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Why small farms may answer big problems

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Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

(Read caption) In this photo taken Tuesday, July 12, 2011, beekeeper Michael Thompson, makes his way through the secret garden of wildflowers and native grasses on top of City Hall in Chicago to check on over 100,000 bees.

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Less than an hour from downtown Atlanta, more than 200 families are bringing new meaning to the term "urban farming."

The homes in the community of Serenbe are scattered throughout a 25-acre organic farm, where professional farmers tend the land and sell fruits and vegetables to local residents. Boasting a “thriving CSA program and edible landscaping,” people from across the US travel to Serenbe to either eat, visit, or build a home.

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“To be clear, we’re not roughing it,” Johnson Lemieux, a Serenbe homeowner, told CBS News. “That farm is cared for by professional farmers. We buy the food. We were lucky to be so close to it, to be able to benefit. But we’re not having to go out there and, you know, hoe the farm!”

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It is clear that homeowners in Serenbe flocked to the idea of an “agrihood.”

“People love the idea of sitting on their back porch and watching the farmers grow the food,” Steve Hygren, Serenbe’s developer, told CBS News. “The first 20 lots that I priced were sold in 48 hours. And the next group [was] sold in about six weeks. So I realized that there was actually the market demand for what we were talking about.”

A recent study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the Urban Land Insitute (ULI) predicting emerging trends in real estate during 2016 suggests more urban farms will sprout up across the US, especially in areas where vacant land sits unused and unwanted. 

“What is important – and trending – is the new vision that has urban land as the most precious and flexible of resources,” the study reports. “The idea that the end of one productive use of a real estate asset spells the extinction of value and the sunsetting of opportunity is an idea whose time is over.”

Citing urban farms in “hollowed out” neighborhoods of Newark, N.J. and Detroit, Mich., the study suggests urban farms are an example of “the creative adaption of inner-city uses,” making vacant wasteland an asset for local residents.

But the urban farm concept also succeeds in more affluent neighborhoods. In Hartford, Conn., the Grow Hartford program harvested more than 21,000 pounds of produce from their urban farms last year, giving a portion of food to low-housing and local food charities.

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Patrick McKenna, a project manager for the Hartfood farm, says urban farms achieve a three-legged stool of “revitalizing abandoned property, creating income and opportunity, and increasing healthy food access in the neighborhood.”

And while these small-scale urban farms can’t fill the demand for large-scale factory farming, they revitalize the beauty and practicality of abandoned urban centers.

“We’re not going to supply all the food needs of our cities just by rooftop farming and things like that, but what it does do is it takes derelict land and derelict buildings and gives them a new lease on life,” Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at ULI, tells the Hartford Business Journal.

But the number of small-scale urban farms has been proliferating throughout the US. And even aside from the farm-to-table movement and any environmental benefits from urban farms, it makes sense financially. 

“It’s about using farms and agriculture as an amenity,” explains Mr. McMahon. “Putting a farm in the middle of development is relatively low-cost, and it’s something that seems to resonate with lots of people. So I think we’re gonna see a lot more of these kinds of projects going forward.”