Somebody forgot to tell Chris Castro that big ideas take a long time to pull off. Still under 30, he has launched a U.N.-accredited nonprofit to address environmental crises and co-created an urban agriculture program that’s been replicated nationally and globally. Now, as Orlando’s sustainability director, Castro is working on an even bigger idea: making his city carbon-free by 2050.
Castro’s interest in sustainability and the environment started early. Born in Miami, he grew up close to nature on a palm tree farm operated by his parents. When he wasn’t playing in the soil, he was playing in the ocean. He enrolled at the University of Central Florida so he could continue surfing. But it was there that he found his calling.
In 2006, UCF committed to becoming a carbon-neutral and sustainable campus by mid-century. This inspired Castro to major in environmental studies, and two years later he launched IDEAS For Us, a nonprofit that engages high school and college students to find solutions to environmental challenges.
It was out of IDEAS For Us that Castro’s Fleet Farming program emerged. It’s a hyperlocal initiative that turns front yards into miniature farms. Homeowners get 5 to 10 percent of the harvest, and the group sells the rest to local restaurants and farmers markets. Thanks to this program and his nonprofit, Castro is something of a rock star in the environmental community. He’s keynoted a U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro and been called the “Guru of Green” by the Orlando Business Journal.
Fleet Farming was born in a brainstorming session on how to address pollution from agriculture, which contributes to a third of the world’s carbon emissions. The city had just passed an ordinance that allowed farming on up to 60 percent of a resident’s front yard. “That ordinance was revolutionary,” Castro says now. “Orlando was one of the first cities in the U.S. to do that.”
It made perfect sense: Lawns are one of the largest sources of pollution in the U.S. America’s 40 million acres of water-guzzling grass yards absorb 3 million tons of chemical fertilizers and 30,000 tons of pesticides each year, while requiring 800 million gallons of gasoline for mowing.
In 2016, Castro became Orlando’s sustainability director. He expanded Fleet Farming’s mission to address the “food desert” problem. Working with the city’s real estate department, he turned unused public land over to farming in Parramore, a low-income community that had no grocery store within two miles. The harvest from the public plot and another dozen farmlets throughout the community is shared with residents and sold at a weekly farmers market. “If we can replicate this project neighborhood by neighborhood,” Castro says, “we can make a huge difference. There is acreage in cities to cure hunger.”
Still in search of new ideas, Castro is arranging pilots of solar-powered self-driving cars on NASA runways, and using algae pools to test a system that traps carbon emissions.
He continues to cast a wide net for partners. “Cities aren’t in the position and don’t have the capacity to operate their own farming initiatives,” Castro says. “That’s why it’s important to create relationships with nonprofits. What the city can do is enable these types of initiatives. That’s the role of government, in my opinion, to enable businesses to do these things.”