Putting a local food twist on suburbia

With summer just weeks away, suburbanites across the region are prepping lawns. Homeowners will rake, aerate and fertilize, while lusting over neighbors’ yards that are just a little greener.  But what if these lawns – soaking up valuable water and fertilizers – produced local food to feed the neighborhood instead of just grass?

The Farmstead, a 126-acre development waiting to break ground outside Granite Quarry in rural Rowan County, has been trying for three years to bring this idea to life.

Its design incorporates principles of “Agriburbia,” an economics and land-use movement that integrates food production into residential development. Picture part-time farmers filing into monthly homeowners meetings, residents jogging on sidewalks through rows of vegetables, and children bouncing on backyard trampolines among apple tree tops.

Once built, The Farmstead would address growing national sustainability trends including local foods and farmland preservation. The proposed 16 acres of farmland, 230 homes, 40 apartment units and six acres of commercial lots could provide a new residential option for people working in nearby Kannapolis or Salisbury to grow their own crops without giving up their day job.

The project, now five years old, didn’t start out with this suburban-farmland vision. When Bill Thomas, the 75-year-old owner of Concord-based Concord Builders, and a former partner purchased the property in 2007, they planned to transform the empty field into a suburb filled with single-family lots. But by late 2009, Thomas had already experienced the 2008 housing collapse and a builder dropping the project. Worried about the future of the development, he knew it was time for a change.

“As things went on in 2009, things kept getting worse,” said Thomas. “Then I got a call from Craig and he said we may have something that can help jumpstart this.”

That was Craig George, an engineer from Charlotte engineering firm DPR Associates who was working with Thomas on The Farmstead. He had just learned about Agriburbia after meeting the movement’s co-founder, Quint Redmond, at a seminar at N.C. State University.  After George discussed the concept with Redmond, he pitched the idea to Thomas. The Farmstead has focused on Agriburbia ever since.

“Agriburbia really excited me,” said Thomas. “It’s hard to get an old man excited like this.”

Today, the property is ready for construction after receiving all necessary zoning and engineering permits. But four years after George and Redmond transformed the site plan from suburbia to Agriburbia, Thomas is having a difficult time finding a partner to invest and a builder willing to commit to the vision. 

“I’m 99 percent sure this thing would go if we could just have some builders to commit. I don’t know if they just don’t want to hurt my feelings, but everyone says it’s a great idea,” said Thomas.

Redmond agrees and said the idea isn’t what’s holding The Farmstead back. He attributes The Farmstead’s sluggish development to the national housing and agriculture systems.

“Both development and agriculture are broken in this country, but the answer to both of those is in each other,” said Redmond. “Developments like Agriburbia can help solve this.”

Despite his doubts about the state of agriculture, Redmond remains confident the project will be a success – mostly because he’s seen it work before.

He and his wife, Jennifer, both Colorado farmers turned planners, have developed Agriburbia projects throughout the country, ranging from a 23-acre development in Boulder, Colo., to a 1,600-acre one in Oahu, Hawaii. Today 3,000 acres of Agriburbia are being designed and developed, according to numbers reported by the TSR Group, the Redmonds’ Boulder-based development planning and design firm.

The Redmonds throw around census statistics, population data and caloric intake numbers while explaining the model for Agriburbia, but insist the idea is “dirt simple”: Grow food where it’s consumed, reduce the number of hands involved in processing and make distribution as direct as possible. The hope is this strategy will maximize farmers’ profits and give residents access to high quality, local food.

“In general, 40 firms touch every tomato, and they all mark it up.  By the time you purchase a tomato at the store, you’ve paid four different forklift drivers and truck drivers to move it,” Redmond said. “If it (distribution) is direct, you’ve paid all of that to one farmer.”

Redmond said The Farmstead property – with rolling hills, a quiet creek and access to several metropolitan areas – is perfect to support Agriburbia’s infrastructure needs. “If I went out to find a piece of ground to do Agriburbia around a metropolitan area, this would be it,” he said.

The Farmstead’s plan shows a 14-acre “civic farm” to be managed by a professional farmer hired by the homeowners association. The cash crops raised there would provide revenue for maintaining the neighborhood’s infrastructure as well as income for the professional farmer.

The plan also shows homes and apartments surrounded by microfarms averaging 770 square feet in size. Homeowners could farm those private plots themselves or lease them as a “steward farm” to the professional farmer.

Food produced by the civic and steward farms would be sold to residents and nearby restaurants at a homeowners association-run buyers’ club housed in an existing market stall on the property.

“This isn’t gardening in paradise. This is a real economy,” said Redmond.

The short-term goal is to produce 30 to 50 percent of The Farmstead’s dietary needs as measured in number of calories of food produced, not pounds. Eventually, excess food grown in The Farmstead would be sold to restaurants, grocers and farmers markets across the region, but only after The Farmstead’s needs are met.

Agriburbia is a new concept for Thomas, nothing like the traditional site work and construction he did for 40 years in and around Concord. He’s not an eco-warrior or an environmental scientist. He just wants to do something different.

“At my age, I’d be kidding myself if I said I was trying to make a bunch of money on this project,” Thomas said. “I’m just trying to build a neighborhood that’s different and sustainable.”