Returning to Its Roots

Woodlawn estate introduces an innovative farming program

For years, restaurateur Michael Babin dreamed of starting a sustainable farm just outside Washington, D.C., to supply fresh, local produce to chefs and also give the community a place to learn about food production.

Babin's vision became a reality last November when he helped start the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture at Woodlawn, the 128-acre National Trust Historic Site in Alexandria, Va. "Woodlawn began its life in documented history as a farm," says Laurie Ossman, director of the site since 2008. "Arcadia taps into the contemporary interest in locally grown food and the slow food movement, but it also helps us make our history more relevant."

When Woodlawn was built c. 1805 for George Washington's nephew Major Lawrence Lewis and his wife, Nelly Custis Lewis, the estate spanned about 2,000 acres, and scores of workers cultivated fields producing fruits and vegetables. Few records of Woodlawn's early farming operations survive, but historians know that the Lewises experimented with new agricultural techniques and took many of their cues from Washington's Mount Vernon estate, just a few miles away.

The Arcadia Center plans to experiment, too, identifying vegetables that can be grown in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. Produce already planted at Woodlawn—broccoli, peppers, squash—will be sold to area restaurants, allowing chefs to tout local ingredients on their menus. "I get excited, but my excitement is nothing compared to the chefs'," says Babin. "In many instances, they will be cooking with food they've had a hand in raising."

The center will also rally support for more local, fresh food in school lunch programs and help teach Woodlawn's visitors about farming, nutrition, and of course, the site's history. Virginia heritage plants such as the Brimmer tomato, a grand-prize winner at the 1907 Jamestown Exhibition, are also being grown in the gardens. "We want to celebrate and bring to life the agricultural history that happened at Woodlawn, because it's pretty amazing," Babin says.

Rediscovering Woodlawn's farming roots wasn't easy. Grass covered the fields for half a century, and tilling the land presented a big challenge to Farm Director Maureen Moodie. "Grass seed is pesky," she says. "That will be a constant battle." Moreover, a high deer fence had to be built around the main farming area. Beehives were brought in to help with pollination.

Gardeners on the site will rely on sustainable practices, including composting. They will not use chemicals or sprays. Fields are irrigated from a system connected to Woodlawn's hand-dug well and with water collected in rain barrels. These approaches are hardly new; farmers at Woodlawn mastered many of them long ago. "It's fun to go back and realize that everything we think we're inventing now had really been perfected 150 years ago," Ossman says. "Everything old is new again at Woodlawn."  

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