When houses are built on farm ground, that’s normally the end of the farm — but homebuilder Leslie Ratliff is invested in proving that homes and farms can co-exist. “I think it’s a perfect marriage,” she says. Ratliff has been working with Maureen McDermott of Northpointe Group to build a community of homes on her family’s 141-acre farm in Warren County, Ohio, just northeast of Cincinnati. It is the first development built as an agri-community in Ohio, and Ratliff is seeing strong demand for the homes she’s building.
The development, Aberlin Springs, will eventually include 140 homes that will be clustered on small lots to preserve the farmland and woods, Ratliff explains. When the development is complete, 70% of the land will remain in open space, with the remaining 30% used for house lots and buildings. The idea is that produce raised on the farm will support the residents.
Besides the farm, the development will also offer amenities similar to a golf course community, including a clubhouse, guesthouse, pool, walking paths and health center.
Residents began moving into the development last spring, and the second phase of construction is underway with another 22 home lots. The idea has been well-received by homebuyers, with 16 homes presold in the first construction phase, says Ratliff. Her construction company, Pendragon Homes, is building the homes, and various sizes and floor plans are available. Prices start around $300,000.
Ratliff’s mother, Barbara Aberlin, helped set the groundwork for the development in 2016, when the local township was reviewing its comprehensive plan. She presented the concept for agricultural planned unit developments (PUDs), and the idea was included in the updated comprehensive plan. Local officials already understood the importance of protecting agriculture, says McDermott. “Warren County has been doing a lot of great work on farmland preservation without impeding progress.” Planning and zoning officials went out of their way to help set up the PUD, she adds. “We’re very fortunate we’re doing this in Warren County.”
To avoid misunderstandings with neighboring landowners, Ratliff organized an informational meeting before construction started. A few people initially were opposed to the idea and “came in with pitchforks,” she says. “But their concerns were dissolved within minutes.”
Guaranteed cash flow
Similar developments have been built in other states, but some of them have faltered over time. Even if the first buyers of the houses are dedicated to the idea of supporting the adjacent farm, later homebuyers haven’t always been engaged, explains McDermott. “The second homeowners weren’t connected to the original mission.” To avoid this problem, she and Ratliff established a homeowner’s membership fee of $850 per year for each residence. Even if future homeowners aren’t interested in the farm, they will still be required to support it, Ratliff says. “We have a guaranteed cash flow for the farm. That’s the golden egg right there.”
In addition to supporting the farm, the homeowner’s fee gives homeowners credit they can use to claim a share of the produce, eggs and meat produced on the farm. The farm will function as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) serving residents of the development as well as other members from the surrounding areas, Ratliff explains. She expects the farm will produce far more than the residents will eat themselves. “Three acres would probably support this whole neighborhood in vegetables,” she points out.
As she builds the community, Ratliff is hoping residents will build a connection with the land, just as her family did. Ratliff’s parents and other members of the Aberlin family came to Warren County in the 1990s and put down roots at the farm, building homes and barns around a central square reminiscent of a tiny Swiss village. The family ran an antique importing business and also raised cattle on the farm’s rolling hills.
The farm doesn’t have any cattle at the moment — during construction — but eventually, there may be more cattle grazing in the pastures, says Ratliff. The farm is currently home to a flock of seven sheep, a couple of goats and a guard donkey, as well as 128 laying hens and a few meat rabbits. The farm manager, Jill Bechtel, is in the process of figuring out the right combination of vegetable crops to grow to meet the preferences of residents. This past summer, the farm produced a wide variety of organic vegetables, but she’s planning on keeping things simpler this year by focusing on raising lettuces, greens and microgreens. The variety was too much of a good thing for some residents last year, Ratliff explains. Some busy families didn’t have the time or knowledge to cook or preserve all the vegetables they received as CSA shares. “I had that experience myself,” Ratliff admits. Last summer, when she was in the midst of moving into her own new home in the development, she didn’t have time to deal with her CSA bag of vegetables.
Eventually, Ratliff would like the farm to include additional crops such as apples and flowers. Already, one of the development’s new residents has started an herb business, raising the herbs on the farm and marketing essential oils. One 20-acre field serves a dual purpose as grazing land and as part of the private, on-site septic system that serves the homes. Grass-fed farm animals are an important part of the sustainable farming system Ratliff wants to maintain on the farm. “We’ll always have animals,” she stresses.
Families that move into the development have no obligation to help with the farm work, but they can get involved if they want. Part of Bechtel’s job is coordinating farm volunteers and organizing tasks for them. She notes that a few “weekend warrior dads” have been helping out by splitting wood, and some children in the community have become experts at tending the chickens. Some families like getting out and doing things around the farm, while others just like the serene, rural living environment, she says.
The farm is intended to be productive, not just scenery. It’s not a petting zoo, McDermott stresses. “We eat the animals, or they have a job.” Even the fluffy rabbits are intended to be meat animals, not pets, adds Ratliff.
As the community expands, Bechtel, McDermott and Ratliff plan to offer educational programs not only to teach residents about their food, but also to introduce them to new, healthful foods, such as rabbit meat. “We have to train people to eat rabbits, because they think they’re cute,” Ratliff says.
One of the goals for the community is to reconnect people with food production. “As we get more people moving in, we’ll have more opportunities to educate people,” McDermott says. “Maybe they’re not hands-on, but knowing the source of their food is very powerful.”
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.