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Willowsford: A community constructed around a farm

By WHITNEY PIPKIN
AFP Correspondent

ASHBURN, Va. (July 2014) — On the day before Memorial Day, residents of the Willowsford housing community strolled up a winding gravel drive toward a big red barn, towing their children and potluck dishes in red wagons.
Instead of a block party to celebrate the start of summer, they were gathering for a barn party at the farm, which would soon provide a bevy of produce for them as subscribers of its community supported agriculture program (and some of them even helped with harvest).
Instead of a golf course or shopping center, this housing development revolves around a farm.
The community spans more than 4,000 acres and also conserves half of that land for open green space including a 300-acre farm.
In a county with the second fastest-growing population in the country last year, the development represents a unique approach to growth, one that accommodates new residents while preserving aspects of the less dense landscape that drew them out from the city in the first place.
It’s also a reflection of a growing desire among city dwellers to get back in touch with the sources of their food. Beyond farmers’ markets, they want to see where their food is grown. All the better if they can not only visit the farm but also live near it.
Driving the fewer than 50 miles from Washington, D.C., to this community, the concrete highways give way to bucolic farm scenes — and more than a few new housing developments. Forbes magazine also ranked Loudon County as America’s richest last year with a median household income of nearly $120,000.
The craftsmen- and formal-style homes at Willowsford aren’t inexpensive, ranging in price from $500,000 to more than $1 million, but they’ve been drawing residents who are interested in more than stately escapes from the city. They’re interested in being as close as possible to the source of their food and, by extension, supporting local farmers.
For Willowsford’s director of farm operations, Mike Snow, running this diverse farm in the midst of a neighborhood means getting year-round support for his work — in the form of both finances and extra hands in the dirt.
Snow and the farm’s market and education coordinator, Deb Dramby, invite residents and their children to participate in the full farming experience through periodic planting and harvesting events.
At the May potluck dinner, residents exchanged recipes for how to best use the first-of-the-season produce like strawberries and asparagus. The conversation continued after the event on the farm’s Facebook page.
One resident posted a picture of the kohlrabi she received in her farm box and asked the group what to do with it. A half-dozen others and Dramby had soon responded with a range of suggestions.
“I just roasted it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper,” wrote one.
During regular farm tours, Snow said he talks more about his farming practices. Standing over rows of kale and other greens, Snow explained how rotational farming allows them to improve the soil’s fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers.
“We rest our land and we like to run our chickens on it to eat that clover. And then what do chickens do?” Snow said, directing his question toward the children.
But it was an adult that answered for them: “Go to the bathroom!”
“That’s right,” Snow said.
He asked the kids to help him move laying hens from one plot of grass to another. The effort was about as efficient as it sounds, with kids chasing chickens in circles or picking them up only to drop them just short of the new plot of grass. But they — and their parents — loved it.