Peddling a New Model of Urban Farming
Bike-riding farmers in Orlando, Florida, are helping communities produce their own food—right on their own front lawns.
The smile on Heather Grove's face competes with the bright shine of the sunflowers surrounding her. "Sunflowers are amazing—they actually remove toxins from the soil," she beams as she showcases a Fleet Farming garden. This "farmlette" was created on a neighborhood yard by a team of volunteers Grove organized. "One thing that's very important is the quality of our produce—I don't want people to think that local isn't better."
Grove leads a crew of 10 to 20 volunteers who come out for bike rides every other Sunday to maintain 11 farmlettes. The team rides through the Winter Park area of Orlando, Florida, where unique bungalows line residential streets that curl in all directions, much like a flowering vine. "We're going plot to plot, pollinating ideas on urban farming," Grove says.
A Canadian design, tweaked in Florida
Fleet Farming came to Orlando via John Rife, owner of the East End Market, a culinary food hub in the community. In a converted church, the Market houses booths for all things food—from local produce and fresh breads to sushi, juices, craft brews, and educational materials. "East End is our own playground—a sandbox for ideas," says Rife, who introduced his idea for Fleet Farming to a community group that meets monthly at the market. Organized by IDEAS, a local nonprofit that sponsors sustainability projects around the world, these meetings bring interested parties together to address local issues.
Fleet Farming is based on a model developed by Curtis Stone, who has established an urban farming project in British Columbia, Canada. Orlando resident Heather Grove says the group in Florida has tweaked Stone's design a bit to make Fleet Farming even more sustainable, adding the bicycle brigade and using more permaculture techniques. The neighborhood project is designed to take resources such as water and fuel that help maintain lawns and use them instead to grow food in the food desert that the city of Orlando has become. "We help save gas: Americans use about 800 million gallons of gas a year mowing their lawns. We think the 10.7 million gallons dumped in the Exxon Valdez Spill was bad—but 17 million are spilled just filling lawn mowers!” explains Grove. “Lawns are also the largest irrigated crop in the U.S., almost double corn. Then to further reduce our CO2 emissions, we use bikes. And as we educate our community family, we grow more growers."
A profitable nonprofit
Launched in 2014, Fleet Farming now tends 11 farmlettes that are 300 to 1,500 square feet (approximately 30 to 140 square meters) in size. Grove and her team service three to five yards within a few miles of each other twice a month, planting and then harvesting the greens, flowers, and other produce, finally selling them at a local farmers' market. Homeowners can keep some produce for themselves or share in the market profits. In spite of not seeking out more yards to convert to farmlettes, Grove says she has had more than 200 inquiries from interested homeowners. "It's just been by word of mouth," she says. "People have the luxury of having a beautiful garden in their yard without doing anything. We want to train people to grow and show them how to sell at the markets."
An energetic and petite 26-year-old, Grove 's academic training is in geography and environmental science. But she also has the business chops to bring this kind of idea to fruition. She says that Fleet Farming was profitable even in its first year, although it is a nonprofit venture. She's creating a toolkit for expansion that includes the how-to business bones such as marketing materials, logos, templates for waivers and agreements, as well as information on developing partners, distribution, storage, and record keeping. Fleet Farming will offer the kit online for $75, which includes an hour consultation.
A different type of growth
John Rife, Fleet Farming’s Orlando mentor, describes himself as a token yuppie. Initially, he joined his family's commercial real estate business. "For many years I sat at a desk and made a lot of money, but it wasn't fulfilling." He realized he wanted more from life. "When people ask 'What's your growth strategy,'” Rife noted, "I ask 'Why?'" That’s why he ventured towards a different type of growth altogether: He started growing his own farm and became increasingly involved in the local food movement, where people use sweat equity instead of cash. "That's really the linchpin of this. It's a community-driven exchange of value that's not monetary."
Rife says he likes to help others discover there's more to life than just chasing dollars. "I'm a starter," he said from the sidelines of the Florida Food Summit, an event he sponsors to bring together a variety of what he calls farmpreneurs. "I'm very, very passionate about helping young entrepreneurs become the arbiters of their own fate. There is a joy that comes with being able to do different things."
Millennials with community support
At 40, Rife is a GenXer whose looks don't belie his interests. Young and healthy looking, clean cut with short, trim hair he fits neither into the stereotypical successful corporate salesman, nor new-age hippy farmer. Instead he seems to epitomize the emerging leaders who seem to combine all of those qualities: sensitivity to the changing needs of the planet and society, business knowledge and the success that breeds the confidence to try new ideas. Perhaps it's those qualities he admires most about Grove.
"Heather is a change maker," says Rife. "I'm very impressed by millennials and their willingness and desire to have impact.” “More than any other generation that I've been involved with, there's a lot more willingness to give of their time, effort, energy, finances to—in their minds—make the world a better place and to be proactive in solving problems of sustainability and environmental stewardship,” Rife elaborates. With the IDEAS group being a gathering place for millennials, it seemed like perfect soil for planting the Fleet Farming concept – a concept whose attraction also derives from being actionable for all kinds of people, Rife points out: “It’s something you don't have to have a whole lot of education to figure out—you don't need a PhD to turn grass into lettuce."
Change maker Heather Grove is sure Fleet Farming wouldn't work without the tremendous support the group receives from the community. "That's what keeps me going," she says. "It's just about the people who are willing to put in the hours and do the work. I see value in providing free work because it keeps me happy. We all keep going because we're helping change the world."