Development-Supported Agriculture: More Than Just a Backyard Garden
Christine S. Escobar
As massive factory farming methods continue to be viewed as inhumane, ill-conceived, or unsanitary, educated consumers are increasingly demanding greater access to organically grown, local food. The humane handling of farm animals and the dangerous, routine use of antibiotics and chemicals is also an important concern for those unable to raise their own livestock or grow vegetables. Combine this with the need to feel confident that what you are eating is pure, wholesome, humane, and/or halal and it is easy to see why the single family farm of days past would now shift into a community supported model.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) has become a solution to the problem of factory farming and the loss of open land. A CSA is a farm operation that allows members to purchase a share of the farm and in turn receive a share of its crop yield.
Development-supported agriculture (DSA) takes this concept even further by providing a funding model for farming and land conservation through the sale of residential plots adjacent to agricultural operations and unspoiled wilderness. This allows residents to not only reap the tangible benefits of access to local meat, dairy, and produce, but also other less easily measured perks like close-knit community, peace, tranquility, and access to nature.
Across the United States and Canada, several DSA projects are taking shape. Some offer a nearly complete micro economy with food production, elementary schools, farmers markets, and real estate combined. Others are more intently focused on land and wildlife conservation, allowing individual residents to manage their own large or small garden plots.
DSA communities are widely scattered from the coastal islands of Canada to Idaho to the rolling hills of Vermont, down to the Carolinas, up across the Rockies, and into the prairies of the Midwest.
Most DSA communities encourage sustainability in their home plans and community buildings, allowing homeowners to work with a team of architects specializing in green building. Some have luxury perks like non-chlorinated swimming pools and equestrian centers.
At the core of DSA are five principles:
Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, is one of the pioneering DSA communities in the United States. The land was purchased in 1987 by a group of neighbors who formed a company with the goal of developing the 677 acres in harmony with the existing wilderness. Their plan included a total of 359 single-family homes and 36 condominiums, in contrast to the 2,400 homes that were being planned by another developer.
Prairie Crossing has now sold all of its original single-family homes and is currently selling its available condos. The property also includes a 100-acre farm that sells produce beyond the community boundaries, a public charter elementary school focused on environmental education, shops, a horse stable, event space, and rental units.
Currently under construction, Serosun Farms draws on the inspiration behind Prairie Crossing. It is located less than an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago, founded by John DeWald and Scott Kelly in Hampshire, Illinois. Serosun Farms will eventually be the site of a working organic farm that will cultivate not only produce, but also farm animals for meat and dairy. The community plans to offer 114 one-acre custom home sites as well as 300 acres of open space. Community amenities will include a 160-acre working sustainable farm, a state-of-the-art equestrian center, and a community center with a swimming pool, fitness center, and event facilities. Buyers will work with Serosun Farms’ team of green builders and architects to design their homes.
DeWald says the demand for locally sourced food in the Chicago area makes Serosun Farms an ideal solution for the community to directly invest and be closely involved in the support of local farming. “A lot of our potential buyers [are interested in] a way to transition farms that are at that suburban fringe,” DeWald explains of the initial interest in Serosun Farms. “At its core, it’s a financing mechanism for that local farming.”
Nathan Weiler is CEO and founder of the Weiler group of companies, a design, construction, and development company. The company had previously ventured into constructing a DSA development in North Carolina. However, funding fell through when the housing market took its downturn.
Weiler says his company is now in the very early planning stages of exploring a similar idea in Sacramento, California, with a farm and housing development that would supply local restaurants. He states, “It would be sustainable right from the beginning, with the businesses tied into [the future of the land].”
Living Forest Communities in British Columbia, Canada, consists of Everwood on Cortes Island and Elkington Forest. It is a social enterprise between the for-profit Living Forest Limited Partnership and the registered charity, the Trust for Sustainable Forestry. The enterprise hopes to accomplish two goals: provide a new finance mechanism for large scale forest conservation and create “residential hamlets” nestled in the forest.
Elkington Forest is a 1,000-acre plot that aims to conserve the forest ecosystem by creating a community of 77 homes and 15 businesses owned by people who see themselves as “stewards of the forest.” Homeowners have the option to purchase quarter-acre garden plots to raise fruit, vegetables, herbs, or chickens or other small farm animals, as well as access to a greenhouse for year-round crops. The community also has plans to build an EcoLodge and Wellness Centre for residents.
Dominique Allman Papa lives with her husband, George, and their two children, ages 14 and 6, in downtown Chicago and part-time at Tryon Farm in Michigan City, Indiana. Allman Papa said she values a connection to nature and believes it was this principle that prompted her and her husband to purchase their second home at Tryon Farm.
Just a 15-minute bike ride to Lake Michigan and near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Tryon Farm is billed as a community of “smart, modern weekend homes” allowing its residents “the lifestyle of country acreage ownership at a fraction of the coast and responsibility you’d have going it alone!” Tryon offers both wooded and prairie homesites, as well as condos. The community has recently installed a natural swimming pool that uses a mix of plants and other aquatic vegetation to filter the water and rid it of bacteria. It is located just one hour from downtown Chicago, and Papa has often commuted to and from his job there from the couple’s home in the country.
Allman Papa says she and her husband purchased their home at Tryon Farm 11 years ago specifically to provide their family with a closer connection to nature. “I longed for a space that my kids could run around and dig in the dirt and look for bugs,” she explains.
The family maintains a garden plot in the Tryon Farm community garden.
Certainly, the appeal of DSA is not lost on the urban professional either. Ghada Shalabi, 34, a Chicagoan working in the finance industry, said she has always been interested in gardening and eating locally sourced foods. Living in an urban environment makes gardening somewhat limited for her, but she tends a container garden. As a Muslim she believes DSA communities could be a very attractive option for halal consumers looking to be directly involved with the sources that farm halal food.
While Shalabi has no current plans to move to a DSA community in the near future (her employment is in the city and she favors a shorter commute), she says being connected to where and how your food is sourced is always important to Muslims. “Whether you are concerned about the environmental and health impacts of mass farming or the concept of fair trade, it is important to know where your food comes from. As a Muslim especially, we should be concerned with the treatment of the animals and the treatment of the farm workers,” she says.
The team behind Deerpath Farm, located in the small, rural village of Mettawa, Illinois, is Rick Phillips and his wife, Linda Gardner Phillips. Together they founded Deerpath Farm on the site of a former dairy farm, land that had been in the Phillips family for decades.
Only 30 miles from Chicago, Deerpath Farm includes 41 wooded homesites, easily accessible via paved roads, and 140 acres of restored open lands and trails, owned by the Deerpath Farm homeowners association and managed by Lake Forest Open Lands, an independently funded conservation association.
“Two-thirds of the original farm is now open space,” says Phillips, an architect whose firm specializes in smaller space building and home designs.
The property also boasts woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and oak savannas, a type of wilderness thought to be rarer than tropical rainforests. Homesites were designed based on the curvature of the land, the location of trees, and the ability to preserve privacy and long range views for each future homeowner. With an immense assortment of native prairie plants and wildlife, walking the grounds of Deerpath Farm gives the impression that you are hours away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Phillips says most residents at Deerpath Farm are “interested in conservation.” Green technology in the home design and building process is encouraged, but not a requirement to purchase. There is no particular home size requirement to build at Deerpath Farm, making the community adaptive to varying residential needs. “A weekend retreat, a tiny home. . . all those things are possible,” says Gardner Phillips.
The couple’s two children are currently homeschoolers, and Gardner Phillips says being at Deerpath Farm definitely provides educational benefits to them as well. “You have a huge outdoor classroom,” she says.
Though there is no official community garden onsite, Gardner Phillips says residents at Deerpath Farm may tend their own gardens confident that the soil on the property has been kept free of industrial waste, having been reserved as a farm and wilderness for many years. “The land is very pure.”
It’s clear that interest in DSA communities continues to build across North America. As more people consider their stake in the future of the land they live on, DSA development, though still in its early stages, shows promise as a social and cultural movement. With the majority of thriving DSA developments having survived the housing decline, the future of these local communities as a support system for local agriculture and land conservation certainly looks promising.
Christine S. Escobar is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area. She is the founder and editor of Greenparentchicago.com.