For many people living in communities of both Orlando, Florida, and Oakland, California, lawns aren’t just part of their front yards, but spaces for growing food as part Fleet Farming’s CSA system.
Founded in 2013, Fleet Farming launched from an idea hatched in The Hive, a design thinking workshop hosted by Orlando-based nonprofit IDEAS for US. The Fleet Farming model converts homeowners’ lawns and underutilized neighborhood land plots into productive farmlettes, mini organic farms that become a part of a decentralized CSA system. It then uses a fleet of bicycles to maintain the farmlettes and distribute the harvested produce to various restaurants and farmers’ markets in the neighborhood. In exchange for donating their lawn, the homeowner also receives 5 to 10 percent of the food produced on their farmlette. The model works to support the local economy by keeping local revenues within the community.
Food Tank had the opportunity to chat with Justin Vandenbroeck and Fred Lake of Fleet Farming Oakland about their work and their hopes and visions for a future hyper-localized food system. Vandenbroeck and Lake are the Manager and Assistant Manager, respectively, at the Oakland branch.
Food Tank (FT): What sparked your initial interest in urban agriculture and finding solutions to food security issues?
Fred Lake (FL): Ever since I was a little kid, I saw myself having a yard of my own and growing crops there. Getting involved with Fleet Farming, seeing a lot of youths get involved on open farm day, and seeing how excited they get and that they want to know how to farm has shown me the importance of local agriculture.
FT: Based on your experiences in Orlando and Oakland, what are some the challenges of Fleet Farming in Oakland?
Justin Vandenbroeck (JV): The educational component is definitely an ongoing challenge. Violence is also a big issue in Oakland. People put up fences and gates, which makes it a lot more difficult to access lawns. It prevents access and takes away from the community.
FL: Getting the youth involved and getting everyone to eat their vegetables.
FT: What is the main motivator of landowners who donate their lawns to Fleet Farming for farmlettes? Have you seen their perspective and relationship with food change since becoming involved with Fleet Farming?
JV: A lot of the people who donate their lawns already have an interest in local food and having access to fresh, healthy produce. People’s perspectives definitely change when they see their kids get excited about veggies. Seeing their kids interested in growing their own food has a strong influence—it cultivates change from within. Education through experience increases their exposure to nutrition.
FL: Parents seeing their kids get really excited about healthy living and being active. Peoples’ perspectives have changed seeing their kids get excited about veggies. A lot of youths get involved. They get excited and want to know what they can do.
FT: What has been integral to establishing Fleet Farming in Oakland?
JV: Orlando already had a good network as a result of the Hive and therefore an invested interest. Having the Orlando template and being able to replicate that in Oakland has been instrumental. Additionally, establishing key connections within the community has helped us get started and farm our first plot. Establishing in Oakland has made us think about how to improve our tools for other branches. If our initiative didn’t engage the local community or add value to the local neighborhood, it wouldn’t be successful. The fact that we are working with the community becomes a nice community asset that may not have been here, too.
Oakland also has a really good food scene. Chefs are hyper-local, which has also provided a good environment for selling our food.
FL: What has made it successful is that we have all these people that want to give us their lawn and do something to contribute. Also the sharecropping model and the social equity that results.
FT: How would you like to see Fleet Farming grow in the future?
JV: The fundamentals of our program are economic. Fleet Farming Oakland is currently selling exclusively to five to six restaurants who pretty routinely buy from us. Our weekly sales are covering our expenses. It’s an efficient way to run our business, but we need to find a balance between the social and economics.
There is also a need for framework in the movement. There isn’t a real framework in place. Developing a membership model where branches can pay into the brand and get marketing resources, legal contracts, and the operating system framework. We’ve been building this plethora of resources to help fleet farming grow throughout the country. We want to see branches in every community around the country. There’s enough land and enough people around for the fleet to grow, so there’s a lot of interesting potential.
FL: I’d like to see it grow. Make Fleet Farming a nationwide thing. Bring together the youth, working together and sharecropping and enjoying it—that’s what I’d really like to see in the future.
FT: What have you learned from your Fleet Farming experience?
FL: At 12th & Kimball, the beds didn’t turn out so well, so we had to do them over. Farming is constantly a learning process. You also have to approach it with a positive attitude. If you cross failure, you got to try again. It requires testing to adapt. Persistence and patience and passion—you’ve got to have all three.
Ultimately, Vanderbroeck says, “We want to empower future farmers through a framework of Fleet Farming that can culturally assess and create effective swarms that successfully maintain crops and feed local neighborhoods.”
In January 2017, Fleet Farming is launching a membership model with a “franchise-inspired” structure that will allow people to pay an annual fee to access and use the Fleet Farming framework and tools to establish their own community branches.
If you are interested in getting involved or establishing your own Fleet Farming branch, more information can be found on the Fleet Farming website.
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