Development with a taste for food

From our friends at Breaking Through Concrete – beats the hell out of a golf-course development – needs to be redone for in-town neighborhoods too.

Prairie Crossing in Illinois: The ‘urban’ farm of the future?

Matt and Peg Sheaffer run Sandhill Organics in Prairie Crossing.

For the final stop on the Breaking Through Concrete tour we’re gettin’ all peri-urban on y’all.

It takes almost an hour to drive from downtown Chicago north on I-94 to the town of Grayslake, IL where the Prairie Crossing residential development and its core farm Sandhill Organics, live. While billboards, office “parks,” and standard Interstate culture dot the highway, the tall, mixed prairie grasses native to these Great Lake Plains become increasingly expansive.

The approach from the interstate to Prairie Crossing tells a modern American story. A natural lake with tree snags and lily pads and marsh grasses covers a depression between a rim of trees and wild, hip-high grasses. A mile down the road, a fresh slab of pavement holds a large parking lot and a shopping center with chain stores. Then more open land, some large cornfields, and a walled development of cookie-cutter homes with multiple pitched roofs, garages like the entrance to an Epcot cul-de-sac tunnel ride, and lots of short, non-native grass to mow.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve surely heard this lament over lost farmland and the subsequent critique of shoddy design, development, land-use practices, square-foot orgies, and uniform averageness that pervades the house farms that replace the food farms. It sounds elitist, probably is, but it’s true and, unfortunately, it’s happening and it will continue happening for a while, at least, because cars that get driven all day, double-vaulted ceilings in the foyer, your own lawn to mow, and safety in homogeny still constitute the American dream for many people.

And, as long as we’re critiquing, Prairie Crossing has its place in this suburbanization of the rural world. It is a planned community of large homes that are affordable to only a certain economic strata and it plowed over some prairie land to make it happen. But now the good part.

Prairie Crossing was developed as a conservation community and it’s not just a marketing slogan. Vicky and George Ranney, the developers, set aside 60% of the 677 acres in a land conservation easement and another 3,200 acres are protected within the Liberty Prairie Reserve, a conglomeration of public and private land connected to the community.

From the beginning, the Ranneys believed in the farm, so they established 100 acres strictly for growing food. “This land was always farmland,” says Vicky. “So we considered what people would like to live next to. We realized that sooner or later there’d be a conflict between big agriculture and residential developments. People wouldn’t find it comfortable to live next to pesticides and chemicals.”

The Sheaffers are business entrepreneurs as much as they are farmers.

It worked. PC sold all their homes (about 400) and at a rate 34% above the market for the similarly sized developments and homes in the area. The farm is one of many differentiating factors for PC – alternative schools, open land, trails, swimming lake, and light-rail city connection make good selling points, as well. All of this is why we include the farms at Prairie Crossing in our book about urban farming. The large-scale intensive, integrated produce farm designed into the mixed-use residential development marks a huge leap for peri-urban growth. Just a few years ago, even the most progressive projects like these looked at small play-scapes or raised-bed community garden plots as radical green space. 100 acres of organic, production farmland distinguishes PC and puts it in the urban farm puzzle, albeit as a variation.

Prairie Crossing is one of the earliest examples of what architect and planner Andrés Duany calls, “Agricultural Urbanism.” Duany, along with others, has created a movement in the planning, developing, and architectural world with his New Urbanism model for sustainable design on a wildly big-picture level. New Urbanism wants to create a new language for coding and zoning and design practices so that the builders of communities, cities, even regions can look more like traditional communities that were less about the automobile and more about living smaller, more densely, more neighborly, and with less societal and environmental impact.

A new chapter in the discussion is this idea of Agricultural Urbanism. Duany differentiates agricultural urbanism from urban agriculture in simple terms: agricultural urbanism creates the walkable urban form surrounded by agriculture whereas urban ag is simply growing food on vacant lots and in backyards. He cites Detroit as a hub of urban ag and he’d call Prairie Crossing an example of ag urbanism. (Vicky Ranney presented on the topic at the recent Congress for New Urbanism.)

Peg Sheaffer says she and Matt made sure other Prairie Crossing residents consider them their neighbors and friends first, the community farmers second. They don’t want people to feel obligated to support their business, but would rather grow great produce and just happen to be next door.

Prairie Crossing has many innovative ideas within the world of housing developments: native grasses encouraged to grow wild in front yards, a charter school with an experiential curriculum located on site and open to the entire county, geothermal heating, direct connection to the Chicago train, and integrated vegetable and livestock farms that grow food for the residents, Chicago markets, and surrounding communities.

Peg and Matt Sheaffer grow most of that food. They came into Prairie Crossing early, as the original farmers for Sandhill Organics. They’d been farming previously but the Ranneys offered to lease them 45 acres of certified organic farmland. The Sheaffers moved in to the farmhouse and they’ve made it a thriving business, thanks to CSA membership and Chicago farmers market sales. They make a lot more money per acre – roughly $20,000/acre – than the mono-crop farmers – roughly $800/acre – who dominate the rest of Illinois.

But there’s over 50 more acres of farmland at Prairie Crossing. The Learning Farm project uses some of it for youth programs, from elementary students to a diverse corps of high schoolers from all over the county who work under the guidance of staff and a few college interns.

And in the Back 40 of the property, four “incubator farms” grow produce and raise pigs and chickens. Part of the Farm Business Development Center, these young farmers get the chance to take a stab at creating a viable, profitable farm business. When they’re ready, they leave to create their own independent farms. It’s a farm that grows farms and farmers.

So how does this work? And why doesn’t it happen more often?

Mike Sands, Executive Director for Liberty Prairie Foundation, has some insight. He was previously the Managing Director of the Rodale Institute, a 63-year-old organization focusing on organic agriculture research and education.

“True urban farms are incredibly important,” says Mike, “but if you consider food productivity potential, it’s limited. I do think we’re ready for that next generation of urban farming – using waste heat to power year-round production. The urban farm can provide supplemental production, but its real value is as an entry point to food quality and why that matters. And it improves its immediate community – aesthetically and psychologically.

“The challenge with what we’re doing here at Sandhill – not only diverse, integrated growing, but the marketing and financial planning involved – is that we don’t have those farmers. If you offered $20k/acre to an average farmer, they’d likely say they couldn’t handle that. These (Matt and Peg and the incubator farmers) are entrepreneurs who pick farming as their business, not people who say they want to be a farmer.”

Sands sees successful farmers coming from four groups: Liberal arts grads, people in mid-career changes, recent immigrants, and the conventional farmer who has failed – farm is or is close to foreclosure or a catastrophic event in the system has forced them to look at alternatives.

And so maybe this is the best place to end. A recurring question throughout this exploration of American urban farms has been which came first, the City or the Farm? It is perhaps a rhetorical question, more like a riddle with a few answers. But here we are in the middle of the two, a mile from hard-core modern-American farmland and all its flaws, and an hour from one of the country’s biggest cities. The land is here, but the knowledge and fervor for the new age of farming seems to be creeping out of the city, looking for more acres and new ways to make an independent living off the land. Sounds like the good ole American way.


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