Compass Green Project Teaches Students the Importance of Sustainable Farming

Tracey M. Romero

Do you remember the “Magic School Bus” where they explored the world of science from a magical school on wheels? Well, while Compass Green’s mobile greenhouse cannot transform into the size of a white blood cell and head into somebody’s bloodstream, it is also a school on wheels that teaches students important lessons.

The project’s mission is to raise awareness of what it means to live sustainably and to show students why sustainable farming practices—food production that does not harm the environment and is healthier to eat—is key to protecting the planet and to living healthier lives.

Nvate Mobile greenhouse, compass green by Nick Runkle and Justin Cutter, sustainability

Compass Green founders Justin Cutter and Nick Runkle standing in front of their mobile greenhouse. Credit: Justin Cutter

According to their website, Compass Green is “a fully functional greenhouse built in the back of an 18-foot box truck that grows vegetables, grains, and herbs and is powered by waste vegetable oil.” The founders of the project, Justin Cutter and Nick Runkle, teach farming techniques that people, no matter if they live in a New York City high-rise or a sprawling Wyoming ranch, can use to grow their own food. They also give presentations and workshops on sustainability, and tours of the greenhouse.

Students Learn to Grow Their Own Food

On the website, Cutter and Runkle posted their underlying belief that “everyone, regardless of demographics and age should have access to sustainability education and delicious, healthy food.”

Compass Green Project offers presentations and workshops geared toward elementary school, middle school and high school students as well as to college students. Right now they are visiting schools in California, but earlier tours have visited the South, New England and the Midwest. Cutter and Runkle’s first school was in Queens, N.Y.

For elementary, middle and high school children they focus on food production and the dangers to our health and the environment when sustainable practices are not utilized. Cutter and Runkle take the students into the greenhouse and teach them sustainable farming methods and help them start their own seedlings which they can then take home.

At the university level, Cutter and Runkle offer an hour and a half lecture on sustainability, the global food situation and the challenges we all face. Topics include soil preparation, seed propagation, composting and companion planting. All school programs include guidance on how to build a school garden, or for those who already have one, how to make it more sustainable and productive.

How the Compass Green Project got Started

In the beginning of 2011, when Cutter was teaching a workshop on biointensive sustainable agriculture at Colorado College, Runkle asked him if he wanted to turn a truck into a greenhouse, Cutter said in an email interview. Runkle told Cutter that he knew of a box truck that a friend had turned into an art gallery and he thought it had potential as a greenhouse. It just so happened that the truck was just sitting on a lot on Long Island, N.Y., rusting away.

“Now you have to understand that Nick and I have known each other ever since we played soccer together in middle school,” Cutter said. “We have the kind of friendship that stays interesting, and have had a good many adventures together, so I wasn’t surprised by the strange proposition, but told him I’d think about it for a couple of days.”

Cutter soon realized that turning the truck into a mobile greenhouse might solve one of his problems. He wanted to reach people who didn’t think sustainability was a major concern. He felt that the people that were coming to his workshops and presentations were already interested in sustainability and he needed a way to reach others.

“I felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” he said. “Having something as eye-catching as a mobile greenhouse seemed like a way to engage those who didn’t give a hoot about sustainability or healthy food. Within half an hour, I called Nick back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

How Far has the Compass Green Project Come?

Now, two years later, they have driven around the United States on various tours and have taught over 3,300 students, most of them under-privileged youth in “at-risk” circumstances.

According to Cutter, they were founded in mid-March 2011, although at that point they were just an idea and a whole lot of drive. “We jumped right into a Kickstarter campaign and in one crazy month raised the $27,000 we needed to launch Compass Green,” Cutter explained.

“After this spring’s California tour we are considering the Northwest, Idaho, and Nevada as possible regions for our next tour,” Cutter added. “If we get enough inquiries from New York, we might head back in that direction.”

“We wanted to be able to take sustainability out of the ‘green’ centers of San Francisco, Brooklyn, Portland, [and so on] to the areas that really needed it,” Cutter said regarding why the duo wanted a mobile greenhouse. “Our greenhouse was not created just for education, it was created as a vehicle for change, to a more sustainable food economy.”

“We don’t want to just be another couple of do-gooders preaching to the choir—although it sure can be fun,” he emphasized. “We want to go to the places where we raise eyebrows, and questions, and teach the people who voted against Proposition 37—in California to label GMOs—and who are suffering from the economic and health disasters of our industrial agriculture system.”

Cutter’s favorite part of working with students is “watching them wake up to the power they have to personally change this country.”

Why is Growing Sustainable Food Important?

Right now on their truck they are growing kale, cilantro, chard, and mustard greens as well as fava beans, garden huckleberries, arugula, spinach, cherry tomatoes, sage, oregano, basil, and amaranth.

Nvate Mobile greenhouse, compass green by Nick Runkle and Justin Cutter, sustainability

The mobile greenhouse is growing cherry tomatoes on board, as well as other vegetables and herbs. Credit: Keattikorn freedigitalphotos.net

According to Cutter, biointensive sustainable agriculture is all about getting the most out of a small space, and doing so sustainably. “We only have 87 square feet of growing space, but we are producing a significant amount of food, as well as compost materials to keep our soil sustainable,” he said.

“The food that I’m growing and eating myself is food that I am not purchasing from some corporate farm that is destroying the environment,” Cutter said. “It is food that hasn’t had to be transported to me with the help of conflict-petroleum, and it is fresh, healthy and delicious.”

“For these reasons it is important for everybody to grow just a little more of their own diet,” he said. “If we can do it in a truck, you can do it anywhere, no matter what your living situation is.”

Cutter worked closely with John Jeavons, founder of Grow Biointensive sustainable agriculture, in 2009 and 2010, and helped found the Green Belt Team for teaching biointensive sustainable farming in developing nations.

Runkle has lived and worked on farms in Vermont and South America and before tackling converting their truck, had experience converting a 1983 Mercedes to run on waste vegetable oil, according to the Compass Green website. He also worked for the GRACE Foundation’s Eat Well Guide program in New York City, a resource for sustainable restaurants, farms, and nonprofits in the United States and Canada.

For more information, visit compassgreen.org or contact Justin Cutter at justin@compassgreenproject.org or Nick Runkle at nick@compassgreenproject.org.

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