A farming initiative that grew out of UCF is returning to campus to inspire interest in agriculture and urban farming.
Fleet Farming aims to transform neighborhood lawns into urban farmlettes, which are micro-farms meant to increase food accessibility and reduce environmental waste and the impact of typical food production, according to its website.
Volunteers ride bikes to designated micro-farms to teach residents how to care for their farms and cultivate the donated plots during biweekly “Swarm” rides.
UCF alumnus Chris Castro is the founder of Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness Solutions (IDEAS), an Orlando-based nonprofit organization that creates global environmental solutions through local action, and the director of sustainability for the city of Orlando.
Castro said he created IDEAS after noticing several eco-friendly clubs at UCF were striving for the same goal — to help UCF and surrounding Orlando areas become more environmentally sustainable — but were not communicating with each other.
He brought the clubs together through IDEAS’ monthly meetings called “The Hive,” he said.
In the beginning, meetings were held in Castro’s house, but the organization grew and now has a west Orlando office, Castro said.
Fleet Farming was born from one of the monthly Hive meetings, Lee Perry, the Fleet Farming program director, said.
Perry and Fleet Farming have built a partnership with Rick Falco, the director of the UCF Student Union, to put raised plant beds on campus.
At a “Seeding” event on Thursday, Fleet Farming held a demonstration at the Student Union to seed the new plant beds to explain Fleet Farming and get students involved.
Urban farming is the idea of using any useable land in a residential area, typically lawns, to grow produce, according to GreensGrow, an online database for urban agriculture.
Fleet Farming has already implemented this technique in several neighborhoods in Orlando including Audubon Park and Parramore, Perry said.
Perry said dorms on campus showed an interest in joining the Fleet Farming initiative.
She said Fleet Farming is planning to install wheelchair-accessible plant beds by the UCF arboretum greenhouse.
“Fleet Farming is really more than just a cute concept of biking and farming lawns,” Perry said. “We’re filling the holes that the agriculture industry needs to be filled in our country.”
Perry, who grew up in an underprivileged area Massachusetts, said she found escape in caring for the environment.
“Growing food in a low income part of town, you have to make the best of what you have,” Perry said. “Any patch of land we had, we grew [produce].”
The average age of farmer is 58 years old, and with a mass exodus of migrant workers, America will be at a loss for farmers within the next 20 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2017 report.
“Having Fleet Farming here on campus would be a really great opportunity to teach the next generation of farmers, or urban farmers, because Orlando is going to become this huge mecca for food and sustainable systems,” Perry said.
The Fleet Farming program hopes to bring a younger, more environmentally aware generation into the agriculture industry, she said.
Elise De Cuba, a UCF student who began as an intern and now works for Fleet Farming, holds a positive outlook for the future of Fleet Farming on campus.
“We’re hoping to gain more students’ attention, and ever since [the plant beds] have gotten built, I’ve seen students stop and look and look at our logos and, you know, you can see they’re starting to think about who we are and what we’re doing,” De Cuba Said. “Urban agriculture is big, and it’s happening, and I’m hoping to be part of that.”
Volunteers planted basil, bibb lettuce and re-potted tomato plants at the seeding ceremony.
“We would just really like to have food growing abundantly on campus,” Perry said. “Some students have gone as far as to say [the campus] is a food desert. There’s really no place to buy fresh produce and a lot of the food here is very processed.”
Fleet Farming plans to initially give produce grown on campus to Knight’s Pantry but hopes to eventually sell the produce to students, Perry said.
“Farmers get paid very little, and they rely on migrant workers who live in very inhumane conditions in order to sustain our current agriculture system,” Perry said. “So charging a decent price — a liveable price — on the produce we have will, in turn, provide the economic resources to staff our farmers with a livable wage.”
Fleet Farming is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) certified, meaning students who are eligible for food stamps and use the SNAP program can get fresh produce at a reduced rate, Perry said.
Perry said Fleet Farming also hopes to remedy the lack of fresh produce available to students on campus and involve students in the actual growing process of the vegetables they will ultimately eat.
“It would bring a whole holistic component to campus,” Perry said.