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Loudoun's Defiant Dairy Outpost

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

On the southern edge of Purcellville, Loudoun County's rural roots are locked in a standoff with urban sprawl.

There, Dogwood Farm stands its ground against a landscape of new mansions pushing up against the wire fence encircling the cows. This is Loudoun's last dairy farm, the only remnant of a business that once defined the county, which thrived by providing milk and other dairy products to city folk in the District. In the 1950s, about 400 dairy farms blanketed the county. Now three-car garages face off with a cluster of weathered barns and silos.

"It was inevitable," said Nancy Potts, 49, whose family owns Dogwood. "You're right near Washington. This is where the jobs are."

The penultimate dairy farm, owned by cousins of Nancy's husband, Mike Potts, sold off its cows in 2005. Residents speculated that it was only a matter of time before Dogwood would go, too.

But just as rumors flew that those behemoth homes might prevail, the forces that propelled so much building abated. The housing market has burned out like a spent comet. And developers, who months ago might have flung millions of dollars at property like Dogwood Farm, have closed their wallets.

What a relief. At last, Nancy and Mike can be left alone, carrying on a family business that dates to 1847. If it were up to the Pottses, Dogwood would be invisible to prying eyes and curious outsiders. Mike doesn't like to discuss his life, nor does he have time for interviews. He said he's too busy running the farm.

"Mike doesn't want to be known as the last farm," Nancy said. "Clark and Frederick have good dairy farms, so we're not that isolated."

However, against Loudoun's landscape of houses, they stick out. Grazing cows are such an unusual sight that passersby often stop to take pictures, even if unaware that Dogwood is steeped in family legacy and tells the story of Loudoun's rapid urbanization.

Decades back, two Potts brothers married two sisters from a local family, splitting their kin between their two dairy farms that were just nine miles apart. The other homestead, the second-to-last, was founded in 1747 and passed down to Mike's cousins, Eddie and Marty Potts.

Even their cows shared a common heritage. Another local family raised the "Bull of the Century," a Holstein that fathered 8.8 million descendants with the help of artificial insemination. An Agriculture Department study said the valuable pedigree appears in more than 90 percent of Holstein bulls in every major dairy country.

"Holsteins used to be everywhere," said Eddie Potts, 58. "Now it's an exotic animal for Loudoun."

The county is now filled with subdivisions named after the farms they've replaced. Nancy Potts, who is matter-of-fact about Loudoun's growth, accepts her new neighbors: "They have to live somewhere."

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