A different kind of community-supported farm
Forty-five minutes north of Chicago, the people at Prairie Crossing are redefining the suburban housing development to include ecological restoration, green building technologies, and small-scale organic farming

By Laura Sayre

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 down.

Site plan of Prairie Crossing. Click for a larger image.
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," Matt reports.

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.

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Prairie Crossing

Sandhill Organics

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.