Foundation's community in NC includes working farm

By Maggie Heyn Richardson

In the world of planning, greenspace is a priority. Neighborhood residents and users of mixed-used developments place a premium on parks where their children can play, tree-lined sidewalks that invite strolling and footpaths that meander through natural settings.

But what if greenspace meant an active farm?

That’s what’s happening in 5401 North, a 300-acre traditional neighborhood development in Raleigh, North Carolina. Within the neighborhood is a fully functioning boutique farm complete with raised beds, a large hydroponic greenhouse and a burgeoning orchard. 5401 North residents can buy fresh produce from the operation, named Purple Martin Farm, through its just launched Community Supported Agriculture program.
 

Interest in locally grown foods in the United States has soared in the last 20 years with more consumers paying attention to where their food is produced. But while consumers may buy more locally grown items, most still don’t witness the farming side of the food system. Here, neighbors drive by Purple Martin Farm daily, catching a glimpse of its seasonal changes.

“The captive audience component is one of the biggest positives of the project,” says Farm Manager Maureen Thiessen. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from neighbors who ride by and want to know what it’s about. Word is really starting to spread about the CSA.”

Under development for the last decade, 5401 North is a project of Commercial Properties Realty Trust, the real estate manager for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. CPRT’s projects are intended to serve as models for progressive development and community building.

In Baton Rouge, they include the Water Campus, Acadian Village, the downtown Hilton and many others. CPRT’s signature neighborhood development, 5401 North, is situated in northeast Raleigh and is intended to push the envelope on TNDs. So far about 100 houses of diverse styles and sizes have been completed. Commercial and retail development are forthcoming.

 Farm Manager Maureen Thiessen teaches schoolchildren on a their field trip to Purple Martin Farm in Raleigh. The school is next door to 5401 North, a development by Commercial Properties Realty Trust and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Farm Manager Maureen Thiessen teaches schoolchildren on a their field trip to Purple Martin Farm in Raleigh. The school is next door to 5401 North, a development by Commercial Properties Realty Trust and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Purple Martin Farm is one of 5401 North’s signature amenities, and it could become a model for neighborhood farms around the country, believes CPRT President Carolyn Martin, who conceived the idea.

Unlike a typical community garden model, which is often run by volunteers, neighbors or school groups, Purple Martin Farm is a business run by horticulture professionals. While providing natural beauty to the neighborhood, it is also a tangible retail opportunity with residents interested in buying local produce for their households as the customers.

Gardens of any scale are tricky things, but an operation of this size demanded a certain level of technical expertise. In 2016, the CPRT team looked to experts from LSU to help plan and execute the project. They hired LSU AgCenter Assistant Professor Kathryn Fontenot and Burden Center Director Jeff Kuehny to think through details associated with the farm, including its layout, crops and methods of operation.

Fontenot says she was instantly intrigued by the project.

“We met with CPRT and they told us about their concept of a neighborhood with a farm as a central feature rather than a golf course or park with ornamental plants,” says Fontenot. “It’s a neat project and it’s been through a lot of phases as we’ve developed it.”

The planning process has demanded incredible attention to detail, says Fontenot. The team had to obtain permitting from the City of Raleigh Planning and Development Department on the size and look of the greenhouses, the orchard plantings, the fencing to keep deer away from the crops and drainage features, Fontenot says.

“It’s been a really interesting learning experience for all of us,” she says. “We’ve gotten to jump into this world of architecture and urban planning, and the planners have learned a lot about how things grow.”

Last year, the operation was ready to install a full-time farm manager. CPRT hired Thiessen, a horticulture graduate from the LSU College of Agriculture.

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Thiessen oversees all growing, which takes place in a large hydroponic greenhouse and in 25 raised beds. This spring, the yield included an initial variety of lettuces and herbs, then incorporated other warm weather crops like cucumbers, eggplant and tomatoes. The produce was distributed through the CSA, which Thiessen also runs.

CSAs have a long history across the United States. The concept is rooted in helping small farmers offset operating expenses at the beginning of the growing season. Community members buy a share of the farm and then receive a specified number of distributions of produce over the course of the season. Thiessen harvests the fresh produce items every two weeks and loads it into boxes for members to pick up. Currently, the CSA provides six distributions during each season.

Inside the expansive Purple Martin Farm temperature-controlled greenhouse, an intricate hydroponic operation is underway. Three 30-by-90-foot bays hold plants in special contraptions that allow them to grow without the use of soil. Thiessen feeds their roots with a nutrient solution. Outside, the raised beds hold seasonal crops, which were started from seeds in the greenhouse. The farm, which sits near the entrance to the neighborhood, includes a small orchard with three rows of apple trees, and will eventually include pocket berry patches as well. The operation is pesticide free.

Meanwhile, Fontenot and Kuehny are on hand to consult with Thiessen about any issues that arise with pests or other challenges.

“For example, if a problem comes up with something like aphids, Maureen can send a picture and we can develop the right strategy,” says Fontenot. “We act as consultants for the project, just as we do for any farmer in Louisiana and others we consult with.”

Interest in the farm is growing. Thiessen says she’s been approached by the operator of a mobile craft bar to grow edible flowers for cocktails, and that restaurants have expressed interest in buying produce. More neighbors have joined the CSA’s next round. Fontenot adds there’s a strong possibility that the farm could see future partnerships with educational institutions located next door to 5401 North, including Wake Technical Community College and Riverbend Elementary School.

“The project has been great,” says Fontenot. “People love the idea of a farm, but they don’t necessarily want to farm themselves. This gives them the best of both worlds.” 

Maggie Heyn Richardson