Plant an organic garden on the White House Lawn

I met a couple of young guys who are traveling the country in the Topsy Turvy bus to promote the idea of an organic garden on the White House Lawn.

This video chronicles a day-in-the-life of The White House Organic Farm Project's (aka TheWhoFarm) cross-country tour with Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow, two guys who met in The Philippines as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Their tour promotes a petition to our next president, respectfully requesting that an organic farm be planted on The White House grounds. While Obama is busy with plans to fix everything else in the world, TheWhoFarmers are spending this transition period working to build a coalition of the willing in Washington, DC. This coalition includes local farmers who can help the green-thumbed White House grounds crew get up to speed on organic farming, and a hunger relief organization that will offer to pick up the excess bounty from The White House once the first family is fed.

TheWhoFarm bus was previously known as the Topsy Turvy bus, built by Burning Man art car legend Tom Kennedy. TheWhoFarm purchased the bus second-hand, and converted the roof into a mobile organic vegetable garden, believed to be the first ever garden on top of a school bus.

The bus might be up for sale soon, so if you're in the market for a one-of-a-kind, attention grabbing, food producing vehicle, give the boys a shout. And by all means, sign their petition!

The White House Organic Farm Project

Previously on Boing Boing:
Campaign to grow vegetable garden on White House lawn
Redesign the U.S. White House


  1. A lot of edible plants are also flowering plants. Royals used to plant strawberries in their garden. Planting food is really not such a strange concept.

  2. Who would garden it?

    Michelle? I don’t think that would fit into the schedule of a First Lady and involved mother so well, and might look unbecoming.

    Gardeners? I’m not sure that hiring a team of gardeners really promotes the idea that everyone should have a small garden in their front lawn.

    Wwoofers? I’m sure what Obama really needs to keep the affection of middle America is a bunch of vegan hippies mucking around the White House lawn every day.

    I’m actually all for the idea — I would think to base it off the gardens in Monticello, both because they’re beautiful and because they allow people to think of gardens as presidential — but I think that it would need a lot of thought to present it in a way that overcomes most people’s natural cynicism barrier.

  3. it would be gardened by busloads of schoolchildren in rotation.

    And it would have some of that Washingtonian hemp on the borders.

  4. On the TV show Invention Nation which aired about a year ago they put a small garden on the roof of their bus.

  5. Organic farming is a sham. Modern, widepsread methods have taken years to perfect to get the biggest yields, most disease free plants, the least nutrient draining, and: the safest. ‘Organic farming’ is basically throwing 70 years of progressive science straight out the window. Thank you once again, hipsters, for screwing things up.

  6. #3: Are you kidding? They’d probably get more local volunteers than they could deal with. You’d have to screen them, of course. And the sight of secret service guys watching over them as they toil would be kind of creepy.

    #7: Can we strap a bag around his mouth? Shit is great for the compost heap.

  7. Why don’t they just ask the white house chefs to buy produce from organic farmers that are already established?

  8. “Why don’t they just ask the white house chefs to buy produce from organic farmers that are already established? ”

    Because a) the White House lawn is an ugly waste and b) it will inspire others to grow their own vegetables.

  9. PoisonedV, what an apt screen name you have!

    You have no idea what you are talking about. Home gardens, victory gardens, as this would be, are not vast monocultures. They are on a scale such that organic methods of garden are ideal.

    I had some neighbors like you, years ago, who were very skeptical. Well no, they weren’t bitter, just skeptical. Until I started gardening and blew their pathetic little Miracle-Gro gardens away. I admit I did a bit of showboating. I didn’t need to tie strings around the bamboo poles I used to support my tomato cages, making the cages taller so I could grow tomato plants that were taller than my garage.

    But even without that, I turned the lot of them into converts. My plants were healthier, hardier, handsomer and much more productive than theirs. My secret? I took care of the soil. Modern mass agriculture destroys the soil. Modern mass agriculture is about PROFIT not health, not quality.

    I grew some modern cultivars, but certainly none of the crap that is grown for the supermarket. I grew a lot of heirloom plants too.

    Mass civilizations require vast monocultures, to be sure. And massive monocultures are tricky as hell. Without them we starve. And vast monocultures present all kinds of problems. Some of them are hard to avoid. You have a hundred acres of beets under cultivation, and you are going to attract an awful lot of insects who like to eat beets. One way or another, you are going to have to deal with them.

    Sole reliance on pesticides is a recipe for an epic fail. We poison ourselves but the insects endure. They just evolve defenses. (Fundies who don’t hold with evolutionary theory really all should start growing organically. To do otherwise indicates you’ve conceded the reality of evolution.)

    Spraying destroys species other than the target species: beneficials like parasitoid wasps and pollinators like syrphid flies and native bee species, and crucial soil organisms.

    But then planting every acre, instead of leaving some natural habitat also deprives you of insects who would help your plants survive and thrive. That’s something home gardeners rarely understand. Leave some of the land as a natural habitat gives these important organisms a place to complete their life cycles. The great insect diversity you have, the healthier your garden will be.

    Modern agriculture is not the apex of scientific achievement, it is profit driven. It is not about what is soundest or healthiest or even most economical. It’s about getting more and more money to fewer and fewer people.

    Scorn for organic gardening translates into blind faith in pesticides, a bad call on so many levels. The bugs will win unless you keep stepping it up and stepping it up. Just ask the plants, they’ve been in a weapons race with the bugs for a loooong time now. Treated properly, they can survive without pesticides.

    I think this is a rockin’ idea, this garden on the White House Lawn. Lawns are dandy for picnics and games, but an awful lot of people have them just because everybody else has them. It shows a lack of imagination that is very costly in environmental terms. It’s a bit of the Easter Island scenario, IMO.

    So yes, yes, yes, an organic garden on the White House lawn to inspire and educate people. Hell yeah, hire some staff. But supplement the staff with a rotation of volunteers. Instead of being a page in congress for a summer, how about a gardener at the White House. Not pruning the rose bushes, but putting up trellises for peas and turning the compost heap. And how about a bioblitz-style survey of the species diversity before the project and after it is underway. It would do us all a world of good if people could understand how important insects are to our lives. I’d even settle for getting it through people’s heads that they don’t have to rush to kill every insect they see just because it is an insect.

    How about some honey bees in this project? We’ve got a first family and they’re going to get a first dog. Why not a first hive? Chickens might be pushing it, much as I love them.

    And once the vegetable garden is in place, we need to get them to stop spraying the roses!

    1. Also, the unfood industry has made negative changes in the nutritional value of produce, such as selecting for plants that are higher in Omega-6s and lower in Omega-3s. Agriproduce is bred to ship, not to nourish.

  10. I went on a tour of the White House a few years ago, and I remember the guide saying there were electronic sensors planted in the ground of the lawn. So a squirrel could run across the grass and the Secret Service would know about it. Wouldn’t that get in the way of planting a garden?

  11. There are already legions of small farmers and urban garden growers discussing who should run this and how, on lists like COMFOOD. There’s a public urban food garden in almost every large city in the US, each run by a very skilled grower with teaching skills, community building skills, and knowledge of food distribution systems. Any one of them could run the lawn as a small organic farm. It’s just a matter of selecting one in a thousand of talented and devoted people who would jump at this chance. Famous farmers, I love it. Next thing you know, kids will be playing with our farmer action figure dolls and asking to go to ag school when they grow up.

    A more important question is what happens to ag off the lawn: Will Obama appoint another Montsanto shill or do we get a Michael Pollen-esque figure as ag secretary?

  12. All it takes is a 4’x4′ microintensive organic garden for Michelle to symbolically cut the supermarket food expenses!:
    and grow stuff well into winter:)
    I just hope that any such initiative doesn’t turn out like Carter’s solar panels.

  13. They would never be able to put and organic certified garden at the white house as you can be sure the grounds have been exposed to every known form of fungicide, herbicide and insecticide known to man to have the ‘perfect’ lawn.

    There are a number of certification organizations, but IIRC, there generally has to have been no chemical use on the plot for at least five years and no chemical use within a certain radius as well.

  14. Dacker – I think you may misunderstand some things about organic standards, or I am misreading your post. Certification means 3 years in USDA organic standards, not 5, and in the meanwhile it’s called “transitional”. There’s no radius requirement. Once it’s off your land, it’s off your land.

    The USDA is the only legal certifying body. If it says organic, the USDA has checked in. More and more farmers are finding the USDA certifying process tiresome, expensive, and useless and are going with third-party certifiers with more meaningful standards…or not certifying at all.

    The White House lawn is probably pretty repulsively full of pesticides right now. Most of them – not all, but most – do break down to elemental within three years. What takes a long time to rebuild is the soil’s biological health – living bacteria and fungi.

    Sensors in the ground? Might make it hard to run a tractor through, but the vegetables certainly don’t care.

    All those damn conventional farms should have to pay to justify why they need all those pesticides rather than the other way around.

  15. Sensors in the ground? Might make it hard to run a tractor through, but the vegetables certainly don’t care.

    Them’d have to be some goddamnbig sensors to stop even a little hobby farm tractor.

    Anyway, they shouldn’t be using tractors. I’d have them run it using only hand tools. The permanent staff would organize and train volunteers who came to help out by donating a couple hours.

    The point would be to show people that growing food is easy, interesting, fun, cheap and worthwhile.

  16. Pipenta:
    Organic cultures also use pesticides, as the BT toxin. And there is no reason to not using GMO crops that could increase yields and need less or no pesticides.
    It is ironic that so many of us, happy mutants, are still afraid of improving crops using DNA.

    1. It is ironic that so many of us, happy mutants, are still afraid of improving crops using DNA.

      The impact of lab science on food has mostly been to increase profit at the cost of flavor and nutrition. Science creates food to ship, not to eat. Shelf life is the Holy Grail.

  17. Antinous: Could you please support your claim based on real data? Crop improvement in an organized and methodical way has been with us since the dawn of history. Along with fire and stone tools, it is among the first technologies we developed. The wild corn that the Aztec had to deal with is very different from the corn that Europeans found when they came here. Yields, flavor and quality have increased since our ancestors started hacking vegetables with primitive tools that we have perfected as we also develop new tools. We have crops that provide enough food for almost 7 billion people without deforesting the whole planet. Population is going to keep growing at least until we are nine billion, if no apocalyptic scenario happens, and we need better yields if we want to keep our rainforests and wild lands. Of course, we need to distribute this crops to poor farmers in distressed regions and help them to achieve sustainability, but without better crops our efforts will be severely harmed. The incredible yields due to the green revolution made possible that many of us in undeveloped countries are now free to pursue new ways of life instead of being tied to the fields, like our ancestors were not long ago.

    What pisses me off about the Organic movement is its near-sightedness. Yes, it is good to get rid of toxic pesticides, yes it is great to not to screw the soil, but we cannot do only that and have a nice environment. We need at least yields that are equal to our current yields with non organic techniques. One way of achieving that is GM technology, but that is pretty much like saying Satan in presence of fundies.

    And your reasoning is not very good, Antinous, btw. Using that way of thinking we could achieve to the conclusion that we must not use logical thinking as it was used to develop A bombs. Science is a very big word and there are hundred of thousands of us working in different fields, many of them trying to achieve a positive impact in people’s life. The fact that this tools can be used by multi nationals must not affect our commitment to employ them for good.

    MDH:guidodavid, BT is Bacillus thuringiensis, a living organism, and not a synthetic chemical at all.

    So what?
    I am perfectly aware of the fact that BT is a toxin derived from B. thurigiensis. But the problem of resistance to a pesticides is the same, no matter if the pesticides are biological or synthetic. So, it is erroneous to argue a defense of organic cultures based on the emerging resistance to bug killers, as organic farming is not devoid of them. Bugs are not going to stop evolving just because the pesticide is from a biological source.

  18. No Guidodavid, there is a world of difference between first and second generation pesticides like Lead Arsenate (1st), or DDT (2nd), which are general biocides which accumulate to differing degrees, and something like BT, which is very much an organism that is cultured to produce a short-lived insect species specific toxin.

    You would do well to do some basic background research on toxicology.

    So what

    truly, you call Antinous out for an illogical defense, than pull that out on me?


  19. I am not saying they are exactly the same thing. But the fact is that once you introduce any substance that kills the bugs, you are introducing a selective pressure. Yes, the pressure can be more gentle and specific, but still it is there, so it is not coherent to defend organic cultures using the resistance argument. Of course that BT is much better than old DDT or malathion, I am not denying that. It is not a toxicology issue at all, it is an evolution issue.

    Both organic and traditional farming methods need pesticides, the issue is which pesticides to use. I like the organic approach of pest controls using other organisms, it can yield excellent results. An approach of carefully designed biological pest control plus specific biopesticides like BT plus GM crops could create wonderful things. But the plain dismissal of such a powerful tool as is genetic engineering makes me mad.

  20. GuidoDavid,

    I said ‘lab science’ to differentiate millennia-old methods like selection and hybridization from the systematic destruction of food nutrition that’s taken place in the last century.

  21. Can you prove it, with data, Antinous? That is a very strong claim.

    I know from first hand a case where lab science actually improved a pre existing crop using genetic engineering. But, even if there would not be such a case, lab science is a set of tools that can be used for that purpose or for the opposite. Fire can be used to warm you or to burn dissidents. Lab science has been extraordinarily successful achieving certain goals, so I do not see the need of shunning it instead of using it to pursue other goals. And, at the core, much of what modern scientist do is no different from all those millennia old techniques.

  22. The trouble with science as a business is that there’s an overwhelming financial bias toward implementing developed technology/chemicals/etc. whether or not it will actually provide a benefit. If nobody uses it, you don’t get paid for it. Or, if you’ve already been paid, you don’t get another grant.

    Science is a tool. I’m completely in favor of it. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. Unfortunately, the people who make the decisions about implementation are generally agribusiness/drug company executives whose only motive is profit, or very occasionally scientists, who have minimal training in ethics or perspective on the world outside the lab.

    As to genetic engineering improving crops, the only reason that we have to resort to that in the first place is that agribusiness destroyed an enormous amount of pre-existing genetic crop diversity. I don’t cotton to an industry that burns down my house and then tries to sell me a trailer.

  23. The problem is that I am not endorsing Monsanto or any of the other seed companies. What I am talking about is of the use of GM as a tool to improve crops, and that it can help to clean the mess and produce more and tastier food. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    One of the problems we have is that all the nasty things said about GMO. Sure, Monsanto is no saint at all, but the excess of caution and all the hysteria and paranoia causes that they are the only guys big enough to afford research, not because it is particularly difficult, but because all the opposition (vandalized fields, hostile politicians) and absurd regulations.

    A particular case: A team of local scientists in Venezuela developed, along scientists in the US, developed a new GM strain of papaya resistant to the Ringspot virus. They began to test the crop in fields in an agricultural town close to my university. A similar papaya variety had been already tested in Hawaii with good results. Ringspot virus makes the papaya plant sterile after the first crop, so thee farmer must cut the tree and plant again, year after year. My father has a sterile papaya tree on his land and he, as many of the people that I asked thought that papaya bore fruit only once, as the infection is so prevalent in the west of Venezuela.

    The fields were burned by fundamentalist ________ (insert pejorative here) ecologists, some of them local members of Greenpeace. Not only that, they flooded local press with hideous rumors about the papaya containing “rat genes” that caused bubonic plague or causing birth defects, They sent e mails about supposed GM animals with no brain that were McDonald’s beef and caused cancer and multiple sclerosis. As a result, no one now wants to work with GM in my university, it is deemed risky and unrewarding. Farmers still have to cut year after year the old trees and plant new ones and we the consumers get also lousy papayas. Oh boy, surely Monsanto was hurt by that, isn’t it?. That was not an isolated example, I have seen again and again accusations of mass death of sheeps or cancer due to GM crops, yet those accusations never have been proved. The suicide of farmers in Gujarat, India was blamed on GM crops, yet it turns that the farmers hybridized Monsanto’s variety with local ones and now have a better crop and they laugh at Monsanto’s copyright while their yields increase.

    My sourness about the Organic position is not that it refuses GM that are designed for a particular herbicide and therefore to boost a company’s profit, as could be Round Ready, is that it refuses every single genetic modification no matter what. BT corn and is also rejected, even if organic crops are sprayed routinely with BT. Automatic dismissal of GM is no more than dogma and that is what makes me think that the organic position is a kind of fundamentalism.

    We are creating tools that make biotech easier and cheaper. We could develop new crops in the not so long term future, locally adapted to our soils, instead of off the shelf seeds for temperate weather. We could

    You say: As to genetic engineering improving crops, the only reason that we have to resort to that in the first place is that agribusiness destroyed an enormous amount of pre-existing genetic crop diversity. I don’t cotton to an industry that burns down my house and then tries to sell me a trailer.

    Would you care to prove that point, please?

    Not long ago computers were in power of mega corporations and ruthless governments only. Now they are a tool of freedom and community across the borders, a path to other mindsets and a window to other cultures. Yet, IBM helped the Nazis with the Holocaust, so according to your argument, shall we stop using computers? Or only the Jews?

    There are no diseases that we can cure or prevent in crops that are caused by nasty pathogens? Is the papaya ringspot virus caused by monsanto? Malnourishment cannot be helped with more nutritious crops? We have plenty of problems that could be solved, and if we could double our yields that would make feasible the recovery of ecosystems and feed more people, take away pressure from wild areas. The problem is that many of this issues are not visible for people living in developed countries.

    Of course, GM are not panacea, they can cause trouble, but we can trace a parallel to the situation in Europe during the Renaissance, when the newlyfound potato was accused to come from the devil as it grown underground, and cause leprosy. Monoculture also caused the Irish potato Famine, true, but the answer is not stop eating potatoes.

    Antinous, this is not about the Industry, this is about us our food, our survival and our capacity to fix the mess we have created. I firmly believe we cannot afford to do that without this tool and at the same time save lifes. For me people are first.

  24. I tried talking with Roger Doiron about the problems with his proposal, and when I started hitting the points, he shut down our conversation.

    We here in DC have concerns with some very UNGREEN parts of his plan, as well as other points. He runs from them. Here is what needs to be discussed and brought to attention:

    First, the typical American family does not have 1 acre to use. I support the idea of the Obamas having a garden proportionate to what any family might have. Something that Michele and the girls could actually go out and enjoy and not pose a security risk to themselves. NOT 1 acre. ANY Master Gardener tells a newbie to start small. Going from none to 1 acre is not reflective of what Americans can do.

    Second, proposals include having school children tend the garden. It sounds sweet, but school buses leave huge carbon footprints. And, DC schools cannot be expected to tend the garden. Besides, when the garden is at its peak, the kids are on summer vacation.

    Third, lets be honest. Little kids hands have germs! They cough into them, wipe their noses on them. I don’t mind having my kids pick our veggies and WE eat them, but I don’t think it is wise for the Obamas to be eating veggies touched by hundreds of hands.

    Forth, lets be realistic. Even if adult volunteers came in and worked the garden, those veggies will likely never make it into the White House because it would be a huge security risk. They can screen the volunteers all they want, but all it will take is one crazy person to sneak in a small amount of a lethal substance to dump into the soil or on a plant.

    Fifth, Roger thinks the 13 landscaping staff can handle this project without volunteers. They are already working full time. There will need to be additional staff brought in who have been screened with all the background checks. Gardeners, not landscapers. And, the kitchen will need a couple of extra people to preserve food or prep it to go to the soup kitchens here in DC. We estimate around $500,000/year it will cost. NOT GREEN. It is so not the right message to send to the American people to pay someone to run a garden.

    We have so many organic farmers here in Maryland within a short drive to the White House. I wish these farmers were supported and their products used for all the large dinners at the White House, and the Obamas have a typical garden, not Roger’s idea. I want the message to be reasonable and realistic. A garden that ANY American can plant and take care of themselves.

    Finally…all these people ranting and chanting about having the White House lawn turned into a garden won’t step up. NOT ONE SINGLE ONE OF THEM ARE WILLING TO MOVE THEIR FAMILIES TO DC TO COME AND TAKE CARE OF IT! They run their mouths, they want their 5 minutes of fame in the media, but they won’t do the dirty work, literally.

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