Seven-year-old Anaika Datla is in the Half-Pints, and 12-year-old Drew Bradford is in Foodies. Both are students in Willowsford Farm Junior Chefs Academy, which offers cooking classes designed for children.
They learn to cook with more than 150 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and berries growing on the Willowsford farm, as well as how to put together a dinner party.
There’s also the seven-acre lake, where they can take canoeing and kayaking lessons; 45 miles of trails where they can join foot races and mountain bike races; and a campground where their parents can pitch a tent, grill and spend the night together.
This isn’t boarding school. These are some of the perks of living in Willowsford, an agri-community of 2,100 single-family houses spread across two Zip codes and 4,000 acres — including 2,000 in open space — in Ashburn, Va.
Mark Trostle, executive vice president of Willowsford Management, is one of the original members of the design team that broke ground in 2010. “Our vision was to create a better model for a low-density subdivision,” he said.
Willowsford is in a transition area between the eastern part of the county, where development pressure is high, and the western portion, where pressure favors retaining the rural character. County zoning is intended to balance those competing aims.
“The county sought to preserve a significant amount of open space with development in this area,” said Ricky Barker, director of planning and zoning for Loudoun County. “County officials put a lot of thought into the development of zoning ordinances, which dictate the number of houses per acre a developer can build.”
The Willowsford developer met the county requirements for that zoning district, Barker said, which meant that 2,000 of the 4,000 acres had to remain undeveloped. It was up to them to decide how to manage that land.
Their answer was an independent nonprofit, Willowsford Conservancy, to be steward in perpetuity.
Iris Gestram is the conservancy’s executive director. “Part of our land management job is to look at the land as habitat for plants and wildlife, and manage it to enhance their viability. We do that through habitat restoration,” she said.
The acreage encompasses forest, meadow, wetlands, ponds and creeks. Multi-use trails for biking, nature exploration, hiking and dog walking are integral. Guided trail walks and interpretive signs encourage appreciation of the outdoors.
The 300-acre farm is part of the conservancy. Mike Snow, director of farm operations, said the intention is to have a self-sustaining farm. He manages 25 acres in vegetables and raises pigs, goats, poultry and meat chickens on the rest.
“It’s an aspiration to sell all our products to the community — whether to residents or the public. The farm will eventually pay for itself through sales of our produce. But we’re not there yet,” he said.
CSA models — community-supported agriculture — are the vehicle for community support. Families pay for produce and for eggs, chicken, milk and flowers. “We like CSA, because it’s a shared investment. People trust us to grow food for their families, and we deeply appreciate that,” Snow said.
Resident Mike Hicks stops by the market on the way home. “We get all the produce we can use. Sometimes we don’t recognize the vegetables, but recipes are always included, which is neat,” he said. “We don’t go to the grocery store except for milk and soda.”
The reality in most agri-hoods is that there isn’t a full resident buy-in. “It’s the same here,” Snow said. He estimates that 450 families — about half of residents — used CSA last year or were regulars at the farm market.
Snow and 12 staffers, along with Bella, his border collie and director of fox chasing, bring residents to volunteer on the farm, give tours to public and school groups, and organize children’s activities.
One rainy Saturday, the activity at the market was to make seed balls.
Half a dozen little hands squished a soil composite and rolled it into a ball. Then the girls and boys walked to a table lined with seed boxes. The task was to stick seeds into the ball, let it dry, take it home, plant it in the yard and wait for it to sprout.
“We want them to make the connection between the land, farm, vegetables and flowers that grow,” said Deb Dramby, who manages the market and runs the volunteer and education programs.
Lacey Creeden, 10, is a volunteer. “I come here any free time I have,” she said. “I might be at the register or setting things up, like the vegetables, or organizing the signs.”
As Eric and Kinga Ulery’s kids — Aidan, 10, Viviana, 8, and Asher, 6 — rolled seed balls, they recalled their initial impressions of Willowsford. “Our first exposure was this market. We said we had to live here,” Eric said. “Allowing our kids to see where their food comes, that it’s not just from the grocery store, is wonderful,” Kinga added.
Culinary director Bonnie Moore runs cooking classes in demonstration kitchens housed in Sycamore House and the Lodge at Willow Lake.
She designs menus and creates recipes based on what’s ripe on the farm — for example, spring salad with strawberries and goat cheese, and zucchini carpaccio.
“Our kids are super engaged,” Moore said. “It’s easy-peasy to make them excited.
“We have rules in the Junior Chefs Academy. The no-thank-you bite and teamwork. For example, while we’re making cheese puffs, if a child says, ‘I don’t like that cheese,’ I’ll say, ‘You’ve just insulted your team buddy who has spent an hour making that.’ And the kid says, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that.’ Then he tastes the puff, and it’s delicious.”
Kitchens are also used for pop-up chef dinners. Hank’s Oyster Bar came July 21, and Moore created desserts inspired by farm berries. ““One was blackberry-peach cobbler with Moorenko’s ginger ice cream and the other was Moorenko’s ice cream with Catoctin Creek’s rye whiskey caramel sauce,” she said.
“We created agricultural amphitheaters, a term favored by Brian Cullen, one of the founders, to describe how we fit houses, community buildings, parks and trails into the existing fields and pastures while preserving the natural landscape and woodlands,” Trostle said.
Willowsford comprises four sections: the Grant and the Grange north of U.S. Route 50/John Mosby Highway; and the Grove and the Greens south of it. A natural vegetation border surrounds each.
“Most people’s yards return to the existing grade and vegetation, so overall the community retains much of the same terrain as before development,” Trostle said.
Houses and interiors are designed by 10 builders, and exteriors must be unique to Willowsford. Arts and Crafts/Craftsman is the most popular style, but there are also European contemporaries, Colonials and folk farmhouses.
Architectural guidelines require wide porches and garage placement on the side or set back from the front. Vinyl siding isn’t allowed.
The 2016 annual ranking of the top 50 U.S. master-planned communities based on new home sales, by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, lists Willowsford at 45. In 2015, 210 houses sold; in 2016, 303; and through June 2017, 250. “We should far exceed our goal of 350 sales this year,” said Stacey Kessinger, vice president of marketing at Willowsford.
Trostle receives queries and visits from developers up and down the East Coast who are considering a similar development with integrated agriculture, farm-to-table fare, culinary programing and outdoor recreation.
“Little details add up. We’ve figured out which are important and effective, and which aren’t. That has made the difference,” he said.