Truck Farm can demonstrate that access to fresh produce doesn't have to be a far-off dream.
"I mean not that Truck Farm is going to feed the world," said Cheney. "But it sure is an example of how we need to start thinking outside of the box about how we can feed the world in a different way."
And, Cheney says, Truck Farm could even help the ailing auto industry.
"The 2010 Dodge Truck Farm! I think that could be a real winner. It comes with a garden ready to plant, and think of the money that you'd save on groceries. I think this could be a real model for how the auto industry could rejuvenate itself!"
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."
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