What started in Brooklyn in 2010 is now riding into cities across America—truck farms. A truck farm is a garden or micro-urban farm planted in the bed of a pickup truck. The movement started when King Korn filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney transformed a 1986 Dodge Ram into a roving farm on wheels. Their farm truck documentary and farm truck visits have since sparked a fleet of active farm trucks across America.
Urban Farm caught up with Corbin Lichtinger—a K-8 teacher and FoodCorps alum—about his farm truck adventures in Portland, Ore.
How did you get started with a truck farm?
I volunteered for three years with FoodCorps, a national program that helps students gain access to healthy, local foods through farming and education. I worked in an urban center in Lewiston, Maine. It was an old mill town, and they were taking abandoned lots and turning them into gardens called “Lots to Plots.” Although it was a primarily white town, East African refugees and immigrants made up about 80 percent of the school where I was teaching gardening, food and nutrition. That experience hooked me on education, food and schools.
After moving to Portland, I knew I wanted to continue teaching using these multi-sensory experiences. I began teaching for a K-8 public school, Sunnyside Environmental School. There, I did similar work, teaching students about gardening, cooking and where their food comes from. FoodCorps asked if I would continue my work with them in Portland and add a truck farm. I bought a 1963 Ford F100 and worked with Truck Farm co-founder Curt Ellis, and within a month had a garden built in the back of it.
What special considerations do you have to consider when caring for/hauling a truck garden?
There are some big things. One of the biggest things is wind. I’ve farmed in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine, but rarely have I dealt with 40 to 45 mph winds. I had to be creative about where certain veggies would go. I put my lettuce greens and shorter veggies, like strawberries, carrots and root things toward the back of the bed.
I grew four different varieties of garlic, and those did well. I put peppers and eggplant toward the cab, but the peppers did not do well. The tomatoes did phenomenally this year. I can’t parallel park because I have a tomato forest.
Another issue is temperature because you’re growing in a steel box, so it really heats up. So, you need to consider parking in shaded areas. The whole garden has just done really well—18 different crops like lettuce, carrots, radishes, onions, pineapple sage, tomatillos, chives and lots of different herbs.
How does your farm truck play a role with your FoodCorps work and the K-8 children you work with?
The children help weed the garden. The garden is best for taste tasting. And the best way I’ve used it is to ignite a sense of wonder and silliness. In the midst of serious food issues, the truck farm lends a playful way to look at farming and healthy eating. We harvest the herbs to make different salad dressings and the lettuce for salads. All the produce has been used at some time in the lunch line of Sunnyside Elementary.
What’s surprised you the most about having a truck garden?
Just seeing age fall away in response to the truck farm. They revert to a childlike disposition. I’m always surprise how quickly someone stops, either walking, biking or driving. It always causes genuine pause.
Is the truck garden seasonal? Can one truck garden in the winter?
Last year was the first winter for the truck farm, and it was pretty mild. I put a row cover over it in the winter to avoid frost. I was able to grow kale and garlic, my strawberries survived. Since it’s a raised bed, it cools faster. Ian and Curt (farm truck founders) from Brooklyn, N.Y., had a more heavy duty greenhouse setup.
Any advice for land-strapped farmers who don’t have trucks? Can you do this with other vehicles?
There’s a competition Ian launched to see where you could grow things. One of the contest winners grew plants out of a bicycle fender. Another used their Prius as a greenhouse. You could have a motorcycle with a sidecar garden. Thinking as creatively and playfully as possible, your opportunities are endless.