A sustainable food initiative in Orlando, Florida is aiming to prove that as long as there are bikes and suburban lawns, supplying produce for a city doesn’t have to leave a carbon footprint.
Fleet Farming uses volunteers to tend organic vegetable gardens in private yards. The produce is then collected and brought to local farmers’ markets and restaurants via pedal-power and the entirety of this mini food system is located within a 10-mile roundtrip bike path near downtown Orlando.
Fleet Farming is the brain child of John Rife, the founder of Orlando’s East End Market, which brings together area farmers and food artisans under one roof.
Rife presented his vision of pedal-powered farming at The Hive, an inter-generational community think tank which brainstorms sustainable living ideas. The Hive is an initiative of IDEAS For Us, an Orlando-based nonprofit organization accredited by the United Nations that brings awareness to environmental issues.
Chris Castro, co-founder of IDEAS For Us, instantly knew Rife was on to something special. “It’s a concept that at first seemed a little ambitious, but after we started on the ground, it turned out to be a manageable and creative initiative.”
Rife’s December 2013 presentation became a pilot program by February of 2014. Florida’s year-round growing season meant there was no reason to delay.
With a borrowed bike trailer and around 15 volunteers, Fleet Farming started growing food in the yards of five homes. The first growing season was a test as to what types of produce would work best for the home gardens. The group planted more than 25 varieties of vegetables–including collard greens, kale, peppers, peas, and corn–in small plots of land called “farmlettes.”
The goal was to start small and scale up over time. “We wanted to know what was the fastest growing plant, what had the quickest harvest, and what were people interested in eating,” said Castro.
Homeowners who sign a one-year contract with Fleet Farming receive a portion of the harvest in return for use of their land. They aren’t required to do the work, Castro hopes that many of them come to see the value of gardening.
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“Our overall goal is to farm farmers. We encourage them to take their garden and run it after one year, because it opens up a space for a new homeowner,” Castro said. “Either way, we’re still helping the food system by creating new urban gardeners and the resources are being diverted to growing food, rather than keeping lawns green.”
Volunteers, who come from area high schools, colleges, and via social media invitation, tend the gardens every week. Each month, the group comes together for a “swarm,” a public bike ride that includes stops at all the gardens. Anyone interested in learning about farming and improving the food system is invited. Bikers visit the farmlettes to work and learn. Once the food is harvested, it is biked to two neighboring farmers’ markets. Local restaurants and a food distribution company will also utilize the produce.
As the pilot program ended in June, Fleet Farming was granted $5,000 by the Healthy Central Florida Foundation to continue its work. The program will now expand to 15 homes with a combined 2,500 square feet of growing space.
“A 91-year old woman gave us the use of her yard,” Castro said. “She said that she couldn’t tend to a garden anymore, but she really wanted to see someone else do it.”
Is the project legal? According to Heather Grove, Community Manager at East End farmers’ market, “Fortunately for the City of Orlando there are no laws that prohibit selling produce from community or home gardens. However, there are no laws that specifically make it legal either.” The Central Florida Good Food Policy Council–a group Grove is part of–is working to address the code to bring it in line with recent pro-urban framing changes that have taken places in Atlanta, Georgia.
This summer, Fleet Farming narrowed its focus to just salad greens, using 10 different varieties of arugula, lettuce, and kale. Although it may sound like an idealistic hobby, Fleet Farming also has to potential to produce revenue. “By narrowing our focus to salads, we can build demand for the product,” Castro said. “We could actually make $15,000 in net profit this season.”
While the project is only one piece of a complex food puzzle, it’s also a smart way to put land and water to use in a place where lawns currently occupy acres and acres of land.
“There are finite things we can grow,” Castro said, “But we think Fleet Farming could be scaled to other cities and have a definite impact.”
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Kimberly Button is the founder of GetGreenBeWell, a website devoted to living a healthier life by choosing eco-friendly products every day. She is the author of The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home, and a TV correspondent on environmental issues for local and national television programs, including FOX News. Button's writing about sustainable lifestyle topics has appeared in Vegetarian Times, National Geographic Travel, Martha Stewart's Whole Living, Sierra, and Energy Times. Read more >
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