A Masterplan Community in Gilbert, AZ Embraces Its Farmland Roots
October 13, 2017 | Charli Engelhorn
In 1960, Jim and Virginia Johnston bought an alfalfa hay farm in Gilbert, Arizona and built a home on it to raise their three sons. As Jim approached retirement in the 1990s, he and his family realized that the farmland on which their house sat would likely be sold to developers.
A visionary solution from one of their sons led to an agreement to preserve a portion of the agricultural land while at the same time creating a partnership with a developer to build new homes on the property. The result was the creation of Agritopia, a 160 acre masterplan community of 452 single-family homes that surround an 11-acre USDA certified organic farm. In 2015, the family formed the Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture, to oversee the 11 acre organic farm in perpetuity.
“The impetus was really to make sure that a couple of generations down the road of Johnstons, who owned the land, didn’t pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” says Katie Critchley, director of The Farm at Agritopia and a 14-year resident. “We can continue the story of agriculture, which may take different shapes over the course of the next generations, but at least it’s there for us to be a model for urban agriculture in Arizona.”
The farm is split into different sections, with four acres dedicated to orchards, growing dates, 13 varieties of citrus, peaches, apples, and olives. Another 3.5 to four acres is farmed as row crops, with approximately 25 varieties of vegetables grown to serve the community through the farm store and local restaurants on the property.
The farm also provides space for a community garden with 46 plots open for lease to anyone, even non-residents, who want to grow their own food. At its inception, the community garden was the largest in Arizona. Potential new plot owners must go on a waiting list until a free plot becomes available.
The final portion of the farm acreage is a more ceremonial space, where cocktail parties, weddings, or corporate events could take place.
“We’re just starting to figure out how to utilize the land as best as we can to generate income for the foundation so we can do other things throughout Gilbert and Arizona,” Critchley says. “We want to bring outsiders in. The community is welcoming to everybody, which is important, because these businesses can’t survive on just the residents alone.
“The idea is once we start seeing cash flow positive for the foundation, we can be a launchpad for sinking money back into the greater community to support urban agriculture measures and doing more in the way of education, which is a big piece we’re trying to get off the ground.”
Critchley says the foundation would like to help offset the costs of field trips for schools to give kids a sense of agriculture. They also want to do more onsite classes and a free lecture series on topics such as how to keep a citrus tree alive, grow a one-foot bed, or start a seed tray.
Critchley would also like to partner with a higher-education facility, such as Arizona State University or the University of Arizona, to provide space to run experiments on the property and, in turn, receive data that will help the foundation and farm operations be more efficient.
Agritopia is currently at capacity, and only when a house goes on the market are families able to have an opportunity to live the semi-charmed life, according to Critchley.