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Live in a farmhouse, but skip the dirty work

Ever heard of a development with its own staff farmer? WhiteFence Farms will drive the tractor for you.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published September 16, 2006


For five years, Jarrod Whitaker worked dawn through dark, trying to make a living on 6,000 acres of leased Georgia farmland. Then last spring he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: Join St. Joe Co. as it developed WhiteFence Farms at Red Hills, its first “rural residential” project on the outskirts of Tallahassee.

Now Whitaker, a lanky 29-year-old dressed in a checkered Polo shirt and khakis, no longer worries about whether too much rain will wash out his peanuts. Instead, he obsesses over getting a stretch of buckwheat to flower in front of the model home in time for the Southern Living magazine photo shoot. He toys with the idea of putting tangerine trees — a Tallahassee novelty — on a protected knoll on the 383-acre property and vineyards of muscadine grapes along a hillside.

“What crops can we grow that have some emotional value and physical beauty?’’ Whitaker asks in a slow drawl, using terms he probably never used as an agriculture student at the University of Georgia. “How can we bring WhiteFence Farms together with the farm?’’

Though having a farmer on staff may seem strange for most developers, it’s not out of character for St. Joe. The Jacksonville real estate company, the largest private landowner in the state, prides itself on the touchy-feely business of “creating places’’ instead of simply building housing developments.

WaterColor, its flagship resort project on the coast in Walton County, has had a horticulturist on staff since the design phase. At RiverCamps in Bay County, a campmaster takes potential buyers for boat rides up Crooked Creek and erects a white canvas tent waterside for serious prospects to spend the night. At WhiteFence Farms, the title on Whitaker’s business card simply says “Farmer.”

Kevin Fox, St. Joe’s senior vice president of development, said the concept for WhiteFence Farms “is for people who are interested in space, elbow room, physical and psychological freedom.’’

“But they can still be at the State Capitol or an FSU football game in 15 minutes,’’ he said.

Though formal marketing won’t begin until later this fall, Fox said WhiteFence Farms is already eliciting interest, thanks largely to its model home’s appearance on both Southern Living’s “Idea Guide” and the August issue of Progressive Farmer. Calls and e-mails have been coming from central and South Florida, as well as the New York metro area, he said.

“Though I can’t tell their affinities, I’d say those people probably went to FSU,’’ Fox said.

St. Joe is targeting preretirees who prefer to gaze at farmland than golf links, but have no intention of getting their hands dirty. The hobby farms will be sold in 3- to 10-acre lots at prices ranging from $250,000 to $750,000.

Whitaker will cultivate four parcels scattered throughout the property and ranging in size from 4 to 20 acres. A tractor trail will run by every home, and a cultivated field will be visible from nearly every living room.

The first WhiteFence Farms is on rolling red clay hills south of Old St. Augustine Road on Tallahassee’s southeastern fringe. Once a pre-Civil War plantation, the property has been owned by St. Joe since the 1950s. Its fields, which farmers once leased to plant watermelons and other crops, are bordered with thick windrows of trees. Fox and Whitaker give tours of the property in an air-conditioned Chevy Tahoe, jolting along carriage paths and up hillsides dotted with massive oaks and ancient hardwoods.

Fox said St. Joe will control the home design process at WhiteFence Farms to encourage multi-building “compounds” rather than single massive McMansions. Residents will be allowed to keep animals like cows or horses — which Fox calls “value enhancers” — on their property. Pigs, however, will not be allowed.

[Last modified September 16, 2006, 20:09:53]


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