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As middle school students lined up around her pickup truck, urban farmer Chelsea Taxman began the day's lesson with a discussion of weeds and how they get into a garden like hers.
All start as seeds. Some, like dandelions, blow in. Others, like mulberries, are consumed and then delivered by birds.
Then Taxman reached among the greens, herbs and other plants growing in the bed of the mustard-yellow 1975 Chevrolet, parked this day in front of McMillan Magnet Center near 38th Street and Redick Ave., and pulled a stalk of lambsquarter out of the rich soil filling the truck bed.
Yes, the garden is in the truck. Called Truck Farm Omaha, the rolling garden turns the typical truck farm concept on its head. Instead of growing produce on a farm and trucking it to market, Taxman and fellow farmer Dan Susman grow the produce in the truck.
“Our greatest asset with the program is we can go everywhere,” Taxman said.
The group's goal, however, isn't to sell veggies but to teach kids about gardening, healthful eating and environmental sustainability. They visit schools, farmers markets, churches and other venues. Along the way, they provide taste tests and demonstrate nutritious snacks.
Founders Susman and Andrew Monbouquette, both of Omaha, spotted the truck farms in other cities and decided to create one here. At the time, they were traveling the country working on a documentary about urban agriculture. Called “Growing Cities,” it's due out soon.
The pair brought Taxman in to help with day-to-day operations in March 2012. They put the truck together that April and debuted it at Earth Day Omaha.
Documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney, who launched the original truck farm in New York City in 2009, estimated that the Omaha truck is one of about a dozen now on the streets. During the peak season in 2011, two dozen mobile gardens were rolling. He's heard of one in Palestine and gotten inquiries from students interested in starting one in South Korea.
“They have proved most useful as mobile education tools for getting young people, especially, excited about growing food,” said Cheney, who produced a documentary called “Truck Farm” and now is working on a children's book of the same name. He retired his truck this year.
At the same time, Truck Farm Omaha is part of a growing urban agriculture movement in Omaha and nationwide. The number of farmers markets continues to grow, Cheney said, and the demand for local, sustainably grown food already may be outstripping supply.
Truck Farm Omaha, in fact, in February became a program of No More Empty Pots, a grassroots nonprofit corporation based near 20th and Paul Streets. The organization is involved in various aspects of urban agriculture.
Susan Whitfield, project manager, said the group's goals include providing education about growing and preserving healthful foods. “So we're very excited to have Truck Farm as one of our arms,” she said.
Some of Truck Farm's school visits are one-time stops. But others have been longer term and run year-round. Last year, Truck Farm worked with after-school programs at five Omaha district middle schools, including McMillan.
Taxman said she hopes to work with the middle schools again this year. The group also hopes to help a couple of schools start their own gardens.
Taxman said the idea behind urban agriculture education is to change kids' ideas about how — and where — food grows. Many have the idea it's a farmer with a tractor in a rural area.
At McMillan, the after-school program is run by the YMCA. June Martinez, interim site director, said the program has been popular. “The kids love it,” she said.
During last week's visit, Taxman passed the lambsquarter around the circle for students to sniff and study. Tarrence Willis, 13, tried the edible weed, which he said tasted like grass.
Taxman showed students how to recapture the nutrients in weeds by letting them sit in a container of water to make a “weed tea” for the garden. Then she brought out a tray of red wiggler worms, which convert waste to compost. Brendon Allen watched one crawl over his hand. “I just like learning about a lot of things,” he said.
The truck does draw a few second glances during its travels, which have included western Iowa.
Omahan Mercy Kirui marveled at the mobile garden during a recent stop at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market near 33rd and California Streets.
“They planted the truck,” she said, gazing at the plants in the bed. She admitted she was surprised to see a garden in a truck. “This is beautiful.”