Agmenity: Feeding Communities with Innovative Agriculture Amenities
More companies than ever are working hard to integrate agriculture in the built environment and provide hyper-local sources of fresh, delicious food. While some companies like Farm.One and Bowery create and operate high-tech indoor farms, other companies work with all sorts of clients to help design agriculture directly into their existing or future projects.
One passionate group that caught our attention here at Agritecture recently is Agmenity, based out of Houston, Texas. Founded by Scott Snodgrass & Clayton Garrett, the startup helps residential and commercial properties add agriculture as an amenity for their residents and employees. By incorporating agriculture directly into neighborhoods and places of work, Agmentity gives people a new sense of connection to their food, and to each other. To quote their website: “We believe that by bringing neighbors together to encounter agriculture that we can truly cultivate community.”
Read our interview with their founders to learn more about how Agmenity is helping to grow local agriculture and communities in Houston and beyond:
Can you tell us a little about yourselves, and what you did before Agmenity?
Scott Snodgrass: I have worked in all facets of local food from home gardening, consulting and farming to distribution and restaurants (as well as teaching high school!).
I first got into agriculture when I was running a coffee shop here in Houston and we began to buy our coffee directly from farmers. I was working with a number of farmers in Nicaragua and started getting a lot of agricultural questions from them.
At first I was confused why they would ask me, as I was on the marketing and distribution side of their product, but I realized that I had much more access to information and began to do my best to help them. I was bitten by the agricultural bug then and haven’t turned back.
Clayton here: I practiced law in small firms and on my own (just celebrated 10 years as a lawyer), helped manage my family’s cotton farms, attempted (to varying degrees) starting my own businesses, was the General Manager of Houston’s largest artisan bakery, and co-owned and lead an edible focused landscaping company, prior to Co-Founding Agmenity.
I would say that my foundational experience and perspective is in shaping advise and guiding small businesses from risk mitigation to business strategy to managing teams and projects. It helps that I’ve always worked with small businesses (a couple of which grew into medium sized businesses) whether it was an after-school job, during college or following that as a legal representative or manager.
What exactly is Agmenity, and how did it begin?
Agmenity, an agricultural services company, is an organization that specializes in the design, development and management of agricultural amenities within real estate projects on behalf of developers, homeowner’s associations, master planned communities, and commercial enterprises. Agmenity has a core expertise in designing, budgeting, installing, marketing, and managing agricultural amenities (often referred to as "Agrihoods") within master planned communities.
Clayton and I’s first business, Edible Earth Resources (an edible landscaping company), began getting requests for projects that included significant community agriculture components. As Edible Earth was designed to serve residential and restaurant clients, we realized that it was not built to handle those sorts of requests. When we were engaged in the planning phase of Harvest Green (an agrihood in the Houston suburbs) we started Agmenity to provide these sorts of services.
What are the core social and environmental challenges that Agmenity is trying to tackle, and why are they important to you?
We believe that our country has a serious food (and health) problem. Industrial agriculture has left more than just a bad taste in our mouths: it is destroying our environment and leading to enormous social and human health issues. The social and environmental challenges that we currently face can seem overwhelming, and the only way we’ll overcome them is by recognizing ourselves as stewards for future generations and considering our long-term impacts.
At Agmenity we believe that the best way to address these issues is by inviting people to encounter the way their food is produced first hand in their daily lives, their community and their own backyards. By getting their hands in the dirt (no matter how intensely or often) people recognize the importance of our food system and how great it truly can be. The fundamentally human experience of growing food is a powerful and lasting educational tool.
We’re also sad that Americans have come to accept such poor tasting food. Community farming is a pretty easy sell once you get someone to taste the quality produce that a small and well cared for farm can produce.
We know we (as a company) have a long way to go in tackling these challenges, so we focus on consistent growth to make sure we don’t lose sight of our goals.
To what extent do you see what you do as being about feeding people, versus connecting people with one another?
While we take seriously the responsibility of growing nourishment, we see our primary role as connecting people back into a food culture that’s been lost. Most people lack a knowledge of agricultural products and basic kitchen arts. By connecting people back to the soil (where it all starts... and ends!) we’ve found that they are much more likely to engage in the process of mindful eating. But in reality, connection people to food is connecting people to people.
Everyone on our team has experienced our community members encountering vegetables or animals on a farm for the first time – it’s truly a joy to experience that children picking carrots from the field or tomatoes off the vine or watch an executive take a self with a goat.
What kind of agricultural amenities have you done so far, and who are your typical clients?
We’ve already created a wide range of agricultural amenities and know that even more will come in the future. While some of our projects are simply a future plan on a shelf, a working farm within a large traditional community, most include a range of opportunities of agricultural engagement and revenue generation. And all amenities don’t have to be as active as a working farm with full-time staff. We’ve planned and maintain kitchen garden cul-de-sacs that provide perennial herbs and fruit to the homes immediately surrounding them while requiring very little in upkeep.
Our clients range from large, successful master planned developers to legacy land owners hoping to leave behind something special, to school districts interested in educating their students about food production.
Can you tell us about your recent Harvest Green project?
Harvest Green is a special place. Located in the suburbs of Houston, it’s one of the most intensive and extensive agriculturally-centered master planned communities in the country. It has a wide range of engagement points, each requiring differing levels of commitment. From Farm Club, where members pay $50/month to farm their own little plot right in the middle of our working farm to our weekly farm update emails, where the only commitment is a 30 second read.
At the center of agriculture in Harvest Green is the 12 acre Village Farm. This is the most activated amenity at Harvest Green and where most of the magic happens. The Village Farm includes orchards, crop fields, outdoor classroom, post-harvest, livestock (laying hens, dairy goats and bees), greenhouse, farmers market and event lawn. (see model I just sent for more details)
What have some of the challenges been around incorporating farming into this agrihood?
Beyond the typical challenges of small-scale agriculture (access to land, equipment costs, weather, etc), there are special challenges with being such a highly desired amenity. It really puts a lot of pressure on the common space and our farm staff.
One of our most critical successes has been our ability to draw reasonable and fair boundaries for interactions at the farm. While education is one of our most favorite things to do, there aren’t enough hours in the day for us to walk each guest or accommodate each request ad infinitum, while still accomplishing the regular tasks of a working farm. We articulate clearly that our farm is a wonderful resource, where we encourage people to get involved and be engaged, but we there it is a limited resource. So, like many other organizations, we try to do more with less while keeping in mind our overall objectives.
What is your long term vision? Do you see agriculture continuing to return to people’s lives into the far future?
We see these sorts of projects as a very important step to the re-integration of agriculture back into the way we design our society. None of our amenities yet produce enough to feed even 5% of the communities they exist within. Of course, first we have to educate residents on why local food can be so much better and on the damage that industrial agriculture can cause. Then we expect to see more and more interest in meaningful amounts of produce being grown locally.
Of course, communities will always require agricultural support from the open spaces surrounding them, but even a community producing 50% of its food (as we’ve just proposed to a development) would be an enormous step in the right direction.
What advice would you give to other food and sustainability entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses?
Do your homework. There is a whole lot of energy and interest (and money!) in this industry right now and unfortunately a lot of people entering the space aren’t putting in the time and effort it takes to gain expertise. An agricultural entrepreneur’s chances of success are near zero if they (or a senior staff member) don’t have agricultural expertise. Now matter how much technology you apply, plants are still plants... And then there are the various shareholders, stakeholders, staffing, and managing and business acumen that is required to work with communities and large scale projects.
Once you’ve done your homework, we believe there is only one way to build a business and that’s by building a community around it. Create a community of customers. Support other local businesses. Share your expertise to community groups and non-profits. And maybe most importantly, build a community of employees who are bought-in to the mission and will carry your vision forward.
About the Founders:
Scott Snodgrass - Founding Partner, The Edible Group
Scott Snodgrass is at least a 4th generation Texan and has lived in Houston for most of his life. He is passionate about seeing viable systems for local food production thrive. Scott has spent time in the garden center, landscaping and restaurant industries as well as farming (certified organic) and education. He is excited to see high quality produce grown in urban areas and made available to all people.
Clayton Garrett - Founding Partner, The Edible Group
Clayton came to be actively involved in farming and growing food later in life. After years practicing law representing small and mid-sized businesses, Clayton transitioned to managing and representing a closely-held family farm operation. Clayton then joined Slow Dough Bread Co., a Houston-based artisan styled commercial bakery as their General Manager and General Counsel. Wanting to further explore food production and the connection of people and food, Clayton co-founded The Edible Group, a collection of companies whose mission is to support the production and consumption of quality food.