I’m standing on a hilltop in Antrim County, not far from Ellsworth, talking to a man named Mark Gebhard. Around us, in the valleys that fall away, and along the shore of the Chain of Lakes down below, the trees and field grasses are tinted with the new green of spring growth. Horses graze in a valley to the west. Across the road, a field of hay spreads across a hilltop. “When you are challenged, you go to your strengths, and our strength here is agriculture. That is what will save this area,” Gebhard says. But as he says this, he also knows that keeping land in agriculture will take some innovative thinking in today’s world. And that’s where Iron Horse Farms comes in.

Iron Horse Farms is a real estate project that is getting started on this nearly 500-acre piece of property with 9,000 feet of shoreline, and Gebhard is one of the partners. The plan is to sell about 50 lots, including 26 along the shore, and then keep the vast majority of the land open for horseback riding, hiking, skiing and other silent sports.

A central piece of the strategy is to attract people who are horse devotees. Iron Horse Farms partners are putting the finishing touches on a gorgeous boarding and riding stable where residents can keep their horses in what Gebhard calls mini-barns–stables with private tack rooms attached.

Environmentally intelligent design is another key piece of the development concept. Homeowners will be encouraged to construct their homes using non-toxic materials and energy efficient design. These principles are even on display in the horse barn, where venting that takes advantage of natural air flow, and a skylight that runs the entire length of the barn will keep the energy demands of the barn low.

Iron Horse Farms will grow all of the horse feed organically and on site, keeping that land in farming in addition to the pasture land. “This is basically a way to save three centennial farms,” Gebhard says. One farm has been long owned by Gebhard’s wife Anna’s family, another is owned by Russ and Deb Ulrey, adjacent neighbors to the south, and the third farm, to the north, was purchased by the two couples in partnership.

Gebhard was born in Minnesota and spent a lot of his youth on his family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. During his career, he rose high in the auto industry before retiring. On this day, the pride and enthusiasm he feels for the project is palpable as he steers the Kabota four-wheeler along what will be riding and hiking trails. He stops beside a small creek, parks at a little beach, walks out onto a wooden walkway in a lush wetland, describes the plan from the vantage point of a high ridge.

Gebhard says he’d like to see others experiment with this concept, mixing residential and agriculture, because with land values and taxes being what they are, this alternative might make a lot of sense for a lot of farms and for the region as a whole.

Iron Horse Farms: 231-588-2438, ironhorsefarms.net

Learn about a couple more green community developments.

Photo(s) by Melissa Zelenak, mzpix.com