‘Farmer Ross’ puts the ‘agri’ in Harvest agrihood in Argyle
Driving through the entrance to Harvest by Hillwood in Argyle, one gets an overwhelming feeling of wandering back in time.
Located at Interstate 35W and Farm Road 407, the 1,200-acre master-planned community is nothing short of idyllic. Like “Leave It To Beaver” mixed with a touch of “Pleasantville.”
Located at Interstate 35W and Farm Road 407, the community features rows of charming single-family model homes with perfectly-manicured lawns and a sparkling 11-acre lake filled with catfish and bass just begging to be caught. The streets, which are neatly lined with large trees, are immaculate.
Trash is nonexistent.
A sign points drivers in the direction of The Hall, Harvest’s main venue for community-wide events like potlucks and birthday parties. Unfortunately, there is no party on the agenda for today. Instead, I’m meeting Ross DeOtte, Harvest’s 27-year-old on-site farmer.
After winding through the community, I finally reach my destination, a beautiful, two-story yellow farmhouse with a wraparound porch. Built in 1876 by John Wesley Faught, Faught House was once home to five generations of the family, which farmed the land where Harvest sits. The house was moved from its original location (about 100 yards), renovated and turned into a coffee house where residents can gather and converse.
Inside, DeOtte and Angie Mastrocola, senior vice president of Hillwood Communities, are waiting. Conversation immediately plunges intothe history of the community and what DeOtte’s role is within it.
“He has a personality and a gift of dealing with people,” Mastrocola says. “On a side note, he knows how to grow stuff.”
DeOtte, who is referred to affectionately as “Farmer Ross” by residents, has been at Harvest since March and is responsible for maintaining the community’s 6-acre farm, which includes a demonstration garden, community garden and greenhouse.
‘Hire him right now’
How did DeOtte end up nabbing the coveted job?
It was a cold call.
DeOtte recounts how one day he drove by Harvest and was intrigued. Not knowing if the community had a farm or not, he decided to try his luck and placed a call to see if Harvest needed help. As luck would have it, it did.
But the job didn’t come easy. Mastrocola was determined to find the perfect person for the position and, as she says, she had a lot of questions. Could he do it full time? What was his experience? What was his passion? And most importantly, how would he interact with residents?
“My interest in having a farm out here as a developer was to make sure he connected with the residents, because it’s all about community,” Mastrocola says. “And it’s about educational opportunities and bringing folks together.”
To make sure DeOtte was up to the task, Mastrocola brought in a consultant to interview him, followed by a second consultant and then another. The process was lengthy and took several weeks to complete.
“It was like five different interviews,” DeOtte says.
With every interview, DeOtte impressed more and more, thanks to his personable demeanor and his extensive knowledge of gardening. After the final interview, Mastrocola says the consultant told her to stop her search.
“He walked right in and said, ‘You hire him right now,’” Mastrocola says. “So I said OK.”
While DeOtte doesn’t live at Harvest full time, you would never know it given how much time he spends there. He works five or six days a week, commuting from the ashram he lives on in Denton. Most work days start between 7 and 8 a.m., and no two days are the same.
When he’s not putting down pre-emergent herbicides in the greenhouse or removing weeds from the demonstration garden, DeOtte leads workshops and classes for residents, including children, who want to learn more about gardening.
While DeOtte says it can be challenging just trying to hold the attention of the “sprouts,” he has nothing but praise for his junior gardeners, whom he describes as whip-smart.
“Their absorbency is awesome,” DeOtte says.
DeOtte does have office hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“Nobody ever comes to that though because I’m always available,” DeOtte says.
And when he says he’s always available, he means it. DeOtte regularly receives calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages from residents who have gardening questions (sometimes even on his days off). While some might find the constant bombardment annoying, Farmer Ross welcomes the opportunity to connect with residents.
“A big piece of this is the community. Which is what I like about it,” he says. “My mission and their mission is we both want to have a successful farm.”
‘It’s very genuine’
Opened in 2014, Harvest by Hillwood is the flagship Live Smart community of Hillwood Communities, a residential development company owned by Ross Perot Jr. that developed most of the Alliance Corridor in north Fort Worth.
Harvest is home to about 800 families and its total population lies between 2,500 and 3,000 residents.
Designed with Hillwood’s five Live Smart principles in mind — connection, well-being, enrichment, stewardship and convenience — Harvest offers its residents a taste of small-town living in a modern environment.
“I think our thought for Harvest is that it’s really going back. You feel like you’re in the 1950s. It’s very authentic. It’s very genuine,” Mastrocola says. “But it has all kinds of the highest technology features.”
At the core of the Harvest community is its farming heritage, which is represented in the 6-acre commercial farm located along the community’s central corridor. The farm includes a greenhouse, a demonstration garden and a community garden.
“This was always a rural, sort of agrarian area,” Mastrocola says. “So we tried to preserve sort of that theme and we decided, you know, by creating an on-site farm that sort of addressed the new interest of the food movement.”
In the greenhouse, DeOtte grows produce that he sells year-round to local farmers markets and restaurants like Hannah’s Off the Square in Denton.
The gardens also play a large role in Harvest’s ongoing partnership with the North Texas Food Bank, donating a portion of the produce harvested from the demonstration garden to the non-profit. All produce grown in the food bank-designated plots in the community garden are also donated to the organization.
“We feel like philanthropy is one of the most important things to teach the children,” Mastrocola says. “We wanted this to be a model for other communities to partner in this type of a way.”
While its commitment to gardening is unique, Harvest also offers a variety of top-notch amenities and parks found at many master-planned communities, including an open-air pavilion, community outdoor kitchen and more than 16 miles of hike and bike trails.
‘Connecting with the bigger picture’
Listening to DeOttte talk about his passion for sustainable living, it’s hard to imagine that this laid-back farmer with soil-covered boots and a man bun was once just another member of Corporate America.
DeOtte, who graduated from Texas A&M University, holds both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a Master’s in business management. Upon graduation, he took a three month internship with Deloitte and Touche, which then resulted in a full-time position offer. Despite the opportunity, DeOtte struggled with the idea of spending the rest of his days behind a desk.
“It’s what I had gone to school for. My parents had paid for school and were really encouraging this whole making money in the business world thing,” DeOtte says. “But I decided nope. I can’t do this and be happy. It wasn’t going to work. So I started having to figure out what did make me happy.”
As DeOtte quickly came to realize, what did make him happy was gardening. In college, he had grown watermelon and spinach in a small garden. To kick-start his new career, DeOtte picked up gardening again as a hobby and in his spare time began going to farmers markets to connect with local farmers.
Eventually, those interactions would lead to his first job helping manage a farm and later to Harvest. Looking back, DeOtte says he doesn’t regret one bit the decision to follow his heart.
“It just made sense to me in terms of connecting with the bigger picture,” he says.
After chatting at the coffeehouse, DeOtte offers a tour of the community garden and greenhouse.
While some plots in the garden are marked for the North Texas Food Bank, others are private plots being rented out by residents. DeOtte points out one particular plot, which belongs to a child named Blake who lives in the community.
Blake attended one class of the Junior Gardeners Program, then went home and asked his mother to rent him a plot for his birthday, DeOtte says. She obliged and with help from Farmer Ross, who offered seed and mulch, Blake has grown a bounty of tomatoes, okra and cucumber.
“To me, that was so inspiring and uplifting that he wanted to do that,” DeOtte says. “And he did a great job.”
Blake’s mother, Daisy Garza, has nothing but good things to say about DeOtte and the Junior Gardeners Program.
“I think this gives them an opportunity for responsibility and to learn healthy habits when eating or choosing food,” Garza says. “I think Farmer Ross is a great teacher. He knows his stuff and is fun and interactive.”
Blake seconds that praise.
“Farming with Farmer Ross was an inspiration to start gardening myself,” he says.
For DeOtte, working at Harvest is much more than a job.
“I think as people it is really important that we realize that we are connected to everything,” DeOtte says. “Having that bigger picture perspective I think is one of the best things that you can cultivate in a kid.”
Harvest by the numbers
3: Number of future on-site schools
150: Number of family gardening plots in the community garden
1876: Year in which Faught House was built
2014: Year in which Harvest by Hillwood opened
3,200: Number of homes upon final completion
30,000: Number of meals donated to the North Texas Food Bank since Harvest’s opening