Published July 30th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
EUDORA, Kansas — Driving down East 1900 Road offers a fascinating mashup of rural idyll and suburban boom.
Twin Oaks Golf Complex marks the exit off Kansas 10 just west of town. The driving range is no Top Golf, but sitting just across from a verdant stretch of farmland, it looks vaguely out of place.
The hilly road winds on for several miles, as small farm homes welcome passersby. Gradually newer, more suburban looking homes start to enter the mix. Eventually there’s a massive stone home surrounded by farmland, protected by a stone wall with an iron gate that looms over the country road.
Could this setting be the perfect location for a modern blending of suburban living and an agricultural lifestyle: an agrihood?
On July 15, the Douglas County Commission approved the rezoning of 46 acres of property at 915 East 1900 Road owned by rural landowner Dirk Hanson, from an Ag-1 district to an Ag-2 district. The change means that the land can now be used for both residential properties, and smaller agricultural operations.
“My wife and I have raised kids in a country setting, and I’m from a farm background,” Hanson told the commission during the July 15 meeting. “The people who have expressed interest in this are all very much interested in small-scale sustainable agriculture.”
The goal of the rezoning is for the landowner to bring on three neighbors for small and sustainable food farms. Consider it a food village of sorts.
“Douglas County in particular places a large value on farmland and our farms, particularly food producing farming,” Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said. “We have quite a few food producers. The prospect of having a small neighborhood developed in the rural area close to the city’s edge is really exciting.”
During World War II, the war effort called for “Victory Gardens.” These gardens encouraged neighbors in urban communities to share their resources to plant community gardens in their backyards and on rooftops to grow produce while the government rationed food.
As the modernization of both cities and farms continued following the war, community farming became less common.
Today, agrihoods are beginning to sprout in an effort to foster more community-oriented farming. There are about 90 agrihoods currently nationwide.
In Cumming, Iowa, Dan Filius is working on developing an agrihood called Middlebrook. While there are no homes currently built, the farm is growing produce like sweet corn, zucchini and tomatoes.
“The goal is for people to get in touch with their agricultural heritage, or to get in touch with an agricultural heritage that they wish was in their family’s past,” Fillius said. “They’ll raise their children at a place where they can learn about ag and get their hands dirty, and see what it takes to grow.”
All of this chatter about connectivity to the Earth and Mother Nature, and a self-sufficient agricultural community, has led to some confusion between an agrihood and a commune, which is a small group of people living on the land and splitting responsibilities and possessions.
“One is an intentional community where there are preexisting relationships and people coming together and pooling resources for the common good,” Filius said. “Here the plant community’s attraction is a farm and edible landscaping. Going to walk around the community and there are blueberries, apple trees or pear trees along the streets, and people can step out their back door and be immersed in this growing situation. It’s more similar to a golf course community rather than a commune of hippies.”
Hanson’s proposal sent to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners states that the land has about 8.5 acres of prime soil that can be used for commodity production, an amount of land that is simply too small for large-scale commodity farming.
The hope of an agrihood is to preserve farmland that might have not been profitable if it were used for farming commodities like corn or soybeans.
“All these rural areas are getting gobbled up by metro areas, and great farmland is getting paved over now,” Filius said. “It’s a tragedy, but I really value that some people are taking it seriously and treasuring some of it (farmland).”
Thellman said Hanson’s proposal aligns with Douglas County’s values of keeping local farms afloat and propping up the local food system.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the estimated number of farms declined by 5,800 from 2018 to 2019, to 2,023,400 farms.
Besides getting people in touch with their agricultural roots, a benefit of an agrihood is bringing fresh produce directly to the plates of neighboring communities.
“My hope is that it’s more than just a large backyard garden,” Thellman said. “The presentation made it sound like a small rural neighborhood dedicated to growing food and beyond their table. We have a really vibrant local food market, almost every grocery store and restaurant. It’s not hard to sell local produce into grocery stores.”
Hanson said that some of the people looking to move to the agrihood are interested in creating a small animal operation in response to the meat supply chain disruption that has occurred due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He also has received interest from potential community members for a large vegetable farm in the agrihood.
Even though there are no homes built in the Middlebrook project in Iowa yet, Filius still has people coming to the farm to buy produce.
“Everybody is very excited,” Filius said. “They’re like, ‘Oh this is just terrific that you’re right in town and I can just swing by and grab fresh vegetables.’ They know where it’s from and it’s grown organically.”
But Filius cautioned that building up that reputation can be hard. He offered some advice for the developing community in Douglas County.
“In the case of an agrihood, there is the specific crop choice that is there, but it’s also the experience of being at a farm or living near a farm,” Fillius said. “There are a number of farms that are finding success with that ‘agritourism’ angle. Whether that is a corn maze, a pumpkin patch or apple picking, marketing that experience at the farm is making more money than the actual selling of the product.”
Thellman is optimistic about the proposed agrihood in Douglas County. She expects it to be fully established in the next five years, potentially offering a day trip destination for folks looking to get back to the land.
“It’s important to know the rezoning we did and the excitement we have doesn’t come with the expectation that this has to be done,” Thellman said. “We can’t impose that work on these folks. We can just keep checking in on them and give them all of the help they need to make this vision a reality.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.