Willowsford Suburban Farm Wraps Up Second Production Year

12/2/2013 6:30 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

ALDIE, Va. — The 4,000-acre, 2,000-house Willowsford development in south central Loudoun County may be making a case for the survival of agriculture in a county under pressure to convert farmland to houses.

Two years ago, the first of those 2,000-plus houses was going up, and Mike Snow, formerly in charge of farmer training at the Accokeek Foundation, took on the task of developing the farm. He got his first one-acre plot tilled in fall 2011 and 50 people signed up for the 2012 CSA.

Today, he supplies a 100-member CSA with fresh vegetables from early May through Thanksgiving, and the Willowsford farm stand is open for sales to both residents and nonresidents two days a week. Beehives, chickens, and goats — available for off-farm “land management” tasks of clearing out weeds and poison ivy — have been added to the mix. Even though the farm has access to about 350 acres in the long run, it has about six-and-a-half acres in cultivation, with 20 more acres slated for next season.

Snow has three full-time employees, two full-time seasonal and two part-time seasonal workers.

Brain Cullen, who is leading the development team at Willowsford, said the farm project is right where he expected it to be.

“We were determined not to overcommit or overpromise,” Cullen said. He projects the farm will meet its goal of financial sustainability after five years. And he is both surprised and pleased with the high quality of produce coming in from the fields.

Willowsford’s culinary director hosted the first of a series of cooking classes for residents — a little more than 100 houses are occupied with more than 100 more lots sold — in early October, showcasing fresh and local produce grown on the farm including potatoes, sweet and white onions, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, red onion, greens and garlic. A local farmer supplied sausage from his sheep herd. Milk, butter and cheeses, also for sale at the farm stand, came from nearby artisanal cheese entrepreneurs.

Snow has upped the ante by committing to sustainable, organic growing; while the farm is not certified organic, it “absolutely” could be, he said. He uses no synthetic fertilizers or sprays, and when needed, he can use the farm’s own compost, organic pelleted chicken manure and mineral amendments.

Nearly half the land under cultivation at any given time is committed to cover crops. Buckwheat goes in first, Snow said, followed a month later by annual ryegrass, tillage radish and crimson clover. Getting ready for winter, he uses barley, rye, mustard, tillage radish, vetch and crimson clover.

The grasses and cereal grains bind the soil. Clover adds nitrogen while cereal grains add carbon, and the deep tap root of the radish breaks up the hard pan, Snow explained.

“The whole idea of cover crops is to feed the soil microbes. If you’re only growing one, you’re only feeding certain microbes. The idea is to feed as many as possible,” he said.

Field layouts include insect strips — weeds and crops that draw in beneficial insects.

The developer has supplied the capital to get the farm going — salaries, fencing, a barn, tractors, supplies, a greenhouse and high tunnels. Snow’s job is to get the farm self-sustaining by its fifth anniversary.

The farm and the other functions of the Willowsford Conservancy, which administers the 2,000 acres of open space including forests, trails and camping areas, must be self-supporting and not subsidized by the community, Snow said two years ago when Willowsford Farm existed merely on a map and in his imagination.

“My goal is to grow food for the entire community and keep the farm self-sufficient,” he said at the time.

Snow said financial sustainability will come as the operation streamlines its production.

“Now, we all do a lot of things that aren’t farming. As we get bigger, people on the crew can specialize a bit and the conservancy will take on more of the nonfarming tasks,” he said after the October cooking class.

Next year will see a larger CSA, maybe as many as 150 members, who pay $700 for a weekly delivery of food through the 28-week growing season.

“And we’ve got about 350 acres slated for the farm. Not all of that is tillable. There are some steep slopes and we’re looking at what kind of perennial crops we could put in, maybe a fig grove,” he said.

Up to 250 acres can be devoted to mixed grazing, Snow said, adding that he could add cattle, sheep, more goats and pigs to the operation. For now, though, he prefers not to overreach.

“Let’s start with the basics, grow veggies and do a good job at that. We’ve taken on a lot of projects as it is,” he said.

The farm also includes an educational component.

“We’re really helping people make the connection between us managing part of their open space and them taking that into their life and making healthy food and learning how to cook,” he said, adding that he’s been given the land to work with “and we’re going to do the best we can with it and we’re going to grow as much food as we can.”

Snow sees the CSA — there are separate CSAs for flowers and eggs — growing to between 500 and 600 members. But if all 2,000 families at build-out want to join, he’ll figure out a way to grow more.

“To me, one of the most important parts of this is that the farm be a successful unit on its own. We can then say, you can have a farm mixed in with residential development ... you can have a working landscape as well as a residential landscape and that farm can be a robust business. That’s my personal goal,” he said.

Willowsford resident Robin Carney, busy whipping up salad dressing at the October cooking class, said she is already signed up for the next one. The concept of the farm and the outdoor, healthy lifestyle, drew her to the development.

“The whole concept of the farm, going to the farm stand on Saturdays for fresh vegetables, it’s like no other neighborhood we have seen,” she said.

Cullen said the concept could be extended to other developments and could be even more successful in higher-density townhouse or apartment communities. But in Loudoun County, that would take a change in planning standards, since the county doesn’t allow multifamily dwellings in the transition zone — planned as a buffer between the densely populated east and the still-rural west.

Had he been allowed to include some town houses in Willowsford, he would have, Cullen said. That would have produced a better mix of price points, and even with more dwellings, could have resulted in more open space.

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