'Farm on Wheels': MSMS grads design one amazing senior trip -- one with purpose

July 15, 2011 6:43:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Old MacDonald never imagined this. A rolling farm, a mobile greenhouse touring the country, drawing crowds and educating the public on alternative energy and sustainable living. 


It all started in dorm rooms at the Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus this spring, when an article in Mississippi State University''s engineering magazine, Momentum, inspired six MSMS seniors. The boys were just weeks away from graduating from the two-year school for high-achieving juniors and seniors, and they were ripe for senior trip ideas. 


Reading about a bus converted to biodiesel fuel, they thought, "Alright, well, that sounds cool -- we can do that," shared 18-year-old Daniel Eisler, grinning between bites of crisp cucumber under a hot July sun at the Starkville Community Market. The Ocean Springs native is one of the G6 -- the Green 6, a name the intrepid MSMS grads have adopted as they pilot the big bus on its summer test run through Mississippi and beyond. 


Starkville was one of several stops on a mini-tour to help spread the word about what the Magnolia State is doing to green up, and to generate funds to continue the bus'' transformation into a see-touch-feel-smell mobile classroom. It''s a tall order, but as Bobby Glenn of the G6 posted on the group''s blog, "When we began planing our senior road trip, we refused to settle for anything less than epic." 




To your health 


What began as an idea by the seniors to convert a bus to biodiesel fuel and travel blossomed into the Farm on Wheels when Oxford''s Daniel Doyle, one of Glenn''s former teachers in Moss Point, suggested the boys consider a higher purpose. He pointed them to the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi. Doyle heads the non-profit''s North Central Mississippi chapter. 


Gaining Ground is centered in Starkville, where founders Alison and Mike Buehler began with a dream to build a network of people who are making strides in sustainable living. 


"It''s been incredible," said Alison, who moved with her physician husband to the Golden Triangle from Knoxville, Tenn. "We''ve always been interested in issues like alternative energy, local foods ... and when we moved here, we were kind of lonely," she smiled. "But I knew that surely there are other people out there who care about this." 


An initial conference in 2009 to gauge interest shocked the Buehlers, attracting almost 200 people. "It''s grown like wildfire," she stated. "Now we can say, yes, there are a lot of things going on in Mississippi, and here''s who''s doing what and when. It''s a creative network, and Marion Sansing of Starkville, our executive director, is the heart, soul and brain that keeps it growing." 


With Gaining Ground volunteers in Oxford and Starkville on board, the G6 team''s senior road trip took on new dimensions. 


First, you need a bus. 


An extensive search yielded a 1990 school bus with less than 100,000 miles, built on an International 3700 chassis. With the help of friends, the MSMS alumni pulled out seats and scrubbed the inside "squeaky clean." Carpet was installed, and beds that fold down into couches.  


The interior, Buehler said, will ultimately be flexible, able to hold seating for children and adults on tours. 


The students undertook the conversion to biodiesel fuel themselves, even installing clear pipes, so visitors to the bus can follow the process. They also mounted solar panels on the hood.  


A mural landscape of lush farmland, rich with corn, cotton and watermelon, covers the huge vehicle. The boys painted it, with valuable help from Oxford artists Wendy Hansen and Andi Bedsworth. 




And next 


As the G6 takes the bus from city to city this summer, the goal is to not only to promote the mobile farm and Gaining Ground, but to help raise $12,000 needed to get Phase Two underway. Those plans include a greenhouse roof, a rain catchment system, learning garden, portable chicken coop, worm tea bin, compost tumbler and other innovative features. 


"One thing we all have in common is a sense of adventure," said Glenn. "We''ve already left our hometowns and high schools to come to MSMS. We initiate our own adventures; that''s part of what MSMS gives you." 


When the G6 return in August to head to college, Glenn actually hopes to take a gap year and intern with Gaining Ground, taking the Farm on Wheels to schools and other organizations. His interest is genuine. He served as president of the Environmental Awareness League at MSMS, and actually started an environmental club at his former high school. 


"I hope to be the one driving the bus," he said, prepping to leave Starkville for the next scheduled stop, the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. 


Social media has been a positive outlet for the rolling green project, creating a buzz via its blog (msmobilefarm. com), Facebook and Twitter. The boys hope the ever-widening audience will help Gaining Ground reach the fundraising goal by Aug. 4.  


"This (publicity) wouldn''t have been possible 20 years ago, or even 10," Eisler said, extolling the networking possibilities. 




How you can help 


You can support Farm on Wheels and Gaining Ground by making a tax deductible donation through the kickstarter page link at msmobilefarm.com, or at ggsims.org. You can even email the G6 team on the road at [email protected] 


"We''d love nothing more than to see this bus serve as a model of sustainable choices, renewable energy and growing your own food for Mississippi school children to learn from in the years to come, as those decisions become more and more important for us all," Glenn stated. 


"Our greatest resources in Mississippi are our land and our people, and we''ve not dealt kindly with either," Buehler shared. "If we could take care of teaching our people how to connect with their health, their food and their land, I''d be thrilled." 


After debuts earlier this month in Jackson, Moss Point, Hattiesburg, Oxford and, of course, Starkville, the Farm on Wheels -- and its six capable crew members -- are headed west.  


"Excited? Yes. Can you blame us?" smiled Eisler. "We''re going cross-country on a senior road trip -- and we actually have a purpose."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.