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Welcome to the agrihood

In these suburban subdivisions, farming is just another amenity

On a small farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, perched on the edge of the sugarcane fields that run through the state’s midsection, married couple Carmen Franz and Tripp Eldridge look perfectly cast as hip millennial farmers. They’re tan, trim, and gregarious, ready to talk composting or crop rotation at a moment’s notice. They could be American Gothic 2020. The pair even occasionally posts video on their YouTube channel, Farmers on Bikes.

They represent a modern spin on farming in large part due to where they operate. They don’t work the land in a rural hamlet surrounded by empty fields. They grow fruits and vegetables within a 1,209-acre real estate development, Arden, a subdivision in western Palm Beach County. Arden is an agrihood: Instead of being built around a golf course, the heart of Arden is an organic farm where residents are allowed to till the soil and reap some of the bounty grown on-site. At Arden, a moderate-sized development which will eventually boast 2,000 single-family homes, the five-acre farm and big red barn sit a few hundred feet from the development’s clubhouse, which boasts terraced pools and waterfalls straight out of a resort.

The ironies of the concept become immediately apparent. At the grand opening celebration in November—where I visited model homes on streets with names like Wheelbarrow Bend, Tree Stand Terrace, and Heirloom Drive—I learned the farm, new homes, and manicured lakes stand on what was once entirely farmland. Arden was keeping alive the tradition of American suburbs being named after that which they bulldozed.

But talking with residents, the attractions of Arden and the lifestyle it claims to promote also become apparent. Amid the carnivalesque atmosphere of the grand opening, a mini street fair featuring tents, live music, games for kids, and food trucks, guests could tour the grounds of the farm, where Franz and Eldridge prepare a farmshare every four weeks for every family in the development. They grow an incredible assortment of food, 30 varieties of fruit and 100 varieties of vegetables, including mangoes, mamay, papaya, bananas, coconuts, and avocados. Inside the barn, a small market features products such as honey, hot sauce, and eggs from local farmers and makers (alcoholic fruit popsicles, I was told, were far and away the best-sellers). Baskets of fresh produce set out on wooden tables glistened in the humidity. In front of the barn, community herb gardens lining the main drive were open to all comers; many residents said they stop by on their way home from work to pick herbs for their evening meals.

“I don’t think anybody is making a claim that...agrihood farming is going to provide an alternative means of feeding large populations,” said Eldridge. “We’re not trying to feed 2,000 homes and replace their grocery bill. We’re providing a meaningful connection with nature that resonates with all the other amenities. Natural, healthy living, that’s what we’re trying to celebrate.”

Three homebuilders are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected.
Jaci Pena, thejprojects.com

That Truman Show-esque feeling of entering a staged environment hit me as I drove into the development. I was told the sculpted, curved road on which I entered, lined in native purple grasses swaying in the wind and pointing straight toward the development’s large central lake, was planned by landscape architects to help me decompress. Like so many suburbs past, Arden is a simulacrum: in this case, an artificial version of a healthy, farm-fresh lifestyle that, due to housing patterns and commercialized agriculture, is far from the norm in modern America. Arden doesn’t challenge that. Farming isn’t communal or even expected (though volunteers are invited to lend a hand); it’s merely another item in an amenities checklist that includes bike trails and tennis courts.

Many large-scale property developers see this combination of residential design, farming, and healthy living as a selling point. According to the Urban Land Institute, as of this past October, there were 90 agrihoods finished or in development across the United States, including Aberlin Springs near Cincinnati; Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois; Agritopia in Gilbert, Arizona; South Village in South Burlington, Vermont; and Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho. These kinds of developments work for multiple reasons, said Kevin Carson, northern California president for the New Home Company, developer of the Cannery, a “farm-to-table”-themed development in Davis, California. Agrihoods offer residents an organizing principle and community gathering places.

Franz and Eldridge think the appeal is in a return to basics, even if that shift is happening somewhere that’s as much a theme park as it is a working farm.

“You need to unplug for a small moment and have meaningful connections, and get your hand in the dirt,” said Eldridge.

The more I spoke with residents at Arden and guests who attended the opening celebration with an eye toward moving in, the clearer it became that there was something significant behind the sales pitch. Many homeowners spoke of adopting healthier living habits. Nearby farmers felt the educational component was a great way to promote locally grown agriculture and help out struggling community farms. Arden is still a suburban housing development, and the rows of single-family homes built new, and farther and farther from job centers, are the opposite of a truly sustainable lifestyle. But it’s also true that Arden suggests that if suburban housing developments are going to continue to be built, there are ways to make them better.

Dan Rawn, a senior project manager with Freehold Communities, the national builder behind the project, said he’s never seen a reaction from buyers like the one he’s witnessed at Arden.

“I’ve been doing golf communities all my life, and they’re like mausoleums,” he said. “This place is alive.”

Three homebuilders are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected.

During my visit, the main highway leading to the development was lined with “Welcome to the Agrihood” signs. But when executives and planners at Freehold began envisioning Arden, which broke ground in 2017, farming wasn’t as central to the sales pitch as it is today.

According to Suzanne Maddalon, the company’s vice president for marketing, the other healthy-living features, including the clubhouse and pool and extensive trail network, were the initial focus. The farm was an add-on, something that played up the surrounding agricultural stronghold of west Palm Beach. As it has been for other developers experimenting with the agrihood concept, it was also a matter of the bottom line. Residents would pay just $20 per month, which is already included in HOA dues, to fund the farm’s operations, which include a box of fresh produce every four weeks. Farms use less land and require less maintenance than golf courses or swimming pools, and offer a point of differentiation in a crowded market (nearby megadevelopments will add thousands of new homes to West Palm Beach county over the next few years).

But Freehold quickly discovered that all potential buyers could talk about was the farm.

“It’s so unexpected to realize you can have this farm be a part of everyday life,” said Maddalon. “You see people get really engaged, and the word of mouth drives traffic.”

The other part of the equation, Maddalon said, was Carmen and Tripp, whom Freehold hired in early 2018 after coming across their YouTube videos. The couple took the farm concept and ran with it, building out the general store and adding events and cooking demos.

“They were incredibly gregarious and very engaging,” said Maddalon. “When I met them in person, it’s like they could have an HGTV show, 100 percent. They are very good at this.”

Freehold reps said it’s a little too early to call the development a success. Phase I has just finished; roughly a quarter of the site, and the main amenities, are complete. Three homebuilders, Lennar, Kenco Communities, and Ryan Homes, are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected, according to Freehold and agents for the homebuilders. The rest of what will become Arden is currently covered in white gravel, construction equipment, and piles of shingles and supplies sitting at dead-end roads waiting to be turned into more homes.

Franz and Eldridge call the farm “the fishbowl.” “You have to have the right personality type to do this,” says Eldridge.

During the grand opening party, Franz and Eldridge were in top form, giving farm tours despite the punishing midday sun. They led groups through a horseshoe-shaped collection of raised beds behind the barn. Smaller 60-foot beds held chard, kale, lettuce, and radishes, with larger beds set aside for slower-growing crops like okra, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Eldridge cut me bits of roselle hibiscus and picked berries from a strawberry tree (a plant native to the West Indies, also known as a Jamaica cherry), which tasted like cotton candy. They explained that the operation works off a complex master spreadsheet; to provide food for the entire development, they need to plant new seedlings in the greenhouse on a precise schedule.

The tours were second nature for the couple because at Arden, the education and public-facing part of the job is just as demanding as growing. That’s why they call their farm “the fishbowl.”

“You have to have the right personality type to do this,” said Eldridge. “We feed off the support and love of that relationship with the residents.”

During the grand opening weekend, I met a number of Arden residents, all of whom sang the praises of the farm and farmers. Helen Bouek, 61, who sold her horse farm and moved in in early 2018, volunteers to help plant vegetables. She enjoys riding her bike to the farm to pick up exotic veggies such as star squash, and uses the recipes provided with the farm share.

“I’m learning how to cook healthier,” she said. “Now I start looking at the supermarkets or the specialty stores for the things they grow here.”

Her friend Brenda Helman, who runs the community’s Facebook page, said she’s lost 25 pounds since moving here, which she attributes to healthier cooking and eating.

“They’re making the dream come true here,” she said. “They hyped it up as the farm-to-table, and it truly is.”

Arden’s developers expected most of the residents to be like Bouek and Helman, older adults and retirees looking for healthy, active living. But to their surprise, many younger families with kids have also moved in. Bobby Humphrey, a sergeant in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office, 36, and his wife, Christine, 35, who have a young son, Ethan, 5, said they came because the schools are fantastic. Just about every home on their block has kids Ethan’s age.

“Everyone gets together, usually on the weekend, and all the kids are playing out front,” said Bobby. “There are a lot of block parties. The whole family lifestyle is fantastic.”

“You can have a direct relationship with the people who grow some of your food, something you just can’t get in Whole Foods.”

Arden underscores the rapid growth of the exurbs, areas once on the rural/suburban border that have now been fully developed. Look outside the manicured entryway, and you can see how what developer brochures and hand-outs call “the natural choice” seems somewhat unnatural in its surroundings. The main roadway to reach Arden, Southern Boulevard, is lined with huge pits and earthmoving equipment, part of a widening project bringing even more development to the region. Just northwest of the development sits the massive West County Energy Center, a 240-acre natural gas plant run by Florida Power & Light.

But the development also suggests, if not a rejection of sprawl, at least better-intentioned sprawl. The entire site contains 85 percent native landscaping, and Franz and Eldridge have said that since they arrived in 2018, they’ve seen the landscape come to life. What was once a stretch of gravel and fire ants now contains rolling hills and lakes boasting rabbits, amphibians, reptiles, and possums.

“Other places feel like a fake tropical escape,” said Franz. “Here, it feels like the real Florida.”

At the grand opening celebration, a number of local farms and farming groups, many of which sell goods at the Arden store, set up displays. All of them agree that the agrihood concept—which they saw as a distribution center and educational asset for quality food—was a benefit to the local agriculture community.

Allison Linn, a farm manager with CoLab Farms, located 40 miles northeast in Indiantown, said she supports Arden and the “responsible growing” Eldridge and Franz promote.

“We want people to understand the struggles of farmers,” she said. “Trying to change how people eat food is important, and they’ll pay more when they know.”

Chris Miller, an extension agent at the University of Florida-Palm Beach County who provides assistance to local growers, said that Arden offers a new market and messaging tool for famers who already have their hands full.

“It’s tough to be a farmer, especially since you need to grow and sell to consumers, and nobody can do it on their own,” he said. “And in most stores, farmers get a little less than 15 cents on the dollar of every retail food dollar.”

Franz and Eldridge believe the Arden job is perfect for them. Farming has always been a passion—they started a teaching farm in North Florida, worked for the Peace Corp, and worked at a nonprofit encouraging people to spend food stamps at farmers markets—and a difficult way to make a living. The cost of land, equipment, and student debt leaves many aspiring farmers of their generation in debt.

“Tripp and I always call ourselves landless farmers,” said Franz. “We’ve done a good job finding ways to grow without having to make the capital investment.”

Their current job provides stable salaries and health care, as well as the ability to advocate for healthy eating and other local farmers. Eldridge believes the agrihood concept represents the next iteration of local food movements, a logical leap from community-supported agriculture and the mainstreaming of health food stores. Healthy, organic food has been getting closer and closer to your home; why can’t it be part of your neighborhood?

“This agrihood is accessible right outside your door,” he said. “You can have a direct relationship with the people who grow some of your food, something you just can’t get in Whole Foods. I would love to see this concept evolve so everybody has a farm in their community; it’s like a hyperlocal professional you trust, like your dentist.”

Other developers see hyperlocal farming becoming a significant real estate opportunity over the next decade. Matthew Redmond runs a company called Agriburbia that has been experimenting with developments incorporating high-tech, small-scale farming projects for more than a decade. Recently, Agriburbia helped install an open farm on the top floor of a new residential development in Denver called Lakehouse. Tenants can wash, prepare, and grill veggies raised on-site, or use the industrial-grade juicing station to enjoy the produce on the go.

But Redmond’s ultimate vision would be to bring agrihood-like concepts—which he calls “agriculturally augmented business enterprises”—everywhere. By using different technologies, including computer-aided growing systems, specially made trellises, drip irrigation, and geothermal heating, Agriburbia wants to make real estate and agriculture inseparable. Dentists’ offices could grow mint to make fresh toothpaste. Day care centers could have demonstration farms for kids and send them home with fresh veggies at the end of the day.

“The surest path to sustainability is using some of the land in larger developments, both commercial and residential,” he said. “It’s impossible to make a farm at a place like Arden that completely feeds a neighborhood and competes with existing commercial farms and supply chains. But you could get to a point where 40 or 50 percent of all food eaten is grown in the community itself, which would lower carbon emissions from shipping and truck traffic, and get rid of packaging. Almost all single-use plastic is related to food in some way.”

The five-acre farm and big red barn sit a few hundred feet from the development’s clubhouse, which boasts terraced pools and waterfalls straight out of a resort.

As the Arden celebration was winding to close, I took a walk past the clubhouse and pool, down to a dock that stretched into a man-made lake. I sat at a bench overlooking the water, staring at huge clouds moving across the horizon, listening to the sound of kids running up and down the docks. A group of moms were helping them put baitfish on fishing poles, snapping photos of each cast with their phones.

All of the developers I’d spoken to said they felt the agrihood concept would grow. Freehold’s Maddalon said they were already trying out different concepts in different areas: Orchard Ridge in North Austin has community gardens, and Miralon in Palm Springs features olive groves instead of a golf course. Carson, who works for the firm behind the Cannery, said they hope to do another farm community. But he said it’s also important to think beyond the farm itself.

“Not everyone living at the Cannery is getting their hands dirty, getting in the dirt, and farming,” he said. “They are living there, and the farm is something that’s nice to have nearby. It’s about the site plan. The ability to ride your bike right by the farm and go past the barn or meet at the ranch house and at your outdoor fireplaces, sit, talk, connect that way, makes the farm portion of it even more attractive.”

Everyone just wants a nice story to tell about home. While the American suburb has continually changed, what hasn’t shifted is that search for narrative. The kids and parents on the dock, and many of those I met over the weeknd, certainly found some of that at Arden. I looked out across the water to an island where cranes landed and stretched on perfectly placed palm trees. It was a fantastic view, helped by the visible number of straps landscapers had used to position each tree just so.

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