Mowing Down AGRIBUSINESS

The U.S. produces enough food to feed every American — and wastes 30 to 40 percent of what it produces, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.

The process of growing, tending to and harvesting food uses a lot of energy, chemicals and other materials that can be harmful to the environment and the consumer. Taking into account deforestation and land-use change, in addition to equipment emissions, transport, packaging, processing, soil management, cow farts, etc., across the planet, agriculture may be responsible for as much as 43 to 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2013 Trade & Environment Review of the United Nations Conference on Trade & Development. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that domestic agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of global GHG emissions.)

Jacksonville resident Melissa Beaudry thinks moving the process closer to home — to our yards — can be part of the answer. Her proposal to convert lawns to micro-farms won a grant from the Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida. She believes the leadership provided by the program can lead to better health for consumers and less damage to the environment.

The ability to produce a surplus of food launched the upward mobility of mankind. Once food surplus was achieved, individuals could begin to work outside the farm in jobs like teaching, metal working or running a country store. Over time, people became even more efficient at producing food until present day, when a fraction of the workforce is needed to provided food for the populous.

Though the move to mass-produce food has led to some important advances, like mechanization of planting and harvesting tools and equipment and the hybridization of seeds, it has also involved the use of unhealthy chemicals to preserve and flavor food.

Traditionally, sugar and salt were used to preserve the edibles we grew and consumed. Today, high fructose corn syrup and sodium additives are the go-to materials to ensure a longer shelf-life for foodstuffs. These materials are among a group of main causes of high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. The No. 1 killer today — heart disease — is often the result of exposure to high levels of sodium, sweeteners and cholesterol-producing products. Moreover, the use of fossil fuels to power harvesting combines, processing machinery and transporting vehicles for food production to the masses has damaged the environment.

If we believe that modern farming and transportation are degrading our health and debasing the environment, can we come up with a solution to the problem? This question was raised at an “IDEAS For US” workshop Beaudry attended. IDEAS For US is an Orlando-based nonprofit that works to “develop, incubate and fund local solutions that drive long-term social and environmental change for good,” according to its website. (Another of its programs is 10,000 Trees Jax.)

One of the proposals was the expanded use of fleet farming, in which lawns are used for organic gardens, called farmlettes, with the goal of creating outcomes that were healthier for the consumer and the environment. The first fleet farming program began in Orlando.

Fleet farming takes a community of volunteers to make it work. Homeowners volunteer their lawns for producing organically grown produce, which supplies 5 to 10 percent of their food consumption. Volunteers participate in collaborative biweekly events where they weed, plant, till and harvest the produce. The finished products are sold at local markets or restaurants. The volunteers use only bicycles and wagons, to minimize their carbon footprint, and pay half what the general public pays for their produce.

In Orlando, the program has been wildly successful. Currently, 15 farmlettes have engaged more than 600 people and generated enough revenue to hire two part-time urban farmers. More than 300 homeowners have applied to have their lawns turned into farmlettes.

Upon learning of fleet farming, Beaudry thought the idea should be shared with Northeast Florida. She applied for a “Torch Spark” grant from the Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida, a nonprofit that provides for the “zealous protection of the City of Jacksonville’s Preservation Project” and other publicly preserved areas.

On Nov. 4, the Public Trust announced Beaudry’s proposal had been awarded the $5,000 Torch Spark grant. In a press release announcing the grant, Executive Director John November stated the grant would advance the trust’s mission by “ensuring the next generation will continue to be advocates for the environment.”

Beaudry’s proposal is called “Grow Food. Not Lawns.” It emphasizes “building community and protecting the environment by enhancing our local food system.”

Beaudry believes her proposal prevailed because it involved bringing in more people to address the issue.

She says the program will raise awareness about the importance of protecting our natural ecosystems. “We have been far too removed from the system. With the community getting involved, I hope we encourage people to think about food choices, nutritional value and where it comes from. If we can change consumer preferences, that can drive the change.”

The emphasis is on hyper-locality. As the product will be grown, sold and consumed within about a five-mile radius, the carbon footprint associated with burning fossil fuels for transport and longer storage will be greatly reduced.

The program will begin with four farmlettes that may be located in Riverside, San Marco, Murray Hill and the Beaches. Beaudry estimates that each farmlette will cost about $500. Sales of the food produced will be plowed back into the program, to create more farmlettes.

“My goal is to help the areas of Jacksonville that want to start a neighborhood-centric fleet farming branch get the tools and guidance necessary to do so,” she said.

In addition, fleet farming will reduce the environmental impact of maintaining lawns. Yale University has estimated that more than 600 million gallons of gasoline are used every year to mow American lawns. In addition, Columbia University estimates that 30 to 60 percent of fresh water from cities is used to irrigate lawns, which also exacerbates pollution in waterways, due to runoff from fertilizer and other chemicals. Thus, every organic farmlette that replaces a lawn has the potential to reduce water waste and pollution.

Fleet farming does not promise to replace large-scale agricultural production. However, if more people give up green grass in favor of growing vegetables, fleet farming may make a dent in the problems that large-scale farms have created while raising awareness about the harmful impacts of modern agricultural processes — and lawns.

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