Finding A Business Model in a Truck Full of Dirt
If we’re going to develop an economy that can survive climate change, we’re going to richly reward the first leaders who devise ways to make profits by delivering local agriculture to underprivileged urban markets. Which means a pickup truck in Brooklyn deserves serious scrutiny from MBA types who would never slow down to examine a tractor.
One day this summer, along the main drag of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a former longshoreman’s neighborhood now rich with ersatz-rustic members of iPhone nation, my family came across a group of bewildered hipsters casing a pickup truck. It had ordinary hubcaps and detailing, but dirt and healthy vines of cherry tomatoes, arugula, lettuce and basil growing in the bed. A postcard in the windshield revealed an ad for Wickedelicate, the film company behind the mischievous documentary King Corn, and confirmed the truck as a stunt.
But the way those hipsters were sniffing the crops suggested that it was a painstaking stunt. And one with a point: it argues for the viability of very small-scale commercial agriculture in cities.
Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, in converting Cheney’s grandfather’s truck to a curiosity, are proving that you can grow and sell crops on what seems like the most barren urban landscape. With green-roofing supplies easier to find in cities, the cornucopia pickup truck warrants more thorough inspection.
The truck, which began as a movie idea, has gone commercial: Cheney and Ellis are selling what they grow into a community-supported agriculture network. Cheney, the burlier of the two, chuckles about how thin the revenue stream is, but the taller and more introspective Ellis makes a different point. By keeping overhead low and (ahem) mobile, the pair can deliver broccoli, lettuce, arugula and tomatoes into neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, which policy experts dub “food deserts” for their lack of fresh vegetables.
Even in a buzzy locavore jungle like New York, say Cheney and Ellis, the ingenuity and diligence of micro-agriculture give an urban farmer instant brand appeal. They describe how selecting seeds from catalogues brings varieties “selected by someone’s grandma,” bred for flavor. (By contrast, Ellis says, industrial farms like Driscoll’s had historically bred their raspberries to “withstand methyl bromide.” Methyl bromide became an EPA no-no in 2005, but the point holds that selecting seeds for mass production means skimping on flavor.) And Cheney argues that consumers find excitement in the idea that they’ve seen their food grow. “It’s magic!” he said.
The filmmakers got seeds from a cooperative and- in an economic blessing- prevailed on an iconoclastic nonprofit, the Gaia Institute, to donate GaiaSoil, a commercial soil it makes from extended polystyrene, compost and clay as the truck’s growing medium.
An organic concoction like GaiaSoil’s holds enough water to let plants grow in tight spaces, according to architect Dan Wood. Wood, with his partner Amale Andraos, runs an architecture firm called WORK AC that used GaiaSoil to grow vegetables in a museum courtyard last summer. If you want to buy GaiaSoil, says project manager Eric Dalski, expect to pay between “$4.50 and $15 per cubic foot, depending on quantity, delivery time and ease of dropoff.” A rooftop, a truck bed or a bucket can become a farm with such water-efficient soil and green-roof supplies to protect it.
“Sitting on the truck bed is a thin plastic membrane called a root barrier that prevents the roots from traveling too far into your roof, or gas tank as the case may be,” explains Cheney. “On top of that is a drainage mat, sort of like an egg crate that retains an inch and a half of water and allows the roots to access it. On top of the drainage mat is an erosion blanket which keeps the soil from flooding drainage cups and running off your roof or your truck or whatever- it might be a jute fabric, glued directly to drainage mat. On top of that went a jute mat= picture a burlap sack that spreads out with coconut fibers, pops down to prevent soil from blowing off your truck – and two inches of organic compost and potting soil.”
According to Wickedelicate’s supplier, Brooklyn-based Alive Structures, someone can order these basics online from a supplier like Zilco or ELT, explains project manager Victora Foraker, for between $15 and $20 per square foot (including a professional installation). Foraker says more customers are installing the equipment on tiny sites. “Residential projects are definitely on the rise,” she told me. “We’ve had a lot of 400-1,000 square ft projects this season. “
Most of these entail purely recreational agriculture, but they needn’t. Marcel Van Ooyen, who coordinates New York’s 49 farmers’ markets as head of the Council on the Environment of New York City, endorses the idea of selling what you grow- as long as you don’t quit your day job. “There is a Craig’s List of vegetables,” he told me. “If you do the math on what it costs to buy the [equipment] and spend your time, you’re not making any money. But the investment is more than economic.”
And with the proper management of costs and customers, as evident in a farming project in undersupplied East New York, the investment can be commercial. “That pickup truck is attracting attention, but if you go out to East New York Farms you would see a bunch of growers who are selling to their neighbors,” said Van Ooyen. “That market is going to grow and grow.”
And if urban microfarming makes more hipsters consider a tomato vine rather than stare at their iPhones, it can stoke the market for other thoughtful forms of urban exchange.
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