Rural Sanctuary

Living the farm-to-table life in Loudoun County.

Sharon Murphy and her family feel a sense of serenity each time they return home to Willowsford. “Once we see the Willowsford trees, a calmness comes over us,” says Murphy. “I drive in, and I get that sense of place and community. It’s so unique.” 

Murphy and her husband, Andrew, moved from Maryland to the Loudoun County agrihood with their two children in July 2014. They discovered Willowsford by accident. “We were driving around and went down this dirt road, and this community appeared,” she says. “We loved that they kept the trees, and there were open spaces as well. We liked the fact that a lot of the streets were culs-de-sac. It wasn’t a cookie-cutter neighborhood.”

Agrihoods (agricultural neighborhoods) like Willowsford, with their farm-to-table community living, are gaining popularity because a working farm is part of the development. Mark Trestle recognized that growing trend during the early stages of Willowsford’s development. “We met people who were connected to the land and had an interest in knowing where their food comes from,” says Trestle, Willowsford’s executive vice president of land development. “They were also interested in raising their children in an authentic experience. They wanted their kids to play outside. These were rising themes we heard in society.”

Because the area in Loudoun County where Willowsford is located is meant to be a buffer between suburban neighborhoods and more rural areas to the west, developers saw the opportunity to preserve 2,000 of the 4,000 acres in the development under the oversight of the nonprofit Willowsford Conservancy. “We have open space distributed throughout our four villages: The Grange, The Grant, The Greens, and The Grove,” says the Conservancy’s executive director, Iris Gestram. “We have fairly large tracts of natural forested land, streams, ponds, and wetlands.”

About 90 percent of the homes nestled in the land plan back up to open spaces or trees. “Because one half of the development is preserved, we have the ability to do that with our homes,” says Stacey Kessinger, Willowsford’s vice president of marketing, adding that homes start in the mid-$600,000s and climb to more than $1 million.

People who live in Willowsford have the sense of “living on a piece of land that looks like how it looked 100 years ago,” Trestle says. “There is a genuine feel for living on the land and connecting with the land.

Wildlife Abounds

Willowsford is a haven for wildlife, including amphibians, songbirds, and nesting birds. Last year, there were numerous bald eagle sightings. “We know they are nesting in the area,” Gestram says, adding there are also bluebird trails with nesting boxes and a large population of frogs.“In the spring, it’s like a concert out there.”

The Conservancy partners with local organizations and agencies, such as the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, to learn more about wildlife as well as to support the organizations and their initiatives. In a six-week Landscape for Life program, residents can learn everything from encouraging monarch butterflies in their gardens to managing their yards for wildlife. “We also have volunteer opportunities that give residents the opportunity to participate,” Gestram says.

Residents are encouraged to participate in recreational activities as well, many of which revolve around Willowsford’s 40 miles of trails. “We have walking trails and mountain bike trails and races,” Gestram says. “We host 5K and 10K runs.”

The development also includes an archery range, canoes, kayaks, and family campsites, as well as fishing in seven-acre Willow Lake, which is stocked with bass and catfish. “We loved the community campout years ago when cows were in a nearby pasture and the mooing woke us up,” says Willowsford resident Jill Nolton, who moved to the development about six years ago with her husband, David, and their children. 

The Noltons moved to Willowsford for the natural habitat and community atmosphere. “We wanted to have spaces that weren’t sprayed with pesticides nor manicured. We wanted to shelter habitats and have expansive wild-nature spaces all around,” she says. The family actively participates in the bluebird monitoring group. “We love coming upon a nesting box filled with baby birds. One time I checked a nesting box and found that the eggs were actually cracking and hatching as I watched,” Nolton says. “We’ve harvested sweet potatoes at the farm, and we’ve taken a nine-mile walk around the Grant trail with the developer. We’ve had experiences we simply could not have had elsewhere.”

Natural habitats are important to the Noltons. “We want our kids to grow up with access to unpaved nature trails, to be able to explore the stream and climb trees and watch for birds and animals,” says Nolton. “And as suburban sprawl creeps farther and farther into parts of middle and western Loudoun, I’m thankful for the natural haven we have in Willowsford.”

Her family, like others in Willowsford, frequents the pocket parks scattered throughout the community, where their children can play in a treehouse or playhouse made out of hollowed tree trunks. Other areas feature more adventurous activities, like a zipline. “Some of our larger parks have amphitheaters where we have concerts. We have all types of bands,” Stacey Kessinger says. “We also do movies under the stars at one of the venues.”

The Christmas holiday season is always an active time, filled with holiday pie and gingerbread house cooking classes, a special holiday market, and a visit from Santa. “I have taken the pie-making class each year. It’s fun because you are with friends,” Sharon Murphy says.

Sustainable Farming and Culinary Creations

The Conservancy oversees Willowsford’s roughly 300-acre sustainable farm as well as 100 acres of fenced pasture. The farm grows about 150 varieties of vegetables—everything from lettuce, okra, and sweet potatoes to scallions, broccoli, and herbs. Residents can take advantage of the crops through the Community Supported Agricultural program (CSA), where they pay for a share of the harvest in advance and receive vegetables every week. Some of the vegetables are sold at Willowsford’s farm market, held from May to November. The market, for residents and the community, has become a true gathering spot that brings people together.

While it is not certified organic, the farm uses organic principles, working with natural processes to grow strong, healthy crops. It has more than 800 laying hens and about 30 pigs, in addition to the crops. “We also partner with other farms that have similar growing practices for milk and cheese,” says Kessinger.

The farm works very closely with the culinary team at Willowsford. “If we have an abundance of an item, we will send it to the culinary team and they make products, such as tomato sauce, from the extra vegetables. Those products are then sold at the farm market,” says Kessinger.

Culinary consultant Bonnie Moore, previously a sous chef at The Inn at Little Washington, loves being able to link the farm and the community together. Moore helps plan and coordinate culinary events at Willowsford, which range from dinners with celebrity chefs, winemakers, or sommeliers to camps for kids with a focus on food and the land. Pop-up dinners have featured Amanda Cohen, the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of the award-winning vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy in New York City, and Bryan Voltaggio, the co-owner and executive chef of six restaurants and a runner-up on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. “We did the vegan dinner at Willowsford, and we had a fabulous time,” says Murphy. “We met people we hadn’t met before.”

The 2018 annual Autumn Fest celebration focused on Carla Hall, who is best known as the co-host on ABC’s The Chew and also competed on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef: All Stars. Autumn Fest can bring in as many as 1,500 people to enjoy the caramel apples, face painting, balloons, pumpkin decorating, food, and bluegrass band. “We enjoy being there with our neighbors,” says Murphy, who also attends the July 4th celebration and participates in the cooking classes offered to residents.

One of the more successful culinary programs at Willowsford is the Junior Chef Academy, a six-week program with classes for children in two age groups. Kids at the academy learn about both the front and the back of the house in a restaurant. During the program, they cook dinners for their families and learn about the inner workings of a kitchen. “On average we have 15 kids in each class,” Moore says. “We run two classes at a time and we do the classes three times a year. I hope we are grooming the next chef, environmentalist, or farmer. Who knows where it will go?” 

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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