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Agrihoods: the urban communities built around their own farms

Could “agrihoods” be the key to a happier life?

Along the banks of North Carolina’s French Broad River, seven miles outside of Asheville, the very first neighbors in a housing development called Olivette have shuffled their furniture and boxes out of moving trucks and into their brand-new homes.

These buyers weren’t drawn by the golf course or community pool—because Olivette doesn’t have those things. The 350-acre development is what founders Scott Austin, Allison Smith, and William Dickerson are calling an “agrihood.” What if, they wondered, we built a neighborhood around a working farm? And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

“There is a gentle pull at everyone’s heart these days,” Allison explains. “We want connection with each other andconnection to the land. As gardeners ourselves, we’d noticed that there’s a vital, engaged community around growing food. So a farm seemed like a good way to create community.”

At the center of Olivette is a 46-acre organic farm that’s already growing salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, squash, berries, and Asian pears. Beehives are producing honey, and there are plans to add chickens, as well as goats to help trim the grass. All this creates a bucolic setting, but the farm isn’t just there to look pretty. Olivette’s early residents are already swinging by the packing shed to pick up baskets of fresh produce grown right here—just one perk of living in an agrihood.

And that’s just the beginning: “Soon, residents will be able to grab fresh food from a community farmstand during the warm seasons,” says William. Two full-time farmers tend to Olivette’s crops, but for residents who want to get their hands dirty, “There’s a two-acre community garden space where they can grow their own food, and we’ll never turn down an offer to help on the farm. We’ll also host farm-to-table dinners and teach people—especially kids—about growing things like fruit trees.”

Justin Aiello, the head farmer at Olivette, says, “The farm isn’t just a side amenity—we want residents to be as involved as possible. We want kids to grow up picking fresh blueberries. Already, people who have moved in have visited us on the farm, and they’ll call us up to see if we have any spinach!”

There’s no question the farm is the star here. Interest from potential homebuyers has backed up Scott and Allison’s idea that people are ready for a closer connection to the land. “Typically, the highest value property is always on the water,” says Scott. “But here, so far, most people have been interested in buying home sites that are by the farm, even more so than down by the river.”

The idea is that the farm will be a reason for Olivette’s residents to get together. “So many people today are living cut off their neighbors,” says Scott. “We wanted to create a place for what we call ‘front-porch neighbors.’ We’ll feel successful if we build a community where people know each other.”

The whole place has been designed with that goal in mind. Book clubs, exercise classes, and time on the farm—plus walking paths that thread through the property and along a mile and a half of grassy riverbank—create plenty of chances to meet face-to-face. Here and there, you’ll spot Little Free Libraries and markers that point out native and edible plants or highlight bits of local farming history.

Houses at Olivette are organized into three separate “hamlets,” each with fewer than 30 homes to foster a real sense of neighborhood and belonging. They’ve been designed with relatively small yards so that most of the land would remain open to everyone. The payoff? A seven-acre riverfront park with Adirondack chairs placed to maximize the view, a barbecuing pavilion, and a private island with a rock labyrinth to explore.

Despite the focus on open space and sustainability, no one will be living in hippie deprivation at Olivette. Buyers choose a lot and then work with a building company to customize and build their home. The high-end houses, all of which are held to the gold standard of efficiency and are heated by geothermal wells, start at $650,000, well over twice as much as the county in general.Still, the setting is what closes the deal:

“When I first stood on the land where I decided to build my home, I literally got goosebumps!” says early resident Ginny Hunneke. “One day, I watched a pair of bald eagles fly together over the river—I can’t get over how beautiful it is here.”

This interest in living in nature is creating a bumper crop of agrihoods. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 150 have sprung up all over the country. “It’s a strong trend,” says Allison. “There are so many more now than there were three years ago when we started this project. Even some golf communities are looking at transitioning to agrihoods, but of course they’ve put so many chemicals into the ground that it’s tricky.”

Many of these agrihoods have a rural feel but sit within easy commuting distance of a city. “Being close to Asheville is a huge draw for people looking at Olivette,” Allison says. “A lot of people are relocating here and bringing their jobs with them. There’s a growth in town that’s kind of heady.”

This means that agrihoods draw not just those passionate about farming, but also those who simply value living on open land and being a part of an eco-friendly community. At Olivette, there are lots of opportunities to get involved with the farm, but there’s also no actual need to ever lift a trowel. For some, says Scott, the appeal is simple: “This is a place where you come home and decompress as you look at the river, grab your dog, head out your back door onto the trails, stop at one of our meditation spots, then go home and cook dinner with food grown steps away from your home by people you actually know.”

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