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Loudoun's Defiant Dairy Outpost
In Last Milk Farm, County's Once-Defining Industry Resists Suburban Encroachment

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."

The couple, with help from the fourth generation -- their three children -- continues to raise and milk their 80-cow herd. It's a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week on-call job, without vacation.

A truck takes their milk to a Newport News processing plant every other day. Soon they'll be preparing for pregnant heifers and new calves. The younger son, in middle school, and daughter, in elementary school, plan on showing their prize cows at the Loudoun County Fair and the state fair this year. Every morning at 4:30, Mike begins milking the herd.

At the same time, around those wee morning hours, some commuters are hitting the road to beat rush hour traffic to the District, and the local Starbucks are busy brewing their morning coffee.

The Potts are out of step with the new rhythm of life in Loudoun, but this is the life they know.

Nancy and Mike Potts met at Virginia Tech, where they both majored in dairy science. They were married after graduation, and Nancy, who grew up on a dairy farm in southern West Virginia, moved to Loudoun, where Mike's family owned and rented about 400 acres.

Their three children have grown up in the same white, two-story house that was built by Mike's grandfather. On the living room wall, a small sheet of paper shows the original farm's hand-drawn boundaries. Mike's parents and brother live across the street, closer to the barns.

It's difficult for them to explain to people why dairying is the life for them.

"I like working with the animals," Nancy said, "and I didn't want to be a vet."

Or as Eddie Potts remarked, it's not necessarily a matter of choice. "I was born into it," he joked.

Dairying has been a family affair since the first cows came to Loudoun more than 200 years ago. But it wasn't until World War II that the industry surged, with an influx of jobseekers in Washington buying milk. Soon the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, now a bike trail, was shuttling 10-gallon cans of raw milk to the District daily. Cows, not cars, lined county roads.

In 1951, Loudoun families reaped more than $5 million from their dairy products, according to the Loudoun Cooperative Extension Office. Feed and seed dealers, deliverers, hardware stores, veterinarians, repairmen and insurance agencies sprung up around the industry.

Business bowed to the whims of nature. Droughts destroyed the crops needed to feed the herd. Cows experienced heat stress during muggy Washington area summers. It was not uncommon to lose a third of your herd each year, said Jim Brownell, 90, who with his wife, Mac, once owned a 700-acre dairy farm.

"People in the dairy business fought the same battles," Eddie Potts said. "We all lost or all won. You were humbled constantly."

It was labor-intensive work that required every the help of every family member from a young age.

"A 65-year-old dairy farmer looks 80," said Carol S. McComb, 62, who grew up on a Waterford farm and co-wrote "The Story of Loudoun's Dairy Industry."

McComb swore she would never milk cows again. "But then I met and fell in love with a dairy farmer," she said.

The arrival of Washington Dulles International Airport in 1962 hastened Loudoun's suburban transformation. It offered jobs to farmhands that didn't wake them before sunrise or tie their wages to a herd's fluctuating output. "It happened so much quicker than we anticipated," said William H. Harrison, 69, a retired Loudoun extension agent and co-author of the book about the dairy industry.

Parents couldn't afford to expand their businesses because of rising land prices or to compete with construction worker wages. Their children were less willing to put in the long hours. So farmers, suddenly wealthy on paper, sold out.

"Developers would just drive into the driveway, knock on the door and say, 'Want to sell me your farm?' just like that," said Warren Howell, the county's agricultural development officer. Today undeveloped farmland is worth about $15,000 to $20,000 an acre, Howell said.

Dogwood Farm's parcel -- the Potts own just less than 100 acres -- was valued at about $2.1 million in 2007, according to county records. The Potts paid about $8,550 in taxes, more than double compared with 20 years ago. Gas prices are rising. Livestock feed has become more expensive because of pressure to convert more corn into ethanol, an alternative fuel source. Milk's commodity price has plateaued since the early 1980s, making it difficult to earn a living wage or break even.

Farmers receive only about a third of the grocery price of dairy products, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.

Fairfax farms that once rivaled Loudoun in milk production are gone, and Frederick dairy farms are waging a battle against urban encroachment.

Since 1980, the number of dairy farms nationwide has decreased almost 75 percent, according to the Agriculture Department. Technological advances have increased the milk production per cow, as well as cut transportation costs, steadily reducing the industry to big operations out west.

"You can't live in the past. You love this farmland, but people need places to live," said Jerry Michael, 77, who sold his two farms in Ashburn and Dulles. "You can't begrudge them that."

Eddie and Marty Potts sold off their herd in 2005, but kept the land. All three of their children studied dairy science at Virginia Tech, but none of them wanted to run Orchard Crest Farm, which has been in the family for eight generations. And it would be too expensive to hire help.

The couple still lives in the original family home, with Eddie's parents up the hill. But who knows what will happen to the land?

"I wish I could tell you," said Eddie, shaking his head, staring down at his flowery linoleum kitchen floors. "It's all uncertain, all foggy, not a clear picture. I don't know. I don't know."

This fall, Nancy and Mike Potts's oldest son will be attending Virginia Tech for dairy science, a family tradition dating back to his great-grandfather. Retired dairy farmers, the few that are left, talk eagerly about his early college acceptance. Perhaps, they say, he will be the one keeping Loudoun's dairy legacy alive.

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