As recent alums of the Mississippi School of Math and Science, graduates of a rigorous academic curriculum supplemented by extracurricular enterprises from rafts and rickshaws to rail guns and bridge swings, some friends and I began planning a senior road trip and naturally refused to settle for anything less than epic.
Simple calculations revealed that the brunt of the financial burden would come from food, housing and fuel. We figured we could reduce food costs by buying food in bulk and cooking meals ourselves, and housing costs by camping rather than staying in hotels. But it seemed that fuel would be a stickler. That’s when Sterling Harper stumbled across an article from Momentum – Mississippi State University’s engineering magazine – about some students who converted a school bus to run off of waste vegetable oil (WVO).
We immediately began researching the mechanics and legalities of the idea while simultaneously searching for a bus. After several near misses, we finally found “the one.” We drove over 700 miles to fetch a 1990 school bus built on an International 3700 chassis equipped with “AC that’ll turn’er into a meat freezer.” Our inspection revealed the only major issues to be a couple of balding tires and a few leaky windows. The bus, despite being 21 years old, had less than 100,000 miles, a beautiful Allison AT540 transmission, and an engine that would make a mechanic drool.
We poured a lot of sweat and ingenuity into the bus from there. At school several friends helped us pull out the seats and the wheel chair lift as well as scrub the inside squeaky clean. From there, we drove the bus to the coast to stay at my house in Moss Point. We built bunk beds that fold down into couches, installed carpet, and began constructing the fuel system. However, as exams and end of the school year work arose, the bus and the trip were placed on the back burner.
It wasn’t until a few days before graduation that the mobile farm idea was introduced. We had already asked several nonprofits if they were interested in sponsoring the project but none were interested. Then, when I was talking to Daniel Doyle, a former teacher of mine, about possible gap year work, I mentioned the trip. “You know what would be cool,” Daniel brain-stormed, “A mobile organic farm.” We’ll just say the idea stuck.
The gang and Doyle organized a meeting the morning before graduation at City Bagel, a local bagel/coffee shop in Starkville. In addition to converting the bus to run on biodiesel, we would work as representatives of the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of MS and turn the bus into a touring educational outreach tool for sustainability and renewable energy complete with a mural on the side of the bus, several examples of sustainable agricultural practices on board, and give presentations at summer camps and farmers markets while on our road trip. We would also solicit businesses and individuals over the summer and while on the trip in order to raise money for a second phase of the project that would turn it completely into a farm on wheels.
This second phase would consist of installing a chicken coup, a greenhouse roof, a rainwater catchment/irrigation system, various examples of composting techniques, and much more. This would happen after we return to Mississippi from our trip. Once turned over to Gaining Ground, they would hire an intern to finish the conversion and drive the bus around the state to schools and events to continue teaching about sustainability.
The summer was filled with overwhelming support from individuals and businesses. We moved up to Oxford for the summer to work with Doyle on the project and several local families took us in. Oxford Paint Supply donated the paint for our mural. Whenever the weather was looking gloomy Woodson Ridge Farm and Valley House Farm loaned us their barns (at one point sharing space with goats and a horse). Once we peeled all the vinyl lettering off, scuffed up the paint with sandpaper, taped everything off, primed and finished the bus blue, green, and yellow with paint rollers and brushes, Wendy Hansen, a local artist, helped develop our mural. She put together a design and projected it onto the side of the bus so that the inartistic math and science kids could help her out. We traced the design onto the side of the bus with Sharpies and then the real artist taught us how to paint.
Bill Beckwith was another helpful individual who assisted us with installing the waste vegetable oil system. He showed us a junk yard where we took two diesel tanks off of wrecked trucks to use for our fuel storage. We then took the bus back to his shop where he cut holes in the frame of the bus and mounted the tanks. We installed two fuel filters and ran fuel lines from the dirty tank to the filtration system to the clean tank and finally to a three-way valve switch that allowed us to switch from diesel to WVO. We installed another three-way valve switch for the return fuel line and a fuel return line back to the clean oil tank. During this time, Mississippi Solar delivered us a donated solar panel which we installed on the hood of the bus to supplement the bus electronics.
Once our work was finished we scheduled a Mississippi tour to test it out. Our first stop was Fondren after Five in Jackson. We later visited the Starkville Farmers Market and the Pascagoula Rive Audubon Center. On our way back we stopped by the Sunrise Garden Center in Hattiesburg and finished the mini tour with a benefit featuring “Silas Reed and Da Bunks” at the Powerhouse in Oxford. At each stop, we presented our work to interested community members and answered questions about our project. From there, we headed west.
Our cross-country tour was amazing and included Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Santa Barbra, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, the John Muir Woods, Yosemite National Park, Reno, Salt Lake City, and Denver. We met a vampire slayer, a cookie-cooking Latino musician, train-hoppers, an Australian on a quest, an expert diesel mechanic/host of a truck driving show, and many more interesting people. We broke our power steering pump mount, hiked up the Superstition Mountains and down into the Grand Canyon, broke all of our belts on the “The Strip” in Las Vegas, had an encounter with the Feds, the LAPD, and an armored truck with a turret, rode waves in the Pacific Ocean, drove along Highway 1 in California, nearly froze to death in San Francisco, saw giant redwood and sequoia trees, ruptured our upper radiator hose, and so much more. Along the way, we stopped at several summer schools and farmers markets in order to raise both funds and awareness for the project. You can read all about our adventures on our blog at http://www.msmobilefarm.com.
Once we returned to Mississippi, the bus was turned over to Gaining Ground and everyone departed on their respective post high school journeys. Gaining Ground hired me as an Educational Outreach Intern. Since then, I have transformed the inside of the bus and have continued traveling all over the state. If you are interested in hosting the bus at a school or event in Mississippi, contact me at Robert.Glenn@gmail.com.
Bobby currently works for GGSIM as the Educational Outreach Intern. He was one of the six graduates from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science who converted an old school bus into the “Farm on Wheels.” He is from Moss Point, MS.