This year has certainly been unprecedented. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change the way we conduct our daily lives and interact with one another. Work has shifted to home offices, kids are learning online and mask wearing, sanitizing and social distancing are all new practices integrated into our daily routines. During this time of disruption and uncertainty, people are re-evaluating where they live and re-defining what ‘quality of life’ means to them and their families. The concept of an Agrihood, which is a blend of town and farm, is starting to become a more relevant idea throughout America.
While the idea of an Agrihood may be new to some, the ideas was actually created long ago, in a time when people lived off the land and relied on each other for their sustenance, happiness and well-being in agrarian towns. Now that COVID-19 has created more fear about living in densely-populated cities, it is likely that the pressure to live in the suburban countryside will remain, causing lost to more prime farmland as our population continues to grow and search for more resilient places to live. Middlebrook Farm is responding to these issues and others by focusing the design and planning efforts around building community. But how does the community-building begin?” The planning approach starts by designing a new, mixed-use community around a working farm. This “center of town” is where it all begins.
Middlebrook Farm located just outside of Des Moines is one of the nation’s newest Agrihoods, and the first in Iowa. It is focused on enhancing the quality of life and mercantile for residents through improving access to fresh local foods that are grown, harvested and prepared in their community, creating opportunities for wellness and offering new social connections that center on better nutrition.
Key Design Elements for an Agrihood
Middlebrook Farm has been designed as a creative development model that will demonstrate how productive farmland and new community development can be physically and economically integrated as a profitable and sustainable business venture. The developer of Middlebrook, Steve Breuer, selected Design Workshop to develop a scalable plan that would allow the Agrihood to continue to grow and evolve as the mixed-use community expands over time. The plan is based on three key goals that have given Middlebrook Farm early signs of success.
- Start Early
During the planning of Middlebrook, the team realized the importance of building a small farm to sell produce to local-residents and businesses. The developer hired Dan Fillius to oversee the farming operations at Middlebrook including the business planning and operations. Dan is a farmer who has been growing organic vegetables for 12 years including stints managing the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm and 140 acres of vegetables at Featherstone Farm, To date, Steven and Dan have built a two-acre farm which grows vegetables and flowers that are sold at a roadside farm-stand.
In the past year, the farm has seen approximately a five-fold increase in patronage and sales during the growing season, partly because of the quality of the produce that Middlebrook Farm sells but also according to Dan “people are looking for a good excuse to be outside and do outdoor activities that provides adequate social distancing, fresh air and fun for families during COVID”. Every Friday night, the farm hosts “Friday at the Farm” and the newly restored barn provides music, food trucks, a beer and wine wagon, kids play activities, food harvesting and other family-oriented activities. The farm is also being used by a local charter school as an outdoor classroom and lab where grade-school kids can be outside and learn about the importance of quality food, nutrition and physical health. These opportunities provide a central place for people to gather, socialize and learn about the Agrihood concept as the first homes are being built.
- Right Size It
Ultimately, the farm will expand its current size to 5-7 acres which is an ideal scale to grow high quality produce, year-round, at affordable prices and make money to support the farming operation. Establishing the farm as a for-profit venture is essential to its success so it does not become a financial burden to the developer or new homeowners of Middlebrook.
To that end, Dan is constantly evaluating the variety of produce that consumers need and making sure that quality is not sacrificed as the farming operation gets larger. Additionally, adopting good farming practices like growing organic produce and rotating crops can improve the yields and quality which is important to create a reputation at farmer’s markets in the region.
Working with Steve and Dan, a team of design consultants has developed a community master plan that anticipates how the farm can expand in a logical manner over time. At completion, the farm could grow to around 20 acres as the showpiece of Middlebrook and provide enough food to serve many families at Middlebrook and/or local food banks.
- Make it the Amenity
As the center of town, the Farm will be the first thing you see as you enter the primary neighborhoods of Middlebrook. Resembling a small agrarian town, a series of commercial buildings, medium-density townhomes and a restored homestead in an urban street grid will frame the vegetable plots, community flower gardens and barns that are the centerpieces of the community. The farm will also have a small park that will be used for community events and activities like summer movie nights and ice-skating during Christmas.
At build-out, the Middlebrook Farm community will have over 1,000 dwellings ranging from single family homes, townhouses, apartments, senior living, and high-end estate homes. Additionally, the master plan has devoted another 40 to 75- acres to other agriculture and animal husbandry venues including an apple orchard, sheep meadow, winery, greenhouse/hydroponic site, neighborhood gardens, adventure play grounds and bike and walking trails.
COVID-19 has revealed the importance of available food, good nutrition, and access to the outdoors. Middlebrook Farm is a proactive development concept that can help manage some of the uncertainty and disruption to people’s lives that a pandemic can cause. It is an important step in helping to preserve productive farmland while balancing the need for new communities that results in healthier and more resilient communities for cities like Des Moines.
Lead Image: The Main Street of Middlebrook Farm will offer a mix of commercial spaces, multi-family units and single-family residential lots on a walkable street that will become the center of town for the community.