Rooted in Virginia: Hana Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farms, Part 1
Over 50 years ago, two people fresh out of college—he a charismatic dreamer, she in love with him and his crazy ideas—came to Washington, D.C., and started Potomac Vegetable Farms, where they grew some of the region’s best corn in various locations around Virginia and Maryland. Thanks to passion for an idea, naiveté, and ridiculous hard work, they created an enduring agricultural enterprise and a family deeply rooted in place.
Fast forward to today and an early August afternoon at the farm, where the air is full of the laughter and idle chatter of a group of young people as they hunch over their work. Hana Newcomb, second generation farmer and now at the helm of Potomac Vegetable Farms (PVF), is bent over nearby, knife in her mouth, working about ten times faster than her young workers. It’s obvious that she’s had a lifetime of experience in the fields.
Periodically their conversation is punctuated by Hana’s voice, giving instruction. “Don’t walk away from your crate. Keep it right next to you at all times. Otherwise it isn’t efficient—walking back and forth.”
The Newcomb family farm, one of the oldest continually operating farms in the Northern Virginia area, was started in the 1960s by Hana’s parents, Tony and Hiu Newcomb. We’ll hear the story of the early years in a subsequent post. The farm is comprised now of two major properties, one in Vienna a few miles up the road from the congestion and commercialism of the Tysons Corner area, and the other in Loudoun County, about 30 miles away. It seems hard to imagine as you sit in the traffic around the Tysons mall that there’s a large and quiet farm just up the road.
The Vienna property is 20 acres, with about six to seven acres in production. The Loudoun County farm is 180 acres, with eight and a half acres growing vegetables and another eight and a half planted with cover crops. They rotate the crops between those acres, which Hana describes as “very deluxe. It’s not how most people get to do it. We have enough land to do that.”
Between the two farm properties, PVF has about 500 CSA customers and sells at six farmers markets and two farm stands. Hana broke it down: “Roughly, our CSA does 40% of our business, the markets do 40%, and the two stands do 20%.” She estimates that the CSA feeds somewhere between 1,250 and 1,840 people. There are a lot of people and moving parts to the operation, all of which Hana manages with handwritten lists and schedules scribbled on a large white board in the old work area behind the farm stand.
The farm has a sizable overhead, the largest part of which is the salary the principals pay themselves, something many farms don’t do. “It’s a big business.” Hana says. “Well, it’s a big spending business, let’s put it that way. We don’t make much profit, but the profit goes into our wages. The fact that I’m getting paid means that we are making a profit.” There is a profit-sharing plan for workers who have been there longer than three years. If there is money leftover at the end of the year, the principals spread it out among the workers.
Hana attributes their success to a few different factors: being around so long, the 14 acres they have in production, their prime location, and their stick-to-it-iveness.
An intimidating clan
Potomac Vegetable Farms, and the Newcomb dynasty, have made a wide and deep footprint on their part of the world. “We are very well respected,” says Hiu, Hana’s mother, “more so than we need to be.” “Or deserve,” Hana chimes in. “We’re not visionaries,” adds her mom. “We don’t have the zeal of thinking that we know all the answers and this is the only way to be. We feel ourselves very lucky. We ended up in the vanguard of this movement that we didn’t know was happening. Tony [her husband] had the chutzpa to start this, but the whole movement thing was not very interesting to him; that wasn’t why he was doing it.”
Despite their modesty, the Newcombs come across as intimidating people. They know it, everybody jokes about it, and they even mention it on their website. Hiu, the matriarch, can seem scary, until you have a conversation with her. Maybe it’s her longevity in farming and the sense that she’s seen it all. Hana, a formidable presence, is a philosophical person with a blunt delivery system. Her three siblings wish they were like her, at least according to her sister Lani, a veterinarian. “What would Hana do in this situation?,” Lani said they ask themselves. You have the sense around Hana that there isn’t a situation that she wouldn’t know how to handle—efficiently, matter of factly, with her easy laugh and big-picture view of life. Yet as intimidating as she can appear, there’s a kind heart underneath the exterior that is sensitive to what people need emotionally. She just doesn’t coddle them.
Says Hana, “Every family business has a character: I think we are very welcoming to people who want to be with us, but we’re not welcoming to people who think they can tell us what to do or need a certain kind of emotional support. People need to be quite strong in order for them to fit in here. What we like is people who are very secure in who they are. And then they can do anything they want and we’ll support them.”
Each summer the farm hires a passel of young helpers (“a motley crew”), many of whom return to work at the farm each summer. “It’s not hard for us to get workers,” says Hana. “Who wouldn’t want to work for some place that’s been around as long as we have? Plus, there aren’t many farms that would take such skill-free little people,” she laughs. “There aren’t that many places where you can feel actually useful. You’re put to use and you’re part of a group that’s getting something done. That’s rare. They get so proud.”
Most of the workers are women. Says Hana, “I generally hire more women than men, and I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to do that. Mostly I prefer to hire women because they are much better workers. The way they think is closer to the way I think in terms of detail and caring about the small motor tasks as much as the big motor tasks. And most boys don’t like the small motor tasks. Most boys are just not that interested in the picky stuff. And you need to like to carry tomatoes and sort things and handle things carefully, and count, and all the things boys don’t really like to do. They like to pound things and carry heavy things and be, very, you know, heroic. Which is fine. We need those people, too.”
The farm has about 30 paid employees between the two locations, but they aren’t there every day. “I like having a different assortment of people because it makes it more interesting for everybody,” says Hana. I have an unkind but very accurate way of assessing people when they first come to work here. You tell them to do something, and you figure out very quickly how many times you have to tell them before it goes in. So then you give them a number in your head, like ‘she’s a 2, or she’s a 4′. There’s this man who worked here for years who would say, ‘I know, I know, I’m a 10.’ ” Does she give a person more than one chance? “Absolutely! And they can change their number. That’s the goal.”
The birth of a farmer
Hana grew up in Washington, D.C., but the family (Hiu, Tony, Hana and her three siblings) spent most of its time out at the farm in Vienna, traveling back and forth from the city every day. They moved out to live on the farm when she was 12 years old and had much less driving time. Summers were devoted to vegetable growing and selling. Family trips would happen in the winter, when the parents would pile all the kids into a van and take road trips that included educational or working visits to farms (not the kids’ choice of a vacation, but they did what they were told).
You have to wonder if there were any chance, given her upbringing, that Hana could not be a farmer. It wasn’t her plan, though. “I thought I’d be anything but a farmer,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a writer, or a teacher. Probably a writer, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that that was like being an artist, and I didn’t want to be that. I realized I didn’t want to be a writer, I just wanted to write all the time. Eventually I gave up that idea.”
Hana attended Oberlin College, like every other member of the Newcomb tribe. (Seriously—just about everyone in the family has gone there; it’s where her parents met, where the children went, where many of the farm workers have gone. Hana swears it’s not a prerequisite to working at the farm.) After getting her degree in English, she moved to Boston “to go seek my fortune and be like everybody else and find out what I was going to do with my life.”
She met Jon at a contra dance. “I didn’t know he was the person for me. In fact, I told him pretty early on that I wasn’t going to marry him, because he had nothing to do with this [farming], and I couldn’t imaging marrying somebody who didn’t know about this.” Jon was totally not like anyone that people thought would be right for me. I mean, scrawny little allergic Jewish kid from the suburbs. Oh my God he was so allergic! When he came down to the farm for a visit, he thought ‘Whoa! This is pretty cool. I like this!’ He got to know my father, who told me ‘Don’t mess this up. He’s the one.’
“My father had always insisted that we all come home in the summers, so I was coming back to Virginia each of the three years I lived in Boston.” Jon really liked learning everything and just being part of the farm. I always liked it, but I just never thought I would stay. I thought you grow up and you go away, like everybody does.” But she and Jon moved back to the area when Jon got a job in D.C. as a software engineer. Hana worked at temp jobs off-season so that she could continue farm work in the summers.
Working in those offices as a temp was an eye opener for Hana. “First of all, just having to be inside and sit down and wear clean clothes and take orders from people. I behaved myself, but I kept thinking ‘Ok, you just come in a strawberry patch and you try to talk to me like that! I’ll show you who’s boss!’ It was good for me to learn that office work was not in my future. I don’t want to be bossed by somebody else. But I also didn’t have to make a commitment to the farm. No one was saying, ‘Well, are you going to do this forever?’”
Hana’s father, Tony, got sick in the early ’80s and died of lymphoma in 1984, when Hana was only 24. “So then we just never left.” She and Jon moved back to Virginia after her dad died, into a little ramshackle house with no services except a wood stove. If something needed fixing, they had to do it themselves. Jon, “not a practical, hands-on person when I met him,” loved learning how to do things.
The irony that it was Jon who led Hana back permanently the farm isn’t lost on her. “When I asked him why he liked it and the farm so much, he said, ‘If your family was a family of boat builders, I’d want to learn to build boats.’”
“The idea of being back here, and making a life of it, mostly took hold after I had kids. I thought it was just embarrassing that I was doing the same thing my parents did. It wasn’t until I had kids that I thought ‘Oh, no one else is doing this. This is okay!’ And a lot of people were jealous. Because there’s no place better to raise kids than in the middle of all this. I realized it’s cooler than I understood.”
Growing into the job
In her early 20s she wasn’t in charge of the farm, “but I’d been here forever. Even a 12 year old can be in charge on the farm if they know something more than the 18 year old.” Her role on the farm evolved slowly, but it wasn’t until her mom took a yearlong sabbatical from the farm in 1993 that Hana took over the daily operation. It was then that she gained agency over what happens on the farm. Previously she was part of the team, but she wasn’t creating the direction. “It changed a lot for me to be acknowledged as somebody who is causing things to happen and to choose the workers. It’s like being the Admissions Officer.”
When her mother returned from her year away, “I just didn’t give her back the reins.”
After all these years of working at the farm, Hana still has the same level of interest and always wants to be there. “Because it’s different every year. Everything is different every day, if you think about it. The temperature, and the people you’re working with, and the places you’re wandering through. People ask me, ‘Don’t you get bored with weeding?,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not weeding. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m making progress to the next step, whatever it is.’ People who haven’t done this their whole lives think it’s boring. But I’m doing it in order to get to the next thing. I don’t feel stuck. It’s not boring.”
In subsequent posts we’ll hear from Hiu about the wild early years of her life and the farm; we’ll hear how they’ve managed to hold on to a working farm in heavily congested (and wealthy) Fairfax County; and we’ll hear from Carrie, a co-owner who successfully established herself in the Newcomb clan about ten years ago.