Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney Talk Truck Farming


One of the attractions at yesterday’s Good Beer at BAM could be found parked on the street outside of the event itself. Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis‘s Truck Farm, a 1986 Dodge pick-up with delicate rows of greens sprouting in its bed, attracted plenty of stares from passersby, along with more than a few lustful sighs over the sight of heirloom basil growing just a few feet from BAM’s entrance.

Truck Farm is both the name of the mobile farm and the short documentary being made about its ongoing harvest — the truck’s story, says Ellis, is “a way of talking about the whole big picture of the urban gardening and farming revolution.” It’s the filmmakers’ third collaboration; their first, the award-winning documentary King Corn, examined the process and impact of growing America’s most industrialized food. That film was followed by The Greening of Southie, a documentary about the construction workers who built Boston’s first residential green building. Truck Farm, which Ellis and Cheney started earlier this summer, is being shown online in weekly updated video segments that will eventually be compiled into a DVD. Fork in the Road spoke with the filmmakers about the project.

So, how’d you end up farming out of the back of a Dodge?

Ellis: We had the idea to put our two previous films together: Truck Farm represents the other side of the American food system, and we needed the green roof technology we learned about in The Greening of Southie. We also had a strong personal desire to grow fresh, healthy food for our own diets. We’re recent transplants to New York; shopping in the supermarket is not as much fun as growing things.

Which neighborhoods do you live in?

Cheney: I’m in Red Hook, and Curt’s in Bed-Stuy.

Ellis: The grocery store near my house has limited hours and the produce aisle is eight feet long.

How’s the harvest been so far?

Cheney: The first was a few weeks ago. We harvested three rows of heirloom lettuces, a very healthy arugula crop, a few heads of broccoli, a lot of basil, and a few sprigs of parsley. One of the neighborhood kids is in love with parsley and has greatly decimated the crop. We’re getting ready for the second big harvest — we have a lot of red tomatoes coming in, edible nasturtium blossoms, and yet more basil, lettuce, and arugula. Just a week or two ago, some farmers at Added Value helped us plant hot peppers.

You’re using heirloom seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange. Why heirlooms?

Ellis: When we grew the acre of corn in Iowa, we used genetically modified seeds. We were impressed with the ease of growing 10,000 pounds of corn, but the seeds had been modified so you could spray pesticide and the corn would survive while the weeds around it died. Something about that system didn’t fit well with us. Heirlooms are on the other end of the spectrum: They’re individual strains of vegetables that have been nurtured by generations of farm families and are largely traded from farmer to farmer. A lot of them have unique characteristics and taste great.

What have you been doing with your produce so far?

Cheney: We’ve been eating a lot of salads. Actually, we set up a CSA; it’s probably New York’s tiniest. We have a dozen subscribers who pay $20 for a share. Some of them live in Red Hook [where the truck is parked] and are encouraged to pluck a few sprigs of basil on their way home from work. The core idea of Truck Farm is freshness; when we made a CSA delivery to Marion Nestle, she pointed out that nutritional value declines over time, so the fresher the better.

Do you think you’ll expand the project at all?

Ellis: We would have to get a bigger truck! But it’s an open-ended project; there’s been so much more interest than we ever imagined. People will stop, lean on the bumper, and want to talk. It would be great to build on the interest and make it what it should be, which is a community farm.

Where’d the truck come from, by the way?

Cheney: It was my grandfather’s truck. When I graduated, he decided it would be a good tool for my future adventures.

Does your grandfather know what you’ve done with the truck?

Cheney: I told him, but I don’t think he quite believes me. I recently mailed him a photo; I’ll let you know what he says.

Ellis: The truck is part of the young farmers craze. It’s in its early twenties and wondering what to do with itself. It’s trying to reconnect with the land.

Cheney: I have a firm belief that this will catch the attention of the Chrysler corporation; it’s only a matter of minutes before they come out with the 2010 Dodge Ram Truck Farm model with a ready-made garden bed.

Are you working on any other films right now?

Ellis: Big River, the sequel to King Corn, is going to be out in a little over a month. It’s the story of what an industrially farmed acre of land contributed to the water downstream. And Ian’s directing a feature-length film on light pollution that will be on the festival circuit.