Welcome to the agrihood

Many people fantasize about living life on a farm.  They yearn for something simpler where they can fend for themselves.  A place for healthy food and wholesome families.

The trouble is, the farming life isn’t easy.  It’s the sunup to sundown labor of tending animals, fixing machinery, planting and harvesting crops.

Most of us simply don’t want to work that hard.  But still, the fantasy persists.

Into this breach between what we long for and what we can reasonably accomplish has stepped a group of intrepid real estate developers.

Rather than bringing you to the farm, they bring the farm to you. 

Taking a page from the Slow Food movement, there’s a new type of neighborhood – an agrihood – that’s gaining in popularity around the country in which residential homes are built around a working farm.  According to NPR:

It’s called development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture – a farm-share program commonly known as CSA.  In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production – a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park – that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

The New York Times ran an article last week that highlights this growing trend.  They quote Ed McMahon, a fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, who estimates there are more than 200 such developments with an agricultural focus nationwide.

“I hear from developers all the time about this,” he says.  “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,” while providing tax breaks for preserving agricultural land.

The Times piece profiles Agritopia, a development in suburban Glendale, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, where residents can be found roaming rows of organic vegetables while lambs and chickens scamper in common green areas or in the citrus groves.

Sixteen of the subdivision’s 160 acres are certified organic farmland with vegetables, fruit trees, and livestock.  The community includes 452 single-family homes and a soon to open 117-unit assisted- and independent-living center.

Instead of a village green, residents flock to a small square overlooking the farm, with a coffee house, farm-to-table restaurant, and a farm stand.

This is where they line up Wednesday evenings to pick up their bulging bushels of locally produced vegetables, eggs, and honey, the result of their $100-a-month membership in the local CSA program.

Agritopia is not an upscale development.  Home prices are comparable to others in the area.  The farm is self-sustaining through its local sales, with no community fees charged to support it.

While Agritopia was among the very first agrihood developments, many others have sprouted up.  These include Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Ill., South Village in South Burlington, Vt., and Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho.  Most of these were being built just as the market collapsed in 2008, but have emerged intact with strong home values and low turnover.

More recent developments include Willowsford in Ashburn, Va.  It opened in 2011 and was named the National Association of Homebuilders’ 2013 suburban Community of the Year.

The Kukui’ula development opened in 2012 with a 10-acre farm in addition to a clubhouse, spa, and golf course.  The Times quotes Brent Harrington, the development’s construction manager: “As a developer it’s been humbling that such a simple thing and such an inexpensive thing is the most loved amenity.  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.”

Several agrihood developments are currently being built or planned, 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.

Finding the right farmer is critical to the success of these developments.  A few years ago Agritopia was awash in negative publicity due to fallow fields and grumpy neighbors.  Then there’s the overly sanitized sensibilities of some suburbanites who arrive unprepared for the downwind hazards of dust and dung.

Overall, though, agrihoods have been a real hit.  Interest in these subdivisions is very strong among developers and buyers alike.

Driving the demand is the local farm-to-table movement and the aspirations of many to be gentleman farmers.  People are sold on the lifestyle. “Everybody wants to be Thomas Jefferson these days,” says one farm consultant.

“I’m a foodie and interested in animal husbandry and cultivating my own wasabi and mushrooms,” says L.B. Kregenow, a lawyer who with her physician husband has contracted to buy a home in the Skokomish Farms community outside of Seattle.  Her professional obligations and personal interests make living in an agrihood community ideal.

“For me,” she says, “the serious downside of farming is doing it on your own means, doing it 365 days a year.  But in this scheme we have a farm without all the responsibility.”

Welcome to the agrihood!


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