By Lisa Readie Mayer
The path from farm to table is getting shorter. For the growing number of families living in “agrihoods,” a farm and its fresh food are mere steps from the kitchen.
Agrihoods are residential communities with homes centered around a real, working farm, much the way some communities are built on golf courses. Not just for “crunchy-granola” types, agrihoods are becoming mainstream and often inhabited by “foodies” who have an interest in fresh, organic, locally-grown food, and a desire to know where and how their food is produced. Though agrihood homes are sometimes cottage-sized or “tiny” homes, far more often they are high-end, energy-efficient, sustainable, and loaded with luxury amenities.
Agrihoods often offer community garden plots that residents can tend; however, most agrihood farms are run by professional farmers or nonprofit groups that sell or donate the food produced. Some communities also emphasize environmental conservation, incorporating systems to collect rain runoff from rooftops and streets for farm irrigation, solar farms to generate electricity, and community compost centers to recycle organic wastes.
The farms are self-sustaining, a huge advantage over expensive-to-maintain golf courses. This makes a farm a relatively inexpensive amenity that developers can offer prospective buyers, according to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek. With golf participation in decline, and consumers’ desire to form a greater connection to their food, farmers, chefs, and neighbors on the upswing, agrihoods are becoming a fast-growing trend. Today, there are more than 200 agrihood communities across the country, and the number has been climbing for the past 10 years.
One of the newest agrihoods is Willowsford, a farm-focused development on 4,000 acres in Loudoun County, Virginia, that dedicates 2,000 acres to open space, including 300 acres for farming more than 100 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruit, flowers, chickens, and goats. The community has a farm stand, a farm-to-table culinary center with pop-up restaurants and visiting chefs, along with more typical amenities such as fitness centers, hiking trails, and swimming pools. Residents can also take advantage of produce-sharing, community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, cooking classes, and gardening happy hours.
Agritopia, one of the earliest developments, is a 452-home community in Gilbert, Arizona, built around a 160-acre organic urban farm. The bulk of the farm is dedicated to commercial farming of vegetables, fruit, olive and date trees, chickens and sheep, but it also includes a community garden for residents, with 40 20-by-20-ft. plots and a community tool shed. A separate Biblical garden with pomegranates, figs, olives, and other plants mentioned in the Bible, is lined with benches and a seat wall for quiet reflection.
|Inside the community inn and farmhouse at Serenbe.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 J. Ashley Photography.
Started in 2004, Serenbe is a 1,000-acre “progressive urban village” near Atlanta that is focused on “fresh food, fresh air and well being.” In addition to the 400 residents living in townhouses, cottages or estate homes, there is a 25-acre organic farm, with a farmers market and edible landscaping around pathways and common spaces. The community offers a CSA program and lots of opportunities for residents to gather year-round for cultural events, culinary workshops, educational lectures, film, art and music events, and more.
Prairie Crossing is a “conservation community” in Grayslake, Illinois, with a 150-acre working organic farm, edible landscaping that residents are invited to pick, a lake for fishing and canoeing, a horse stable, an easy rail commute to Chicago, and community events that foster lifelong learning and celebrate local food.
Many more agrihoods are in the works all across the country. In fact, according to The New York Times, suburban farm consultants who help developers identify suitable land, build the necessary infrastructure, and find farmers to run agrihood farms, are having trouble keeping up with demand for their services. The trend is only expected to increase as more and more golf-course communities inquire about converting their greens to revenue-generating gardens.
|Serenbe Farms’ fresh vegetables.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 J. Ashley Photography.
Front Yard Farming
The agrihood trend is part of a larger movement reflecting Americans’ growing interest in gardening and farming. Unexpectedly, the show “American Farmer” has attracted a growing and loyal following of city and suburban viewers who want to connect with country living and farm lifestyles, and learn about the source of their food.
The program airs on the RFD-TV Network, a 24-hour cable channel devoted to agriculture, farming and the rural lifestyle. Today, RFD-TV reaches nearly 48 million households, up 35% since 2009, and averages 12.5 million viewers per week, with Nielsen ratings climbing by double digits annually for the past seven years.
According to the National Gardening Association, about 36% of all U.S. households are now growing their own vegetables, fruit, berries and herbs at home or in a community garden, up over 17% in the last five years. Spending on the experience, about $3.6 billion annually, has increased 40% in that time. Community gardening has increased 300% since 2008, and food gardening by people living in urban areas has climbed nearly 30%.
People are converting more and more of their home’s lawn space into productive vegetable gardens. The Food Not Lawns organization, founded in Eugene, Oregon, in 1999, encourages homeowners to turn their front and back yards into organic gardens. It has since grown to 50 chapters worldwide, with members educating others about gardening, and holding seed swaps, workshops and other sharing events.
In Orlando, Florida, where residents are permitted to farm up to 60% of their yard, a brand new organization called Fleet Farming, allows residents to offer their “unproductive, wasteful,” water- and pesticide-guzzling lawns as “farmlettes,” that can be used to raise food for the local community.
|Volunteer workers in the field at Willowsford, Loudoun County, Virginia.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 Deborah Dramby.
A “fleet” of volunteer gardeners, plant, tend and harvest the farmlettes on participants’ properties, and then sell the produce at farmers markets and restaurants within a five-mile radius. In doing so, they conserve fossil fuels and provide truly locally-sourced food. In its first year, 26 yards have been converted, and there is interest in starting chapters in other cities. For those homeowners who wish to maintain their own gardens and keep their harvest, Fleet Farming also installs residential vegetable gardens for a fee.
Urban gardens are taking over abandoned lots and rooftops in big cities all across the country. According to the National Gardening Association, participants in urban gardening in the U.S. rose from 7 million in 2008 to 9 million in 2013. In some cases, individual plots within the gardens are available to the public; in others, the gardens are tended by volunteers and the harvest is distributed to soup kitchens or other social service groups.
When dining out in restaurants today, people are looking for farm-to-table, local, sustainable and/or artisanal ingredients. In some cases, such menu claims are overstated, or maybe even misrepresented, but many restaurants are making a sincere effort to support farms and food purveyors in their communities. Chefs are collaborating with local produce and livestock farmers, and even growing food themselves in backyard, rooftop or hydroponic gardens.
Just one of many restaurants embracing the farm-to-table trend is Olmsted, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York. Co-owned by a chef and a farmer, the hip spot just earned a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award. It has a living wall of plants in the dining room, and a working, raised-bed garden, hen house, and fire pit seating area outside where diners can sit on benches to have a drink before dinner, or make S’mores for dessert (they are on the menu).
|Fresh vegetables at the farm stand at Willowsford.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 Molly Peterson.
Millennials Are On Board
Like so many other trends, Millennials are near the forefront of the gardening resurgence. According to the National Gardening Association, people age 18-34 comprise the fastest-growing population segment of food gardeners. The group’s research shows there were 13 million Millennial-aged food gardeners in 2013, up 63% from 2008. The report shows Millennial spending on food gardening nearly doubled during that same period, reaching $1.2 billion in 2013.
When they’re not growing their own food, Millennials want it to be locally sourced, and they want to know who grew it or made it, and the story behind it. Millennials have been increasingly exposed to CSA farm shares and farmers markets in college. At land-grant universities, the CSA boxes or farm stands might be supplied by harvests from the schools’ agriculture departments, but other schools partner with nearby farms.
Students living in apartments at Boston University, for instance, can sign up for a weekly CSA box of produce, available for pick up from the farmers market that has operated on campus every Thursday in September and October for the past five years.
While it is unlikely college students are giving up eating greasy pizza at midnight, more and more of them are equally likely to prepare and eat foods such as yellow cauliflower, Japanese eggplant, and purslane greens. The students are also demanding these kinds of upgrades to their dining hall menus.
Interest in gardening and farm-to-table foods is actually starting much younger. Inspired by the White House vegetable gardens championed by Michelle Obama, school-based gardens at elementary and middle schools are on the rise. Some school gardens have been spearheaded by gardening clubs, PTAs and teachers at the local level, but organizations such as Slow Food USA, have launched national school garden programs, teaching young children to be informed eaters and to grow, cook and enjoy real food.
Teens for Food Justice is a New York City-based organization that teaches students to be urban farmers by building and maintaining hydroponic farms at schools in “food desert” communities. Each of these farms produces 22,000 lbs. of fresh produce annually for use in school cafeterias and distribution to families and community members.
Experts believe interest in gardening, farming and farm-to-table food is being cemented at a young age and will be a trend for the foreseeable future.
|A raised-bed garden at Olmsted, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo Coutesy: ©2017 Evan Sung.
Why Retailers Should Keep this Trend on the Radar
So what does this agrihood and home-gardening trend mean for retailers of barbecues and Outdoor Rooms? For one, it is changing the look and configuration of a home’s outdoor living space. A National Gardening Association study shows 42 million households now dedicate an average of 600 sq. ft. of their yards to a vegetable garden.
As homeowners convert more of their lawn and landscape areas to edibles, it could encroach on, or at the very least, need to blend with spaces used for grills, outdoor kitchens and other outdoor living products. Food gardening could also impact the way consumers spend their leisure time. Research shows those with a garden spend an average of five hours per week on their hobby.
The trend also presents exciting new growth opportunities. The most obvious, of course, is that food gardening produces vegetables – often an overabundance of vegetables – that people will need to cook. Despite the fact that the iconic chef and cookbook author Julia Child once said, “There is nothing worse than grilled vegetables,” nothing could be further from the truth! A kiss of smoke or hint of char from a turn on the grill makes everything from salad greens to squash taste better.
Bump up your inventory of cedar planks, vegetable grilling baskets, perforated grilling grids, grill woks, griddle pans, cast-iron skillets, kebob skewers, jalapeno pepper racks, pizza-making gear, wood chips, Himalayan salt blocks, seasonings, and other vegetable-related accessories. Stock grilled vegetable cookbooks, such as “The Gardener and the Grill” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig. Display and merchandise these products together in a prominent spot with gardening signage.
Since gardening is largely an at-home endeavor, it provides even more incentive for a homeowner to create a more enjoyable and upgraded outdoor living space. Those designing outdoor kitchens and Outdoor Rooms should remember to ask customers about their interest in gardening, so it can be incorporated into the backyard living plan through living walls, raised beds and container gardens. The trend also brings opportunities to grow sales by expanding into quality garden tools, heirloom seeds, composters, decorative garden ornaments, and other gear.
If you have room in your parking lot, you might consider hosting a weekly farmers market, inviting local farmers and food makers to sell their wares. Or, if you have underutilized warehouse space, offer to be the weekly pick-up spot for CSA farm-share boxes; it could bring a whole new customer base to your store.
Hold demos and cooking classes to teach customers how to prepare a wide variety of vegetables on the grill in different and unusual ways. Invite a speaker from your state’s Master Gardener program to hold talks about vegetable gardening in your store, followed by a vegetable grilling demonstration and sampling. Create social media posts about grilling vegetables, timed to harvest season in your area – people will be looking for ways to use up that zucchini when their crop comes in!