Amy Fahey tends to a backyard garden at her suburban Chicago home, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, peppers, Brussels sprouts, beans and herbs. But never squash.
“Three years in a row I’ve been struggling to grow squash,” she said. The reason it won’t take, she thinks: There aren’t enough bees to pollinate the plants. “We’ve killed off parts of the environment that could naturally make this happen,” said the retired J.P. Morgan
executive who lives in Elmhurst, Ill., with her husband and teenage daughter.
But the neighborhood in which the Faheys are building a home offers new hope.
Set in Hampshire, Ill., about 50 miles from downtown Chicago, Serosun Farms is a new home-conservation development, restoring wetlands, woodlands and prairie, and preserving farmland throughout. Already, the frog population has grown exponentially from the conservation work done onsite, and monarch butterflies are also on the rebound, said Jane Stickland, who is working on the project with her brother, developer John DeWald. Their efforts also are boosting the bee population.
“For organic farming, you need that balance of the ecosystem,” Stickland said.
It’s very early in its development, but Serosun plans to incorporate about 160 acres of working farmland, making farm-to-table a way of life for residents through regular farmer’s markets. The community also offers eight miles of trails, an equestrian center and fishing ponds: 75% of the development will be reserved for farming and open space.
The 114 single-family homes range from $700,000 to $2 million; the median listing price for homes in Hampshire, Ill., is about $238,000, according to Realtor.com. (Realtor.com is owned by News Corp., as is MarketWatch.) The higher price for homes at Serosun reflects the cost of having all that open space, as well as sustainable features such as geothermal heating systems. “There is a reason developers try to put as many dwellings as they can on a site, as preserving land comes at a premium,” DeWald said.
The typical buyer might be a business executive who can have quick access to Chicago via commuter train and O’Hare International Airport 35 miles away, yet can have his or her children to grow up on a farm. Those looking to retire on a farm — but without the hassle of managing the land — might also be drawn to the development, DeWald said. (The farm is a standalone business that is professionally managed, but residents can be involved in various gardening activities if they wish.)
The concept isn’t new, but “agrihoods” are gaining in popularity, said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow for the Urban Land Institute, an organization that focuses on land-use issues. He tracks about 200 agrihoods, where residential development coexists with farmland. Twenty years ago, there were maybe five or 10, and they were often called “conservation communities,” developments where green space wasn’t an afterthought, McMahon said. Most of the new agrihoods have been built after the recession, he added.
“We started to realize you could cluster houses on a small portion of a farm and keep the farm working,” he said. People were often drawn to the open spaces. More recently, however, there has been a huge interest in locally grown food. “All of a sudden, agrihoods have become a hot commodity in residential development,” McMahon said.
Why agrihoods are hot
For both flavor and health reasons, more people are seeking out locally grown food.
In the U.S., food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from where it’s grown until it gets to our plates, according to a 2013 estimate from Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental and social policy research organization. That’s 25% farther than it traveled about 20 years ago. When food has so far to go before it’s eaten, freshness can suffer. Its transportation is also more detrimental to the environment than if the food was grown nearby.
People are also drawn to the authenticity these communities can provide, McMahon said. Activities based around the farm can build a greater sense of community, which some new developments lack.
“There’s a harkening back to the way we used to live, or how neighborhoods used to be,” said Monica Olsen, spokeswoman for Serenbe, an established agrihood in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga. Serenbe also has an outdoor theater, restaurants, shopping and art galleries; it hosts various events, including culinary workshops. Aside from virtual connections on Facebook, “we’ve forgotten how to have community,” she said. “People are looking to be reconnected.” Front porches are required on homes, which encourage engagement with neighbors, she said.
They’re reconnecting with nature, too. Erin Cummisford moved from Chicago to Prairie Crossing, an agrihood in Grayslake, Ill., with her family 12 years ago. Now, through Prairie Crossing’s business incubator for beginning farmers, she is raising ducks and selling duck eggs with her husband.
“It has been an interesting evolution,” said Cummisford. “If you would have told me 12 years ago when we moved here that I would have a duck farm, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Many farmers, seeing development heading their way, also like the trend. They can sell land for profit, yet are spared from watching former farmland completely covered by single-family homes and cul-de-sacs.
“We were going to be in the path of development,” said Joe Johnston, whose family farm in Gilbert, Ariz., is now Agritopia, a neighborhood with an urban farm, community garden and restaurants. “In 1998, 1999, we started thinking about what we should do.” Most farmers sell the land and move farther out, he said. The Johnstons chose to stay.
Developers like agrihoods, too, because they can be less expensive to build, and a farm is a feature that sets the community apart, said DeWald. “Developers are seeing that a farm or a garden may be a better amenity than a golf course,” he said.
My garden, my home
In their heyday, people bought homes in golf course communities because they liked the open views of the fairway — not necessarily because they planned on golfing a lot, McMahon said. Farms offer plenty of open views as well, yet come with a vastly different business model than a golf course. People don’t need to golf. They do need to eat. What’s more, there’s often less infrastructure for a developer to build, he said.
Serosun Farms is still in its infancy. Only one model home is finished on the site, and the farming operation currently consists of a five-acre test garden demonstration area. But Fahey and others gaze upon the land and imagine its potential, savoring the sunsets as well as the early produce.
She’ll probably still grow something at her new home, “since there’s nothing like walking out the back door to get fresh basil to throw into pasta sauce,” Fahey said.
But any garden she creates “won’t ever be able to compete with the masterpiece that Jane and John are creating,” she said of the farm that the community will grow to share.