Nick Runkle and Justin Cutter doubtless get tired of the if-you-build-it Iowa jokes, but maybe reframe the statement in the opposite direction: if they build it, they'll come to you. What Runkle and Cutter, who are both from Fairfield, Iowa, did was to build a mobile greenhouse and take it on the road to bring their sustainable agriculture classes to schools around the country. Compass Green, both the truck and the project, stopped in Los Angeles last week so that Runkle and Cutter could visit a few East L.A. elementary schools as part of their current West Coast tour.
The Compass Green project began life last July after Runkle and Cutter raised money on Kickstarter, bought a truck and converted it in North Carolina into a mobile greenhouse run on waste vegetable oil. Both men and project are based in Brooklyn, but they've spent most of the last year on the road, teaching in summer camps and in schools ranging from kindergartens to universities.
The pair typically stays for a full day in schools, going into science classrooms and demonstrating gardening with, well, their actual garden. They then stay to give consultations to administrators and students. “We go in and give them the structure to begin a garden. There has to be someone there [spearheading the project]; if no one's managing it, it'll fall apart,” Runkle said last week, the greenhouse parked on a slant on a hilly Silver Lake street.
Compass Green is currently on the West Coast circuit, and Cutter said they had to “remove everything to get into California” because of agriculture regulations. In the back of the truck a new garden poked up from the dirt beds, 87 square feet of them, with hanging pots that soon will contain tomatoes — and above, two surfboards hung suspended from the greenhouse ceiling. (The two men both love to surf and consider the sustainability model to be one that extends to their own lives. Thus, for two guys raised on the high prairie, the sudden availability of a good wave.)
Cutter and Runkle have planted mustard greens, lettuces, three kinds of kale, arugula, spinach, broccoli, collard greens, chards, amaranth and runner beans. In one bed two varieties of wheat emerge from the dirt. In the back of the truck: a composting bin. Running along the top and down the back of the truck: a rainwater-capture system for irrigation.
Both men acknowledge Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program as inspiration (“Alice Waters has kind of set the standard for this type of education”) but say that, perhaps counterintuitively, they didn't really get interested in farming until they left Iowa. Or, as Cutter puts it, their project is “a cross between a circus, a sci-fi film and Iowa.” Again perhaps counterintuitively, they've found it's not just the inner cities that have a great need for their message, but rural areas. “They only have one idea of what farming looks like, and it's industrial,” Cutter says.
Compass Green is off to San Francisco and the Bay Area this week, traveling up the West Coast, then across the northern section of the country, and then back to New York and New England by summer. Expect them back in Los Angeles by November. “It's kind of a big loop,” Cutter says.
For more information on Compass Green, to find out if they're in your area, or if you have a school or camp and are interested in the project, contact Cutter and Runkle through their Compass Green website.