Agrihoods Give the Commune a Suburban-Living Makeover

Some believe building housing and farms side by side could be the future of the local food movement.

(Photo: Bill Hinton/Getty Images)

Apr 30, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When a new $1 billion Florida development of 2,900 homes centered around a nine-acre farm was announced recently, some journalists didn’t mask their enthusiasm for the project. “What has you most excited about new $1B agrihood near UCF?” asked the Orlando Business Journal. Because what’s not to love? Housing and farms!

Call them agrihoods, agritopias, or community-supported development—whatever the term, residential development where farming and housing coexist could be the next wave of sustainable agriculture, proponents argue. Last year, the Urban Land Institute estimated that about 200 such developments had been built or were under construction across the country.

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea, however. Critics call it a way to greenwash otherwise undesirable development projects. It’s a criticism that has been raised in Orlando too. “It’s still sprawl, sprinkled with some salt and pepper to make it taste better,” read an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.

But fans of the model see agrihoods less as suburban-style planned communities than as an architectural update on the commune for the modern era.

Just ask Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, who has consulted with several farm-centered developments. He’s the director of agriculture innovation and development at the California-based Leichtag Foundation, founder of Farmer D Organics, and author of Citizen Farmers: The Biodynamic Way to Grow Healthy Food, Build Thriving Communities, and Give Back to the Earth, which won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Food Matters cookbook award in March.

“Food and farming are at the nexus of so many issues,” Joffe said. “Environmental, social, health, education.” Strategically planning a farm, its operations, and its outreach to intersect with each of those areas, he said, can create significant impact.

It’s happened outside Atlanta, where Serenbe might be one of the country’s most popular and profitable agriculture developments. But it’s a also a serious farm enterprise, with eight acres of land that provide produce to half-dozen restaurants (including three on-site), a farmers market, and 120-member CSA—all run by a full-time farm manager and her team of interns. The farm activity on the development activated a wave of agricultural awareness in the area, Joffe said, drawing people from the city, creating opportunities for new farms and agricultural enterprises, and allowing Serenbe to function as a kind of hub.

“A key role that these development projects can play is as resource centers—convening places for the local agriculture community to come together,” he said. That’s what happens at the Leichtag Foundation farm in Encinitas, California, where Joffe works. Next week, in partnership with the local Farm Bureau office, the foundation is hosting a meet-up for young and beginning farmers in the area. “It’s really about the local agriculture in a region, [and] that requires a village, a community of farmers working together,” Joffe said. “That’s a very important component to make a project successful.”

In other words, the successful agrihood doesn’t function as an insular oasis but as a center for community engagement that extends beyond its own gates. In this sense, Joffe sees these developments as offering more than a sexy, low-cost update on a golf course or clubhouse for the foodie generation. Educational and land stewardship initiatives play a key role in developments that can preserve the integrity and long-term vision of a project long after a developer has walked off with a briefcase filled with bills.

For example, Harvest Green, a development planted amid 1,300 acres of corn and cotton fields outside Houston, will count education as one of its founding tenets. Adults can attend gardening classes and cooking demonstrations, but the Fort Bend Independent School District intends to get involved too, with local kids visiting the farm on field trips to learn about agriculture and livestock.

“When we had this conversation originally with the school district—‘Hey, is this something that would be of interest to you?’” Joffe, who consulted on the Houston project too, recalled, “Suddenly they went, ‘Oh my god, we’ve been trying to figure out how to revitalize our agricultural curriculum in our high schools throughout the county, and this is it.’ ”

It’s these kind of innovative ways that developers work with sustainable agriculturalists—as well as the other community pillars, like local policy makers, nonprofits, universities, and health care providers—that supporters of agrihoods think could help create a more systemic approach to the field of community agriculture and ultimately change our food system.

“I honestly believe that this could be one of the most important tools for building the field,” Joffe said, adding, “If developers drive it and dedicate significant percentages of land, and if policies support it and incentivize it or even require it, and if there’s societal support, if our farm bill shifts so that there’s more support for sustainable farms—if we dedicate more resources to that and these development farms become a catalyst for neighborhood and community agriculture, it could happen quickly all over the country on a significant scale.”

That’s a lot of ifs, of course. But something, to be sure, is happening in Orlando, where the forthcoming agrihood has potential to be the real do-gooder deal. The farm manager job description lists managing the CSA, coordinating with local schools and the YMCA, and running agricultural events as responsibilities.

“We should have farms integrated into our communities in perpetuity—that’s sustainability,” Joffe said. “That’s keeping people connected to place, to food, to land, and each other. It’s just a good idea.”