A girl runs through a wheat field, her long blonde hair streaming behind her. A happy couple shops for apricots at the farmers’ market. A line of kids eats corn on a front porch, smiling cutely as the camera pans over them. Throughout it all, a voice-over espouses the virtues of local eating, sustainability and environmental stewardship. “This is not a nostalgic dream, it’s the immediate future,” the voice intones. “Life tastes better here.”
This is the promotional video for the Cannery, a new mixed-use development in Davis that’s billing itself as “California’s first farm-to-table new home community.” Along with walking trails, swimming pool and planned amphitheater and dog park, the Cannery has working farmland on the premises. Although it takes up just 7.5 of the development’s 100 acres, much of the marketing revolves around it. Housing blocks have names like Heirloom and Persimmon, and model homes are staged with foodie books, like Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty More” and Elizabeth David’s “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.”
Move here, it all says, and you’ll be doing more than farm-to-table dining — you’ll be farm-to-table living. You’re not just buying a home; you’re buying a lifestyle.
But farming, like life, is more complicated than any marketing tagline. The soil at the Cannery is pretty much dead after more than three decades under concrete in the site’s former incarnation, an industrial tomato canning operation. The farmers are trying to coax it back to life organically, but their cover crops look like weeds, a stark contrast to the manicured landscaping of the rest of the site. And these farmers, who operate independently, have their own business goals that may not line up perfectly with the developer’s promises.
It’s tempting to view the Cannery as a cynical appropriation of the farm-to-table movement to sell $800,000 homes. If you ask around in Davis, a town that historically shuns new development, you’ll find plenty of naysayers who slam it for profiting off the region’s agricultural roots without offering housing that most ag workers can afford.
But in real ways, the Cannery is living up to its promise. Residents are enjoying the twice-weekly farmers’ market stand, the fresh eggs in a barn cooler on the honor system and the wildlife that comes into the fields during the evenings. The farmers, who are part of an incubator program, enjoy the new customers and access to land, which is often a major obstacle for those just starting out.
It’s still under construction — about 127 of the projected 576 units have been built and sold — and amenities like the dog park and office/retail block are still to come. But the farm has been harvesting vegetables all summer, and the developer, New Home Company, also seems dedicated to working out the conflicts that have arisen as the vision becomes reality. “We wanted something authentic. This isn’t us trying to have some sort of Disneyland type of phony garden,” says Kevin Carson, Northern California president. “We knew what we were getting into when we put a farm into a neighborhood. And sales have been stronger since it opened.”
Sales are, of course, a main driver behind many of the Cannery’s niceties, like the farm and solar paneling, which wereincluded either because the city of Davis asked for them or because focus groups responded positively to them. But then again, suburbs have always been sold on the promise of a better, more bucolic life. Their attractions have varied depending on the issues of their age: 19th century suburbs advertised themselves as places free of consumption and other diseases bred in dirty cities, while mid-20th century developments like Levittown in New York, were sold as havens for a post-war generation to reclaim their slice of the American Dream. It makes complete sense that developments in 2016 would align themselves with the country’s current food obsession.
The Cannery is not alone: It’s an example of an agrihood, a new type of American development built around a working farm instead of a golf course or greenbelt. Agrihoods have cropped up all around the country over the past few years, with success stories like Serenbe, a community built around a 25-acre farm and restaurant on the outskirts of Atlanta, and Agritopia, a 160-acre development on a former family farm near Phoenix. The Cannery, just within Davis city limits, is the first of its kind in California.
The agrihood is an intriguing model for a new build, especially considering that agriculture and development are usually at odds when it comes to land use. In theory, on-site farms provide nutritious food to their communities while helping everyone, including children, understand more about the provenance of their fruits and vegetables. They employ independent farm managers so residents don’t have to participate, but can still reap the benefits.
“I used to have tomato plants, but honestly, I’m too busy to garden now,” says Janice Candelario, who moved into the Sage neighborhood with her husband and two teenage children. “I love that it’s happening around me though.”
Candelario’s grandparents had a ranch nearby and she liked the idea of returning to a pastoral milieu; she was also drawn to the Davis school district and a shortened commute to her teaching job within it. The schools, the walkability, the university-inflected community of Davis itself: These are the reasons many cite for moving into the Cannery, where three-bedroom townhomes start at $525,000, and a six-bedroom costs more than $1 million.
This being Northern California, many also mention the farmers’ market and solar paneling, which residents have the option to upgrade to net zero energy. This was one of the main attractions for Peter Holman and Colin Milburn, who bought in the Cannery as a counterpoint to their San Francisco flat (Milburn works at UC Davis). They immediately upgraded to full solar electricity and are enjoying the symmetry of the development. “This was a cannery. It was industrial land. So the idea that it’s reclaiming some of that back to homes and back to the urban farm — we think it’s a great vision,” Holman says.
It is, in theory. But the fact that it was industrial land has been rough on the farmers as they’ve had to make the vision cleave to the realities of the site. The farm at the Cannery occupies a narrow strip on the east side of the property. It’s an awkward bit to farm, but it has a purpose: It’s part of the 150-foot agricultural buffer that the city of Davis requires for any new development that is built next to a farm, like the one just beyond the Cannery’s eastern border.
Then, establishing a productive farm is trickier than laying down sod or transplanting trees. “Farming is a complex thing, and if you try to treat it simply, there’s going to be flaws,” says Shayne Zurilgen, who operates Fiery Ginger Farm at the Cannery with his partner, Hope Sippola. They grow a whole host of crops, including tomatoes, melons and salad greens, at this plot and another small site in West Sacramento.
Zurilgen and Sippola met in classes at the Center for Land-Based Learning, the nonprofit organization that runs the farm in partnership with New Home Company. They’re thrilled to have this land at all, but in the field, they point out the yellow tinge in the fig tree leaves that shows nitrogen deficiency. They had the soil tested, and it showed few signs of life; it was also so compacted from being under concrete that it broke the rotary tiller on a tractor. They’ve laid down cover crops like clover, black-eyed peas and buckwheat, all aimed to put nitrogen and other necessary nutrients back into the soil, but they say they’ve received comments from the homeowners association about the cover crops looking like weeds.
The center and its farming mission has clashed with New Home over other issues as well, like laying down irrigation in the orchard. A landscaping company did the original pass. But it had to be pulled out because the company laid down piping with no regard for tilling or the realities of farming.
Because the farms are run independently, they also have their own business interests that may not be in line with New Home’s vision. Fiery Ginger Farms and the Cannery’s other incubator farm, Gomez Farm, both run Community Supported Agriculture programs, providing customers with weekly or monthly boxes of produce. One of the talking points, stressed multiple times, is that these farms will eventually provide the produce for on-site restaurants as well as residents, but it’s unclear whether the 7.5 acres can provide that much food. Plus, that output would require a rejiggering of the business plans of both farms.
Still, both farms speak positively of the public relations bumps they get with articles like this, and the exposure to the new customers that the Cannery brings with its twice-weekly farmers’ market. And Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning, agrees that the agrihood has a lot of potential, especially if you can provide space to incubator farmers. “There are big bumps and challenges along the way, but I think it is a really incredible model that needs to be looked at,” she says.
The agrihood will never be a real solution to our country’s systematic food problems, but it could, in a small way, change the way people who live in them think about the things they eat. If the developer wants to use it as a marketing point, so be it. It brought to mind “The Celebration Chronicles,” a book about the year that sociologist Andrew Ross spent living in Celebration, Fla. — an Orlando suburb built by Disney that traded on some of the same rosy nostalgia as the Cannery’s marketing materials.
Ross went in a skeptical New Yorker, but his sympathies quickly shifted. “I had promised myself to be true to the residents’ experience of daily life in Celebration, and I soon found that they had brought along as much non-utopian residue from their former lives as I had,” he wrote.
The Cannery may represent new hope for farmers, dollar signs for developers and bougie nonsense for working-class Davisites.. But at the end of the day, it’s just another place to live.