Silos vs. subdivisions
As more and more farmland is plowed under for housing developments, people wonder how to make room for both the cows and the kids.
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The first few new neighbors may be comfortable coexisting with farmers, but then more arrive, looking for an idealized country life. "The land values go up, the roads get improved, and you run into more and more issues," Wagner says. "It's important to be on top of this and recognize what's happening before it's too late, because eventually the suburban community will always win out."Skip to next paragraph
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To prevent this, some states have passed right-to-farm ordinances that keep towns from unreasonably regulating normal agricultural practices.
In other instances, "I think some communities would like to see farms become museum pieces and just be something for people to look at," says Rich Hubbard of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture. "But we want them to continue as dynamic operations."
In some cases, nonprofit groups step in and convert commercial farms into nonprofit agricultural assets that practice community-supported agriculture. Using this approach, local buyers support local growers by purchasing shares in the harvest that cover operating expenses.
Such farms create multiple public benefits, acting as quasi parks and educational institutions that also donate part of what is grown to homeless shelters, food pantries, and school lunch programs.
"If the land is protected," says Brian Donahue of the 400-member Land's Sake farm in Weston, Mass., "I see no reason why there couldn't be hundreds or thousands of acres surrounding American cities being farmed in this way."
Since opening in the mid-1990s, Prairie Crossing has attracted attention as a possible model for integrating farmland with suburban housing.
It's a 677-acre subdivision located in Grayslake, Ill., about 40 miles from downtown Chicago, near a rail corridor. And it appeals to people who want access to the city but like a semirural lifestyle. Houses are clustered, leaving large expanses of the property in open space and agricultural land.
House lots range from less than a quarter of an acre to half an acre. "Each house looks out onto open land in at least one direction, so residents feel that they have more land than they actually do," explains Vicky Ranney, who, with her husband, George, developed the property.
The Ranneys are not farmers (Mr. Ranney is a lawyer and former steel executive), but they have long enjoyed good relations with their farming neighbors and wanted to see the area's rural character maintained.
In the 1970s, a developer planned to build 3,000 houses on the property, and that set off a 15-year legal battle with local officials. Finally, the number of proposed homes dropped to 1,600, but even that was too many for the Ranneys and their neighbors, who found a financial backer and bought the tract for $5 million.
To date, 270 houses priced from under $200,000 to $600,000 have been sold, with the total number of house lots capped at 362. A small retail village, with offices over storefronts, is planned on a commercially zoned parcel across the street. About 135 acres is under cultivation by a salaried farm manager, with 15 acres reserved for a community organic farm.
Until now, most of the farming has been subsidized by the company that owns the land. But once the development is completed, the farming operation must be self-sufficient, Mrs. Ranney says.
Since the land is limited by an agricultural easement, that could mean growing Christmas trees or finding another more profitable use than cultivating low-margin crops such as soybeans or corn.
Prairie Crossing isn't the only development to take this sort of approach. It has begun to take root in other areas, too.
Outside of Michigan City, Ind., Tryon Farm is a condominium development situated on what used to be a 170-acre family farm. There are no lawns, only open spaces with natural prairie plants and alfalfa. A former dairy barn has been converted into a community center.