Posted July 20, 2004: We've all seen them: old
farmhouses standing in the midst of suburban housing developments,
forlorn testimony to a former landscape. Occasionally they're inhabited
by some non-farming member of the original farm family, or a later
buyer; more often, they slowly deteriorate and are eventually knocked
This 677-acre subdivision mid-way between Chicago and Milwaukee is
different, though, and one of the ways you can tell is that there's
a group of old farm buildings still in use. Not all are strictly dedicated
to production agriculture: a large barn built in 1885 has been converted
to a community center, and another farmhouse is now used as offices.
But there are also barns housing tractors and equipment, another farmhouse
inhabited by real farmers, and sheds and silos, greenhouses and compost
piles scattered in between.
This is Prairie Crossing Farm, and it lies at the heart of a pioneering
housing development that defies easy categorization. Since the first
lots were sold in 1996, Prairie Crossing has attracted widespread
media attention and has been featured in academic debates about
'New Urbanism' and the meaning of the American suburb. When it's
complete (today just 15 lots remain unsold) the community will comprise
362 single-family housing units occupying just 20 percent, or 135
acres of the total site. Nearly 70 percent, or 470 acres, are permanently
preserved open space, including farmland, restored prairie and recreational
areas. Two commuter train lines offer easy access into Chicago,
while a commercial center (still under development) will provide
basic shopping and other services.
From the beginning, Prairie Crossing has been governed by 10 guiding
principles including environmental protection, energy conservation,
lifelong education, community diversity, and economic viability.
Its developers believe that having a working organic farm on site
is consistent with—even essential to—all of those principles.
And while the farm was initially established by Prairie Crossing
staff members, environmental team leader Mike Sands explains that
the goal from the outset was to make this high-value suburban land
available to a local farmer or farmers. This year, the project has
reached that milestone with the arrival of Peg and Matt Sheaffer,
their two year-old son Avery, and their four year-old mixed vegetable
and cut flower business, Sandhill Organics. "The core idea
is that the farm should be part of the community," says Sands.
"We're working out from there."
An environmentalist's suburban village
The seeds of Prairie Crossing were sown in 1989, when a group of
ten local landowners got organized to fight a proposed development
of 2400 houses on small lots near the town of Grayslake. They succeeded
in blocking the development, but only by brokering a deal to purchase
677 acres from the developer for a cool $5 million.
The landowner group—incorporated as Prairie Holdings—had
little experience in development and was unprepared to sit on an
investment of that size for very long. Their initial thought was
"pretty conventional," as Sands puts it—to carve
the property up into a couple dozen 'ranchettes' of 20 or so acres
each. "But they were open to ideas; and some land ecologists
got involved and proposed something more radical."
That radical something matured into today's Prairie Crossing. Lot
sizes range from 5000 to 23,000 square feet. Houses are designed
for maximum energy efficiency and minimal construction waste. Homeowners
are encouraged to use native species for landscaping, and several
have seeded their front lawns to prairie. Management of the common
recreational areas avoids the use of pesticides. The streets have
no storm drains; instead, constructed wetlands catch and filter
run-off and then feed into 22-acre Lake Aldo Leopold, also used
for boating and swimming. Ten miles of bike paths wind through the
property and link up with a more extensive regional trail network.
Prairie Crossing is so appealing, in fact, that from one perspective
it's succeeding almost too well. When the first homes went on sale
in January 1996, prices ranged from $180,000 to $480,000; values
now run from $300,000 to $600,000. Numbers like that may make it
harder for the community to stick to its goal of attracting an economically
and racially diverse group of people. At the moment, Sands says,
most Prairie Crossing homeowners fall into two broad groups: upwardly
mobile thirty-somethings with one or two kids; and empty-nesters
in their late forties or early fifties, some living with an aging
parent. There are also a few retirees, a few first-time home buyers,
and a few non-traditional couples.
Surprisingly, moreover, not everyone moving into the community
is already committed to the ethics of sustainability. Many people
who buy here, Sands explains, "are primarily motivated by the
fact it's a nice place to live, and it's a good investment."
"That used to bug the hell out of me," he admits, but
he's since made his peace with it, concluding that if part of Prairie
Crossing's mission can be to bring people around to more ecological
viewpoint, so much the better.
In a few gentle ways, Prairie Crossing residents are compelled
to participate in environmental stewardship. Buying a property here
entails mandatory membership in the homeowners' association, which
is responsible for collectively managing the recreational open-space
areas. In addition, a deed restriction on all lots stipulates that
one half of one percent of every sale goes to the Liberty Prairie
Foundation, a private operating foundation which supports further
ecological restoration, open-space preservation, and community education
in central Lake County.
Access to land, community, and markets
Prairie Crossing's farmland acreage includes a cooperatively-run
stable with 25 acres of pasture, 15 arable acres that have been
certified organic for a decade, and another 60 acres that just received
full certification a couple of weeks ago. Two and a half acres have
been carved off for a non-profit 'Learning Farm,' under separate
management, which the two schools on-site (a charter school with
an environmental emphasis serving grades K-8; and an 'adolescent'
Montessori School offering grades 5-9) can use for classes related
to organic farming and gardening. Peg and Matt Sheaffer have started
growing on 11 of the long-certified acres, and they're already planning
to extend their rotation with hay crops on the additional ground.
The Sheaffers themselves could be poster-children for the young
organic farming movement. Now in their late twenties, they've already
gained experience working at some of the leading organic and biodynamic
farms in the upper Midwest: they met at Harmony Valley, Linda Halley
and Richard deWilde's operation in Viroqua, Wis., and later worked
at Red Cardinal Farm in Stillwater, Minn.
For the past four seasons the Sheaffers rented land from the Michael
Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis., where Matt was
also on staff as primary equipment operator for Michael Fields'
500-acre organic row-crop operation, growing bread-quality winter
wheat, food-grade soybeans, and seed corn. At the same time, Peg
and Matt together launched Sandhill Organics, LLC, growing vegetables
and cut flowers and selling to restaurants and at farmers' markets
in Milwaukee and Chicago.
Even before moving to Prairie Crossing, the Sheaffers thought of
Sandhill Organics as part of an emerging trend in which farmers
own and operate businesses that are not dependent on single, specific
farm sites. Peg argues that it can actually be beneficial for beginning
farmers to get started on land they don't own. "There's such
a difference between working on an organic farm and owning a business,"
she emphasizes. Starting a farm on rented ground requires less capital,
of course; but Peg feels it can also be easier to make good business
decisions when you have less invested in a place emotionally.
The Sheaffers had been looking for land for about a year before settling
on their new location. (Prairie Crossing, interestingly, had been
looking for farmers for about a year and a half.) In addition to confronting
the basic trade-off between land values and market access—buildable
farmland in the vicinity of Prairie Crossing runs $40,000 an acre—the
Sheaffer's search for land forced them "to reconcile our desire
for an idyllic, isolated farm with our desire to be close to a community
and close to culture," Peg says. In their previous location,
Sandhill Organics was at least an hour's drive from most of its markets,
whereas here, as Peg puts it, "It just dawned on us [one day
this spring], we live with our customers! What a great opportunity
to get to know our customer base!"
Like those neighbor-customers,
Peg and Matt enjoy being able to hop on the train to Chicago to
go to a lecture or eat at a trendy restaurant. On the flip side,
they anticipate that one of the most challenging things about living
and farming here will be rebuilding their local agricultural community—finding
a network of farmer-neighbor-colleagues to share shop-talk and other
kinds of support.
Peg and Matt are acutely aware, too, of the potential contradictions
in their role as 'community farmers.' Occasionally, Peg says, she's
met people at farmers' markets or elsewhere who seem surprised that
she's intelligent, educated—and a farmer. "They say something
like, 'You're very well-spoken for a farmer.'" She smiles wryly.
While she emphasizes that everyone at Prairie Crossing's been friendly
and supportive, that kind of lingering double standard suggests
a real concern that suburban farmers not become second-class citizens
within the communities they're growing food for. "I don't want
our son to be the poor kid in the neighborhood," Peg points
out. Unless Sandhill Organics can give them an income in the same
ballpark as those of the other Prairie Crossing residents, the community
vision may be difficult to maintain.
Clarifying production objectives
The Sheaffers are on their way to making that happen, however.
A prolonged wet period earlier this summer got them thinking again
about how to make "at least some of our income not dependent
on the weather," Matt says. "We need to find ways to make
farming just a little less risky," Peg adds. Sandhill already
sells gift baskets of regional, value-added products (including
candles, soaps, wild rice, and fruit butters) at seasonal markets
and through their website, www.sandhillorganics.com. They've also
started talking to chefs about doing frozen or processed food items.
So far, too, Peg and Matt are very pleased with the shift in markets
that has come with their new location. Although initially they had
planned to sell both to Milwaukee and Chicago, their Chicago markets
are so good they've decided there's no need to drive in both directions.
The Saturday farmers' market in the older Chicago suburb of Oak
Park, they say, has been outstanding. "We've already doubled
our best day [at the farmers' market] in Milwaukee last year,"
Along with the farmers' markets, the Sheaffers have a 70-member
CSA at Prairie Crossing, which is requiring some readjustment of
the Sandhill Organics business strategy. Frustrated with the stresses
of growing 40 to 50 different vegetable crops, over the past few
seasons they had been narrowing down to their most profitable 12
or 15 crops. They're now having to reverse that trend to some extent
in order to offer a full range of veggies to their members. Still,
Peg and Matt think focusing on a smaller number of crops makes sense.
For farmers' markets, they find that having a lot of a few things
"works better than having a little bit of everything. We try
to create a feeling of abundance in everything we do," Matt
explains—so although they may only have flowers and five other
crops at any given point in the season, they feature 4 or 5 varieties
of each of those crops, make sure everything looks outstanding,
and pile the tables high.
At Michael Fields, their signature crops included heirloom tomatoes,
bunched spinach, arugula and other salad greens, and fennel, but
that too is open to revision. "One of the things I've learned
is that you don't necessarily get to choose to specialize in the
crops you like the best," says Matt. Instead, you have to go
with what works best on your land and in your markets. "It's
the soil that dictates what you can specialize in," and they're
still getting to know these soils.
A final market outlet—and an additional link to the Prairie
Crossing community—is a one-day-a-week farmstand, newly re-located
to the nascent commercial center by the train stations.
Committing for the long term
Because this farmer-landowner relationship got started relatively
late for the 2004 growing season—the Sheaffers moved on-site
in early April, seedlings and all—they've started with a one-year
lease and a handshake agreement to work toward something more long-term.
The details won't be ironed out until this winter, but will probably
cover a term of between 40 and 99 years and include provisions to
keep the land certified organic; to maintain some kind of direct
retail link to the Prairie Crossing community; and to preserve what
Mike Sands calls "some scenic and access easements"—allowing
for walking trails around the perimeter of the farmed area, for
instance. The two parties have been looking to groups like the New
England Small Farm Institute, the Intervale, and the Equity Trust
for help in outlining the terms of the lease.
Do they feel they'll be missing anything in not becoming landowners?
"We were never sold on the idea of owning the land that we
were farming," says Matt. "What we are interested in is
long-term responsibility for the land—such as we would get
with a 99-year lease. We do want to own the home that we live in,
and we want to own the equipment, because we feel that those things
have a lot to do with who we are and how we farm."
Sandhill Organics at Prairie Crossing Farm may be just getting
started, but years of hard work and dedication on both sides promise
good things for the future. So far, Matt concludes, "there
has not been a single hiccup or a single issue in the relationship.
Our hope is that this will serve as a model of access to land on
the urban fringe for hardworking farmers."
Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.