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Agrihoods Promise Fresh Food and Community. Can They Add Equity to the List?


Like many agrihoods, the Santa Clara Agrihood bills itself as a “sustainable community.” The master-planned neighborhood centered around a farm, which is slated to be completed in 2024, will include modern townhomes and apartments with sharp, geometric angles and large balconies, overlooking a fruit orchard and an organic farm enclosed by native hedgerows. There will be a cafe, plenty of outdoor seating, and vines crawling up carefully placed trellises.

But unlike many agrihoods, the community isn’t just designed for sustainability. It’s also designed for an aging, disabled population that often struggles to find housing in the Silicon Valley, where the average home costs more than a million dollars. Of the agrihood’s 361 homes, 165 will be for low-income seniors and veterans and 16 for working families. The farm was designed with this population in mind, including wide pathways and garden beds raised on stilts, so residents can garden in their wheelchairs.

“Everyone in America was at one time either a farmer themselves or their neighbors were the farmers. Then we separated farm production from farm consumption, and nobody knew where their food came from.” 

Lara Hermanson, the co-founder of Farmscape, the company that will manage the farm, notes that residents with mobility issues are still able to do tasks like bundling herbs or seeding trays. “It’s providing meaningful work at all ages and ability levels,” she added. The crops will be adapted to the climate and the cultures of the residents, drawing from Santa Clara’s immigrant senior population.

The Santa Clara development will be the latest in a growing number of agrihoods that function not just as a site of food production but also a source of community building. Ed McMahon, a senior fellow of sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, a network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts across the world, estimates that there are more than 200 agrihoods across the United States, spanning at least 30 states, from rural communities to major cities. And it’s easy to see why. As McMahon put it, “walkable, charming neighborhoods—that’s a scarce resource.” Beyond that, agrihoods also harken back to an earlier way of living.

“Everyone in America was at one time either a farmer themselves or their neighbors were the farmers. Then we separated farm production from farm consumption, and nobody knew where their food came from,” said McMahon. “This is a way to restore that balance, at least to a small extent.”

As a model, agrihoods have the potential to address fundamental food system challenges, such as food miles and possible supply chain disruptions. “In principle, it makes sense to more strategically integrate agricultural production into wherever we live,” said Joshua Sbicca, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and author of A Recipe for Gentrification. “It makes sense to have greater connection to the land and makes sense to have more immediate access to food, which is a fundamental need.”

Yet Sbicca cautions that agrihoods could also cause harm by being poorly integrated into an existing neighborhood, or even displacing residents. A question he tends to ask when evaluating “green gentrification” is: Who ultimately benefits?

So far, the answer to Sbicca’s question is the well-heeled. The term “agrihood” was popularized by 2014 New York Times article about a popular development in Arizona called Agritopia. The article noted at the time that homes in the community sold for “no more than similar houses in the area.” But since then, they have risen to a median price of over a million dollars, while homes in the surrounding community go for about half that price. Other agrihoods are similarly pricey, often treating the farm as an “amenity” that adds to its marketability and cost.

Rancho Mission Viejo, an agrihood in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Rancho Mission Viejo)

“Instead of building golf courses and tennis courts . . . they decided, ‘Let’s get connected to a farm and make that the feature for young professionals,”’ said Alrie Middlebrook, the president of the California Native Garden Foundation, which helped design the Santa Clara Agrihood’s landscape.

Funded in part by an affordable housing bond, the Santa Clara project represents an effort to break from the mold and make the agrihood model more accessible. It is designed to benefit the broader community, too. Those involved plan to host regenerative agriculture workshops and offer volunteer opportunities for the public, while the food will be sold at a farm stand using the honor system, like many rural farm stands. In this case, customers will pay with a QR code, or by drop box. Middlebrook hopes to create a model for similar communities.





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