By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Set among the rolling green hills of Loudoun County, Jim Dunlap's farm hasn't changed much since the 1780s. The original fieldstone farmhouse, designed by William Penn, is still there, albeit larger after two additions. So is the stone smokehouse and a spring house. There are peach trees, raspberry bushes and vegetables. If Isaac James, a former owner and the great-grandfather of outlaw Jesse, were to visit, he would see just one real difference: SnowBear Farm is now the only farm in sight. The property is surrounded by huge suburban mansions with wide, empty lawns.
Of course, these days it's more surprising to find a working farm than McMansions in Loudoun. But Dunlap, a retired CIA operations officer, wanted to farm here. His little piece of suburbia is perfectly situated for a small farmer just starting out: The land is fertile, and the location, just 55 miles from Washington, puts him within striking distance of lucrative urban farmers markets, where prices and demand are high for produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. "We need to take a lot of this land that's used for pet horses and giant lawns and find ways to grow food on it again," Dunlap said. "My work is an experiment to figure out how we can do it."
Local-food advocates salivate at the idea of creating farms near the city. So do small farmers, who can earn a good living meeting the growing demand for local products. But suburban and exurban farming remains an anomaly. Every year in the United States, more than 6 million acres of agricultural land, an area the size of Maryland, are lost to development, according to the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization that supports conservation. The pop of the real estate bubble hasn't lowered home and land prices enough for new farmers to get into the market. Case in point: Though home prices in Loudoun dropped steeply in 2008, the average detached house still costs $482,000.
Dunlap didn't set out to turn back suburban sprawl. He just wanted to farm. Throughout his life, personality tests such as Myers-Briggs had told him that he was well-suited to the profession. He's analytical, content to work alone and generally an introvert (though he's not shy about discussing his mission). After retiring in 2005, he hiked the Appalachian Trail. On the path, Dunlap decided there might be something to the farming idea and decided to plant crops on part of his 11 acres.
Turns out the wiry 55-year-old liked it. An engineer by training, Dunlap sees every obstacle as a problem to be solved. Storage? He built his own 10-foot-by-17-foot refrigerated room. Celery? "It's the weirdest vegetable to grow," he said on a tour of his fields. "But I've never had truly fresh celery, so we'll try."
Since 2007, Dunlap has planted three acres with fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetables including peas, radishes, tomatoes, cabbages, garlic, soup beans, green beans, several kinds of lettuce, potatoes, summer and winter squashes, even artichokes. He uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and all of his produce is certified "naturally grown," an alternative to the "organic" certification that is tailored to small farmers using natural methods. Dunlap also goes to great lengths to keep his farm looking tidy. Where farms still do exist in the suburbs and exurbs, clashes are not uncommon between farming and non-farming neighbors who want to protect their pastoral views.
"Jim is a small, small guy on a small amount of acreage who is going to make his living by farming," said Robin Shuster, who organizes the Bloomingdale farmers market in the District, one place where Dunlap sells. "He's a terrific model for young farmers."
Indeed, Dunlap is growing his business with new farmers in mind. He, unlike many just starting out, has money in the bank and good credit. But he hasn't splurged on pricey mechanized equipment. Over the past three years, he has invested about $10,000 in his farm. He has yet to pay himself a salary.
"I could have gone out and bought a tractor and a bunch of implements and pretended I'm a big operation," he said. "Instead, I'm pretending to be 20 years old and trying to figure out how to get started."
His conclusion: It isn't easy. Dunlap bought his land in Round Hill in 1997 while employed by the CIA. But for many young farmers, it would be all but impossible to buy property so close to the city. Nationally, farmland prices per acre reached a record high in 2008, up 72 percent from 2004. That's one reason the average age of an American farmer is now 55: Such prices deter young people from starting out.
High prices also make it difficult for those already farming to find workers. Dunlap has been unable to hire full-time help. He has not had a day off since mid-February and puts in about 80 hours a week in the fields.
"I don't think it's possible to start from scratch, as it were, in Loudoun County," said Chip Planck, who bought property in Loudoun in 1973. "The money that yields demand for all these vegetables is the same money that drives up the price of land."
Planck and his wife, Susan, have long tried to solve those problems for young farmers at their Wheatland Vegetable Farms. They lease small parcels to experienced but cash-poor farmers. Tree and Leaf and Greenstone Fields, both of which sell at local farmers markets, rent land, equipment and housing from the Plancks. Wheatland also hires seasonal workers who live on the farm.
Planck believes that if urbanites want to continue to have access to local food, it's essential to think about how suburban and exurban land can be put to better use. Beginning farmers don't need huge tracts of land, Planck says. Like Dunlap, he is frustrated that acres of rich soil have been transformed into suburban lawns.
As part of his experiment, Dunlap is working on a plan to reverse that trend. This month, he's providing room and board in his home to a young but experienced worker. In the fall, he hopes to offer young farmers room and board on his land in exchange for farm labor. If that's successful, he aims to solicit several more acres from neighbors to expand the farm. He envisions small tenant houses where young farmers could gain experience and save money to start out on their own. The plan is in the early stages, but Dunlap says his neighbors are supportive in theory.
For Dunlap, the stakes are high. Reviving suburban farming is not a luxury but a must. If -- or he would say when -- oil prices spike again, it will be less practical than ever to fly in grapes from Chile and apples from New Zealand. "If the future that appears to be coming actually comes, local food isn't going to be a nice thing; it's going to be a necessity," Dunlap said. "We have to find a way to feed ourselves. And the only way to do that is to create farmers."