"That's the spirit of the Truck Farm project: just to get people to smile, pause, and think."
Longtime friends and documentary filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis broke onto the food scene with their thought-provoking documentary, King Corn. The film followed the pair as they grew their own crop of corn in Iowa, then attempted to trace the chain of processing and production of their kernels. Along the way, they learned about the prevalence of corn in our diets, the environmental hazards wreaked by corn production, and the difficulty of shaping a future without corn.
Still hopeful to arouse new interest in agriculture, the two are now attempting to prove that farming can happen in even the most urban of areas. Despite many skeptical looks, they are successfully growing vegetables in the bed of a pickup truck! I chatted with Curt and Ian about their current projects and their hope for the future of urban agriculture.
How did you two meet? What made you decide to embark on the mission of making King Corn? Ian and I met briefly in high school: we spent a semester at a program in Vermont called the Mountain School. That was where we first started to realize how much it mattered where our food came from—there was a farm on campus and we got to grow much of the food we ate ourselves. Things taste better when you grow them. We wound up in college together at Yale, and Ian helped lead a campus-wide effort to get locally-grown food into the dining halls. We did some stunts together like releasing sheep onto the campus, and decided we wanted our first thing after school to be related to food and agriculture. Some great advisors like Michael Pollan pointed us toward the story of corn, my cousin Aaron lent his filmmaking expertise to the project, and before we knew it, we were moving to Iowa.
What surprised you during your Iowa adventures growing corn? The most immediately surprising thing about our farm in Iowa was how little farming it actually required. We grew 10,000 pounds of corn with about two hours of actual work, most of which was spent in the cab of a tractor, sprayer, or combine. In modern agriculture, we've achieved tremendous productivity, but we've lost the direct connection to the soil.
Which came first - a passion for film or a passion for advocacy? Ian's enjoyed photography since he was a kid, but really it was the topic that caught our interest, not the filmmaking process. We were embarrassed to realize that we were graduating from college not knowing the first thing about how food was grown. That was a gap in our education we wanted to fill. Once we dug into the corn story more deeply, we realized we had some opinions to say about what was going on.
We didn't want to eat the meat that was coming out of corn-fed cows stuck in confinement feedlots; we didn't want to drink high-fructose corn syrup every day once we saw how it was made.
So we became more and more comfortable taking advocacy positions on food issues as we learned more. That said, we love the filmmaking process and the challenge of telling good stories about topics some people might expect to be boring (watching corn grow?) so we keep one foot in each canoe. Our days now are pretty evenly split between documentary and advocacy.
Do you think New York has an advantage in urban agriculture? What changes are you seeing in your immediate surroundings that give you hope for the future? New York has a great climate for agriculture, so it's easier to plant a successful rooftop farm here than in Phoenix. Not that it's impossible in Phoenix, but what you can grow is more limited, and you have to be an incredible steward of your water. New York's a forgiving climate.
The other reason urban agriculture is thriving in New York is the city's density. You really can't sprawl out easily in New York anymore; you have to go up. There's a real hunger for open space and nature in the city, and a real market for locally-grown food, but the only land left for that kind of thing is the rooftops.
Talk a little bit about your garden contest. What has the response from students been to your challenge?
We didn't think we'd get many entries to the garden contest; I mean, are there really that many people who want to grow food somewhere weird? We've had a good time with the Truck Farm—it's been a tremendously rewarding project for us. But maybe there's a reason there aren't a thousand other Truck Farms on the street in New York—other people don't think it's that fun! Boy were we wrong!
We had more than 60 entries to the Wicked Delicate Garden contest, with students sending in photos of these ingenious gardens—in holes carved out of books, in football helmets, in a CPU, in granddad's shoe—it was fabulous!
Really, I think it's a testament to the fact that people love growing food, and people love to laugh. Why not do both at once? That's the spirit of the Truck Farm project: just to get people to smile, pause, and think. Where could I grow food? Anyway, the finalists are in the hands of our celebrity judge panel, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Marion Nestle. We'll see what they select!
The Truck Farm is currently touring around NYC (after a whirlwind national tour!). What's next for the mobile farm/learning experiment? Do you have plans to expand to larger plots of land? Summer is the busy season for the Truck Farm, with stops at food events around New York and lots of time (by Ian) spent watering and harvesting. Outside of the garden, though, our time is now being spent turning the Truck Farm story—and our visits with urban gardeners all around the city—into a documentary film. We're finishing our fundraising campaign through Kickstarter for that project this week, and hope to have the money we need to launch the film come fall.