Compass Green: Sustainability Classroom on Wheels

by Bruce Boyers

There are many who live in farm communities throughout the Midwest and the South who have witnessed a rather unusual sight: rolling right into their town, a mobile greenhouse that is a living example of sustainable farming. The truck, operated by a project called Compass Green, has left in its wake, all around the country, some 3,000 students trained in sustainable and organic farming.

“The direction that things are moving, we’ve got about 35 to 50 years of farmable soil left on the planet because of the way that we’re farming today,” Justin Cutter, co-founder of Compass Green, told Calmful Living. “We’re showing people ways in which we can remedy that immediately for a sustainable future. For all the kids who are in high school, for the people who are in university, it’s up to our generation right now. This isn’t something that we can say, ‘Oh, it’s our grandchildren that are going to have such tough luck.’ This is happening right now during our lifetimes.”

Biointensive farming, which makes up the Compass Green curriculum, delivers an average of four to six times the production value of the US average yield. These methods can be applied in the city, in a backyard, or on a plot of land. “Regardless of people’s situations, we tell them, `If we can do it in the back of a truck, you can do it in your own home,’” Cutter said.

“We did this so that we could put together something that was really unique, kind of new and kind of sexy,” Cutter continued, “something that would grab the attention of somebody who didn’t already give a hoot about sustainability and which would also be a great conversation piece—not to mention it’s a good demonstration garden, illustrating the different principles that we teach.”

The truck had interesting beginnings. “I was teaching a workshop at Colorado College when I got a call from my old buddy Nick Runkle, whom I’ve known from the eighth grade on,” Cutter recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, Cutter, what do you think about taking a box truck and turning it into a mobile greenhouse?’ Nick and I have gotten into all sorts of crazy adventures in the past and so I wasn’t completely blown away by such an outlandish idea. I said, ‘Let me give it a couple of days to think about. That sounds pretty wild.’ I hung up the phone and mulled it over for about half an hour, then called him back and said, ‘All right, buddy, let’s do it.’”

The Compass Green truck is now constantly on the move and aiming at its next destination. “We try to schedule our tour really efficiently so that we’re basically going from school to university to school to community workshop,” said Cutter. “We just decide which region we want to do and then we start doing cold calls. Also, the more places we go, the more people want us to come somewhere. They say, ‘Oh, where are you guys going to be this month? I’ve got a friend who’s a teacher at this school, and I’m sure she would love your project.’ So word of mouth is also a big way for us.”

For schools, Cutter and his team spend part of the time in a classroom and part of the time performing demonstrations on the truck.

It’s no mystery that the Compass Green truck keeps moving down the road, constantly in demand. “The response has just been awesome,” Cutter reported. “It definitely keeps us inspired as we go through the trials and tribulations of a young nonprofit startup. We get all types of people, and their faces just light up; there’s a spark behind their eyes. They start seeing that farming is not something that is inferior and tedious, as we culturally can be led to believe, but is something that can be created, that can be inspiring and that actually matters. I see this from five-year-olds that come into the back of our truck to people who are septuagenarians saying, ‘You know, when I was little we had a garden and I’m going to start gardening again.’”

In that many of the areas Cutter is teaching in are strongholds of industrial agriculture, he doesn’t polarize people. “There have been some farmers that have come to our workshop who are interested in transitioning to more organic methods, and that’s been really cool,” he said. “The farmers are not the enemy. I’ve gone into schools in Iowa, and all the kids know about agriculture. Many of the students actually have family involved in farming; so I couldn’t look in their faces and say, ‘Oh, these farmers are doing terrible things,’ because they’re not. They’ve come from generations of farming and they really want to feed people in the best way they know how.

When you approach it honestly in this manner in talking to the students, they understand that I’m not saying anything against the farmer. I’m talking about these corporations who really don’t care about growing food or creating a healthy product; they just care about making a buck. The kids understand that. They see that this model is really strangling agriculture, and they also see that there is arising a sense of small-scale organic farmers that can really remedy this on an economic as well as a health level.”

Cutter is certainly no stranger to interesting enterprises. At age 27 he has already lived as a monk in India, was employed on a schooner in Hawaii, and has worked closely with John Jeavons, a founding father of sustainable agriculture. By the time he began his professional life, organic and sustainable agriculture was already in his blood. “I got interested in organic food early on,” Cutter related. “I was lucky to have parents who felt it was important to eat healthy and organically. A few years later I discovered the growing side of things—I was living on a sailboat in Hawaii and used to come on shore once a week. I did a whole lot of wild harvesting of different plants that are native to Hawaii: breadfruit, coconuts, bananas, avocados and some of the vegetables they grow in the jungle. I also worked on an organic farm there one day a week to get the vegetables that I needed for that week.

“About a year and a half later I had an opportunity that I took to work with world-famous agriculturalist John Jeavons on his farm in Mendocino, California.”

Now, driving that truck, Cutter plans to continue making it all fun for people. “It’s not going to be hardship that pulls us out of hardship; it’s going to be joy that pulls us out of hardship,” he concluded. “And I have to say we are entering a phase of hardship in terms of food production and sustainability. It is the joy of hands in the dirt and the joy of plucking a fresh ripe tomato and popping it in your mouth that is going to transition us to a more sustainable future. It’s not going to be the gloom and doom; it’s going to be the smile.”

To learn more about Compass Green, visit www.compassgreenproject.org.