Agritopia: Farm-to-Table Living Takes Root

agritopia

It's not vegan, but still, Agritopia is pretty interesting...

Agritopia® community is something of a modern day village set within the urban fabric of the Phoenix metro area. The name says it all: Agritopia® is about preserving urban agriculture and integrating it into the most neighborly, well-designed community possible. It is a principle-driven development that puts people and relationships ahead of money and trendiness. We believe that a simple life with friends and family is a rich life. The design of the community is intended to breakdown traditional barriers between people to encourage formation of real community among people of varied backgrounds.

Agritopia® is located at the Northwest corner of Higley and Ray Roads. Freeway access is easy. The San Tan Freeway (Loop 202) forms the northern border of the property and has an exit at Higley Road. The community is 160 acres and has 1/2 mile of Higley Road frontage and 3/4 mile of Ray Road frontage.

The community is comprised of 450 residential lots along with commercial, agricultural, and open space tracts. Agritopia is gridded with tree-lined streets and pathways to make the entire project accessible to pedestrians. The major connector street within the community is Agritopia Loop, which arcs its way from Ray Road north and east to Higley Road.

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 home buyers 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 C.S.A., 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.

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“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; Mr. 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 C.S.A.

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 3 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 fund-raising 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,’ ” Ms. 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.”

Mr. 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, Tex.; 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 Mr. 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 (a.k.a. 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,” Mr. 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,” Ms. 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.”

History

During the early 1900?s, Gilbert was known as the “Hay Capitol” of the world due to the dominance of alfalfa hay on the local farms. In 1927, the Reber family homesteaded a farm on the dirt roads named Higley and Ray. They built barns, sheds, and a small home and began farming hay. By 1960, when the Johnston family bought the farm, the crops of choice had changed to cotton and wheat. Jim Johnston and his wife, Virginia, thought that this farm would be the perfect size for a family farm and an ideal place to raise their three boys, Joe, Steve, and Paul.

They built a home on the farm (which is now Joe’s Farm Grill) and lived a very rural, independent life. The boys all attended Higley Elementary School and Gilbert High School and worked on the farm during the summers and as needed by Jim. After Steve and Paul graduated from University of Arizona, majoring in agriculture, they returned to the farm and continued the family farming tradition. By the late 1990?s, Gilbert was growing rapidly and it became clear that the farm would soon be surrounded by housing. The family made the decision to start planning what would become of the farm after nearly 40 years of farming.

The eldest son, Joe, had taken a different path and had become an engineer. He spearheaded the design of what would become Agritopia®. Working with a land planner, landscape architects, and others in the development community, a land plan that met the family’s goals was created. It preserved urban agriculture, was very walkable, neighborly, broke down barriers between people, and had many use categories. In 2000, the Town of Gilbert approved the zoning and land plan for Agritopia® and construction began.

Today, all of the homes in the residential portion of the community have been built, as well as some of the commercial properties. The Johnston family still lives in Agritopia®.

source: NY Times

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