[Updated on Sept. 22] Ed. — The developers of Harvest Farms are in the process of redesigning the proposal, including its density. The revised project may go to the Virginia Beach Planning Commission in November, though that is not certain.
VIRGINIA BEACH — A proposed development called Harvest Farms would be located near the intersection of Indian River and Princess Anne roads in the heart of Pungo. Initial plans call for a mix of commercial and residential development, including 164 new homes.
It would, in fact, dominate “downtown” Pungo, the village core that is considered the gateway to our rural communities in the city’s south. The developers call it an “agrihood,” a community built around farming and something consistent with the history and character of Pungo.
I attended one of the two recent meetings held at the Princess Anne Recreation Center about the project. There was a very lively discussion – and a great deal of concern and skepticism.
So just what is an agrihood? Where I grew up, the vast majority of the county that was not part of a small downtown evolved over time with how land was used in a real farming community. Those days are dwindling as small towns shrivel across the country, but there is a difference between a community that grows with land use and a subdivision that wants to incorporate housing and farming.
The term agrihood, which relates to a planned community that incorporates an agricultural element, is unique to each situation. It does always involve food growing or a clear agricultural use somewhere on the property.
The examples I saw in my research were done organically, and a certain piece of the property – it may already exist as an agricultural use – is designated as the farming activity that will continue within the development area.
Some examples I looked at in the southeast were quite impressive, dedicating up to 45 acres of land to food production and acres more for pasture. They hired experienced farmers, even subsidizing the initial infrastructure and soil build up. This would certainly encourage good production techniques. The initial vision of the founders of these communities is very important. They set the tone, keeping a focus on the importance of a real sustainable agriculture in a local food system. This is needed in our country, and in each community.
Some of these agrihoods give complete leeway for the farmer to sell produce off farm and make whatever connections needed to sell all they have grown in the larger community. Some are more focused on the immediate needs on the agrihood members.
Of the agrihoods I looked at, there was a strong commitment to preserving a local food system and putting a real value on their farm. Some of the homes were located on the edge of the farm looking out on the cropland – a bit like some developments look out over a golf course or a body of water.
In discussing these ideas with Brad Wynne, a gardener who runs Veg Out Gardens, I could hear that he has some good ideas on the project here. He is the person who would be hired to run the farming operation at Harvest Farms.
His ideas include creating a learning center for organic gardening and beekeeping. He also hopes to bring in other vendors from the community to sell their produce. These ideas are similar to ones I heard in speaking about and researching agrihoods, and I especially appreciate the focus on organic and sustainable gardening.
However, good ideas do not mean agriculture of real significance would take place in Harvest Farms. The impression I came away with from the developers was more of a “greenwashing” – essentially window dressing for a mixed-use development rather than significant farming. People living in homes starting in the $400,000 range for the cottages may value the proximity to some agricultural activity, but Pungo has no shortage of actual farming and farm stands nearby.
Unlike other projects, the land being proposed for the farm is not ideal. The 4.5 acres looks like a parcel in the middle of a tract of woods. It is a much lower elevation and possibly right next to wetlands, though the designation of wetlands was not clear in the meeting. It would have to be cleared and would take some considerable effort to turn it into fertile farmland. It could be a bed of clay under the woods.
And add to that, it was called “the bathtub” during the meeting, a place where water drains. It did sound like a lot of effort went into flood control for the overall project. Water would be piped in from the rest of the development on both sides of Princess Anne into this bathtub area which includes the farm. I once had a farm similar to this, and it was an extreme challenge to work.
The message I heard from the developers was rosy, but, from a purely agricultural perspective, they might be wearing rose-colored glasses. I really love the idea of agrihoods, but there is a difference between marketing and substantial agriculture. This needs a lot more focus on real farming, and my purposes here do not even address concerns about other aspects of the plans.
I am not addressing traffic, farmland preservation, keeping the character of Pungo intact or even flooding. However, all of these are valid issues which need serious consideration.
While the concept is good in some agrihoods elsewhere, I am not sure this is the place for it – or that the vision of farming in Harvest Farms is strong enough to justify the suburban development that would land atop our rural core.
Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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