Sustainability: Agritopia

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Meet a Gilbert man who has created his own “urban farm” utopian community. Joe Johnston has created Agritopia in Gilbert, an agricultural utopia with houses that have front porches, plenty of walking space, a restaurant, and a 16-acre farm that provides fresh produce.

Ted Simons: Tonight's focus on sustainability looks at an agricultural utopia in the town of Gilbert, once known as the hay capital of the world. Today the farms have made for modern conveniences but producer Shana Fischer and photographer Steve Snow show us how one man embraced the future and past to create a one of a kind community.

Shana Fischer: Nestled among the growing neighborhoods of Gilbert, sits a community unlike any other in the valley.

Joe Johnston: Agritopia is, basically, what its name says. I tried to make the shortest name to capture the spirit of the thing.

Shana Fischer: Agritopia is the vision of Joe Johnston, an inventory and second generation farmer. His story begins in 1960. Joe's father, James, bought a hay farm in Gilbert, and moved a family there. For 30 years, the Johnstons enjoyed the farming life but housing development sprouted up and a freeway moved in. The Elder Johnston retired, but Joe didn't want to give up the farm. Instead, he had other plans for it.

Joe Johnston: The initial seed of the idea for doing Agritopia was I wanted to do a restaurant in the farm and serve the produce of the farm, but the next idea after that, was I want to live where I work, I wanted to walk to work. And that idea led to, if you want to walk to work, what community do you want to live in.

Shana Fischer: Joe didn't want to tear down his family history to make way for his new dream. So, the family farmhouse was converted into Joe's farm grill, and a tractor shed became a coffee shop. In 2003, Joe started building homes. 450 in all. The homes are similar to those you would see in central Phoenix. Porches, front and center, and no block walls, and lots of space to walk. In fact, the sidewalks here are larger than in most valley communities. Every detail designed to encourage a certain lifestyle.

Joe Johnston: We're trying to create village life here, instead of having, having a segmented sort of community where it's like, the starter homes and here's the luxury homes, and segmenting people by economic background or stage of life, we're trying to create a village life where there is everything from babies to very, very old people. The people from different walks of life, different points of view. We think that creates a very vibrant and, and, and sustainable village.

Shana Fischer: Joe still maintains 16 acres of farmland. But instead of just hay, he went in a very different direction. Erich Schultz is the head farmer at Agritopia.

Erich Schultz: Urban farming is different from the traditional conventional farming. We're very limited on the amount of space that we have to utilize, and so we're having to, to basically, think outside the box, and maximize every square inch that we have to work within and, and we do everything in patchwork of crops, so if you look at the fields you will see not just one field full of, of one or two crops, but, you know, 30, 40, 50 different things growing at any time.

Shana Fischer: The produce is picked by hand, and so are the weeds. No pesticides are used. The farm at Agritopia is USDA certified organic.

Erich Schultz: We just recently became USDA certified organic. It's been an exciting thing for us, it's, you know, as a farm, we've been growing under the USDA organic protocols for ten years, and so this is just more of having that stamp next to what we're doing.

Shana Fischer: The produce is used at Joe's Farm Grill and sold to local restaurants. Even residents get in on the growing with their own community garden. There are also animals here, after all, it is a farm. Lambs and recently chickens in a mobile coop.

Erich Schultz: Because we're in an organic farm we needed to be flexible and move it to different areas on the farm. So, it's designed -- it's, it's a, a -- it looks like a shed, you know, structure, with a roof, and it's sitting on a trailer with wheels, and we're able to pull it with a tractor to different areas.

Shana Fischer: The future for Agritopia is as limitless as the landscape. Next summer, generations, and assisted living care facility will open. And in the coming years, the epicenter will be built. A five-story combination retail and apartment space. For Johnston, Agritopia has turned into his utopia.

Joe Johnston: As I walk around, I feel a lot of gratitude because, you know, my folks raised us here and, and I have a lot of good memories of growing up in this area. I think people enjoy this environment, taking a couple of hours out from, from, from the, the hectic life that is today's life, and to be able to relax with friends and family over food that, that is top quality is a beautiful thing.

Ted Simons: Agritopia hosts the Farmers' Market on-site every Wednesday and Saturday. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening.

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