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Building Community Around a Farm

December 2, 2021

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Having heard about Agritopia’s success, I was interested to take a sneak peek of the community before my farm tour. At 1 pm I arrived in the parking lot hungry and hoping for a bite to eat. There were many people coming and going through a stone archway to what looked like an outdoor cafe. As I approached, I observed more than one hundred or more sitting and conversing pleasantly at about 25 outdoor picnic tables under shade canopies. Sure enough, this was Joe’s Farm Grill, the farm’s restaurant, and a community hub of Agritopia and Gilbert, the surrounding city.

Agritopia - the Community

While waiting for my meal to be brought to my table, I called a friend who lived in Gilbert to ask him about going out to lunch. He replied, “How about Joe’s Farm Grill?” “That’s where I am right now,” I responded. Indeed, they do have excellent food. A long serpentine line inside the restaurant attested to the popularity of the place. I got the lamb burger with fries, a greek salad, and a side of beets. Wow! Deliciousness! It was fun to overhear what the talk of the neighborhood was as I enjoyed my meal in the light breeze.

As I read through the website, these are the phrases that stood out to me: “where people come together.” “Home: a sense of belonging to a community”. “Friends you can call family.” Indeed, this is what I was living in my afternoon lunch and strolling around the 11-acre farm and the 90-acre surrounding community. This neighborhood was built around the vision of “a world where you know your neighbor and they know you.”

450 houses of diverse styles and types symbolize the diversity integrated into the master plan for this community. Joe Johnston thought about how to save his farm and build a close, integrated community around it. His forethought has made Agritopia a reality and saved his family’s farm as the epicenter.

A Diverse Mix

A Christian school, a senior residence, and a variety of shops are an integral part of this “all-ages” community, unlike some of the gated communities in the area. The only permitted fence, the one around the farm was designed to be see-through. It’s all about welcoming neighbor interaction. Narrow tree-lined streets, with wide sidewalks, and generous porches that skirt close to them encourage neighbor exchange. Paths and green space connect the backyards as a common play and walk area. All these connect to the very center of the community, the farm, which has its own park-like pathways and benches.

One of those stores is “The Farm Store” where residents can pick up certified-organic, freshly-harvested vegetables for dinner. Indeed, the merchants and service providers selected to establish a business in this community were picked for the purpose of giving little reason to travel outside the community. Everything you need is located within walking distance! The Farm Store distributes local eco-friendly business wares and handmade or homemade products. Taylor, the store manager said, “I really enjoy working here! The people come here, not to pick a fight, but to learn more about the community and how to get involved.” Among the other shops along with The Farm Store is a Quonset hut-like building housing Barnone hand-made crafts, a hair cut and styling shop, a wine shop, and a coffee shop as another gathering point option.

Community Design

Agritopia’s design, with its own community planning and zoning ordinances (called CC&R), is at the very foundation of this village’s success. While Joe had hoped to keep property values at an accessible cost, the average comparable house in Agritopia is worth 20% more in real estate market value. Why? People want community and access to fresh, produce and the feel of a farm. Joe Johnston, Agritopia’s owner, and design handpicked those rules that were more conducive to the farm-centered community culture he wanted to create. In this way, he made sure the farm and its operation would be protected. He also designed the ordinances for the type of people he wanted to live in Agritopia. Those who live here find the farm both calming and beautiful.

Agritopia- The Farm

Integrating the farm in Agritopia proved to be the most complicated part of the plan. Joe set forth three design pillars for the farm: 1) food production, 2) education, and 3) beauty. He also committed to paying those working on the farm a fair living wage and covering health insurance because he wanted to make the farm sustainable for all involved. This commitment includes operating as a net-zero site. After a few years, they determined that the best way to manage the farm while maintaining the original 3 pillars of the farm and the need to support further urban agricultural ventures was by incorporating it as a nonprofit: Johnston Foundation for Urban Agriculture. A nonprofit allowed for them to receive property tax savings so they could focus their funds on people and the future of agriculture. As an agricultural venture, it could receive grant money for wells and greenhouses. A non-profit could also serve as a teaching space and opportunity to raise the next generation of farmers. It took a while to find the right farmer who sees the same vision that Joe originally set forth. After a handful of farmers, their current farmer Kelly has been a real find.

Farm Crops

The farm grows a lot of greens and citrus. Their fruits include blackberries, peaches, dates, oranges, and grapefruit. The perennial fruits don’t need as much intensive care as do the row crops. Their biggest return comes from fresh salad-type vegetables. Although they don’t grow tomatoes, they grow about 65 varieties of vegetables popular for American families.

Farm Revenue Streams and Team

The farm generates revenue from approximately 165-shares fruits and vegetables CSA as well as local restaurants including the handful directly onsite. (Currently, 35 of these are delivered to the local food banks in the valley.) They also hold a “farmers market” every Saturday to sell extra produce. Finally, they earn money by renting farm space for special events like weddings. Katie Critchley, the executive director, manages Kelly, the lead farmer, the Volunteer Coordinator, and the Farm Store Manager along with and a couple of contractors that are vital to the business. Kelly manages three full-time farmers and a couple of seasonal staff. Her contractors include one person who manages all marketing and social media, one person who does the bookkeeping, a grant writer, a social event manager, and one who conducts school farm tours.

The farm has been able to gift excess produce which was gifted to show appreciation to those nurses who have served during the COVID epidemic. Farm Agritopia also participates in a local produce coop that serves as a food hub where local farmers buy into the coop. All the farmhands have the option to eat the food they grow at the farm. In this way, the farm fulfills Joe’s vision that the majority of the food produced never leaves the community.

Once a month the farm hosts a “Farm Night” from 4 to 8 pm so people can mingle and also buy farm produce. A few from the farm crew are asked to cover this evening once a month and the Saturday market in Gilbert. Else, they work an eight-hour day, 40-hour workweek Monday through Friday starting in the summer as early as 5 am.

Organic Certification

When asked about the importance of organic certification, Katie emphasized, “It is quite a challenge to manage the documentation required by organic, but it is worth it. Our customers value that. They are willing to pay for it.’ The farm is not only organic certified but also GIP and GAP certified. It’s important that the residents of our community know that what we are applying to our fields is safe. Care needs to be taken about labeling and using only organic-certified inputs. Luckily, Kelly, our lead farmer, is really good at handling those details.

Keeping our Talented Farmers Here

When asked what her biggest concerns were regarding the farm, Katie replied, “Getting more help so that Kelly, our farm manager, doesn’t burnout.” Katie has been really lucky to attract farmer workers. Many have come from corporate jobs and bring a lot of skill and energy to the job. Some want to own their own farms someday, so this job is an education as well as a paycheck. All want to be at the farm and feel great satisfaction working together with the earth to produce such amazing, local organic food. Katie goes out of her way to personalize her thanks to each farmer - and grants them the flexibility they need to accommodate their life circumstances.

Volunteers are a significant part of their farm operation. Just yesterday they had 45 volunteers show to work on a big project. Volunteers are scheduled ahead based on farm work tasks that are time-bounded and require a lot of focus.

Community Gardeners

The farm also is next to Arizona’s largest community garden of 43 - 20’x 20’ plots provided with an irrigation spigot. For $345 per year, community gardeners use the water and provide the rest: seeds, irrigation. A common toolshed eliminates the need to bring their own. Cash is set aside for the gardeners to hold an annual salsa party.

Joe Johnston’s vision and persistence proved to be marvelously correct. He convinced his family, his colleagues, his investors, and his community, “If you build it, they will come.” And they have. People have adopted his vision of a diverse community of friendly neighbors. Joe was able to design the farm and its down-to-earth culture right into the charter of this village. The residents and employees of Agritopia love the food, the feel, and the lifestyle. All this has been made possible by a community centered around the farm.

Author: Farmer Karl

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