Flush with home equity and helped by low interest rates, people across America are heading for the countryside -- to raise animals, to experience life in the rough, sometimes even to grow a crop or two.
This new move to the land is different from back-to-nature trends of the past, real estate and agriculture experts nationwide say. And the people driving it are not New Yorkers moving to now-barely-exurban retreats in Bucks County, Pa. They are baby boomers mostly, and many are willing to pay developers to build rural spreads for them.
Some want to live on the soil without actually having to till it -- a bit like non-golfers who live on the fringe of a golf course. That's why one developer now building custom farms in Florida will be offering concierge services.
No matter what they have in mind, these new country mice seem to be searching for more elbow room.
"It's not a trend, it's a stampede," said Lou Francis, president of United Country Real Estate in Kansas City, Mo., who has been selling rural homes and farms for 35 years.
The country is "a place where you can see the fruits of your investment. After all, you can't plow a stock, or raise tomatoes on it," said Francis, whose firm has 500 franchisees in 36 states.
One model for the Florida custom-farm development may be the Prairie Crossing conservation community in Grayslake, Ill., an hour's train ride northwest of Chicago. The neighborhood, which is still being developed, is to have 359 single-family houses and 36 condos built around a 90-acre commercial organic farm.
"There is an interesting dichotomy when a society in search of 'maintenance-free' wants to live on a farm," said Mike Sands, a team environmental leader at Prairie Crossing.
Carol Sonnenschein calls it "five acres and a Volvo." In 1995, she and her husband, Stuart Feen, moved into one of the first houses to go up there.
"We had never seen anything like it," said Sonnenschein, 57, a sociologist. "It was just a corn field with a site plan tacked on a board with a sign saying, 'We believe in racial and economic diversity.' We were hooked, and have never regretted it."
Prairie Crossing is a primary-home development. But the trek to wide open spaces appears to be part of the boom in the U.S. second-home market. The National Association of Realtors, which tracks sales of second homes, doesn't keep separate data for purchases of small farms and similar properties. The "rural" category, accounting for 20 percent of annual sales nationwide, probably includes farms, said spokesman Walter Moloney.
You might call the phenomenon a "new ruralism," a term coined by St. Joe Co., of Jacksonville, Fla., the firm turning some of its 800,000 acres in the Florida Panhandle into rustic retreats, small ranches and a development called WhiteFence Farms. Ground was broken in early August on the first of the custom-built, 10- to 20-acre farms 20 minutes from Tallahassee.
There will be a concierge service for part-time homeowners who want to keep animals or plant gardens, modeled on the "camp master" concept at St. Joe's 1,500-acre RiverCamp in Florida. There, the camp master arranges boat trips, barbecues and other activities.
"We thought it was important . . . our first focus groups were for the kinds of concierge services (buyers) wanted," said Peter S. Rummell, St. Joe chairman and chief executive, who, as head of Disney Development, built the planned community Celebration in the 1990s.
The cost for the concierge service, still to be determined, will be added to the $20,000- to $45,000-an-acre tab for a typical farm site.
The concierge idea mirrors what is happening out west, where buyers from California or cities such as Denver "are carving up 20,000-acre ranches into 'ranchettes,' and hiring live-in managers to care for them while they're away," said Andrew Seidl, an assistant professor of resource economics at Colorado State University.
"Sometimes, these managers are local folks who make sure there's a fire in the fireplace and the bar is well stocked before the owner arrives," he said. "It pays pretty well."
There are, of course, people who actually want to raise crops, exotic animals or goats to make cheese for local markets, albeit part time, while still holding on to full-time jobs.
Conrad Vanino of Century 21 Park Road in Wyomissing, Pa., fields small-farm inquiries almost daily.
"Today's buyers ask me questions about the quality of soil on these farms, because they already have decided what they're going to raise before they buy," said Vanino, who has sold real estate for 40 years. "That's a question only full-time farmers . . . used to talk about."
In the last year and a half, Vanino said, his agency sold 12 small farms to non-farmers, and three other properties are under contract. Sale prices ranged from $237,000 to $2.5 million.
Larry Walker of Kissinger, Bigatel & Brower Realtors in State College, Pa., said people were interested in smaller farms because of what they offered in terms of privacy and space. "They want lots of land, but prefer meadow and woods that can be just left to grow."
Lindsay Condefer, 26, of Philadelphia, is looking for a 22-acre horse farm in New Jersey, but not to raise horses. She wants to expand the animal-rescue operations tied to her pet boutiques, the Chic Petique, "so I don't have to turn any animal away."
But finding that perfect farm can be tough, as Condefer and her fiance, professional skateboarder Kerry Goetz, have discovered.
With $500,000 to spend, "we've found places with an awful house and good land and a barn, or a great house with awful land and a barn," she said.
The "new ruralism" has old roots.
Stephen M. Smith, chairman of Pennsylvania State University's agriculture and resource economics department, said back-to-the-farm movements had emerged before, most recently in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"It didn't seem to last -- I suppose because the enthusiasm waned when people found out how much work was involved," he said.
In 1983, U.S. Homes had a short-lived development in Woolwich Township, N.J., known as Five Acres and Independence. It offered 98 "farmettes," all but 20 of which equaled 5 to 11 acres.
But the idea was a bust -- the houses cost more to build than anticipated, and the economy took a downward turn. Only a few houses were constructed, and the rest of the land was sold, said Jim McAleer, a longtime New Jersey developer.
Several factors seem to be motivating ruralism's 21st-century comeback. Francis of Kansas City's United Country Properties said he has been doing record business since 2001, so he assumes that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have something to do with it.
"But the baby boomers have plenty of disposable income, and are spending their money in so many ways, so it's hard to tell," he said.
There's also a "smart-growth" component.
Prairie Crossing was a response to sprawl northwest of Chicago in the early '90s. About 600 acres were rescued by a group with no development experience, said Sands, the team environmental leader. It took the group three years to come up with a plan limiting houses to 25 percent of each 2-acre site so that the rest could be open space.
The Florida land-preservation efforts by Rummell of St. Joe Development have been praised by smart-growth advocates such as Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington and co-author of "Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania."
"It's a way of using the marketplace to promote conservation using what I and others call 'golf-course development without golf,' " McMahon said. "Surveys show what people like is not the golf, but living near the open space the course offers."
Some who take farming seriously are not impressed by the new trend.
"I hate the [term] 'hobby farm,' " said Ron Macher, editor of Small Farm Today magazine. "If you haven't been devoting your full time to farming, you aren't going to know how."
At Prairie Crossing, the organic farm's neighbors can buy its produce and even volunteer to help the farmers pick tomatoes, Sands said.
"But the farm is a commercial venture," he said. "Spending a couple of hours picking tomatoes may be fun. But spending the summer doing it sure isn't."