POSTED: 3:22 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2014
GILBERT, Ariz. » In many American suburbs, outward signs of life are limited to the blue glow of television screens flickering behind energy-efficient windows. But in a subdivision of this bedroom community outside Phoenix, amid precision-cut lawns and Craftsman-style homes, lambs caper in common green areas, chickens scratch in a citrus grove and residents roam rows of heirloom vegetables to see what might be good for dinner.
The neighborhood is called Agritopia, and it's one of a growing number of so-called agrihoods, residential developments where a working farm is the central feature, in the same way that other communities may cluster around a golf course, pool or fitness center. The real estate bust in 2008 halted new construction, but with the recovery, developers are again breaking ground on farm-focused tracts. At least a dozen projects across the country are thriving, enlisting thousands of homebuyers who crave access to open space, verdant fields and fresh food.
"I hear from developers all the time about this," said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate research group in Washington, D.C. "They've figured out that unlike a golf course, which costs millions to build and millions to maintain, they can provide green space that actually earns a profit." Not to mention a potential tax break for preserving agricultural land.
Sixteen of Agritopia's 160 acres are certified organic farmland, with row crops (artichokes to zucchini), fruit trees (citrus, nectarine, peach, apple, olive and date) and livestock (chickens and sheep). Fences gripped by grapevines and blackberry bushes separate the farm from the community's 452 single-family homes, each with a wide front porch and sidewalks close enough to encourage conversation. A 117-unit assisted- and independent-living center is set to open this summer.
The hub of neighborhood life is a small square overlooking the farm, with a coffeehouse, farm-to-table restaurant and honor-system farm stand. The square is also where residents line up on Wednesday evenings to claim their bulging boxes of just-harvested produce, eggs and honey, which come with a $100-a-month membership in the community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program. Neighbors trade recipes and gossip, and on the way home can pick up dinner from one of a few food trucks stocked by the farm.
"Wednesday is the highlight of my week," said Ben Wyffels, an engineer for Intel who moved here with his wife and two sons two years ago from another Phoenix suburb, attracted by the farm and the community's cohesiveness. "To be able to walk down the street with my kids and get fresh, healthy food is amazing," he said, and has helped steer his family toward kale and carrots and away from chicken nuggets and hot dogs.
This way of life does not come at a premium, either; Wyffels, like residents of other agrihoods, said his home cost no more than similar houses in the area. And because the Agritopia farm is self-sustaining, as farms are in many of these developments, no fees are charged to support it, other than the cost of buying produce at the farm stand or joining the CSA.
Agritopia was among the first agrihoods like Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga.; Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Ill.; South Village in South Burlington, Vt.; and Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho established just as the real estate market collapsed. They have emerged intact, with property values appreciating and for-sale signs rare.
At Serenbe, all 152 homes are occupied and its three restaurants draw tourists from surrounding states. Builders are adding 10 custom homes, with plans to break ground on at least another 20 by year-end. The 7-acre organic farm, soon to expand to 25 acres, lured Vikki Baird, a fundraising consultant, who moved to Serenbe last summer from the affluent Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta. She had divorced, and said she was looking for a "healthy place" to settle. "You walk down the street, open your bag and say, 'Give me what's fresh this week,'" Baird said.
Newer developments include Willowsford in Ashburn, Va., which opened in 2011 and was named the National Association of Homebuilders' 2013 suburban Community of the Year, largely because of its 30-acre farm and a culinary consultant who regularly teaches classes in how to prepare whatever is in season. The Kukui'ula community in Kauai, Hawaii, opened in 2012 and has a 10-acre farm in addition to a clubhouse, spa and golf course.
"As a developer it's been humbling that such a simple thing and such an inexpensive thing is the most loved amenity," said Brent Herrington, who oversaw the building of Kukui'ula for the developer DMB Associates. "We spend $100 million on a clubhouse, but residents, first day on the island, they go to the farm to get flowers, fruits and vegetables."
Herrington regularly fields calls from other developers who want to incorporate farms into their housing projects. At least a dozen new agrihoods are underway or have secured financing, including Bucking Horse in Fort Collins, Colo.; Skokomish Farms in Union, Wash.; Harvest in Northlake, Texas; Rancho Mission Viejo in Orange County, Calif.; and Prairie Commons in South Olathe, Kan.
Their success or failure may depend on hiring the right farmer. Agritopia went through four before finding the right one.
"This type of farming is hard and requires an incredible ability to multitask," said Joseph E. Johnston, the developer and a resident of Agritopia, which sits on what was once his family's farm. "I'm not sure most developers have the patience to really see it through and make it work."
Though Johnston's father planted four kinds of commodity crops, like cotton and corn, a community farmer must plant a vast variety of highly perishable, organic (or at least not chemically treated) crops, then market them to residents and sell the excess at farmers' markets and to local chefs. Agritopia sells to 20 highly regarded chefs, including Charleen Badman (aka the "Vegetable Whisperer") of the restaurant FnB and Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco.
"You have to be an excellent grower but also good at customer relations, business projections and labor controls," Johnston said. "There's no manual or anyone at the county extension service to tell you how to do this."
For guidance, many developers are turning to suburban farm consultants like Agriburbia in Golden, Colo., and Farmer D Organics in Atlanta, which assist in choosing farm sites, building the requisite infrastructure and hiring farmers who work for salary or in exchange for housing and proceeds of whatever they harvest.
"The interest is so great, we're kind of terrified trying to catch up with all the calls," said Quint Redmond, Agriburbia's chief executive. In addition to developers, he hears from homeowners' associations and golf course operators who want to transform their costly-to-maintain green spaces into revenue-generating farms.
Driving the demand, he said, are the local-food movement and the aspirations of many Americans to be gentlemen (or gentlewomen) farmers. "Everybody wants to be Thomas Jefferson these days," he said.
Take L.B. Kregenow, a lawyer who with her husband, David, a doctor, has contracted to build a home in the Skokomish Farms community southwest of Seattle.
"I'm a foodie and interested in animal husbandry and cultivating my own wasabi and mushrooms," Kregenow said. But she also likes to travel, which she said makes living in an agrihood ideal. "For me, the serious downside of farming is doing it on your own means, doing it 365 days a year," she said. "But in this scheme we will have a farm without all the responsibility."