A few weeks ago, Martina and I were on one of our day tripping jaunts out into the Virginia countryside, looking to explore a few places she had heard about.
We stopped to investigate Willowsford, a 4,000 acre development of jumbo sized high end houses built as an entire community in Ashburn, Virginia. As former employees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Martina and I are still avid land preservationists. And for me, normally visiting such a development would have been unthinkable. However, we had heard that this project also contained a farming component within its plan. We had to know more.
The development is sprawling with giant houses and whimsical amenities. Our first stop was the ‘tenant center’, the sales office designed to look like a folksy Virginia farmhouse, complete with rocking chairs on the porch. Out front, there’s a bicycle with a basket, setting the tone of the carefully developed image of cute simplicity to prospective buyers of the oversized houses.
The corporate materials say that Willowsford offers “inspired living” and “draws on Virginia’s scenic landscape and agricultural heritage… to encourage an appreciation for the environment and land stewardship.” Interesting words coming from an enterprise that destroyed 2,000 acres of that same scenic landscape for a housing development.
To be fair, 2,000 of the 4,000 acres is to remain as open space under the nonprofit Willowsford Conservancy. However, I can’t imagine that it wasn’t a result of pressure by local land preservationists.
The development is over the top with “resort-like quality amenities” it plans to provide to its residents: spas, pools, demonstration kitchens, even a Culinary Director. It is also providing outdoor features like walking trails, dog parks, lakes and boat houses. As with other developments, it’s trying to create instant community, but with the highest-end features possible. At this time in our economy, I wondered how anyone could to live in a resort lifestyle permanently, but we saw many interested visitors to the office and site.
What we came to see, among the cabanas and tennis courts, was the new farm designed and established to serve the community. The concept is that it will offer a farm share/CSA to residents and a small demonstration garden and stand from which it will sell produce. Willowsford is actually a model of Agriculture Supported Community (ASC) - a step beyond CSAs where farms are recognized as a vital part of a community – but I never thought I’d encounter it on a purpose-built scale.
“We are very excited about the farm and the CSA. They will even have chickens, can you believe that?” cooed one of the sales reps at the office.” They were excited when we mentioned our blog and interest in their farm, and encouraged us to stop by the farm to learn more about the operation.
Looking for the farm, we drove down an unpaved side road amidst the brand new asphalt streets. It was like crossing to a different world. We saw a brand new purpose-built barn, hoophouses, and newly tilled furrows in the adjacent field. We encountered one of the farmers, a young man who eyed us suspiciously at first as gawkers, but who warmed up as we began asking him questions about his farm.
“How does it feel to get health insurance?” we asked. Willowsford’s farm is corporately backed by the developer, at least for the start up phase, and its employees enjoy a level of pay and benefits not generally available elsewhere in the area’s local farming environment. “Yea, its great, but it is different,” he remarked, “its definitely well supplied.” Like many young agsters, he has spent a considerable amount of time in apprenticeships, learning from some of the best area farms, soaking up the best practices. He recently came from Waterpenny Farm, recruited by the Willowsford farm manager. His family has a beef farm in southern Virginia, and he’s mulling over how and when to return there to make a go of it.
The business concept of the farm is to provide produce for a CSA, that will be open to Willowsford residents and other community members. After an initial start up investment by developers, the farm is slated to be self supporting in a few years. The farm boasts a new barn, hoophouses and equipment.
Leaving the farm and the development, Martina and I couldn’t help but reflect on what an interesting twist this is on the continuum of local food and farm development in the area. Local food and farmland preservation is now a main selling point of a large development, which, in turn, has eaten up 2,000 acres of gorgeous viable farmland. It both makes sense and breaks my heart.
I know this is de rigueur for selling housing developments, and its been going on for years. I just can’t help but point out the irony here.
The slick Willowsford magazine features photos of its reserved farmland, not the housing development. The sales pitch focuses on the adjacent beauty of the Virginia countryside as a “lifestyle connection.”
“This natural landscape strongly characterizes the Virginia traditional countryside, with lush forests, rolling meadows and agricultural fields…that will be maintained with a variety of sustainable uses intended to connect residents to the land and its legacy, such as Willowsford Farm.”
The farm may be perceived as another constructed amenity to provide “farm to table attributes,” as the brochure says. But does it not indicate that farm to table movement has now truly arrived into the realm of the capital unconscious? It is now used as a selling point to those buying into land-destroying development.
However, I wonder how would our real estate world be changed if all new housing developments included a farm? What if it were required of the developer, like water, sewer, runoff mitigation and stoplights?
At the end, Martina and I realized we had different outlooks on the place. She left feeling positive about the development and what it had achieved, knowing that it was a good solution if the land is to be developed. Me, I felt less so, as you can see.
All in all, creating a farm in a development is an interesting step in preserving farmland and raising awareness for local food to table connections. Saving 2,000 acres is Loudon County is also a major achievement in an area that seems doomed to development. For me, it isn’t enough. But, if it establishes a new model of purpose built farms in communities, then I suppose I can give it some credit.