What Does the Farmer Say about Agrihoods?
Daron Joffe, a.k.a. “Farmer D,” is a busy guy these days. An expert on community farming, Joffe is in demand as a consultant for developers looking to add farming and agriculture to their projects.
“Momentum is picking up,” says Joffe, owner of Farmer D Consulting and the first farmer of Serenbe, a seminal agrihood outside Atlanta. “It seems like every day there is a new project.”
At this point, there are more than 90 agrihoods in the United States, according to ULI data. No longer the new amenity on the block, farms are now an accepted part of the master-planning mix as developers and communities look for new ways to attract buyers and develop healthy neighborhoods. In some cities, agrihoods are among the top-selling master-planned developments, attracting a mix of empty nesters, young families, and retirees focused on a healthy lifestyle. (See a map of agrihoods across the United States in addition to the publication, Agrihoods: Cultivating Best Practices, at uli.org/food)
But Joffe typically cautions developers who are considering an agrihood: “It sounds sexy,” he says. “But farming is hard. Sustainable agriculture is a real challenge.”
In communities around the United States, there have been growing pains as developers, communities, and residents wrestle with the best ways to make agriculture and fresh food an integral part of their neighborhoods. Hard lessons have been learned as communities work out the kinks.
Three years after launching the 3.5-acre (1.4 ha) Cannery Urban Farm, part of the Cannery, a 547-home development in Davis, California, the farm is facing a $100,000 yearly deficit, says Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning, the nonprofit organization operating the farm. The farm has encountered myriad unexpected issues, from poor soil and staff shortages to homeowners indiscriminately picking crops.
"When we started, we didn’t know a lot about agrihoods and how they operated and best practices,” Kimball says. The farm, which was developed in conjunction with the city of Davis, will need a financial restructuring if it is going to be sustainable and achieve its potential, she says. But Kimball remains convinced of the concept’s potential. “The opportunities are amazing,” she says. “It’s about figuring out how to make this work.”
Food-related amenities can support a developer’s bottom line, but the “developments require innovation, creativity, new business models, and inventive partnerships to be successful,” concluded a recent report on the subject from ULI’s Center for Sustainability, Cultivating Development: Trends and Opportunities at the Intersection of Food and Real Estate.
Agriculture projects are “management-intensive activities that often require risk and experimentation,” says ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon, who worked on the report. “Farming is not a panacea, in any sense of the word.”
For developers, the advantages of agrihoods have been well documented. They typically use less land and require less maintenance than golf courses and swimming pools, at a fraction of the initial cost. A farm is also a proven strategy to set a development apart from the competition. “Number one, we find that the farm is one of the greatest marketing pieces we have,” says Steve Nygren, founder of Serenbe. “Agriculture sells.”
For Serenbe, which broke ground in 2004, the farm has become engrained in the DNA of the development, Nygren says. Serenbe includes “edible landscaping” such as blueberry bushes and fruit trees at crosswalks and along streets. The community operates as an “agrarian economy,” with branded food, pickled vegetables, weekend markets that attract tourists from the city, and local restaurants featuring vegetables “that have never been on a motorized vehicle,” he says.
An agriculture-based lifestyle clearly has its appeal with homebuyers. Outside Dallas, the 3,200-home Harvest community, developed by Hillwood Communities, was the top-selling master-planned community in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in 2018, with 420 sales, up from 320 in 2017, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Willowsford, the development built around a conservancy and farm outside Washington, D.C., was the number-one-selling project in Virginia in 2018, with 400 sales, according to data tracked by the consultancy.