A unique way to educate people about agriculture

Jes Carr made this display booth to attract interest in a mobile truck farm.
Photos courtesy of Jes Carr unless otherwise noted.

Persistence pays off. Just ask Jes Carr and Nicole Broder, students at the College of William and Mary (W&M) in Williamsburg, Va., who sought funding through Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com) for a mobile truck farm. The idea was to promote sustainable agriculture or new ways of farming in smaller spaces.

“Basically, the premise of a truck farm is that it is a mobile classroom,” Carr says. She explains that it’s similar to planting a garden on a building’s roof. In this case, she and Broder plan to plant vegetables and herbs in the bed of a pickup and then travel to local public schools and talk about agriculture awareness.

Carr came up with the idea when she viewed a documentary film called “King Corn,” co-produced by Ian Cheney, Aaron Woolf and Curt Ellis. The documentary centered around two friends who grew 1 acre of corn, then followed the kernels after harvesting through the U.S. food system. Carr saw this concept as a “visual, eye-catching catalyst for change, a conversation about the state of agriculture.”

She and Broder started working on the idea at the beginning of their sophomore year. The two outlined what they were going to do and how they were going to implement their plan. Carr and Broder named their project the Tribe Truck Farm (Tribe being the name of the college’s athletic teams as well as a nickname for students, alumni, faculty and staff).

With the help of Carr’s brother, they made a short, low-tech, partially animated campaign video to place on Kickstarter.

They also set rewards that donors would receive. The reward system was based on how much a person contributed. The more money donated, the more rewards they received. For instance, if people pledged $5 or more, they received a digital thank-you. If they pledged $1,000 or more, they received a digital thank-you and/or a handcrafted thank-you note, a custom seed mix in a collectible pouch, a limited-edition Tribe Truck Farm T-shirt, and their name or their company name on the truck. Broder says the majority of the donors did not seek a reward; they just wanted a thank-you note.

Jes Carr (left) and Nicole Broder funded their mobile truck farm venture through Kickstarter and a grant from the College of William and Mary, where they are students.
Photo by Rocky Womack.

Seeking funding

When the outline was finished, Carr and Broder sought $15,000 in Kickstarter funding; however, the 30-day campaign didn’t go as expected. “In our first Kickstarter campaign, we set the money too high,” Broder says. “We had a lot of support, but not enough to make that kind of money. The way this works is it’s all or nothing. You have to raise the amount of money that you propose, or you don’t get any of the money that you raise.”

Raising money in unconventional ways requires not only persistence, but also knowledge of how crowdfunding works. “It is important to do a lot of up-front work to build a base of support, because often the financial support comes from people you relate to,” explains Eric Bendfeldt, an extension specialist in community viability with Virginia Tech. “People also need to have a good idea of what their actual costs are for the project, what commission fees are involved, and not to promise too much as far as incentives and gifts to donors.”

He suggests reviewing successful and unsuccessful campaign efforts on crowdfunding websites. This will provide a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

At the same time they were seeking funding through Kickstarter, Carr and Broder applied for a grant under the college’s “Green Fee” program. Broder says that a certain amount of the students’ tuition is set aside to go into this program.

According to Suzanne Seurattan, director of news marketing at W&M, the grant program has been in place for five years. She says, “The Committee on Sustainability has supported approximately $625,000 worth of Green Fee projects proposed by students, staff and faculty.”

Since they had developed an environmentally minded project, they applied for a grant. They anticipated they would receive less than $5,000 in grant money, and hoped they would get at least $3,000. Unfortunately, because the Kickstarter campaign failed, they didn’t receive the grant.

Nicole Broder (left) and Jes Carr work in the garden at the College of William and Mary in preparation for their mobile truck farm venture.

Determined and persistent, the two looked forward rather than dwelling on their failure. “We decided we were just going to try again,” Carr says, “so we reapplied for the grant.” She and Broder clarified the project, then approached more faculty, students and others.

“There was a lot of learning involved, a lot of trial and error, a lot of failing, a lot of talking to people who didn’t really care about our ideas, a lot of people who didn’t know what we were talking about,” Carr says. “We had to learn how to talk about our idea, figure out a way to sell it, or to convince people that it was a good idea.”

Next, Carr and Broder launched another Kickstarter campaign. They contacted donors from their first campaign to see if they were willing to participate again. They also announced their project on Facebook, sent out emails, wore mobile signs resembling a truck, and created and passed out small flyers.

Instead of asking for $15,000, they set the goal at $3,000. “We got our first $3,000, but we were hoping and expecting to raise more than that, and so we did,” Carr says. “We raised $6,000 on Kickstarter.”

Broder says the whole philosophy of Kickstarter is that if family, friends and strangers believe something is a good idea and are inspired by it, then they will donate money. “The second time sort of showed us that we have a good idea, that other people are inspired by it and believe in this project,” she says. “I think in our second round of Kickstarter, a large part of our success was due to our insistence at getting the word out to everyone.”

With secured Kickstarter funding, the college matched it with a $6,000 grant.

After two years, they now had $12,000 and were ready to proceed. However, things don’t always go as planned.

Broder and Carr were given the opportunity to experience life abroad as part of the college’s environmental studies program. Carr went to Panama, and Broder traveled to Costa Rica, so the project was put on hold.

“If anything, I think that time helped us get revamped for this, meet new people and get new ideas,” Carr says.

Once they returned, they jumped right back into the project. The duo scanned ads for trucks on Craigslist and found a 2001 Ford F-250 pickup in nearby Norfolk, Va. Before buying the truck, they asked a mechanic to go through it. Except for a few maintenance concerns, the truck checked out. They bought the truck, which has an 8-foot bed, for $4,800.

Broder says, “It’s pretty much everything that we had in mind.”

Since they want to run the truck on waste vegetable oil rather than gasoline, it needs to be converted, and Carr says they’re working to figure that out. Most likely they’ll purchase a conversion kit and hire someone to do the conversion. In addition, they’re estimating what they’ll need for the garden as far as materials and equipment.

Once the costs had been totaled, they were still under budget. They had planned to spend $6,000 on the truck, and with basic maintenance in the next few months they would still be about $200 under budget.

Part of the system

Carr and Broder intend to plant tomatoes, peppers and herbs in their mobile farm. “The idea [is] to show people that you can grow things to eat in unconventional spaces, or you can take charge of your food again by knowing where it comes from and having more transparency of our foods overall,” Carr says.

“I applaud both the entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to bring knowledge of produce growing and sustainable agriculture to elementary, middle school, high school and college students,” says James Schroering, an extension agent in Hanover County, Va. “As you know, very few consumers know where and how their food is produced. I also applaud both established and start-up producers who are attempting to find new markets and funding sources and think out of the box.”

This Ford F-250 pickup with an 8-foot bed will be used to grow vegetables and herbs. The owners, Jes Carr and Nicole Broder, will drive the truck to public schools so they can show students that they can grow produce in small, unconventional spaces.

Schroering isn’t the only one who envisions something bigger from this type of project. “This could be a creative way to bring in new farmers or expand existing operations, and of course we support all ventures that promote or grow the industry of agriculture in Virginia,” says Elaine Lidholm, communications director of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond, Va.

It opens up opportunities. “A mobile truck farm is exciting and offers the option of bringing the farm to the people,” says Martha Walker, an extension specialist in community viability with the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. “It actually puts the fresh produce within local communities and hopefully will generate increased support. This is another innovative tool for farms to consider as part of their business plans.”

Walker says, “If this method of delivering fresh produce into communities generates the interest and purchases from the local residents, it may be one strategy for addressing the food deserts in Virginia discussed in the January 2014 report [‘Food Deserts in Virginia,’ http://bit.ly/1noGQy5].”

Mobile farming is catching on. Walker says The Farm Bus (http://thefarmbus.com) and the Real Food Farm (http://www.realfoodfarm.org/get-food/mobilemarket) are two examples of how farms are joining forces and developing new distribution plans. Bendfeldt says the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture (http://arcadiafood.org) in Alexandria, Va., has a mobile market worth checking out.

Broder and Carr plan to start visiting schools in a few months. In addition, they intend to purchase some key supplies, such as a water drainage mat for the pickup bed, and build a cold frame on the truck bed. This can extend the growing season and protect plants from damage when driving long distances. They plan to build the cold frame out of lightweight PVC pipe and clear plastic.

Carr says, “Basically, that means it would look like a greenhouse, but we will be able to remove that. It would be transparent so people can still see it.”

In colder months, when they can’t grow produce, they may collect compost and go around teaching children how to compost.

Looking ahead

In the future, Carr and Broder plan to apply for additional grants so they will have money to cover maintenance on the truck and for supplies. “If we’re leaving the truck on campus with someone younger than us, then we need them to have a small budget to keep everything kind of going,” Carr says.

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.