In many ways, Shari Sirkin and Bryan Dickerson, the farmers at Dancing Roots Farm in Troutdale, Oregon, have made it. They run a popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, their heirloom vegetables grace the menus at some of Portland’s finest restaurants—including Ned Ludd, Irving Street Kitchen, and Luce—and last year they won the prestigious Local Hero award from the environmental nonprofit Ecotrust. But despite all this, the farmers barely make ends meet. They drive a 1995 Toyota wagon, never go on vacation, and had to take out a loan to buy a used tractor. “We rarely eat out. Even though we want to support the restaurants that love us,” says Sirkin.
The odds are so stacked against small-scale farmers, it’s a wonder any of them can make a living at all. In fact, statistics show that most don’t: According to the latest agriculture census, 57 percent of America’s 2.1 million farms gross less than $10,000 a year, forcing them to rely on “off-farm” income.
But a new real estate trend might just help farmers pay the bills and allow them to go out for an occasional meal to boot.
Development Supported Agriculture (DSA) or “agrihoods,” are suburban housing developments built around working farms. Unlike traditional suburbs, DSAs make a commitment to preserving some rural land for agriculture—be it six or 100 acres. Though there’s no firm count on how many agrihoods exist in the U.S., a recent story in The New York Times listed a dozen. [Update: After this piece was published, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. told the L.A. Times he estimates that “almost 200 have been built or are under construction across the country.”]
The most well-known DSAs range from the 16-acres Agritopia, outside Phoenix, Arizona, whose farm supplies a farm-to-table restaurant, to Serenbe, which has a 7-acre organic farm and CSA just south of Atlanta, Georgia. (Serenbe also has three restaurants that make use of the farm’s produce.) And Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, a consultant to many agrihoods, estimates that there are actually more like two dozen, with that number expected to rise exponentially over the next decade.
The benefit to residents is obvious: farm-fresh produce, pastoral views, and the chance to support a super-local food economy. But what’s in it for farmers?
First, they earn a salary–anywhere from $30,000-$100,000, depending on experience. The job also often comes with on-farm housing. Ashley Rodgers, 28, the current farm manager at Serenbe, gets free housing—as do her (paid) interns. This is a huge perk, because, as she points out, farmers do best when they can live on or very near to the farm. “Right now I’m running irrigation,” said Rodgers on the phone recently. “I’m going to have to come back in four hours so I can turn it off before I go to sleep.”
Unlike many sole proprietors, Rodgers doesn’t need to put aside a chunk of her income for the mortgage. Rodgers, who started the organic vegetable farm on a ranch called White Oaks Pastures, also gets profit-sharing at Serenbe. Roughly 50 of Serenbe’s 200 households subscribe to Rodger’s weekly CSA. She also sells fresh produce—lettuce, kholrabi, squash, cabbages, eggplants, tomatoes, you name it—at Serenbe’s Saturday farmers’ market, where residents set up an account and can shop without using cash.
“It’s very old-school,” says Rodgers. “There’s a small-town feel to it.” Though she thinks the farm will be lucky to break even this year, she hopes it will make a profit next year, which gives her incentive to stick around.
For Eric Calberg, farm manager of the educational programs at Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, shared infrastructure is a big upside to working in an agrihood. Prairie Crossing devotes 100 acres to agriculture, but leases most of that land to Sandhill Family Farms and a coterie of beginning farmers via an incubator program. Five acres are designated for farming education and workforce development. It is here that Calberg runs a job training program for area high school students called Prairie Farm Corps.
The lack of affordable farmland is what steered 36-year-old Michael Snow towards a job as farm manager at Willowsford a 4,000-acre agrihood in Ashburn, Virginia. “Like a lot of young farmers, I was in a position where capital and land were the tough spots,” he says.
For now, Snow and his crew farm eight acres, but eventually—when they finish cover-cropping—they’ll have 25-30 tilled acres of veggies. The developers hope the farm will eventually be self-sustaining, but in the meantime they are paying several full-time farmers.
Jobs like these are rare, but they’re worth it, says Daron Joffe, who used to run a CSA on his own farm in Wisconsin. “An insane amount of work goes into farming and at the end of the day, there is just not that much money to it,” he adds.
Joffe, who is now the ranch development director at the Leichtag Foundation in Encinitas, California, sold his farm and became the first farm manager at Serenbe. As he sees it, one of the biggest rewards of working at a DSA—at least for sociable farmers—is community-building.
“When you’re under the pressure of trying to make a living, you don’t have time to shoot the breeze with the neighbors. It’s like ‘You wanna talk? Pull some weeds and follow me.’ In a DSA environment, it’s not about pure survival and production, it’s about community. Taking that pressure off and adding community-building is very attractive,” he says.
Of course, even for farmers with paying jobs in agrihoods, the grass often looks greener on their own farm–even if it doesn’t exist yet. Ashley Rodgers finds her work at Serenbe all-consuming and gratifying for now, but adds: “Eventually it gets old. You just want that something to call your own.”
Photo captions: At top, Ashley Rodgers, farm manager at Serenbe an agrihood outside Atlanta, Georgia. Below, the farm stand at Willowsford.