On March 13, 2017, one of the stops on our fourth VALOR Seminar was to a little-known battleground in Arlington, VA. It’s not your traditional battleground though. No commemorative statues. No walking or driving trails. Not even an interpretive sign to be found on the grounds. That’s because this battleground is still active. The battle is still being fought. And the outcome is still unsettled.
Reevesland Farmhouse and grounds has the distinction of being the last operating dairy farm in Arlington, VA. It ceased operation in 1954, and parcels of the original 168-acre tract have been sold off and made into a subdivision that now surrounds the 19th-century farmhouse. In 2015 the county-owned property was split, incorporating much of the remaining space into adjacent Bluemont Park, while the house and remaining 2.5 acres of land around it were earmarked for sale.
Like an oasis in a desert of mid-century modest ranchers and cape cods, what little remains of Reevesland has been adopted by the non-profit Reevesland Learning Center and transformed into an educational agricultural center where children can learn about growing their own food, healthy eating, and the history that surrounds them at Reevesland. According to most, the learning center has been a huge success. Thousands of Arlington children and teachers have come to the historic site, planting organic greens while conducting lessons in math and science and living history every time they till the soil and gaze at the iconic farmhouse, now boarded up. Hundreds of neighbors have made this a community-wide effort, growing organic greens in their yards and gardens. After the student and community harvest, a Fiesta Salad celebration at lunchtime is held at the nearby Ashlawn Elementary School for more than 700 students and staff. A portion of the harvest is also donated to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.
But the elephant in this outdoor classroom is the farmhouse itself. Right now, all of the learning takes place outside the house, amid garden beds and make-shift “classrooms” that sit on the site of Reevesland’s former famous vegetable garden. That’s because the house is in dire need of restoration before it would be safe to enter. And restoration takes dollars. Some estimates state $2.5 million to $3 million, in fact. And dollars are one thing the non-profit organization and Arlington County are short on.
The Learning Center has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in real and in-kind contributions to help make the farmhouse into a usable classroom and learning center, but it is not enough to renovate the property, nor was a viable business model put in place to keep the maintenance sustainable.
As a result, on February 28th of this year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz recommended the sale of the farmhouse move forward, asking for the county board of supervisors for direction at their March meeting. Before that meeting, on March 8, five days before our VALOR visit, the Reevesland Learning Center made one last request of the county to not sell the property as a means to avoid costly renovations.
Much to the dismay of the Reevesland Learning Center president, Joan Horwitt, with whom we met on our visit, the five-member board voted unanimously on March 21, eight days after our visit, to move forward with the sale of the historic property. The board stated that selling it to a private buyer who will be required to maintain its historic integrity is the only economical way to preserve it for future generations. That’s after eight residents testified against this decision and none spoke in favor. The board also voted against the will of the hundreds of like-minded citizens who appeared at numerous other public hearings and the more than 600 citizens who signed a petition opposing the sale.
When our VALOR group visited the Reevesland Learning Center on March 13, Joan and Sandy Horwitt gave us a brief tour and overview of the center’s mission and successes. It was a unique story of a neighborhood joining together and rallying behind this urban agriculture youth project. They hinted at the turmoil, but focused more on how neighbors shared recipes with the children and how the children benefited from the gardens and special events they held as a community. The darker side of the Reevesland story was only touched upon.
It is only now, as I look back on our visit and dig a little deeper into recent news about the Reevesland Farm that I truly realize we were standing on a battleground, where altruistic, community-based efforts and dreams were playing out against harsh economic realities. Like the brave soldiers they are, the Horwitts showed a stiff upper lip and continued to speak about their project optimistically. But the reality is, when the smoke clears, it is unknown what the future of the Reevesland Learning Center will hold. Will the new property owner allow the organization to continue its mission there? Will there even be a buyer, given the steep price to renovate the house? Only time and maybe our VALOR Class IV successors will be able to tell.