The sustainable and local food movements have been making some serious waves around the country for several years now, largely in thanks to the millennial generation. In Orlando, Florida, a new program called Fleet Farming (FF) is rocking both of these movements.
I joined FF as a volunteer back in February. I have an interest in environmental sustainability and organic foods, and in college my hands were often found in the dirt. Whether that was on a farm in Ireland, in the college greenhouse where I worked, or else tending to the organic garden beds in the house I lived in on campus, I had myself a collegiate green thumb. But for the last few years, what with living in apartments, work, and moving a few times, I’ve never really been able to get back to my gardening roots. But then I heard about Fleet Farming. A program that needed volunteers to seed and harvest organic veggies? Powered by bicycles? I was so in. As one of FF’s program managers, Heather Grove, says, “Millennials realize the opportunity for us to shape our community. Everyone wants healthy and local food, and it’s empowering to be a part of making it happen.”
In December 2013, John Rife, the entrepreneur behind East End Market, “a neighborhood market and culinary food hub inspired by Central Florida’s local farmers and food artisans,” proposed an amazing idea to the environmental group IDEAS For Us: Fleet Farming. Rife has been involved with SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) Farming, and while researching SPIN, he connected with Curtis Stone, a farmer in British Columbia. Stone had heard of someone who used a bike to deliver their harvest, so he got himself a trailer, and used his bike to travel between his various farms and to deliver produce. Rife says he “thought that [the concept] was pretty awesome from an environmental standpoint, and a marketing and branding standpoint…seeing farmers riding their bikes around towns is just awesome.” Rife decided to present the idea to IDEAS, partly to provide “a more sustainable and environmentally friendly method of farming, particularly in urban areas, and providing a framework for teaching and enabling entrepreneurship and business skills in younger folks.”
The concept Rife brought to IDEAS was simple: homeowners would “let” out their land to grow organic food that would be harvested by cycling volunteers, who would take the food to be sold at a farmer’s market and to local businesses. The idea took off, and just two months after it was proposed, the pilot program was launched.
Fast forward to today, and there are now 13 homeowners within a 1.5 mile radius of East End Market who have volunteered bits of their front or backyards as farmlette hosts for Fleet Farming. FF is run by program managers Chris Castro and Heather Grove-both millennials-and a host of volunteers, the majority of whom are also millennials (including myself). But it isn’t limited to millennials. One of the farmlette hosts, who incidentally likes to water her farmlette, is 90 years old, while 10 year olds have gotten right into the dirt, helping to harvest. There are also 60 homes on the waiting list to become farmlettes, while an additional 80 are interested. However, many of these homes could be ruled out due to less than optimal growing conditions.
FF has a Swarm Harvest Ride once a week on Sundays: an official Swarm every other week, and a more low-key ride the alternating Sundays. Anywhere from 5-15 volunteers meet with their bikes to cycle around town, with one of the program managers towing a cart containing clippers, gloves, and harvest bins. They visit 3-4 farmlettes within a three hour span. Sometimes they see the farmlette hosts, sometimes they don’t. The volunteers typically harvest and weed, but they also establish new farmlettes and set up watering systems. The next day, Heather and the volunteers wash the greens and sell them at Audubon Park Community Market, to chefs and merchants at East End Market, and through Local Roots Farm to Restaurant Distribution.
On my first Swarm ride, I chatted with a merry bunch of volunteers, maybe 10 in all. After seeding at East End Market, we rode our bikes over to our first stop: Andrea Baker’s home. Andrea Baker was one of the first to volunteer her property as a farmlette. Andrea, a mom, lives in a hip-posh area of Orlando, and has several chickens in her backyard, which she acquired right around the time she signed up to be a FF farmlette host.
When Andrea heard about FF through John Rife via social media, she got in touch immediately to get started. Andrea says, “I immediately liked the idea [of Fleet Farming] and saw the possibilities. I have always been interested in using, promoting and sharing eco-friendly products, ideas and processes. Particularly ideas that can even reduce costs, are efficient and have multiple benefits. Fleet Farming satisfies all of those goals in my mind.”
Like all of Fleet Farming’s farmlette hosts, Andrea has zero responsibilities (unless she wants to water the garden), a host of benefits, is able to use 5% of the produce, and doesn’t need to do as much lawn maintenance. Heather points out that the hosts even get a say in what is grown from their yard, which includes over 10 varieties of lettuce and several salad mixes that include greens like kale, arugula, mizuna, chard, and bibb lettuce.
It’s pretty magical for homeowners to open up their land for strangers to use, especially since homeowners can be a bit territorial. The times that I’ve volunteered on the Swarm ride, all of us are walking around the property, less than a hop-skip-and-away from the front or back door. But Andrea reveals that she “get[s] all the benefits of having a private garden with none of the difficulties,” and “to have a beautiful garden to look out the window at has become an unexpected focal point and always the first thing guests comment on when they come to my home.” She also points out that the volunteers are only on her property for about 30 minutes twice a month and on the rare occasion when there’s an issue to be addressed.
Most importantly though, as Andrea says, FF allows for the opportunity to “meet like minded folks in the community” and is a way for people to learn about real food. Andrea says, “the best ‘perk’ is teaching my kids about the growth of food, farming, and how and where we get our food from.”
What’s great about FF is that it’s a hyper-local, hyper-sustainable program, and as Heather says “so many environmental issues can be overwhelming and all doom and gloom, whereas Fleet Farming is solution-oriented and inspiring.” It provides the community with food, with hope and homes with beautiful gardens. Andrea says “I would never have the time or strength to create and maintain a project of this scope.” Thanks to volunteers and hosts who love their community and sustainability, it’s a project that is positively blooming. I know that I’ll keep on cycling and harvesting with them for awhile, and if you would like to find out more or get involved with Fleet Farming or IDEAS For Us, visit them on their social media sites:
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