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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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With Mobile Greenhouse as Pulpit, Two Friends Criss Cross Nation Preaching Gospel of Sustainable Agriculture

May 30, 2012 |

Photo Credit: Compass Green

A thriving organic and sustainable greenhouse on wheels, you say? It sounds whimsical and impractical, but longtime friends Justin Cutter, age 27, and Nick Runkle, Age 26, have brought the concept to life with the hope of positively influencing the growth trajectory of sustainable agriculture across the country.

A waste vegetable-powered converted box truck outfitted with growing beds containing herbs and vegetables ranging from bok choy and swiss chard to broccoli and quinoa is the centerpiece of Compass Green, a mobile greenhouse project that the two partners founded to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable agriculture and teach Bio-intensive methods.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with co-founder Justin Cutter to learn more about the origin and details of their innovative project.

The Interview

Q: What exactly is Compass Green?

Justin Cutter: Compass Green is a mobile sustainability education project [geared towards] people who don’t normally have access to it or who want to learn more. The beauty of having a greenhouse in a truck means that we can take projects anywhere. From people in interstate situations where kids don’t know what a tomato plant looks like, to places like where I’m going now in Iowa where they are surrounded by conventional agriculture and don’t have many people talking about alternative methods. So we go around and educate about what is going on world-wide in terms of our food supply, the way it’s grown and what that’s doing to the planet. Then we teach people how to do it locally.

Q: When did you and Nick start this project?

Justin Cutter: It started a year and about three months ago. After a period in Mendocino, I started traveling around the country teaching Bio-intensive at university colleges. It was around that time in Colorado when my old friend Nick called me up with this crazy idea: “Hey Cutter, I know that you’re traveling and teaching sustainable agriculture – what do you think about turning this sweet truck into a mobile greenhouse?” I said, “you know what, give me a few days to think about it,” and then I put down the phone. Within half an hour I called back and said, “Let’s do it.”

I was giving these presentations on the world food situation, and I noticed that the only people who came were already interested in sustainability. I realized that if we really wanted to change things in this country, then obviously we had to reach the people who weren’t interested, instead of just preaching to the choir – even though it’s a lot of fun. So we wanted to come up with some ways that would grab the attention and interest of people who haven’t heard about the reasons why sustainable agriculture is important or who just really don’t care.

Q: How much ground have you covered thus far in the mobile greenhouse?

Justin Cutter: We keep track by the schools and events where we’ve taught, but when we are teaching we like to connect with every single individual, so I try to keep track of the actual students that we’ve taught. Right now we’ve taught over 2500 students from coast to coast, all over the country.

Compass Green co-founder Justin Cutter in the mobile greenhouse teaching kids about sustainable agriculture. Photo: Compass Green.

Q: What sustainable growing methods do you teach?

Justin Cutter: We teach Bio-intensive sustainable agriculture, which is really applicable and useful for small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners. You can get started with it right away – you don’t need to buy any expensive equipment or anything, and it produces 4-6 times the US average yield, which is always nice.

Q: How do you measure your project’s impact?

Justin Cutter: Measuring the students we reach is one part of it, but we really want to have an effect and change the way agriculture is done in the US. We want to do that by educating the public about the damages of industrial agriculture and [encourage] them to grow more of their own food to decrease the reliance on industrial agriculture.

One of the important things to us is that we are not just a one-time burst of knowledge and inspiration. We want to be creating more sustainability programs within every school that we teach. We consult with the school’s faculty and staff about how to get a school garden program going, and then we send out surveys measuring our success. So that’s how we measure: how many school gardens and how many people start ongoing sustainable education at their schools.

Q: How does your project generate revenue to sustain itself?

Justin Cutter: (Laughs) Oh, that is the question, isn’t it. So far, we’ve only been moderately successful with that. Nick and I always have to cut corners on paying ourselves, and we still haven’t really gotten to the place where we feel very comfortable in taking a salary. So that’s definitely a goal.

We really want to be able to offer our programs to schools for free, so that we can focus on more low-income schools as well as our [current] visits to some of the affluent colleges and private schools. We want to teach everybody. Right now we’re having to focus a little more on schools that can pay to bring our program in. But we’ve done a ton of work in researching and applying to various grants, and that’s been moderately successful.

We also look at companies that we consider to be very ethical – who are making wise choices and whose values align well with ours – and are looking for corporate sponsors to take on portions of our tour. For instance, right now, our Iowa tour is sponsored by Frontier Cooperative, an organic herbs company in Iowa, so we get to offer our program for free to all of the schools here in Iowa. That’s really what we want to be able to do always. This is one of the first times that a company has taken on a full portion of a tour. [Also], a year and a few months ago, we had a big campaign and raised $27,000 to buy the truck that’s run on veggie oil, build the greenhouse, and get off the ground.

Q: What does the future look like for Compass Green?

Justin Cutter: I would like to see Compass Green expand. We’re hoping that by next summer we’ll be able to add another truck and then each year, expand and get more regional. We would really like to facilitate a more sustainable education program and reach a much broader audience, impacting many more people. We feel that our model is one that is really working based off the response we’ve gotten so far.

[We want to help] people start more nationwide farming projects. Another thing that we talked about since I came to New York to start this project, [is] maybe, after Compass Green gets really stable and it’s having the [desired] effect, to start Compass Blue. Put a greenhouse on a sailboat and start taking our message around the world.

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