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Thursday, June 16,2011

Living off your land

Agriburbia movement turns neighborhoods into farms

By David Accomazzo

The world has only 39 growing seasons until its farms have to feed a population of 9 billion. In the future, dwindling fuel supplies and increased demand will drive food prices higher, causing major problems for the world’s food supply.

Those are the problems of the future as described by developer Quint Redmond of the Golden-based design firm The TSR Group.
And Redmond has a solution, which he describes as “Amish in its idea and Steve Jobs in its execution.”

It’s called Agriburbia, and Redmond explains that it is a radical, ground-up redesign of suburbia, where instead of front lawns, homes have gardens run by sophisticated and efficient drip irrigation systems, produce is sold to local buyers or consumed on-site, and the expense of maintaining a turf lawn becomes the profit of raising crops.

Professional farmers employed by Agriburbia will regularly make their rounds through the neighborhood, maintaining the crops, and the residents will enjoy the benefit of fresh, local food — or cash from selling it.

It’s all about maximizing every square foot of land, Redmond says, and with his model, every house is productive. It’s a stark contrast to how suburbs operate today, which is based on a model that assumes there is lots of available land.

“Land was the bling of the 18th century,” Redmond says. “[Europeans] came across the ocean to the U.S., and they put a house in the middle of a quarter-acre. That’s a big piece of land. In Europe, you wouldn’t dream of having a quarter-acre, unless you were farming it.

“We’ve set up these communities for years now, and everything about them is consumptive. You buy the house, you pay the energy bill, you pay the water bill, you don’t produce anything.”

Redmond’s solution is to maximize every square inch of land and use it for food production. He gives an example of an Agriburbia community called “Platte River Village” that his firm designed for construction in Milliken. (The community is plotted and designed yet unbuilt, because, as Redmond says, banks are still hesitant to give loans for housing projects.) Oil and gas wells dot the neighborhood, and laws prevent houses from being built within 150 feet of them. But there’s no law against planting crops on them.

In other parts of the community, instead of lawns and other open spaces, you plant crops. The neighborhood homeowners association or a private entity would manage the farmland on the public areas of the neighborhood, which Redmond says would create jobs, and homeowners would be responsible for managing their own lots.

“It’s the economic manifestation of sustainability,” Redmond says. “Getting our food locally, creating, actually living in a community again instead of buying a house and hoping the food comes from King Soopers.”

Redmond says people from all over the country have approached the company ever since they hatched the idea of Agriburbia. The idea has become so popular that the Agriburbia side of their business now produces about half of The TSR Group’s revenue.

“But it won’t be that way long,” Redmond says. “There’s not that much else to do. … We went from it being a funny idea to pretty much taking over the business.”

Until Redmond can realize his dream of an agriculturally sustainable development, his company will offer two models to homeowners willing to make the initial investment into the infrastructure necessary to turn their homes into mini-farms. The investment isn’t cheap — $30,000 for the first acre, and $5,000 for each subsequent acre — but Redmond says that once the system is operational, the land could produce as much as $5,000 an acre.

In the first model, Redmond’s company will own the produce grown on the land. At no additional cost to the landowner after the initial investment, Agriburbia will take care of the crops and sell them to local restaurants and stores and then cut a check to the landowner at the end of the year.

In the second model, if you have a use for all that produce, you can hire Agriburbia as farmhands. They’ll take care of the crops and deliver them to your door. For example, Denver Public Schools hires Agriburbia to take care of three acres of converted farmland that produce food for school cafeterias.

“The DPS thing is really cool. Instead of having to pay and spray all that ground, they get revenue for it,” Redmond says. “The maintenance side of DPS basically pays us to farm it, and the food side of DPS, all the food buyers, buy the produce from themselves. They buy it from the maintenance department. The money never leaves the school system, and they get fresh food.”
The overarching goal is sustainability and preparing for a world marked by fewer natural resources and increasing demand for them. Agriburbia is just one idea with which to tackle the problems of the future.

“How far away you live from the calories you consume is going to be a big deal in the future,” Redmond says.

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