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Getting food on plates by pedal power

A fleet of bikes bring fresh greens from 'farm' to market. (Photo Credit: Audubon Park Community Market)

A fleet of bikes bring fresh greens from ‘farm’ to market. (Photo Credit: Audubon Park Community Market)

A growing farming movement in the United States, centered on bicycles, is opening up new frontiers in the quest to supply healthy, local food. Rustik correspondent, Natalie Costa, delves deeper into the story to provide readers with insight and inspiration.

Just as demand for seasonal, organic produce is growing, the number of hired farm workers in the United States continues to steadily decline. That means farmers are finding ever more innovative ways – from guerrilla gardeners co-opting lawns, rooftops and traffic medians, to pedal-powered ‘fleet farming’ – to get their produce onto plates.

The idea behind fleet farming is to capitalize on the untapped potential of residential lawns. The model involves a ‘fleet’ of pedal-powered urban farmers who use bicycles (to keep emissions low) to maintain a series of ‘farmlettes’, tilling the land and harvesting the crops, which are then sold at farmers’ markets in a closed-loop system, limiting input and reducing waste. Home owners who volunteer their lawns get a share of the vegetables harvested off their land.

The pioneering urban farming model is the brainchild of IDEAS for US, an environmental non-profit based in Orlando, Florida. So far, the initiative has mobilized a small collective of community members that varies weekly to monitor the farmlettes since its inception in 2014.

The nonprofit has intentions of expanding globally, starting with the northeast U.S., says Heather Grove, the program coordinator.

Fleet farmed greens include red romaine, mizuna, and bibb lettuces. (Photo Credit: Alexis Ryan)

Fleet farmed greens include red romaine, mizuna, and bibb lettuces. (Photo Credit: Alexis Ryan)

“I think the most important [thing] in terms of reducing food cost and waste is the freshness of local food,” she says. “Fleet farming greens, for example, last up to three weeks because they are harvested within 24 hours of the consumer taking them home.”

And while the tendency is to assume that farming, on any scale, is more realistic in rural environments, Grove suggests there are a lot of opportunities to be part of the urban food system.

She says, “I think there is a growing realization that smaller is better (in many but not all cases). From tiny homes to community farmers markets, I find fulfillment in supporting my community of makers and growers, and surviving outside of the ‘system’. But better than the ‘good feelings’, are the benefits of urban farming and local distribution.”

It’s no wonder pedal-powered produce delivery systems are gaining ground, given estimates that the average meal has traveled about 1,500 miles to make it onto a plate.

In Boston, Massachussets, Metro Pedal Power partners with local farms to deliver weekly farm shares to customers and save them time and hassle. Urban farmer, Brent Buffington, of Growing Orlando uses bikes to distribute shares without compromising his carbon footprint.

“Local produce is picked when it’s ready, at its optimal timing, has a shorter travel span and is fresher and tastier because of that,” Buffington says. “This adds tons of benefits, including localizing food production into specific neighborhoods, making distribution easier, along with awareness and education to the consumers living nearby each farm.”

Reese Cummins, 8, started CSA by Bike with his brother, to deliver produce from the Meadowlark Farm CSA. (Photo Credit: Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump)

Reese Cummins, 8, started CSA by Bike with his brother, to deliver produce from the Meadowlark Farm CSA. (Photo Credit: Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump)

In Traverse City, Michigan, members of the Meadowlark Farm CSA have their shares delivered by brothers Drew Cummins, 11, and Reese Cummins, 8, who are both members of a local youth cycling club.

“It’s just more green than gasoline and all that stuff,” Reese recently told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

For just a few dollars more the boys will also collect kitchen scraps each week, and give each member a bucket of compost in return once a year.

Likewise, a student-led bicycle initiative at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, collects food waste from campus apartment buildings and combines it with food waste from the dining halls to add to the college’s composting program.

Bicycles are used as a mode of transportation for farmers across Asia and in parts of Africa because they are a cheap, efficient and reliable source of transportation. It’s only a matter of time before that enthusiasm catches on across this continent.

Natalie Costa’s writing covers a range of topics, including local agricultural sustainability, pregnancy and information literacy. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, GOOD Magazine and xoJane, as well as local newspapers. She earned her master’s degree in journalism and lives in Orlando, Florida. 

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