Mobile Greenhouse Runs on Waste Vegetable Oil, Teaches Kids Sustainable Practices (Interview)

© Compass Green

Prior to the Compass Green project the only time a DIY greenhouse could have been considered mobile was when they were poorly constructed and a strong wind carried them off. After a successful Kickstarter fundraiser (which TreeHugger covered last year) Nick Runkle and Justin Cutter transformed an old truck into a mobile greenhouse, and have become vanguards of the mobile gardening trend.

This isn't the first glamorous job the humble box-truck has held. It came to Nick's attention when he saw a picture of the truck on his brother's computer. The truck's sides had been cut out and replaced with Plexiglas. It turned out that the truck had spent some time as a mobile art gallery, and was left sitting in a lot on Long Island by the artist when she moved to Berlin.

© Compass Green Justin(Left). Nick (Right).

"I was at a college in Colorado when Nick called me up with the wild idea to turn a truck into a greenhouse and it took all of a half an hour for me to say yes to the project," recalls Justin, of the fateful phone call that would result in the pair traveling across the country in a mobile greenhouse.

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Justin had just finished creating a teaching farm with John Jeavons, and the realization that he'd been "teaching to the choir," as he puts it, had just crept up on him. The people attending his workshops were individuals who already had an interest in sustainable agriculture.

Together they crafted the idea for Compass Green as a way to deliver information on sustainability and Biointensive mini-farming to people who didn't have access to this kind of information, or who weren't already aware about sustainability.

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After a stop in North Carolina where the truck would be given yet another transformation-this time to run on waste vegetable oil- Nick and Justin set out across the country to take their message of sustainability directly to people who needed to hear it.

Since then they've traveled the country speaking to would-be gardeners, participated in the Right2Know March, an outdoor circus, visited urban and rural farms, and slept in the mobile greenhouse parked in a stranger’s driveway.

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The back of the truck holds two raised beds where they plant crops like mustard greens, lettuces, broccoli, chards, and amaranth. The beds allow them to show visitors what they're growing and are used for workshops to teach skills like seed sowing and transplanting.

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Along the top and the back of the truck runs a rainwater-capture system for crop irrigation, and there's even room for a compost bin. The lights in the back of the truck are powered by solar panels to provide supplemental lighting and heat.

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Last November the Compass Green reached a milestone when they taught their 1,000th student. "We mostly have pictures of kids up on the website just because they’re so much more photogenic than adults," joked Justin, when I asked him if the project was for kids because of the photos on their website.

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"We teach all ages, kindergarten through university level, and our community workshops have seen a few septuagenarians. We tend to focus on high schools and universities though, because we can go more deeply into full-spectrum sustainability with those students."

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The mobile greenhouse spent the winter in California where it had to dump all of its plant material because of the state's agriculture policies, but is now traveling through Oregon before heading back east through the northern portion of the country.

Justin expects they'll reach the Midwest by the end of the school year, and teach summer camps around New England this summer. Next fall, they’ll wind their way south along the east coast and make their way west through the southern United States.

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Justin says the truck speaks to people of creativity, captures the imagination, and opens the door for a conversation about the devastating effects of industrial agriculture and what we can do to change it. Compass Green is currently transitioning to a more established organization that can make a difference in our agriculture system.

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"We are looking to get more trucks and teachers so that we can be more regional and reach a wider audience," he says. “We’re applying for grants and sponsorship from ethical businesses so that we can offer our project for free in underprivileged schools."

The pair hopes to make it to every state in the country. “Except Hawaii and Alaska-unless we put a sail and pontoons on our truck,” adds Justin. After the awesome things they've accomplished I'd chip in a few dollars for a Compass Green greenhouse on a barge or a boat.

© Compass Green

If your school or organization would like to host the Compass Green project or receive a school garden consultation email info@compassgreenproject.org. You can also make a tax deductible donation through their fiscal sponsor, Omprakash, if you would to help keep this mobile greenhouse on the road.

Watch Growing Cities Documentary on Compass Green.

Tags: Agriculture | Biodiesel | Education | Farming | Fruits & Vegetables | Kickstarter | Organic Agriculture | Small Spaces