In Loudoun’s southwestern corner, an idealistic young couple and a foundation on a mission to help low-income kids are transforming a historic hunt country estate into a working farm.
Husband-and-wife team Kasey Clark and Tonya Taylor are the farmers-in-residence at the Bainum Foundation Farm near Middleburg. The farm is kicking off its first growing season this year, with a mission of bringing fresh produce to low-income children in DC food deserts, while working to make connections with Loudoun-based hunger relief organizations and local schools.
A year ago, while the Bethesda, MD-based Bainum Family Foundation was laying out plans to create a working farm from scratch, Clark and Taylor were building an on-site farm at a boarding school in Connecticut. The couple responded to the foundation’s search for skilled farmers to break ground on the new project.
Stewart Bainum Sr., founder of the Maryland-based Choice Hotels Chain and owner of the Dinwiddie Farm estate in Loudoun, launched the Bainum Family Foundation in 1968, and in recent years, the nonprofit has narrowed its focus to serving low-income children in Washington, DC. When Bainum died in 2014, he left a 260-acre tract on the 640-acre estate to the foundation, with a goal of boosting access to high-quality foods in underserved neighborhoods. Foundation staff decided that launching a working farm would be the best way to meet that goal and started their search for a farmer to run it. They wound up getting two in the bargain.
Taylor, 35, and Clark, 41, met while serving in the Peace Corps in Malawi in southeastern Africa, where they developed an interest in agriculture and nutrition.
“At the time, Malawi was the poorest country in the world, so nutrition and food security and all those things were huge issues no matter what you were doing,” Taylor said. “That’s definitely where we got focused on that and interested in it.”
The couple returned to Taylor’s home state of Mississippi where Clark taught sixth grade and Taylor worked for a nonprofit organization. But, they couldn’t shake the thought that working the land was their true calling. Taylor and Clark found a series of farm apprenticeships in New England, working for low wages while learning the trade before being hired by the South Kent School in Connecticut to create and maintain a farm on the school’s property as part of its sustainability initiatives.
While the young farmers were developing their agricultural chops, the Middleburg farmland was transferred from Bainum’s estate to the foundation in late 2015, and its staff began making plans for using the gift to further the foundation’s mission. The foundation identified nutrition as an important component in fostering educational achievement and decided that launching a working farm was the best way to use the land, said Leila Otis, senior director of the foundation’s farm program.
The foundation brought in the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture—which operates an educational farm in Alexandria and distributes fresh food to underserved DC neighborhoods through its Mobile Market program—to help get the farm’s growing and distribution programs rolling. Arcadia’s team also helped the foundation find Taylor and Clark.
“They bring an amazing skillset to the table having worked at a school before. They have this education training component that we know is going to be an asset to success at our farm because growing the food is only a piece of the puzzle,” Otis said.
The foundation will work with the nonprofit Community Foodworks to deliver Community Supported Agriculture boxes to early childcare centers in four low-income wards in DC and with Arcadia Center to reach families through community markets in the city. Otis has also reached out to Loudoun-based organizations like Loudoun Hunger Relief and the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties to explore opportunities to help locally.
The timing was perfect for Taylor and Clark, who had a successful launch under their belts and were looking to transition to the nonprofit world.
“It became time to move on to something new,” Clark said. “We were growing food for kids that were paying $60,000 a year to go to school, which was rewarding, but at the same time we wanted to do something more positive, more impactful.”
Taylor and Clark moved to a house on the Middleburg farm at the end of last year, and have started planting on a small scale this spring, growing a wide range of vegetables on three acres, where everything but the tilling is done by hand. Taylor and Clark started seedlings in the property’s new greenhouse and do all the planting, weeding and watering themselves. This year, both the farmers and foundation staff are getting a sense of what crops will grow well and meet demand.
“With farming as with anything, you’re learning every day,” Taylor said. “I don’t think you ever reach the status of expert.”
They’re also working with staff to build facilities at the farm in its first year of operations.
“We’re not just growing crops, we’re growing the infrastructure as well,” Clark said.
After working on a busy school campus, moving to a two-person operation can get a little lonely. And Taylor and Clark are looking forward to hosting local school groups and bringing the farm’s educational component to life.
“Part of the reason that we have searched out this kind of set up is because a big part of the focus for us is food justice and equalizing the food system and making that accessible for people who don’t have access,” Taylor said. “A huge part of creating the buy-in and interest in that is exposing people to farms and nature and reconnecting them with those things that maybe they haven’t had those connections in generations.”
And Otis says the foundation hopes to start bringing in local schools, scouts and other groups as early as next year to provide hands-on learning opportunities.
“Experiential learning is a huge aspect of what we want to do. We know that behavior changes and healthy food habits take a while to take root and it’s important to get kids involved as early as possible, as young as possible in that process,” she said. “This is where the local community can really connect.”
Learn more about the Bainum Family Foundation’s farm program, go to bainumfdn.org/farm.