Thursday, September 13, 2012

Rural Inspiration: Small Scale Mixed Use

"Geercrest is the model farm many of us envisioned as children and long for as adults"

During this period of economic stagnation many communities are eager to embrace redevelopment as it changes the familiar by delivering new investments to the places we call home. The idea of returning our community centers to prominence with the aid of mixed use, is not an uncommon component of revitalization efforts.  As we look for inspiration in building stronger communities, we should be willing to navigate the rural blacktop in our search for inspiration and innovation. Although the policies of industrial agriculture have dramatically altered rural American, we can still find our way to a place where life, work, education, and recreation become indistinguishable. The connections are all around us, the local farmers market, community garden, or our very own dinner plate point the way to a place which reflects a responsible relationship between the land and people whom it sustains. 

Mixed use developments typically invoke visions of multistory structures which combined retail, professional, and living space. Filling in the patchwork remains of a community offers more than modern new structures, it enhances the ability of local government to provide basic services without increasing costs as infill development utilizes existing resources in contrast to costly new infrastructure beget by greenfield development at the peripheries. The true appeal of mixed use may be that these projects are blurring the lines between home, work, and recreation. Mixed use offers an alternative approach to community, stepping outside the rigid confines of the auto dependent economy. As aesthetically appealing as mixed use development is, it is not the optimal solution for every community. Many small towns do not have the commercial base or density to justify multistory mixed use structures. Fundamentally however,  small towns and cities share a common interest in creating community, an effort that requires people become more than residents of a place and begin to act as stewards. 

One rural example of a community built on stewardship is Geercrest Farms, located in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. Geercrest is far more than an organic vegetable plot. What sets Geercrest apart from other producers is a partnership with the land that is the foundation for a vibrant agricultural community. The farm has four functions which are indistinguishable in day to day activities. The essential functions at Geercrest include; providing for the family, growing food, educating, and serving as a sanctuary. The farm takes an innovative and modern approach to these traditional farm functions and it’s what makes Geercrest a reality. In short, Geercrest is the model farm many of us envisioned as children and long for as adults.

The first function and the center of the farm is the household. While life is diverse for the three generations and interns residing there, the daily activities revolve around the household economy. According to Wendell Berry,” the function of the household economy is to assure that the farm family lives so far as possible from the farm”. A quick stroll through Geercrest illustrates the strengths of a diverse agrarian partnership between the land and household.  From seed to harvest, the members of the farm are intimately involved with every aspect of the farm. The Geercrest household serves as more than a place to sleep or prepare the next meal, it binds the farm together in form and function.

Growing food is the second function of the farm. The farm produces year round with the assistance of greenhouses and regularly offers a variety of produce, meats, and cheese produced at the farm. The goal is not to produce the most, but to produce good food. Unlike the industrial farm which is tied to monetary capital and the latest technology, Geercrest has developed an innovative way to remove itself from the economics of industrial production. By establishing a land trust the farm segregates itself from potential development and maintains a focus on a relationship with the land. The success of the farm is dictated not by the ability to repay a loan, buy a bigger tractor, or farm more land. It’s about producing healthy food from the soil on a regular basis and protecting the ability of the soil to continue supporting the family in the future.

The farm is diverse and by all means on a path to success, but it still contends with the reality that even in Oregon growing and marketing local produce is not as lucrative as one might believe it to be. Much like some of our most innovative and desirable cities, the farm has become diverse in function. Unlike the industrial mega-farms that focus exclusively on producing one or two crops, Geercest also serves as an education center. The farm has a successful the intern program and a partnership with several area schools. Throughout the year the adjacent grange hall hosts elementary students who arrive and spend several days experiencing farm life from sunrise to sunset. Students have the opportunity to participate in the growing and harvesting of healthy produce.  Just as traditional farms would facilitate the transfer of invaluable local knowledge and skill, the farm has found a modern way to connect with youth by sharing the experience of an agrarian farm.

Education is a twofold endeavor at Geercrest. Life on the farm is also about transferring a responsibility to care for the land and ensure that it will continue to provide not only for the current residents but future generations whom will live and work here. As a new family is entrusted to work the farm, they will do so with the aid of knowledge of the land accumulated not over a lifetime but over generations. This transfer is more intricate than signing a deed or a crash course in gardening, the transfer of responsibility involves years of observation, learning, firsthand experience, and trust. 

The final function of the farm is that of a sanctuary. In our never ending drive to be more productive we’ve all too easily abandoned certain aspects of our agrarian past. Farms traditionally supported families and extend family elsewhere. Family members would return to the farm periodically for a myriad of reasons. The trip to the farm was almost prescriptive, as the rejuvinatory powers of life on the farm brought relief from the urban lifestyle. 

In our modern car dependent lives, recreation and relaxation has been contorted by the entertainment and hospitality industry. We are constantly inundated with the promise that true recreation or relaxation must take place outside the home and involve a mind numbing disconnect from our lives. Geercrest incorporates the traditional role of sanctuary into a modern day equivalent that blends seamlessly with the rest of activity on the farm. The final role of the farm is just beginning to have a physical presence at Geercrest. The farm residents are in the process of constructing spaces to host those seeking a relief from the urban environment and connection to the land that sustains them.

The challenges facing Geercrest and that of our communities are not that different and at a fundamental level neither are the solutions. Geercrest has successfully built an agricultural community, itself a product of their relationship with the land. In order to foster community Geercrest incorporates the traditional approach of using human capital, not fossil fuel to work the land. Without the aid of tractos, gps, and other equipment built for speed, the farmers at Geercrest spend more time caring for and conserving the land than is achieved with industrial agriculture methods. By feeding themselves, their partners, and the community, Geercrest has attached the necessary value to make human capital a viable alternative to the fossil fuel industrial agriculture relies upon. Geercrests economic viability is a product of its diverse nature, it functions as a home, a farm, a center of education, and a retreat. Geercrest is not a boutique farm, it’s a working farm. It’s drawn on traditional aspects of agriculture and adapted them to fit our modern economy.

Geercrest has overcome the odds and proven that the social, intrinsic, environmental, and health benefits of local sustainable agriculture do have value. As we search for solutions and innovation, Geercerst serves as a reminder that our communities are indeed tied to the land. While many aspects of life at Geercrest are intriguing one underlying principle can easily be transferred to our towns and cities. Geercrest is diverse, it produces several agricultural goods and has developed innovative activities to support the farm as a place of education and sanctuary. Most importantly, the principles of stewardship have allowed Geercrest to transcend the context of an economy defined by a fierce sense of individualism many believe justify placing rights ahead of responsibility. By managing the land and utilizing human capital the farm has fostered success by developing relationships. If the same principles of stewardship can be applied to redevelopment policy, then perhaps our towns and cities will find innovative ways to foster community. 

The truth of the matter is that many of our rural communities are crumbling both physically and socially. Communities are struggling to find meaning and value as a place in an economy that cares little for place, community, and relationships. In our efforts to revitalize rural communities, perhaps it will not be the urban centers but our agrarian roots that provide sustenance to our bodies and souls.