Urban agrarian communities appeal to a generation of foodies who like to know the origin of their beets and blueberries. The model also is increasingly attractive to developers looking for alternative amenities to the traditional fitness center or golf course. They view crop tending as a new way of bringing people together that cuts across demographic groups.
For example, Hillwood Development broke ground in 2013 on Harvest, a 1,150-acre mixed-use community that is luring buyers with its new working farm. Harvest hired a farmer to run its program, which supplies its just-picked produce to about 35 top restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and residents also can rent 4-foot-by-8-foot veggie plots.
"We started with 50 raised beds that a homeowner leases for $60 a year," says Tom Woliver, director of planning and development. "The plots sold out before we had 50 homeowners, so we added 70 more plots."
In addition to young parents interested in teaching their kids to garden, Harvest is attracting empty nesters. "The older group is going back to farming; they're a third of our buyers," Woliver says. "They have more time; do they want to spend it around the pool with kids? Maybe not."
The 5-acre farm is the hub of a linear, mile-and-a-half-long central park accessed from the end of every street. It was a smaller investment than some amenities Hillwood has developed in the past, such as water parks that are used only part of the year. And raised beds are certainly cheaper than 18 fairways. However, Harvest's HOA fees are similar to those in traditional master planned communities because the developer did not spend less money overall; it is just distributed differently. "We still have our pools and clubhouses, but they are scaled differently, not as big," Woliver explains. "We're diversifying our amenities." It also moved and restored a 140-year-old farmhouse where homeowners can hang out.
Hillwood took its time to work out a self-sustaining agrarian model. "Most examples we saw were heavily subsidized or operating at a net loss," Woliver says. "We didn't want to put that burden on the homeowners." A resident farmer does the dirty work. On one of the 5 acres, he runs a private, for-profit commercial business consisting of five greenhouses built with amenity dollars that supply food to local restaurants. He also manages the HOA farm, which includes the leased plots, an orchard, and community crops—corn for popcorn festivals, watermelons in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall. The farmer is on site most days and offers gardening classes every other weekend.
The idea is that once homeowners learn to garden, they can do it in their own backyards. The builders offer raised garden beds as an option, or residents can choose to build the plots later through the HOA's landscape contractor.
But how does a water-intensive enterprise fare in a parched region like North Texas? Bioswales direct stormwater to a 12-acre lake that serves as a detention pond for half of the development. Water is pumped out of the lake to feed the common areas and farm, and an existing well on the property supplies back-up water. The setup is working so far. "Water is not a huge cost because we're not in large field crops," Woliver says. "Even last year in the drought, the lake filled up right before the summer and we didn't need the well the entire year."
At Harvest, Hillwood is working on a 12-year buildout of about 3,200 single-family homes ranging in price from the low $200,000s to the $400,000s. In response to buyer preferences, design guidelines are evolving toward a farmhouse aesthetic of front porches, metal roofs, and natural wood fences. "Once you prove your model is working, builders are more willing to do these things," Woliver says, noting that David Weekley Homes is redesigning its plans so that every house visible from the farm will have a porch.
At press time, approximately 150 homeowners had closed on homes and 230 lots had been sold. "We tried out the farming amenity and it's taken off," Woliver says. "We may have to expand it."