“More than 150” agrihoods in the United States

Find the true suburban ideal of combining urban and rural life by moving to a new “agrihood”:

At the center of Olivette is a 46-acre organic farm that’s already growing salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, squash, berries, and Asian pears. Beehives are producing honey, and there are plans to add chickens, as well as goats to help trim the grass. All this creates a bucolic setting, but the farm isn’t just there to look pretty. Olivette’s early residents are already swinging by the packing shed to pick up baskets of fresh produce grown right here—just one perk of living in an agrihood…

There’s no question the farm is the star here. Interest from potential homebuyers has backed up Scott and Allison’s idea that people are ready for a closer connection to the land. “Typically, the highest value property is always on the water,” says Scott. “But here, so far, most people have been interested in buying home sites that are by the farm, even more so than down by the river.”…

Despite the focus on open space and sustainability, no one will be living in hippie deprivation at Olivette. Buyers choose a lot and then work with a building company to customize and build their home. The high-end houses, all of which are held to the gold standard of efficiency and are heated by geothermal wells, start at $650,000, well over twice as much as the county in general…

This interest in living in nature is creating a bumper crop of agrihoods. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 150 have sprung up all over the country. “It’s a strong trend,” says Allison. “There are so many more now than there were three years ago when we started this project. Even some golf communities are looking at transitioning to agrihoods, but of course they’ve put so many chemicals into the ground that it’s tricky.”

Not surprisingly, this amenity of living next to or in a neighborhood with a farm comes at a price.

I wonder if part of the appeal of the farm is the reassurance that the agricultural land will be protected from further development. Many a suburbanite has moved into a neighborhood with the expectation that the field/open space/park next door will remain that way only to find that several years later new homes are going up on that space. It would be interesting to see how exactly the farmland is guaranteed to be farmland in the legal documents.

I would guess these sorts of communities would attract the same kind of critiques that have dogged suburbs for decades: this is still a wasteful use of land with the emphasis on large single-family homes, the residents are not truly committed to agriculture but want the experience or boost to their property values that a nearby farm provides, and the nature the residents encounter through the farm is not the same as truly open space and the farm exists in a commodified form.

 

Mapping the boundaries of the Midwest

Mapping the Midwest has now become a crowdsourced project through asking “What’s the Midwest to you?”

That’s the question design and planning firm Sasaki Associates is asking visitors to its new exhibit, “Reinvention in the Urban Midwest,” which opens at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space this week. The project includes an interactive survey that contains a timeless challenge: Draw the geographic boundaries of what counts as the U.S. Midwest…

Judging by the maps drawn by others and myself, it appears Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are the states of most contention. I personally felt I had no choice but to cut some of them in half. Perhaps the correct answer is still the textbook answer: the states of most intensified yellow (at least as identified by those who’ve lived in the Midwest the longest) make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to the east, plus Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota to the west.  (As a commenter pointed out, cartographer and historian Bill Rankin has also done a Midwest mapping project, in which he overlaid 100 different maps of the Midwest and made the confounding observation that  “no area that was included on every single map”.)

So the geographic boundaries of what most Americans consider the Midwest aren’t exactly clear, but Sasaki has also included another set of maps that reveal a much less murky truth: the Midwest has urbanized in a vastly different way from the rest of the United States. The graphic below maps out the population densities found in urban areas from four U.S. regions in 2010 (a darker shade signifies a larger, denser population)…

The Midwest is characterized by small but strong urban centers that transition sharply to rural surroundings. This pattern has of course grown from the region’s historical focus on agricultural land use. Sasaki’s recent work in Iowa suggests a continued population decline in rural areas but growing population density in more urban areas. However, the growth of urban areas in the Midwest is not uniform. The firm has further identified that agricultural cities in the plains sub-region, such as Des Moines, Iowa, or Lincoln, Nebraska, are indeed growing due to factors like de-ruralization and in-migration to city centers, while traditionally heavy-industry cities in the forest sub-region, such as Milwaukee or St. Louis, are still losing population.

One takeaway: the Midwest is a fuzzily-defined entity that perhaps has more to do with perceptions and culture than it does with exact geography. This would be aided by then asking people who drew the maps to then type in words they associate with the Midwest. I like the contrasting maps between those who have spent more of their lives in the Midwest versus those who have not: there are some clear differences.

The connection between farmland and cities is a good catch. Big cities like Chicago or Omaha were (and still are) intimately connected to agricultural commodities that needed to be distributed and sold through the big cities. For example, if you look at the early railroad construction in the Chicago region, much of it was linked to shipping products from the plains, everything from wheat (southwestern Wisconsin) to lead (Galena) to then distribute further east. Or look at the trading of commodities in places like Chicago and the creation of new kinds of markets. Even though there are big gaps between the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois – they operate as very different worlds – both would strongly consider themselves part of the same region, even if they can’t speak to the deeper ties that connect them.

Trying to hold a county fair in suburban DuPage County

DuPage County now has over 915,000 people and has little open land left for development. Amidst rapid suburbanization after World War II, there has always been a DuPage County Fair. Now, there is public debate about whether it makes sense to continue having this event:

The DuPage County Board should examine the long-term viability of its county fair and how distribution of state funding for the event is handled, a consultant has recommended.

And if the fair continues, the county should consider a new location, even if it means sharing a site with another county, the consultant recommends…

The fair, held each July on county-owned land in Wheaton east of DuPage’s government center, is run by a nonprofit association that relies heavily on funding that is funneled from the state Department of Agriculture through the Fair and Exposition Authority. Transferring that responsibility to the County Board would remove a layer of government by in effect eliminating the need for the seven-member fair authority, and that would “relieve the county of any associated risk,” the firm said.

Crowe Horwath pointed to decreased funding from the state and declining fair attendance as reasons why the county should consider whether the fair makes sense at all in the long run. The fair received an average of $300,000 a year in 2005-07. The figure in 2011 was about $198,000. The firm also noted that the fairgrounds are valuable property for which a better use might be found. The fair leases the land for $1,375 a year.

It is not surprising that this discussion has arisen in an era of fiscal issues at multiple levels of government.

The best argument I could imagine for the fair is that it is a reminder of what DuPage County once was. For the first 100 years of its history, DuPage County was primarily farmland and small towns that were within the orbit of Chicago. Produce from the farms could be shipped by rail or road to Chicago, destined for eastern markets through the Great Lakes, or to the southwest, eventually bound for the Mississippi River and points due south. One farm in the county even became the focus of a television show during the early 1950s:

In the spring of 1953, the Illinois Depart­ment of Agriculture began a search for a farm and a farm family who would become the stars of a new television show on the National Broadcasting Company. One of the thirty-five farms on the itinerary was the Harbecke Farm on Gary Avenue, rural Cloverdale in Bloom­ingdale Township, operated by Harbecke’s daughter and son-in-law, Bertha and Wilbert Landmeier. Tracing their roots to pioneer German farm families, the young couple had moved to the Harbecke Farm to operate a dairy farm. They had recently installed dairy equip­ment which carried the milk in refrigerated tubes from the milking machine to cooling tanks on the milk truck, which transported the commodity to an Addison dairy. The farm also had a hay drier which was another piece of modern machinery not found on every farm in  1953. These advantages, plus the fact that the location was considered one of the best be­tween Chicago and the Fox River for beaming the television waves, made the selection of the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm ideal for the show.

Thus, “Out on the Farm” began the first of a two-year run from the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm in the summer of 1953.  During the second season the first outdoor network colorcast originating from Chicago was the pickup from the Landmeier Farm. At the end of the 1954 season, the show was over, as Cloverdale and all of DuPage County were due for rapid change.

Here is a short description of the transformation from farmland to urban county:

The DuPage County Fair is the only county fair in Illinois located in a completely urban setting. Historical research showed that when the first DuPage County Fair was held in 1955, the county was 85% farmland. By 2000, the last farm vanished as DuPage County was absorbed into Chicago’s urban sprawl.

Today, the only farms DuPage County residents are likely to know about are Forest Preserve properties such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago or St. John’s Farm in Warrenville.

In the end, it sounds like it will be difficult to reserve valuable land for a week of nostalgia and history every year.

Growing interest in the investment potential of farmland

With people looking for good investments, farmland is getting some attention:

Just how hot is American farmland? By some accounts the value of farmland is up 20% this year alone. That’s better than stocks or gold. During the past two decades, owning farmland would have produced an annual return of nearly 11%, according to Hancock Agricultural Investment Group. And that covers a time period when tech stocks boomed and crashed, and housing boomed and crashed. So at a time when investors are still looking for safety, farmland is becoming the “it” investment.

The article goes on to say that because food demand is up, particularly for corn, and crop yields are up because of improved technology. At the same time, perhaps there is a market bubble going on here and it is difficult to get into the business of owning farmland.

I find it interesting that there is no mention of land development in all of this. In areas of sprawl, farmers can benefit from skyrocketing land prices as developers and builders look to acquire buildable acreage. But this story seems to be talking mainly about farm land in the middle of country, not farmland on the booming southwest edge of the Chicago region. In the long term, is farmland more valuable because of the commodity values (which can fluctuate) or because it can eventually be sold for other profitable uses?

Perhaps this all works because it is difficult to envision too much more American land becoming farmland – the total number of cropland (and farmland and pasture) acres has dropped from over 445 million acres in 1997 to over 406 million acres in 2007. If food demand is continually strong and there is a somewhat fixed number of acres that can be farmed, perhaps this is indeed valuable land.

Sociologist ties rooting for the Kansas City Royals to Midwestern values

The Kansas City Royals have a rich history including a 1985 World Series victory. However, the last two decades have been difficult: the team has had three winning seasons since 1990, no playoff visits during that time, and seven straight losing seasons. So why do fans keep rooting for the team? A sociologist suggests that rooting for the Royals is tied to Midwestern values:

Yet the Royals likely will sell out Kauffman Stadium on opening day, draw more than 2 million fans and continue to have a loyal following on the blogosphere.

“Loyalty in the face of hard times is a long-held Midwestern value, and dealing with hard times is a regular challenge for anyone whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and related businesses,” said Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “However, we must go deeper than this value to explain the loyalty of Royals fans over the past decade.”…

“The fans’ connection with a team becomes a part of their identity,” said Coakley, the author of the textbook “Sports in Society.”

“Fans everywhere reaffirm those identities for each other so that they feel special — and they often make a special point of doing this when teams are unsuccessful and they need extra reaffirmation to justify their support in the face of regular losses. Over time, this pattern of identity reaffirmation becomes regularized, and the fan identity serves as an important basis for their sense of self as well as their social lives and everyday conversations with fans and nonfans alike.

“Losses and losing seasons become topics of conversations much like the last hailstorm or dry season that ruined crops. Of course, some people eventually become weary of predictable bad times and leave their farms or fan identities behind.

“But many stick it out year after year because it is who they are, and giving up on yourself is a hard thing to do.”

Coakley is suggesting that an rooting interest in a sports team becomes internalized and the basis for a kind of community. Fans identify with the team and the city (see this recent post on the differences between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants). I wonder if we could look at the times that fans use the term “we” to refer both to themselves and the team to get an idea of how much these identities have merged.

But it is particularly interesting that Coakley ties fan’s devotion to the Royals to Midwestern values derived from farming and agriculture. Would a sociologist in Boston come up with a different cultural explanation for why Red Sox fans are so devoted? This seems like a fairly convenient explanation that might not hold up in other places.

Farming back on the upswing in Massachusetts

Farming is not a common occupation in the United States today. According to these figures from the EPA, less than 1% of Americans claim farming as an occupation and about 2% of people live on farms.

Yet the Boston Globe reports that farming is on the upswing in Massachusetts. According to the figures:

From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Massachusetts jumped by about 27 percent to 7,691, according to the US Department of Agriculture census. That’s a reversal from the previous five years, when there was a 20 percent drop in the number of farms and, presumably, farmers, many of whom sold land to developers.

But the start-up farms are smaller than the family enterprises of the past. The average farm in Massachusetts, 85 acres in 2002, was 67 acres five years later.

American society experienced such a shift away from agriculture from the late 1800s to today that I wonder if this is part of a shift toward a slightly more balanced world between agriculture and other sectors of society. There are plenty of books and pundits talking about how we are disconnected from the land and our food – perhaps a new generation is listening (and the article does make it sound like many of the new farmers are younger) and charting a new course.

(Even after an upswing, the number of farms in Massachusetts is still small. A lot more people would need to go into agriculture to become a movement.)