Florida Lawns Are Being Transformed Into Edible Farms

Gary Henderson can eat his lawn.

Row upon neat row of tomatoes, carrots, sweet lettuce and arugula are growing in the front yard of his home in Orlando, Florida. 

“I just think that the whole idea of lawns, especially in a place like Florida, is absurd,” Henderson told NPR this month. “Once you get to the point where you realize that you can eat your lawn, I think it makes a whole lot of sense.”

Henderson’s yard wasn’t always so edible.

About a year ago, he decided to donate the use of it to Fleet Farming, an innovative, volunteer-led program aimed at transforming under-used lawns into working farms.

Volunteers regularly visit his home to maintain his bountiful vegetable garden. Henderson can keep a portion of whatever grows there for free. The rest is sold at local markets and 100 percent of those sales go back into the organization, covering the costs of such needs as irrigation, compost and seeds.

Gary Henderson’s fruitful farmlette.

Fleet Farming was first launched in Orlando in spring 2014, said Michele Bumbier, the organization’s program manager.

“The idea for a hyper-local farming program sprouted at the monthly think-and-do tank, The Hive,” Bumbier told The Huffington Post via email this week, referring to a community initiative that environmental nonprofit IDEAS For Us organized. “The particular topic that evening was on localizing food systems, specifically on how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions related to food production, processing and distribution.”

It’s estimated that the average American meal travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate, according to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Globally, up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the food and agriculture industry.

“One of the goals for the program is to help reduce these alarming numbers,” Bumbier said.

Any landowner can donate their lawn to Fleet Farming. Once approved, that person must sign a two-year agreement and donate a suggested $500 to cover start-up costs (subsidies are also available for those who qualify). Fleet Farming will then be responsible for the upkeep of the plot. “We encourage all of our hosts to be as engaged as they wish in the farming process,” the program states on its website.  

Orlando is home to 12 of these lawn-turned-farms, called farmlettes — and that number is set to balloon.

More than 300 homeowners in the region have already offered to donate their yards to the program, said co-founder Chris Castro, who also has a 50-hour a week day job. The hope is for there to be at least 200 farmlettes throughout Central Florida by 2020. 

“The response has been overwhelming,” Castro told Smithsonian magazine last month. “People are hungry for ways to get engaged and be a part of the movement, moving our cities toward more livable, walkable, sustainable communities. Often times they just don’t know how. This is a small program that can really have a substantial impact.”

Fleet Farming already has offshoots outside Florida, with branches in Oakland, California and Kampala, Uganda; and there are plans to expand to even more cities domestically and abroad.

“Here in the U.S., we have over 40 million acres of lawn and most of them are connected to municipal water. If you can have land and water, you’ve just knocked out two of the biggest prerequisites to growing food,” Justin Vandenbroeck, the Oakland branch coordinator, told Smithsonian. “The opportunity is there.”

Produce plucked freshly out of a farmlette.

Produce plucked freshly out of a farmlette.

Bumbier said she envisions an America chock-full of urban farms. 

“I personally see the program expanding to all over the country,” she told HuffPost. “As I am biking through the neighborhoods, I can imagine every single lawn producing food.”

Volunteers arrive at a farmlette on bicycle. According to Bumbier, only "pedal-power" is used by Fleet Farming to "

Volunteers arrive at a farmlette on bicycle. According to Bumbier, only “pedal-power” is used by Fleet Farming to “maintain, harvest and sell local organic produce to the community.”

Fleet Farming hosts community bike rides twice a month in Orlando during which volunteers help maintain, harvest and seed the farmlettes. Bumbier noted these rides have a two-fold benefit: Not only do the farmlettes get tended, but new farmers are honed too. 

“We share gardening tips during these rides to empower volunteers to grow their own food at home,” she said.

Fleet Farming recently launched “Fleet for You,” an initiative which helps install private garden beds in homes, for people interested in maintaining their own edible gardens. A fully functional, cedar-framed bed — which comes with soil, mulch, plants and other necessities — costs upwards of $350.

Volunteers maintaining a farmlette. 

Volunteers maintaining a farmlette. 

Bumbier said she’s excited about the future of Fleet Farming and the potential it has to transform the food industry at large.

“If every community and neighborhood had a program like this, we would not need to rely on harmful large-scale farming methods for the majority of our produce,” she said. “I think small-scale farming programs are so important because it reduces the need to outsource, gives power back to the community, creates deep-seeded connection, increases the local economy, and is far less destructive to our precious Earth.” 

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