Tiny Bundles of Fur and Feathers

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring means new grass on West Ox Road in Fairfax County, a road that passes through subdivisions new and old, whose names often evoke the dairy farms that once dotted the landscape. The embankments are covered with erosion-control netting, a startling chemical green.

For anybody searching for real signs of spring, however, things start looking up at the entrance of Frying Pan Farm Park, home to the Fairfax County Park Authority's working farm, Kidwell Farm, and one of the few agricultural ventures left in the sprawling county of more than a million people.

A sign beckons from the road, "New Baby," a birth announcement for lambs.

About 300,000 visitors come to the park annually, and in spring, it can be standing-room only in the barns as visitors elbow and poke each other to get good looks at the dozens of animals born there each year and then line up to milk the cows.

Lambs, kids, calves and bunnies appear as early as January. Two-thirds of the school groups that visit the park come in the spring, officials said.

"The babies are always a huge hit," said Mike Longfellow, the assistant farm manager. "You can't go wrong with baby animals."

A dry-erase board on his office wall tracks in scribbled letters the mayhem with notes about Scarlet, a pig whose litter was due Feb. 27. This year already there are 12 lambs -- born to Kimmie, Indiana, Felicity and Heidi -- that jump up and down in the straw, their legs like tiny, rubbery pogo sticks. There are two unnamed piglets and a Guernsey calf named Oscar, who has no qualms about coming up to visitors and licking them.

Longfellow said that spring is his favorite time at the farm.

"It's a surprise every time they come," he said. "How many boys and girls there will be, what they're going to look like."

He grew up nearby and started volunteering at the farm when he was 12, eventually working his way up to his current job. At 28, he's too young to remember any of the real dairy farms. "All I know is what you see now," he said. Which is to say center-hall brick Colonials, townhouses and paved roads.

In 1925, more than half the land in Fairfax County was used for agriculture, according to the book "Frying Pan Farm," by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, which is sold in the farm's country store, alongside Virginia gewgaws, cookbooks and canned jams. Now just a few farms are left.

No one is sure where the name Frying Pan came from, but the land was a dairy operation as far back as the 1890s, according to park historian Yvonne Johnson. It was bought by the Kidwells, Floyd and Elizabeth, in 1934 and farmed by them for decades until they sold it to the park authority. The park was dedicated in 1961 and encompasses 160 acres, 40 of which are cultivated with hay, corn and grain.

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