Why Shared Farms Are the Hot New Thing at Gated Communities

MIT researchers recently released findings that showed more than half the world would live in “water-stressed areas” by 2050. Climate change is naturally a major contributing factor to this prediction, but regardless of what they cooked up at COP21, while reducing carbon emissions is vital, it’s merely one of a myriad of ways in which society needs to go about addressing this inevitable crash course.

Enter the urban farm

Fortunately, as people’s concerns around food security grow, the idea of urban farming is beginning to increasingly gain ground. Take as prime example, the agrihood.

The agrihood is an attempt to invert the wasteful nature of the gated community by realizing the potential of underutilized land as a source for fresh produce. From vacant lots in low-income areas to former golf-course estates, the ideal of the agrihood is to transform these areas into functioning farms. Given the massive waste of water that goes into maintaining 18 holes, or the dire need facing communities cut off from fresh food supply, the agrihood represents a growing trend that embodies the collective need to reconsider many of our current urban frameworks.

The United States is presently leading the way, with agrihoods popping up across the country. This recent, positive trend marks the intersection of land made available following the 2008 real estate bubble and the growing interest in community-supported agriculture ventures. That being said, the idea of urban agriculture is far from a new idea.

In 1989 Ebenezer Howard wrote a book titled To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In the book, Howard outlined his urban planning vision that would eventually come to form the garden city movement. Almost a century later, Howard’s vision is beginning to come to fruition in the form of agrihoods such as Serenbe in the Chattahoochee Hills of Atlanta.

“When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban, but also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time,” explained Serenbe founder Steven Nygren in a recent interview with the American Society of Landscape Architects. Serenbe boasts eight acres of farmland that provide produce to half-dozen restaurants, a farmers market, and 120-member CSA run by a full-time farm manager and her team of interns. “Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way,” said Nygren.

Quint Redmond shares Ngryen’s vision. And as CEO of Agriburbia LLB, a firm specializing in farm design, construction and operation, Redmond is at the cutting edge of urban farm innovation.

“Development is pretty much broken, as is agriculture in many ways,” said Redmond in an interview with AlterNet. For Redmond, the answer lies in bringing these industries together. As a result over a decade ago, Redmond and his wife bought several tractors and began farming. “We realized that was the only way we’d figure out how it was all going to work.”

In the years since, Agriburbia has designed, built and helped train a number of communities in Virginia, Colorado and more recently an 800 acre plot in Shanghai, China. The firm boldly aims to eventually train 30 million farmers across the United States. In contrast to housing-focused agrihoods, Agriburbia’s focus lies more in the long-term sustainable nature of creating agriculture-based communities. “Many agrihoods have what’s known as amenity farms, but there’s not a particular development methodology around that farming,” said Redmond. “We’re working more on the agricultural aspects: how do we teach people to maximize the calories per acre of land we develop?”

Challenging the Status Quo

Shifting cultural practice is central to the long-term realization of effective urban farming. In this sense developers such as Redmond face a number of challenges with regards to regulation.

“Resource-wise, you can convince landowners and banks easily enough,” said Redmond, who lists zoning permission and USDA rules as two of the main hurdles. “The change is hard because we’ve institutionalized the way we live and we’ve basically sterilized the suburbs against farming.”

Another major issue central to the successful realization of the agrihood ideal is its current bourgeois business model. Some critics have even gone as far as to accuse the recent upward trend in agrihoods as an attempt to “greenwash otherwise undesirable development projects."

This criticism holds weight, particularly in bringing attention to the need for these developments to take place across all socioeconomic sectors of a city. As Jayesh Samtani, an assistant professor in the department of horticulture at Virginia Tech points out, if anything, low-income communities with limited access to grocery stores are the most in need of such a resource. “These are the people who are most prone to health-related diseases like diabetes and cancer,” said Samtani, who together with several colleagues, was awarded a university grant last year to help develop solutions to this need.

Although the focus of Samtani’s work lies with existing community gardens (as opposed to newly built housing developments), his solution remains the same as Redmond’s — education.

“The challenge is sustaining the gardens as there’s often a loss in momentum,” said Samtani. “We’re attempting to train educators and gardeners in how to grow crops the right way by showing them what they can grow and how to take care of it in a small garden.”

Santa Clara community activist Kirk Vartan shares Samtani’s mission. More specifically, Vartan’s vision sits somewhere between Samtani’s community work and the ideals of the agrihood. Following last year’s Santa Clara city council-mandated plan to redevelop a former agri-research site capable of housing at least 165 low-income senior homes, Vartan began his lobby to steer the development towards including space for sustainable agriculture. Vartan’s proposal to the city is currently under consideration.

If successful, Vartan’s plan for Santa Clara could provide a blueprint for similar such future developments. The fact that it’s being considered alone is a positive, further emphasized by Samtani’s note that in the past two years he’s begun to observe a growing number of requests from “urban gardeners interested in incorporating food into their gardens.” Given these signs and the rise of agrihoods, what factors can accounts for the increased attention to urban farming?

A Return to the Agrarian Economy

“When we started everyone thought we were crazy, telling us it was all an economy of scale,” said Redmond, comparing the public’s growing interest in urban farms to a similar rise in the popularity of craft beer. “Last year was the first that the big three brewers lost market share to craft breweries.”

Redmond’s comparison speaks to a public pushback against mass marketed consumable products. In other words, like craft beer, people increasingly wants to know where their food comes from and how it came it came to be made. This, along with environmental and general health-related concerns surrounding food production, is what Redmond believes marks the growing return of more agrarian-centered communities.

Although still too early to tell, the beauty of the Agriburbia model lies in it’s future built-in market potential. While the produce alone won’t offer much beyond subsistence living, it’s what the food can represent as products which Redmond believes is where the potential for his and other similar models for agriculture-centric communities lie.

“Making the craft food movement viable is a development issue,” explained Redmond, commenting on the potential future of urban agriculture - a process, he notes, of learning by doing. “We’re developing these ideas as we go along. I always tell people when Bill Gates started people couldn’t type. Only instead of keyboards now, people are learning to plant stuff.”

If you were wondering what an agrihood actually looks like, here’s a video of one in Willowsford, Virginia.


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