March 12th, 2020

Welcome to the agrihood: In these suburban subdivisions, farming is just another amenity

Original article by Patrick Sisson for >

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.”

Arden Homebuilders

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,

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.”

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.

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