Late last fall, Tom Myers bought the farm—the literal kind, not the proverbial one. But it wasn’t your typical farm, either.
More accurately, he bought a white 2002 Ford Ranger. At the time, this truck served as his transportation to and from Abernethy Elementary School, where—through AmeriCorps and Northwest Service Academy—he teaches kindergarteners through fifth-graders sustainable gardening and nutrition classes, and he heads the school's kitchen gardening program.
Cut to earlier this year, when his mother emailed him a hyperlink detailing Truck Farm, a multimedia project dreamt up by documentary filmmaker and New Yorker Ian Cheney (King Corn). Cheney, forlorn from the lack of farm-fresh produce available in his Brooklyn neighborhood, converted the 1986 Dodge Pickup he inherited from his grandfather into a mobile farm, planting in the truck's bed arugula, saffron and other edibles and spices. The end goal, Cheney writes on his website, is to create a fleet of portable, hands-on gardening laboratories in cities and urban centers around the country. In order to highlight the benefits of growing one’s own food, and to demonstrate that it can be done pretty much anywhere one lives, Cheney documented Truck Farm's first year with a 50-minute film, which is scheduled to screen in Portland no later than this summer.
After Myers finished reading the story, he thought to himself, Now, that sounds like a good idea. In January, he contacted Cheney, who sent him a tool kit detailing a truck farm's initial needs and signed him on to help represent the Pacific Northwest as Portland's official truck farmer.
A few weeks later, Myers found himself at Ecoroof Portland—the city's annual green roof fair—where he met representatives from ACF West, Pro-Gro Mixes and EB Stone, who expressed their interest in his project by donating materials to help him get his farm off the ground. Two weeks after that, on April Fool's Day, Myers, with the help of a small crew of Abernethy students, planted kale, arugula, parsley, chocolate mint and pea shoots donated by Portland Nursery.
Within a matter of weeks, Myers had turned his ride to and from work into Portland's first official Truck Farm, which he plans to introduce to the public for the city's Earth Day celebrations with a tour of Portland's schools, neighborhood and farmers’ markets scheduled for the following growing season.
Though Truck Farm PDX makes an impressive example, it's the project's symbolism that Myers hopes will make the greatest impact.
To Myers, borrowing from the well-known parable, it's not about feeding a man a fish, but teaching him how to fish to feed himself. He wants Truck Farm to help others recognize the possibilities of farming in the unlikeliest of places.
"It is literally a vehicle to encourage and provide an example of what is possible," Myers says. "Depending on the size of your family, you could provide an incredible amount of healthy food by planting intensively in small areas around your home. The amount of people it could encourage is immeasurable."
In an effort to mobilize a national fleet of portable farms, Truck Farm NYC, in concert with schools throughout the country, holds contests to inspire students of all ages to re-imagine what makes a fertile growing space. Farming techniques can go far beyond the traditional model that comes to mind.
For example, despite limited land, city-dwellers can plant shoots in coffee cans they planned on recycling or in an old colander they had planned to donate. Imagine a hanging garden of herbs and vegetables planted in a cluster of found colanders hanging from the ceiling in one's apartment.
"I know that many people are interested in growing food, but just haven't yet," says Myers, "They may not know how to start, or how manageable it can be, or how fun it can be, using creative spaces.
"One of my goals for Truck Farm PDX is to show people that growing food can be doable, fun and easy—especially in an urban environment where limited space can lead to creative and unlikely gardens," says Myers. Truck Farm PDX, he hopes, could help unlock the city’s imagination to a world where we celebrate our food with each bite.
It's not surprising, in a time of naked chefs and 24-hour food networks, that we are beginning to fall in love with our food once again. Contemporary restaurants offer a wide variety of inventive edible options, and many modern diners show their enthusiasm by snapping photos of those options and posting them on their Facebook pages before even lifting their forks. We're enjoying good food like never before, but the movement toward a healthy, sustainable food system faces cultural obstacles. Remember the video of a rather unscientific study in which a group of adorable children, given the choice to pack their lunches with either bananas, cupcakes or rocks, chose whichever of those objects was decorated with images of iconic cartoon characters?
Even in a foodie's playground like Portland, with our collective propensity for raising chickens and providing acupuncture in the city's parks, getting students (and even some adults) to choose healthy food may not always be easy.
To keep his own students interested, Myers teaches about the benefits of real food using "tactics" like harvesting what his students grow, letting them taste it, and creating scavenger hunts and art projects revolving around all things green. Myers hopes these activities will inspire his students to appreciate what they consume and be remembered and engendered by them as they mature.
Of course, anyone who owns a truck can follow Myers's lead, and he hopes many will. In the mold of a classic car cruise, think of a parking lot full of truck farmers checking out rides and crops and exchanging stories and tips about the food they grow.
"I'd love to inspire others to garden in their truck beds," he says. "Imagine a Portland fleet of mobile educational gardens!"
To learn more about Truck Farm PDX, visit its Facebook page, where you can learn about supporting the project by helping to raise the projected $800 budget to operate it through the growing season.