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Meet Your Local Farmer

Hiu Newcomb A Conversation with Hiu Newcomb, Owner and Proprietor of Potomac Vegetable Farms, in Vienna, Virginia

Growing up in Hawaii, Hiu Newcomb never thought that she would become a farmer. "For the first 23 years of my life I thought that I was going to be a public school music teacher," said Hiu. That all changed when her husband Tony decided that he didn't like working in an office as a government economist and decided to try to realize his dream of starting an agriculturally-based, intentional community.

Hiu and Tony lived in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s and began looking for farmland to rent around Tyson's Corner, near where Tony grew up. After finding some land to rent for about $15 per acre, Tony and Hiu began growing sweet corn. "We were total novices," Hiu said. They started out selling their corn wholesale to supermarkets, but quickly found that an unsuccessful venture and began selling to roadside produce stands instead. In response to requests from the owners of the roadside stands, Hiu and Tony began to grow tomatoes, beans and squash in addition to sweet corn. Over the years, Hiu and Tony continued to look for land to rent around Tyson's Corner and eventually rented about 100 acres in the area. By the mid 1960s, they had enough money to purchase six acres of land on Route 7 in Western Fairfax County and started selling directly to consumers from their own roadside stand. They were later able to buy some adjacent land and by the early 1970s, they owned a total of 30 acres near Vienna. In the mid 1970s, as Fairfax County was becoming more urbanized, Potomac Vegetable Farms bought an additional 180 acres in Loudoun County.

Potomac Vegetable Farms has changed dramatically over the years. When Hiu and Tony started out, they marketed more than 90 percent of their produce wholesale. Direct sales to consumers currently account for over 95 percent of the farm's income. These changes began in the 1980s, with sales at the Potomac Vegetable Farms roadside stand increasing and the formation of farmers markets in Arlington and Mclean offering additional opportunities for direct sales to consumers. Seven years ago, Potomac Vegetable Farms began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program, which now accounts for a third of their income. Sales from farmers markets and at their roadside stand each account for another third of the farm's income. "Beginning the CSA prompted us to diversify even more. We now grow 40 - 50 different crops," said Hiu.

Potomac Vegetable Farms
The Potomac Vegetable Farms road-side stand on Route 7 is open July 1 - November 1 and is closed on Mondays.

After Tony Newcomb died in 1984 from lymphoma, which Hiu is convinced is linked to his exposure to a variety of herbicides; Potomac Vegetable Farms began moving towards using fewer herbicides and pesticides. In 1991, Potomac Vegetable Farms became certified organic. They decided to let their certification lapse in 2003 as the requirements became too onerous. Hiu said that Potomac Vegetable Farms began using the term ecorganic to describe their farming style. "Other growers post signs advertising that their produce is grown with no pesticides. We feel that that is too narrow to describe us. You can't be organic by neglect," said Hiu. "We are totally committed to organic growing. Using the term ecorganic gives us a chance to explain to consumers what we do."

Potomac Vegetable Farms is now owned and managed jointly by Hiu Newcomb, her daughter Hana Newcomb, and Ellen Polishuk. Ellen first worked at Potomac Vegetable Farms in the late 1970s and returned in 1992 to manage the Loudoun County farm. "Our labor force has changed over the years," said Hiu. "We started our farm with just ourselves and a college friend. Last year I filled out 30 W-2s." Potomac Vegetable Farms hires many college students to work at the farm in Loudoun County and relies more on part-time workers at the Vienna Farm. At any one time, Potomac Vegetable Farms employs about 12 people.

Hiu has a lot of hope for the future of Potomac Vegetable Farms and for the future of farming in the Washington Metropolitan Area, but noted, "Unless the community, through the government, takes measures to preserve the productive land for food production, it is going to disappear." She said that it is hard for individuals to avoid market pressures to sell their farmland. (Land near the Potomac Vegetable Farms' Vienna farm recently sold for about $600,000 per acre.) Hiu envisions a system in which land is not treated as a commodity, but rather a "valuable resource kept for the common good" and available for people who want to farm the land. One model, which Hiu notes has a long history, is the practice of wealthy landowners establishing mutually beneficial long term leases with young farmers looking for land.

Potomac Vegetable Farms welcomes groups for visits to their Vienna farm. Due to their limited time and personnel, they are not able to accommodate many groups, but realize the importance of giving people the opportunity to visit their farm. Hiu says that she rarely passes up an opportunity to speak at a meeting of a community or church group.

Hiu describes her farm as an oasis for her and her family. She has four children and nine grandchildren. She notes that her older grandchildren have spent every summer on the farm, but they have learned skills and gained a perspective that is totally transferable to other endeavors. "I feel enormously blessed," said Hiu. "We are trying to make our work here at the farm go out in ripples. I hope that we can have a beneficial influence everywhere our ripple goes." For more information about Hiu Newcomb and Potomac Vegetable Farms, please visit the Potomac Vegetable Farms website.