Rooted in Place: Hana Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farms, Part 3

A quick recap if you’ve missed Part 1 and Part 2 of the story about Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna, VA, just a few miles up the road from the Tysons Corner mega-mall. The farm was started in the ‘60s by two idealistic young people, Tony and Hiu Newcomb, who through crazy hard work grew it into a profitable endeavor. Daughter Hana, who was raised both to work on the farm and to be self-sufficient, never intended to grow up to be a farmer, but never really left it. She is now at the helm.

How has the farm been able to hold onto its land, smack in the heart of rich Fairfax County and its commercial sprawl? I assumed that the farm’s 20 acres had to be worth a fortune. Well…not anymore. Thanks to another idea that the Newcombs cooked up, their farmland now has little value.

Blueberry Hill and Cohousing

“Some people think things through and make a plan,” says Hana, “but that’s just not our family. We’re more like: ‘oh, that sounds good, let’s try that!’ For example, Hana and her sister each had families of their own with small children. They lived about a 20-minute drive apart, and they were forever traveling back and forth with the kids. They wanted to live closer to each other. Their first idea was to build a house that both families would live in together. But when Hana’s sister was given a book entitled Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,  she decided cohousing was an idea worth pursuing.

Hana was game. “We can do better than live by ourselves. We can have a whole bunch of people who all want to live in this place together. So this book was like a How To manual for us. We formed a group, posted flyers and started talking about it.” That was in the mid 1990s.

A group of people committed to the idea of cohousing met every Sunday afternoon for years. The idea was to take about seven acres of the farmland to create a cohousing project of 19 homes plus a common house. They named the development Blueberry Hill, and they selected a piece of land that was not in production because it was very steep and wooded. “Without knowing anything,” says Hana, “we built the houses on this steep place, which has actually turned out to be much more interesting than living on a flat place.

“We didn’t have a developer. It was just us, and you need a lot of money in order to do this.” It was a $4 million project. They had feasibility study conversations with many people, and luckily ended up hiring an architect who was intrigued by the project. After months of working together, he asked, “Do you think I could join?” His house was partly paid for by the work he did, and he still lives in it. Group members each put in $20,000, which would be a down payment on a house if the project worked. If it didn’t work, they’d lose their $20,000. Many of Hana’s family members bought in.

“We were just clueless! We were doing our best just to figure out the next thing.”

It may not have been their first intention, but by creating Blueberry Hill, Hana and family ensured that the farmland would remain such by taking the development rights off of it. In Fairfax County, where the farm is located, zoning plans are based largely on how many houses are on the property next to you, so that the area looks coherent. Zoning has to meet the needs of the people next door, so whenever you want to change the zoning of your land, you have to get past your neighbors. The developer of the land adjacent to the farm did something a little different when he took a 100-acre property and clustered the large homes closer together on 50 acres and left 50 acres open for parkland and flood plain. So even though the property is zoned for one house per acre, each house doesn’t sit on its own acre.

Some of the homeowners in that community objected to the Blueberry Hill plan, fearing that the small footprint of the homes would bring down their property values.

But the Blueberry Hill gang had based their model on exactly what their neighbors had done (cluster the homes close together so the farmland would remain open), and they were able to win zoning approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Says Hana, “When the county created PDH-1 [one house per acre], that wasn’t the picture in their mind. They didn’t think about people like us, because we aren’t normal, but now we have all this open farmland that we barely pay any taxes on at all because it doesn’t have any building rights on it. It has very little value. It wasn’t like a strategy; it just how it ended up being. We took advantage of something that already existed.” She laughs, “When you gather up a group of people in Northern Virginia who want to do something and who are smart and thoughtful—well, together somebody figured this out.”

The homes were ready for occupancy in 2000. Everyone owns their own house, but much of the land and the common house are communally owned. Everyone pays dues, and community members do most of the work themselves.

The development is designed for residents to see each other, and they grow close. “It’s very village-y.” There are only pedestrian walkways through the development. Residents park their cars near the common house entrance and walk to their houses (carts are available to help transport groceries or whatever). The common house is where residents gather for weekly community meals, meetings, and access to things like games and movies. And what’s right down the hill? A farm! Residents can take a nice stroll down the hill for fresh veggies, milk, eggs, and other goodies Hana keeps stocked in the farm store.

“We like that we’ve taken away the value of the place,” says Hana, “because it means we can stay. People have stopped sending us letters saying ‘I’ll buy your property for $10 million.’ It doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s great. We don’t have to interact —we’re invisible now. Nobody in Fairfax County even thinks of this as farmland anymore. We’re the only ones. And all the people who buy houses around here think this is terrible soil. Universally they’ll say ‘I have really bad soil on my yard’ and I’ll think, ‘Well we all know why that is, it’s because it got scraped off when they built your house and they left you with a lot of subsoil. But we don’t have that problem. We don’t scrape our soil off and it’s been building up for 50 years.”

She loves being able to keep the farm where it’s been located all these years (“The schools! The library! Plays!”), and she’s a natural for the cohousing experience. “I don’t think everyone necessarily gets along, but we are all committed to getting along. When you come here you kind of know what you are getting into. It’s a welcoming place. But apparently there are a lot of unwritten cultural things that people have to figure out. It’s getting complicated because half of the old group is gone, and new people have to get used to it.”

Staying put

When Hana speaks, she often speaks as a “we” and not an “I”. She’s been part of a close-knit family and a farm community her whole life, and she radiates an enviable sense of rootedness and belonging. “When you get old and people start dying, you start thinking ‘How did I make the choices in my life that allow me to be where I am today?’ One of the reasons for the choices we’ve made, I think, is because our dad died when he was very young. [Tony was 48 and Hana was 24.] I think that weathering that taught me about how important it is to be surrounded by people I’ve known a long time. And to stay in one place.

“The whole practice of staying in one place, which doesn’t happen very much,  has made us really resilient as a family. We live near each other, and it’s very nice to know people intimately and to know them for your whole life. To live in a place where you’re not starting over all the time, and when the people are coming to you and joining your group, instead of you always trying to reestablish identities. We know who we are, and we know we live here, and if you want to be here, we’d love to have you too.

“And so I think that was a lesson that’s taken me a long time to understand about what we got out of my dad dying. We got a lot of things out of it, but one of the things was learning that you can survive that. People learn from the things that happen to them, and that’s what we learned. Like, ‘Stick it out!’ I worry about families that are so spread out, and so disparate. It’s not very secure; there aren’t so many givens when you’re all spread out. Like I know families that don’t even do Thanksgiving. I’m like, ‘What do you mean you don’t do Thanksgiving?’ At what time do you get together?’ You have to do something every year in order to make a solid ritual.”

As she speaks, I’m reminded of her father’s insistence that the kids return to the farm each summer. And her father’s annual May 7 parties, when he pressed all his friends to come work on the farm in honor of Chairman Mao’s speech that called for all bureaucrats to return to the land. Hana makes frequent reference to her dad, the charismatic, enthusiastic, wild-idea man with a dream of an agrarian community. “He had the chutzpah to do this,” Hana’s mom Hiu says. And it’s Hiu and Hana and all the people they’ve brought together who have had the stick-to-it-iveness to grow that early dream into an enduring farm and housing community.

Stay tuned to meet Carrie, a “recent” addition to PVF (ten years ago) and now a co-owner.

Lise MetzgerHana Newcomb