A Bike-Powered Local Food Movement Is Heading to a Town Near You

Fleet Farming relies on lawns and bicycles to change the way fruits and vegetables are grown and distributed.
(Photo: Fleet Farming/Facebook)
Jun 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Without the pack of bicycles swarming the streets of Orlando, Florida, Fleet Farming would be a garden-variety horticultural club.

“The bicycle has made Fleet Farming what it is—a bunch of somethings going somewhere,” said program manager Michele Bumbier. In this case, the somethings are a few employees and a swarm of community volunteers, and the somewhere is a series of “farmlettes”—front lawns that have been transformed into small plots of high-yield crops. With all the farmlettes within a two-mile radius, it’s local food on a micro scale.

“It takes the average plate of food 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate,” Bumbier said. “We really want to reduce those numbers.”

A homeowner donates a portion of his or her yard—at least 500 square feet and not more than 60 percent of the lawn, in accordance with a local ordinance. After a black plastic tarp is left over the area for several weeks to kill the grass, the plot is then topped with mushroom compost to amend the existing soil and planted with an array of vegetables. A $500 donation—far less than the cost of landscaping services, Bumbier noted—covers two years of maintenance, including composting, irrigation, and seed transplants, and property owners get first dibs on 10 percent of the produce in return.

The Fleet Farming squad plants high-yield produce, primarily gourmet greens, that can fetch top dollar at market. After harvest, the greens are transported on the back of the Fleet Farming bicycle trailer to be washed and processed at the East End Market and then sold at farmers markets or cooked up at Orlando restaurants.

Twice a month, Fleet Farming hosts Swarm Rides that invite community members to show up with a helmet and two wheels to tour the gardens as a pack. Fifty fruit trees—including avocado, mango, lychee, papaya, and banana—are registered in the group’s gleaning program. Fleet Farming also constructs raised cedar beds for those outside the two- to three-mile radius of the farmlette cluster who want to grow and maintain gardens—including schools and, soon, a nursing home, where the group is considering how to make the beds wheelchair accessible.

More than a dozen lawns have been turned into farmlettes like Gary Henderson’s, whose plot has tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, and arugula. “I just think that the whole idea of lawns, especially in a place like Florida, is absurd,” he told NPR.

He’s not alone. Last year, a study from NASA found that lawns are the single largest crop in the United States, covering twice as much land as corn. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Tracy Quinn, in a piece titled “Why the Lawn Must Die,” argued, “In a state where climate change is projected to lead to more frequent and intense droughts, we must face up to the fact that thirsty grass is no longer appropriate in California.” Fittingly, Fleet Farming’s newest branch is in Oakland.

The founders of Fleet Farming say their hyper-local operation saves gas not only by being pedal powered but also by eliminating mowing. Americans use about 800 million gallons of gas a year mowing their lawns, cofounder Heather Grove said: “We think the 10.7 million gallons [of oil] dumped in the Exxon Valdez spill was bad, but 17 million are spilled just filling lawn mowers!”

But some lawn-garden advocates must go toe-to-toe with the law to grow their microgreens. A judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida is expected to rule in the coming weeks on a lawsuit filed by a South Florida couple against a village ordinance that required that they dig up the front yard vegetable garden they’d tended for 17 years or face fines of up to $50 per day. The protest signs staked in their front lawn read, “All plants are vegetables.”

Bumbier would like to see Fleet Farming spread throughout communities in the United States, empowering people to grow their own food. She has fielded requests for the group’s $75 tool kit—which includes a detailed guide, digital documents, and a consultation with a program coordinator—from around the world, including Spain, India, Australia, Canada, Guyana, and Thailand. Just how much of an impact can the hyper-local movement make on the politics of the dinner plate? At 20 lawns, which the Orlando branch plans to rack up by the end of the year, Fleet Farming will be economically self-sustaining. Its adviser from the mayor’s office of sustainability, however, says it’ll need closer to 200 farmlettes to make an impact on the city at large.

So what does Bumbier say to cynics who claim they’re just a small group of hippies out for a Sunday-evening bike ride? “I say to people, ‘It’s the food, of course, but it’s also that community connection,’ ” she answered. “As individuals, communities of people are disconnected from each other. What better way to come together than over food and being active?”

Farming coordinator Caroline Chomanics agreed. “We’re making a huge social impact. We’re creating a new kind of culture of us getting on our bikes, eating healthy food, and talking to each other,” she said.

“Society is changing. We don’t really want to go to bars anymore and hang out and feel bad the next day,” Chomanics said. “We want another form of socializing that betters the planet, betters ourselves, and allows us to connect with people. Fleet Farming is all of that.”

As of May, the waiting list for people wanting to turn their lawn into a farmlette was more than 300 names long.