Origins: Hiu Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farms, Part 2

Hiu Newcomb has spent the past 57 years pouring her hard work into Potomac Vegetable Farms, which she started with her husband Tony on cheap rental land in Northern Virginia. To hear Hiu and her daughter Hana  talk about him, Tony Newcomb was an irrepressible man with an idealistic vision of creating a farm and a more just society. My sense from lots of conversation with both Hana and Hiu is that the farm owes its existence to Tony’s ideas, but it owes its survival to Hiu’s willing spirit of adventure and her commitment to the farm and her husband’s vision.

She is now the matriarch of the farm and mother to Hana, featured in Part 1 of the story of the farm.

Not mainstream

Hiu (pronounced Hugh) was born in 1935 in Honolulu to Chinese parents. At 82 years old, she has some great stories to share. For example: When she was six years old, her mother took her and her four siblings one December day to visit Santa. They stood patiently in line, while about ten miles away Pearl Harbor was being bombed. Her mother got all the kids home safely to their home on the hill, where they watched the black smoke from their living room window. They never got to see Santa.

When Hiu left home at age 17 to go to Oberlin College, to study piano and become a music teacher, she packed everything in a trunk and took a boat across the Pacific. It took five days. She landed in Los Angeles, then traveled by bus to San Francisco and stayed in a YMCA, and then took a train across country to Ohio. “It was very adventurous and wonderful.” (So different from how kids go off to college now, loaded down with all the amenities and moved lovingly into the dorm by their parents.)

I wondered if Hiu felt homesick being so far from home. “NO!” she says emphatically. “I felt liberated! I was pretty adventuresome in my youth. I did some hiking on my own. I did a lot of interesting things.”

She met Tony at Oberlin their freshman week and was smitten. “He was very charismatic. So much fun. Tony was just not in the mainstream. He was attracted to the exotic.” And she was very much in love with him. “Going back home to Hawaii after school seemed not good enough, like not enough adventure. Too predictive, and too many expectations.”

After they married, in 1958 at age 23, they came to D.C. because his parents lived here and “because it’s what Tony knew.” Hiu tried but didn’t land a teaching job. “I would have been good, but I’m glad I wasn’t a teacher.” Tony worked as a government economist, and before she had kids, Hiu worked for Tony’s father as a secretary.

And so the adventure begins

Their main transportation was a Vespa scooter. That first winter they both took off a few weeks from their jobs to visit a college friend in Mexico. It was December when they set out in a light snow on the Vespa, which had a top speed of about 35 mph. “Yeah, it was cold,” she remembers. “We didn’t have good gear. We had a sleeping bag, and we had very little money. His parents thought we were out of our minds. My parents didn’t even know. They were still in Hawaii, and my father was still grieving that I married a haole guy [Hawaiian for foreigner]. I was supposed to go home with my music education degree and teach in Honolulu and marry a nice Chinese man and be a credit to my father, who adored me and was just devastated that I didn’t come home.”

Hiu was an adventurous and free spirit. “I came into the marriage as someone independent and having a voice and I’m sure that was attractive to Tony, but he was such a dominant person. I was listening to his ideas and thinking they were great, and I wanted to be part of that life. It was exciting. Without him we couldn’t have created the things we did create. It was fun.” But along the way she lost her own voice.

Tony was always “launching into lots of things and barely finishing them,” says Hiu. He was inspired by utopian ideals of an agrarian community and wanted to grow vegetables, so they rented about 100 acres in the Tysons Corner area in 1960, before the mall was built and it became the rush-hour nightmare it is now. The land was on old dairies and was extremely cheap. “We rented it for around $15 to $20 an acre for the year. It was great rent, and the owners were so glad to have us there rather than have the land grow up in trees. They got some entertainment out of seeing us out there thrashing around. As we used that land, we raised our own rent, but I think the most we paid was $100 an acre for the year. But still that was a bargain.”

They both were still working when they started farming, but Tony had said he would quit his job when he turned 29, which he did. “He didn’t really like working in an office and not being able to take naps.” They lived in a row house in D.C. and would travel out to the land on the weekend. By this time they had graduated to a VW bug in which they’d bring the children out to the farm. This was before the beltway was built around D.C., and the trip out to Virginia was about 18 miles.

Farming was Tony’s idea, but Hiu felt part of the farm project. “Absolutely from the very beginning,” she says. “I had no farming experience; he sort of had a little bit.” And he had experience tinkering with old machinery, which served them well when they bought used equipment at farm auctions.

Sweet corn and the growth of Potomac Vegetable Farms

“My husband was trying to think of a premium crop that people would really value, and sweet corn was one of those.” They tried various ways to sell the corn, but nothing was quite working out. If they sold to the grocery store, the value of the corn was diminished by the time people bought it. “We made the decision to only sell fresh corn. Anything that was day old we would mark down. It took awhile to build up a reputation for how good the corn was.” Other farmers bought the corn to sell at their farm stands, and eventually the Newcombs established their own stand as well.

They were frugal people. “We didn’t have a lot of income. But we never defaulted on anything, and we never bought anything on credit except for the land mortgage. We couldn’t get loans through commercial banks unless Tony’s father co-signed, and his father was forever disappointed that Tony gave up his career as an economist. His father thought we shouldn’t be doing this stupid thing anyway.

“I don’t think either of us thought of ourselves as farmers. We didn’t even have a name for our farm, for maybe six years. We just thought we were trying to grow things and pay the bills. And learn stuff. We never really talked about it, we just did it.”

Tony wanted to create a community, a feeling that has passed on to Hana and her children, as we’ll hear in a subsequent post. “I think our family really likes to attract a group,” says Hana. “We like to have people around who want to do things with us.”

Who did her parents attract? For starters, a lot of young workers. From the beginning they hired young college students—many of them from Oberlin—to work on the farm. “And we paid them real money for their work,” says Hiu. They also had lots of friends. Hana recounts: “My dad would have things like the May 7 party. May 7 was the anniversary of Chairman Mao’s speech, where he said that all the bureaucrats had to go back to the land. As it turns out, the Cultural Revolution didn’t turn out so well,” she laughs, “but at the time my father thought it was awesome! Each May 7 he made all of his friends come out to the farm. It didn’t matter if it was a Tuesday or whatever, they would have to come from work to help us de-blossom strawberries or weed something. And they’d be like ‘Newcomb is crazy,’ but they’d do it because he was excited about it.”

Conventional practices

Tony and Hiu learned from their own trial and error and from visiting conventional farms on their winter vacations. “They were not the right place to go and learn these things,” she says, “but that was all we knew about. It’s not like now, where there are programs for beginning farmers. We had none of that. The Extension people had these big manuals of the pesticides we could use. We weren’t committed to being organic, because we didn’t think you could grow corn organically. So we were spraying the corn with DDT. When we grew other vegetables we used horse manure that we hauled in a dump truck from area horse barns. We didn’t know anything about soil biology, but it was a good thing what we were doing [with the non-corn vegetables]. But the corn we sprayed.”

When DDT was banned, they switched to spraying the corn with Sevin. Tony used less than the recommended amount, but he also sprayed with Atrazine and used Captan to coat the seeds. “I remember asking somebody at EPA if we had to worry about fungicides and herbicides,” says Hiu, “and they told me nah, it’s the pesticides and insecticides that you want to be more careful with. Well, Tony was going barefoot most of the time and wore no protective clothing. He mixed the stuff in a big sprayer tank, stirring it. If the nozzle got clogged he would unscrew it and blow through it.

“I think Tony always thought about the connection, and he never wanted the kids or me to get near that spray tank. He knew something wasn’t good; he just didn’t know how to do it better.”

Tony died from lymphoma in 1984.

“I think he died from 24 years of exposure to Atrazine. I read in trade journals soon after he died that there was a very strong correlation between his kind of lymphoma and that particular herbicide. And Atrazine is still being recommended and sold.”

When Tony died, Hiu announced: “ ‘We’re selling this sprayer; we’re not doing this any more.’ We were giving up using the chemicals on the corn, but it’s very hard to grow corn organically; everything wants to eat it. Everything. Birds, raccoons, bugs, worms. It’s hard to protect it. So therefore we were basically giving up the corn. We decided that even though that’s supposed to be our signature crop, we were going to move on to some other signature crop, which pretty much became tomatoes.”

They transitioned to organic and became certified in 1990, then withdrew from the certification program in 2003 when the National Organic Program came in. They call themselves ecoganic, and you can read more about their decision to forgo certification here. “We are totally committed to the principles and practices, but we didn’t think it was worth our while to gear up for the additional documentation that was required. I think it’s really important to have documentation when there’s a long chain between the farmer and the eater, but not when the chain is really short. Anybody knows that if they want to talk to us about it they can hardly shut us up about it. We’ll talk all about soil microbiology and so on.”

The theory of benign neglect

Hana was conceived on the newlywed couple’s Vespa trip to Mexico, and born in 1959. “All four of our kids were conceived on trips,” Hiu says. “In the old days we had lots of escapades. When Hana was nine months old, we took a cross-country car trip with Tony’s sister and brother-in-law. Apparently Tony decided they were going too slowly, so we got off and finished the rest of the journey by bus. Hana was traveling in a box that Tony made. Tony used to make these amazing boxes.”

Hiu was not what we now call a helicopter parent. “Benign neglect” is how she describes her parenting style. “I remember the first place we rented. It was an old house that had one bare electric bulb in each room. There was cold water but no hot water; there was an outhouse, and no houses close by. We had to be out by 6 AM to pick the corn, and the kids were not up. They were too young to leave a note—they couldn’t read. We would just leave cold cereal on the table, and they would get themselves something. It was much better when we could write a note. There were cases when their grandparents really worried whether the kids would live to grow up.

“One day, when there was just Hana and Lani, 18 months apart, we came home from picking corn, and Hana wasn’t there. Lani was barely talking, but she said ‘Hana walk’. Hana had gone off to look for us. We found her before too long, lying down in the field. She might have been 3. Another time when there were four kids, we came back and Anna and Charles were gone. They were barefoot. They had gone down the driveway looking for apples or something. Nothing bad happened, but these stories would get back to the grandparents and they’d think Oh God. We would lose the kids temporarily around the farm, but they would they eventually come back.

“I was a little bit mean as a mom,” Hiu admits. “I didn’t know what they were doing in school because they were all doing well and didn’t need me. I’m not proud of the benign neglect, but it’s good if it comes out okay.”

And did it come out okay?, I asked her. “All the kids are secure and solid,” was her reply. Says Hana to her mom, “We were fed; we were cared for. There was never a question in anyone’s mind that we were loved. You did everything that a parent needs to do.”

Hana has raised her three children with some level of benign neglect as well, “I inherited it. Part of that theory only works, though, if you have an environment that allows for it.”

Parents today might react in horror to the stories Hiu tells of her life as a mom, but when I’m around Hana and her solidity, I have to wonder about the protective way it seems most kids are being raised today (and believe me, I have been a very close-buzzing helicopter mom). My experience of the farm kids I’ve met is that they are capable little people growing up knowing how to take care of themselves. Hana says that’s true of her own children.

Separation from Tony

It’s easy to romanticize about an idyllic life on a farm. But farm life is still life, and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not. Like in 1974, when the wood stove in Hiu and Tony’s house caught fire and burned off the attic and the roof. Hiu sees that fire as a turning point in her relationship with Tony, which, despite their fun adventures, had never been a wonderful match. He took up with one of the young Oberlin students who had worked on the farm in the early ’70s and moved in with her.

Hiu and Tony still ran the farm together, because they both wanted to farm. “He just didn’t want to live with me. It was terrible.” Or, as Hana characterizes it, “It was a complicated time.” It was two years later that he got sick, and two years after that that he died.

Hiu kept the farm going, with Hana’s help. After running the farm without Tony for about nine years, “it seemed to be going ok,” Hiu says. “I said to Hana, ‘I think you’ve been doing this because of me. I think that maybe this is a chance for you to think about something else you might want to do besides farming. And maybe I’ll take off a year, and we’ll just close down the farm for a year.’ I just wanted to go away for a year and then come back.

“Hana thought about it and came back the next day and said, ‘it’s kind of irresponsible to close down the farm, but I can keep it going and you can go do whatever you want.’ Hiu had been invited to do a year-long internship at Genesis Farm, an ecological learning center in New Jersey. “And so I packed up and went up to Genesis Farm. I was 58 at the time and I’ve never worked so hard in my life.

“Amazingly, the typography of that farm, the feel of the place, was so comfortable from the first day. I slipped right in and enjoyed it immensely. I just couldn’t do the work of the 20 year olds, but I did it, and it was a fantastic year in so many ways. When I came back, I didn’t know this would happen, but we changed so much of this farm. Hana had done fine. I shared what I had learned, like not plowing anymore and using different ways of planting things. We considered growing crops we never thought we could grow, like carrots and things that were more nit-picky. There were changes that we instituted over the next two years that have made the farm more what it is now. It was so important a year.”

The next adventure

Hiu had been single for ten years, and she felt pretty happy with her life. She had regained the voice that got stifled during her marriage. Farming friends introduced her to Michael, a political scientist, professor, and author, and, yes, a graduate of Oberlin College whom Hiu had failed to meet while she was there. After the dinner party where they met, Michael invited her to visit next time she was in New York, where he lived. Given that she rarely left the farm, she figured it was a pleasant evening and that was that.

A few months later, Genesis Farm (80 miles from New York City) invited her back for a week, and she invited Michael to come visit the farm, thinking he would find it interesting. They spent three days in conversation, “which I never had with Tony. So when I put him back on the bus I said ‘Thank you, Michael, this was wonderful.’ And he said ‘This is it?’  I pointed out that he lived in New York and I lived in Virginia, so yes, this was probably it.” He replied that he came down to Washington periodically for meetings, and that he’d be down there the following week.

He started coming down every other weekend, “to find out more about the farm and about me and all that.” Eight years later he was still coming down. During one of those visits, Hana asked him about his intentions. He said he’d made a commitment to her mom, but he hadn’t thought about marriage and Hiu certainly liked her independent life. Hana replied that wasn’t enough.

Michael proposed to Hiu in the Denver airport, and she made him get on his knees. She was 67 when they married in 2002. To his credit, he has successfully worked his way into the formidable Newcomb clan.

And now

Hiu has slowed down her work on the farm, but not without prodding from Hana. Says Hana, “it’s taken time to train her to do other things with her time besides farming.” She comes and goes as she pleases, which Hana plans to do when she gets older, but Hiu is still in charge of the seedlings in the greenhouse. Hana may have taken over the day-to-day operation many years ago, but Hiu is still very much a presence, zipping around the farm in the utility vehicle and seeing what her 57-year-long investment into an idea, a place, and a family has created.

In the next post, we’ll learn how the Newcombs have been able to hold onto all the farmland Tony and Hiu worked so hard to acquire.

Lise Metzger