A pedal-powered urban farming movement has infiltrated Audubon Park, a progressive neighborhood that is creating a awareness of the environmental benefits of organic farming.
Fleet Farming is teaching residents to grow fruits and vegetables in backyards instead of St. Augustine grass, which draws down Central Florida’s water supply and empties nutrients into our lakes and streams.
Any land owner, or renter with consent, can turn 500-square feet of their back, front or side yard into a “farmlette.” All it takes is agreeing to a two-year commitment with a donation of $500 to the cover start-up costs. The owners spend about $1 a month on irrigation.
Since its inception three years ago, more than 20 lawns have joined the grassroots farming movement. Plans call for at least eight Fleet Farming branches with a total of 200 farmlettes throughout Central Florida by 2020.
The farmlette owner not only gets access to a wide variety of fruits and veggies, but also an assortment of herbs and baby greens, like Siberian Kale and Bibb lettuce. The gardens add color to yards with purple top turnips, mammoth sunflowers and mulberry trees.
Liza Westerfield has donated her entire front yard to Fleet Farming. The Audubon Park woman said the garden is not only pretty but functional since the tomatoes, chard, watermelon, okra and eggplant fit into her vegan diet.
“It’s really great that my five-year-old son gets to learn about how food is grown and harvested,” Westerfield said.
The best part is a pack of volunteers along with professional farmers maintain the farmlettes with weekly visits. The workers arrive on bikes, called swarms, with their tools in tow. This helps educate budding garden enthusiasts and the next generation of farmers. The volunteers also receive a half off coupon for the Audubon Park Community Market.
Lee Perry, director of Fleet Farming, spends five days a week farming the local plots. She guides 20-55 volunteers during the swarm rides and educates homeowners about the benefits of Fleet Farming.
“We have veterans that come out every single swarm, but it’s really cool to watch people who are new discover that sense of community,” Perry said. “In Florida, there is so much urban sprawl. The volunteers are working with strangers but it is so impactful because in a short amount of time we get so much done.”
Chelsea Trottier, 22, saw a video online about Fleet Farming and decided to volunteer. The UCF senior now interns with the Audubon Park program.
“The best part is going out on our bikes and community members stop and ask questions about what we’re doing,” said Trottier, an environmental studies major. “It gives us a chance to get them involved in farming and tell them about our local farmer’s market.”
Produce harvested at the farmlettes are sold at the Winter Park and Audubon Park farmer’s markets and local restaurants like The Sanctum, Lazy Moon Pizza and East End Market.
Fleet Farming expanded its model recently to add installations of raised bed gardens to schools, apartment complexes, retirement communities and homeowners. The Mayflower Retirement Community in Winter Park recently added 16 beds for residents to cultivate.
“It’s a phenomenal addition to our program because it expands our business model and adds another revenue stream,” said Chris Castro, co-founder of Fleet Farming. “There’s a growing demand for people to reconnect with their food systems to become more self-reliant and self-resilient.”
The garden beds include seeds, plants, mulch, weed liner and irrigation and range in price from $400-$550, depending on their size.
John Rife, urban farmer and owner of East End Market, presented the Fleet Farming concept to Central Florida in December 2013, at the IDEAS community think+do tank program. The first pilot program began in February 2014 by converting five lawns to farmlettes. Healthy Central Florida Foundation awarded the program a $5,000 grant in 2014 to help it expand. In January 2015, the program received an additional $10,000 in grants from 1% For the Planet and the Clif Bar Family Foundation.
The Winter Park nonprofit, IDEAS For Us, manages and operates the program in partnership with East End Market. Revenue generated from Fleet Farming goes to further community development and sustainability projects.
The next swarm ride leaves at 9 a.m. May 28 from the East End Market in Audubon Park. Volunteers should bring water, gloves and a bike helmet. All ages are welcome, as long as they can ride a bike.