The Race to Transform a Wisconsin Farm into a Justice-Focused Agrihood | Civil Eats

The Race to Transform a Wisconsin Farm into a Justice-Focused Agrihood

A grassroots group is hoping to outbid deep-pocketed developers in a race to turn a 65-acre farm into a beacon of social and environmental justice.

A view of the Voit farm in Wisconsin through a barbed wire fence. (Photo by Susan Shain)

The Voit farm. (Photo by Susan Shain)

Just over three miles from Wisconsin’s Capitol building, within walking distance of a McDonald’s, a 90,000-square-foot grocery store, and an Amazon distribution center, sits a 65-acre farm.

While there are buildings on the property—a red barn, a small ready-mix concrete plant, and a white house—the farm’s most striking feature is what is absent. From the corn field running along its southern edge, one can hardly see where the land ends. The open space looks surprisingly vast in this suburban landscape of houses, traffic lights, and gas stations.

The Voit family has owned the farm for roughly 165 years. During that time, the world has changed around it, and developers and Madison city planners have fantasized over its potential. To them, the farm represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: land the size of five Times Squares at the outskirts of Wisconsin’s second-largest city.

In January, the Voits put their farm on the market. Though excited buyers sprang into action, the family has already turned down two offers.

Also racing to submit its bid is an atypical buyer: a grassroots group of citizens who desperately want the land to avoid a cookie-cutter fate. The group, Save the Farm, dreams of transforming the Voit farm into a social and environmental justice hub featuring urban agriculture, nature preserves, and affordable housing. Though it has community support, it also has some serious hurdles: an $11.5 million price tag and competition from deep-pocketed real estate developers.

Similar battles are playing out all across the country. As the cost of farming goes up, aging farmers retire, and suburbs spill into rural areas, developers are gobbling up prime acreage—often forcing agriculture and housing to compete for the same land.

While the architects of some projects, including Madison’s own Troy Gardens, have figured out how to preserve farmland and create housing on a single plot—such “agrihood” models are still few and far between. And the economic value of land, especially in close proximity to urban areas, can make it hard for agriculturally minded groups to compete.

Save the Farm isn’t just hoping to compete. It’s hoping to win.

One Big Farm, One Big Mission

Back in April 2019, Tim Cordon, social justice coordinator at Madison’s First Unitarian Society, sent an email to the University of Wisconsin’s environmental studies listserv asking if anyone wanted to discuss affordable housing.

Five people soon met to talk about the housing crisis in Madison, a city that grew 10 percent from 2010 to 2018, and whose population was grappling with few affordable options.

The kickoff meeting for Save the Farm. (Photo courtesy of Save the Farm)

The kickoff meeting for Save the Farm: From left to right: Matthew Miller, Shedd Farley, John Steines, Claire Strader, Paul Schechter, Tim Cordon. (Photo courtesy of Save the Farm)

By late 2019, when rumors began circulating about Voit farm’s impending sale, the group had sketched the outlines of what it wanted to build: a community that combined sustainable, affordable, and diverse housing with food production.

On January 14, 2020, group leaders held an official kickoff meeting. With about 40 attendees, they shared their blueprint for Voit farm’s 65 acres: 12 acres for affordable housing for marginalized communities, 20 acres for urban agriculture, and 33 acres for wetland preserves.

Exactly one year later, the Voits put the farm on the market.

“That was like rocket fuel,” said Paul Schechter, Save the Farm’s treasurer and executive director of an affordable housing nonprofit. “It was a shot in the arm for us because we were scared shitless—pardon my French—about the land being sold the next day.”

‘A Radically Inclusive Community’

Save the Farm’s lofty mission involves “honoring the ancestral roots of [the] soil,” “modeling a new paradigm of how people can live,” and building “a radically inclusive community that creates housing, food, and economic security for all.”

Urban agriculture would help accomplish those goals. Colleen Robinson, an environmental educator and Save the Farm board member, said farming would provide residents with food security and opportunities to gain job skills and earn a living wage. They would participate in daily farm chores, learn to grow vegetables, raise livestock, and develop a deeper connection to the land and their food.

a map of the proposed Voitlandia farm agrihood site, and an overlay of architectural design options for the future site. (Photos courtesy of Save the Farm)a map of the proposed Voitlandia farm agrihood site, and an overlay of architectural design options for the future site. (Photos courtesy of Save the Farm)

A map of the proposed Voitlandia farm site, and an overlay of architectural design options for the future site. (Photos courtesy of Save the Farm)

On the 20 farm acres, Robinson said the group plans to devote five to growing produce for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, an onsite farm stand, and food pantry donations. The remaining 15 acres would be open for collaborations with other agribusinesses, or could serve as an incubator for low-income farmers.

The group, which would use regenerative agriculture practices such as rotating crops and reduced tillage, would also hold events to educate both farmers and the general public on sustainable agriculture and land stewardship.

As for the 12 acres of built infrastructure, Save the Farm would work with a developer to create 600 to 1,000 affordable, dense, net-zero homes with a solar microgrid, a municipal composting center to produce biogas, and an electric vehicle sharing program so the property can be “car-lite.”

Increasing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) homeownership is an explicit goal—and one reason realtor Kaba Bah joined the Save the Farm board. “I’m a big advocate for building generational wealth, particularly for minority people,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity that we are missing out on and have been missing out on for a long time.”

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In total, roughly 400 people have filled out Save the Farm’s survey, expressing interest in its vision. The group has also received endorsements from more than a dozen local organizations. Still, it faces one giant obstacle: raising enough money to make an attractive offer.

From Farm To Subdivision

Between 2001 and 2016, American Farmland Trust found that 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland were lost to development. “That’s equal to all the U.S. farmland devoted to fruit, nut, and vegetable production in 2017—or 2,000 acres a day paved over, built up, and converted to uses that threaten the future of agriculture,” the report stated.

This issue is compounded by the fact that humans have historically settled in fertile growing areas like river valleys, said Jennifer Dempsey, one of the report’s authors. “We only have so much of this highly productive land nationwide,” she explained. Preserving what’s left is critical to bolstering national food security, local food systems, and climate change resiliency.

Although Dempsey recognizes housing is a critical need, she believes that careful municipal planning could solve both problems. She pointed to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which has dual goals of creating affordable housing and protecting the state’s agricultural land. The organization tends “to rehabilitate housing in the center of communities and then work on protecting the surrounding open land,” Dempsey said. “That has been a really good formula.”

Save the Farm has similar goals—only it wants to accomplish them on a single property. For inspiration, it’s looking close to home and further afield, to places like Texas.

That’s where, in 2015, multistate real estate developer Roberts Communities bought a 250-acre parcel outside Austin. Right in the middle was Green Gate Farms, a four-acre plot that had been farmed since the turn of the century. The developer planned to raze it.

“We were devastated,” said Erin Flynn, who had been running the organic farm with her husband, Skip Connett, since 2006. In desperation, Flynn asked Scott Roberts, the owner of the development company: Why not preserve the farm and build tiny houses on the land?

Flynn was confident in the concept, given how many times she’d heard patrons say they wished they could live at the farm. “That is a constant yearning our customers share with us,” Flynn said. “People are really, really tired of the anemic suburban existence.”

In mulling over Flynn’s proposal, a skeptical Roberts visited other agrihoods around the country—and liked what he saw. When he agreed, Flynn was stunned.

In 2018, Roberts began building Village Farm: a collection of tiny homes that will eventually surround Green Gate. The first 65 completed homes are occupied and the company plans to double capacity by early 2022.

“Instead of having a golf course or a tennis court as the community amenity, we have regenerative agriculture,” said Rebecca Powers, Village Farm’s sales manager and a current resident. “It’s almost like an intentional community. Everyone knows everyone; we have a deep love and connection not only to the land, but also to our neighbors. It’s really special.”

The arrangement has worked out for Flynn and Connett, too. Many of Village Farm’s residents volunteer at Green Gate and subscribe to its CSA program. When Flynn was scrambling to cover plants and wrap trees before Winter Storm Uri in February, more than a dozen neighbors ran out to help her.

“I didn’t have to ask,” she said. “They understood what the need was. None of them have farming experience—in fact, very few of them have gardening experience. But they are all passionate about the farm.”

An Offer That Can’t Be Refused

Save the Farm’s story is different than the one that played out in Austin, and it has two advantages.

First, its vision mostly aligns with the city’s plan, which was detailed in a 32-page document in 2018. Madison’s priorities include community, open space, and affordable housing; any developer would have to incorporate those elements to move forward.

Its second advantage may be the Voit siblings, three of whom will decide the fate of the land their family has worked for five generations. While the Voit siblings did not return requests for comment, Tom Bunbury, one of their realtors, told Civil Eats: “[The Voits] want it to go to a good cause. . . . They want it to be a nice development.”

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It’s not clear whether agriculture is a key piece of that vision, but Save the Farm isn’t waiting for an answer. It has been working with architects, seeking letters of support from community leaders, and hustling to amass enough financial support so the Voits will take its bid seriously.

Save the Farm is close to securing $2 million in county conservation funds. It’s also asking city council members to sign a letter stating that they personally endorse the project and will strive to fund any gaps from the city’s budget should the sale go through.

Save the Farm is experimenting with an investment cooperative, too. Modeled after a project in Minneapolis, Wisconsin residents could buy farm shares that may return a “modest profit” when some of the land is sold to affordable housing developers.

The cooperative’s legal structure hasn’t yet been finalized, but the group began gathering non-binding pledges in January. In the first 24 hours, it collected $285,000; by early May, it had collected $1.3 million from more than 200 community members. The group hopes the numbers will show the Voits that the project has wide community support.

The big question is whether Save the Farm can cross its t’s and dot its i’s in time, hopefully this month. “We are aware that it’s on the public market, and that there are other people who are interested as well,” said Bah, the board member.

A successful offer, however, would only be the first step. The group would then need to secure its capital stack and gain approval from the city council, and it likely wouldn’t break ground for three to five years.

While it’s a long road, Save the Farm’s members believe the project’s potential is well worth all the hours they’ve volunteered. If they fail in their efforts to purchase Voit farm, Bah said they will pursue another piece of land.

To them, the project’s success would not only mean one less characterless development in their hometown, but it would also address a range of concerns that are front and center on both local and global stages.

For example, they believe it would support racial justice by enabling BIPOC to buy homes and build generational wealth. It would tackle economic inequality by giving residents agricultural job skills and income-generating opportunities. It would increase food security by bolstering the local food system and teaching a community to feed itself. And it would assist in the fight against climate change by relying on net-zero infrastructure, reducing the need for cars, and embracing regenerative agriculture.

The project could, its members hope, even effect change on a national level, serving as a model for a new type of development.

“We want to do something different: a paradigm shift to look at how you can plan and develop while keeping in mind all of these existential threats to our society and our species,” Schechter, the group’s treasurer, said. “We are right on the precipice of so many really critical societal issues, and we can’t continue doing the status quo.”

Susan Shain is a freelance reporter and photographer whose work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Playboy, and elsewhere. Read more >

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    I have held this idea in my mind's eye for well over twenty (20) years. To learn that this now exists is so deeply impressive...

    I have seen this for an intentional community of like minded people. I have seen this as an intentional community of senior and/or disabled citizens who live among caretakers and their families who live in their own private tiny homes. I have seen this for an intentional community of homeless people. I have seen this...

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