Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 004 - Creative Succession Planning featuring Hannah Newcomb and Hiu Newcomb

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. I'm your host, Mal.

Hana Newcomb: Well, the reason we got kicked off the tractor, as you know, is my sister Lonnie, who was one and a half years younger than me said, "Get our mother off that tractor. She's not strong enough anymore." And I said, "How am I going to do that?" And she said, "Just start driving the tractor. Don't say a word. Just get on the tractor." So that's what I did. And after a while you said, "How come I'm not driving the tractor anymore?" I said, "Lonnie told me to do it."

Mallory Daily: That Hanna Newcomb chatting with her mom, Hiu Newcomb, about the never ending challenges and joys of working together with three generations to run their family farm. While many of us might try to avoid the complications of working with family altogether, the Newcombs to have found a unique harmony. It's clear that honesty, humility and a sense of humor can go a long way.

Hiu Newcomb: It was a traumatic thing for me.

Hana Newcomb: I'm sure it was.

Hiu Newcomb: And I said it to you that it was, because I thought I could be on a track for, until, you know, in my eighties and at least was something I could do. But now I understand more that 80-year-old muscles are not the same as 50-year-old muscles.

Mallory Daily: Tractor driving aside, a lot has changed since Hiu and her husband started farming in the early-sixties when Hannah was just a kid playing in the dirt.

Hiu Newcomb: I'm Hiu Newcomb and I'm one of the farmers that started the Potomac Vegetable Farms in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C. I still live there in Fairfax County, and we have been doing this since the early-1960s. We started farming 'cause my husband who was trained as an economist, was really not very interested in spending much time in the office and he said, "I really want to grow stuff and I really would like to start an intentional community that's based on agriculture, but we don't know anything about agriculture so let's just get started."

Hana Newcomb: My name is Hannah Newcomb, and I'm the oldest of four children in the Newcomb family. And I grew up on that farm in Vienna, Virginia. And I was never planning to be a farmer and none of my siblings were planning to be farmers. But it just ended up that life events rolled into place that I, when my father died in 1984, I was the most available person to step into a role that I didn't know how to do yet. And that's how come I started farming. I didn't think I was going to do that, but that's how it worked. And I'm currently 40 years into my farming career, really. And my mom is 55 years into her farming career now. So we're going strong, we're just, we're farming. The question is, why did we become interested in sustainable agriculture? That's a question for you.

Hiu Newcomb: Well, I think when we had all the children running around and I just thought that they ought to be able to pick anything they want out of the farm without worrying about if there were any pesticides or anything wrong with it. I mean, I, we didn't know about sustainable ag. I just knew that I wanted food that was safe to eat anywhere and anybody could eat it. And then it was just really, I think when Ellen came to visit…

Hana Newcomb: No, first dad died.

Hiu Newcomb: Oh yeah. First…[inaudible]

Hana Newcomb: Oh, okay. So when in the early parts of our time you did figure out to grow tomatoes with mulch and all those covers that you guys figured that out yourselves and you figured out that it was just even better than any other system to just use natural, you know, mulches. Then, when we were growing sweet corn and we were growing it with all the conventional practices, including sprays and atrazine and simazine and all those things, when dad died, you said…

Hiu Newcomb: I think this is enough. I still hold our high clearance sprayer. And I said, we're either going to learn how to grow sweet corn without any of these harmful chemicals and additives or we'll give up. And we tried to grow it organically for a couple of years and we decided it was just pouring money down a hole. And it was not, we weren't coming out with a good product and we didn't really know what we were doing so well.

Hana Newcomb: So we changed our crop mix completely. And one of the things that happened on our farm was that one of the things that we do well--my mother and our family--is absorb other people and bring other people into our farm. And one of the people we attracted was Ellen Polishuk, who farmed with us for a good 25 years. And a lot of her education came through farming with us. But she came with an ag background because she had gone to ag school. So she knew more than we did because we were a self-taught family farm. So she was more of a natural researcher and somebody who was very interested in learning things from other people. We were more interested in just doing the same mistakes over and over again until we figured out the right way to do something. But Ellen really brought us into the sustainable ag world through her commitment to learning about composting and learning how to do it well. And do it right. So our sustainable ag Selves came out of our sense that there was something that we should be doing and Ellen showing us maybe some ways to do it. I think. So we owe a lot to her for our identity.

Hiu Newcomb: And then we became certified organic in 1991.When the interest in becoming certified became possible. And we did that until 2003, when we had already transitioned from doing much wholesale to direct marketing, either from our roadside stands or at our farmer's markets and also through our CSA.

Hana Newcomb: So the whole label and certification process became less…[inaudible]

Hiu Newcomb: Although we agonized about giving up the term organic.

Hana Newcomb: Yep. It's been hard. We took the term 'eco-ganic' instead. So we've been farming along for 55 years, evolving through all the different ways that this society has been evolving as well. And we're getting older and it's inevitable and we have to figure out, we have figured out, pretty much, in some ways, what our succession plan is. And it's not a very clear one, but it's a good one. You want to talk about it?

Hiu Newcomb: Well, in 1993, I decided to take a sabbatical. We had survived nine years without my husband and we seem to be doing pretty well. And I said to Hannah, "You know, I think I'm going to take a year off. And really, I had in mind to give her a chance to say: 'I don't want to do this anymore.'" And I said, "You could explore whatever you want to do, but I'm going to go away and do something." I didn't know what. And she said, "Mom, don't you think this is a little bit irresponsible to shut down the farm, leave our customers?" I said, "Well, you know, we'll be coming--I'll be coming back anyway." And she said, "Well, go ahead and we'll keep this thing going." And so I went away and I worked at a biodynamic farm in Northern New Jersey and, which was connected with an ecological learning center, which was run by a Dominican nun. It was a pivotal year for me. I mean, it was just wonderful living in this mostly women's community. And I learned a lot from Heinz Tomit, who I farmed with and I brought back ideas for changing it, the way we farm. We gave up our plows. We use a spader. We grow things much more intensively on raised beds. We grow crops we never thought we would possibly be able to do and just diversified our crop mixture a lot. And I think that was just a really an important change in our farming life.

Hana Newcomb: And what's the succession plan after all these changes?

Hiu Newcomb: Oh, and the succession plan was that I came back and Hana said, you know, they didn't lose any money that year and she said..

Hana Newcomb: No, we did lose a little money that year. That's the only year we've lost money was the year you weren't there.

Hiu Newcomb: Oh, I thought you did it okay…

Hana Newcomb: To clear the record! I had kids who were like one, three, and five years old while we were doing that. So we did not actually make money, but we could keep it alive.

Hiu Newcomb: Yeah, you did keep it alive. And actually, I think Hana--she can speak for herself--but she got a sense of, gradually, of how much, how much she really wanted to stay and be part of this business. And I was delighted. Well, it took a few years. I mean it's probably been 25 years since I took off and came back. But in the last 10 or 15 years, I think mostly you've really taken it on. You've made up the work lists and you've, you actually booted me off the tractor and integrated all the tractor work yourself. And it's so much better. And so I didn't retire. I didn't think I was ever going to need to retire. And I've just moved back into the areas that I know better and do well, like particularly the greenhouse stuff. And I gave up to Hana all the parts that I can't do very well, which is managing the business, managing the workforce, figuring out priorities. She just has a brain and an ability to hold all these things, the whole picture in mind and go bravely forward.

Hana Newcomb: Okay. So when we go bravely forward, I'm also, I'm the age you were when you went away on that sabbatical. You are 58 years old when you had that great year. Now I'm 58 and I'm not planning to retire anytime soon, but every piece of me is not as good and strong as it was 25 years ago. So what we've done is, partly with Ellen's encouragement, we incorporated our farm in 2002 so that other people who aren't just family members could be part of the business in ways of ownership. And we decided because of the very conservative and careful advice of our lawyer, that we would not include the land in the business. So all the land is still owned by you, who represents the family and everything above ground, which is everything, every tool, every tractor, every, every fence, every greenhouse, greenhouse, every shed is owned by the business. And so we created this structure where the business was a corporation where we could give away shares to people or we could sell them or we could buy them back or whatever. So that's, that's essentially the succession plan in a sense is that the family will continue to own the land with the strong, long-held conviction that we don't want it to be developed for anything except farming or farming-related useful things. It could be, could be if Lonnie wanted to be a veterinarian on more of the ground, that's still counts, but that the family is going to hold the mission and has agreed to hold the mission of keeping it open for farming. But the family doesn't have to be the farmers. And so we have been accumulating really good people over the years who want to learn to farm, want a farm, and they're much younger than we are and it's working out really well because we don't have to work so hard anymore. So the plan is vague but, but structured in that there's a corporation that exists above ground and a family that owns the soil below ground and they will always be in concert. And part of the reason they will be in concert is because your grandson, Steven, and your other grandson, Michael--we'll see--are very interested in keeping the farm going. So then not only will there be other people who are young and delicious coming in, but we have people who we have in our family who are still staying with it. And the people that we accumulate, we tend to work by consensus with. So we don't, we don't have a top-down kind of a hierarchical structure. So that works for bringing people up in our system, because they are getting bossed, but they are getting listened to as well. And so our succession plan is to continue to be the kind of people that people want to be around and to continue to absorb the kinds of talent that exists. Because there's a ton of people out there who are talented people who don't know how to do anything and can learn to farm. So that's our plan, right?

Hiu Newcomb: Well, it's interesting that that Steven, one of my grandsons who has come back and committed himself to, after having worked on the farm every summer of his young life, um, has come back from a graduate study in peace and transformation and some work in Guatemala, and a little bit not satisfied with the way the farm really is.

Hana Newcomb: Too capitalist.

Hiu Newcomb: Too capitalist. Not diversified enough. Not…

Hana Newcomb: Well, while we're not racially unjust. We're not aware enough. We're not woke enough for him.

Hiu Newcomb: We're not woke enough for him! And so we're listening and they know that we're listening. He and his soon-to-be wife and his brother. But they--it just is another level of conversations and they know that we're supportive of them, but Hana's not likely to give them the reins to everything. They know that the basis of our success is being able to grow good vegetables and to sell them. And so they're not gonna throw that out of the picture, but they want to attract a more diverse population. They want to be able to make possible people who are less affluent to get to our vegetables and to afford them. They want to--we're all interested in growing new farmers and those farmers need to be other than just like ourselves.

Hana Newcomb: That's right. One of the ways that Steven is changing our farm--and he's the third generation, well, he has a little baby now, so we have four generations--is that he believes that the farm is the important foundation for whatever happens in terms of our community. So what I said to him as I'm listening to him talking about all these grand ideas, which are still coming into clarity, I said, "What's my job going to be? "And he said, "You better keep your job. You're the one who's going to be making the money." So my job is to continue to keep the business going while he is building all these layers on top of it of other good work that's going to happen as a result of having this farm. So that's a really interesting development that's happened in the last few years and it's great that we're still gonna be growing vegetables for money. That's a good thing. He didn't say we can't do that! Um, so you already talked about me a little bit, but I'm going to talk about my quality about of my mother that I've witnessed through working with her since I was about seven. So my mother has evolved over the years. When she was, when she was much younger, she was much more tense and much less sure of herself and quite driven. Like, she worked all the time. The work-life balance thing wasn't happening in our lives when we were young, but we were fine because our whole family was together. So your children were not being neglected. They were just left to their own devices. Which was all good. And I think that one of the things, one of the biggest things I learned from you was how to be a parent. And so I learned to be a parent that was even maybe more warm and fuzzy than you were. But the qualities that you brought to my childhood are the qualities that I've tried to replicate. And I think that's such a gift to have, to be able to grow up with your own mother and think that she was a good enough mother, that I want to be the same kind of mother. So that's different from farming, but it's not unrelated that the things that you brought to farming are--you're a pianist by profession or almost profession, instead of being a farmer. And all of that requires so much discipline and so much organization and so much commitment. And I think that was undervalued when you were as a younger person before we transformed the farm into being our farm after Dad died. When dad died, you became a different person because actually farming with him wasn't the easiest thing in the world. And it was while it was very, very sad that he died. It turned you into somebody who could be the farmer and all the qualities that you had were so good. Were so blooming, and all of your children were pretty blown away by what we, what was coming out after age 50. So couple things I've learned: one is that you don't have to be the same person you always were. You can change who you are. Not fundamentally, but in many, many ways. Another thing I learned is that nothing is wrong with working hard. That working hard is a value and a quality that is so fundamental to our natures, that we are not afraid of big tasks. When we see a big job, we just bust it up into little pieces, get some help and go get it done. We don't say, we don't hide from big, hard jobs and we're also because of you, partly and partly because of me, we're very organized. And so those are qualities that my father didn't have. You know, he was charismatic and visionary and wonderful and people flocked to him to be around him. And that's why this farm exists because he collected up the personalities. But you were the hardworking person and you are the person who really held all the pieces together, made all the work lists, created all the schedules, created all the systems, and he was hard worker, too. But I think what we got out of you as kids was that work is natural and that work is essential. And that Dad used to say, work is therapy.

Hiu Newcomb: Well, I think one of the most important things I felt was that there was no entitlement in our, in our value system. And I think you children have adopted that. You don't think that you are owed anything. And if you want something, you work for it or you figure out how to get to it. And even though I've put the whole land and all our assets into a family trust, it doesn't mean that you're going to be rich because we're not selling it.

Hana Newcomb: There's not many riches if you're not gonna sell it. Right. And we've all agreed to that. Yep.

Hiu Newcomb: But it means just as we had to acquire all these pieces of land and paid and work really hard to pay off the mortgages, it meant that it was an asset that allowed us to do what we wanted. And so that asset has continue to be available for you kids, you four, who will be the trustees of this trust and you will decide what do you want to do with it. I feel confident that it won't be monetized in such a way that I'll be embarrassed…

Hana Newcomb: …From the beyond.

Hiu Newcomb: From the beyond! I feel very confident about that.

Hana Newcomb: And so both of us, you especially because you got to go first cause you're older have really learned to have a work/life balance and it's all about delegation and it's all about being free to make, set your own priorities. So we are very privileged to be able to have a work/life balance because we have the good fortune to have all these great people working with us and I can say, "Oh, I'm going to be gone for two days going to a SARE conference. I'll be back on Wednesday night." And I barely left a work list. It's going to be handled. Carrie's got it. You know, I thought ahead. I left different lists around for people, but I haven't been in touch with anybody at the farm since I left, which is a miracle. We have this big farm running and we're not there. Who Cares? We're fine. So I think, I think that people are too aspirational when they think about having a work/life balance. When they have little kids and they have a brand new farm and they're trying to pay off a billion things. Your work and your life are the same thing and your kids are just going to have to suck it up and be part of your work in your life and it's going to be fine. It's not going to be like everybody else down the street, but it's going to be fine. And then as you get richer and you get or whatever, as you get more established, you get more choices. Just like you're, it's just like, it's like getting richer. That's what it's like.

Hiu Newcomb: We are enormously wealthy.

Hana Newcomb: Right.

Hiu Newcomb: I think I did say this already, that your ability to juggle so many balls in the air and to keep them organized and you have a, you're our social engineer. And we've always said we're gonna match the task to the person or the person to the task. And you do that really, really well. And I think that you've learned a lot more about people management than we, we did it, but it was just using our own value systems to do that. But you're just much more organized about it. And you can follow something from the idea. And the goal to its end, you figure out the steps that it needs to take. You have the flow chart in your mind and all these things are things that are really hard for me. And I'm so grateful that you took it over. It seemed to be seamless. Yeah.

Hana Newcomb: Well, the reason we got kicked off the tractor, as you know, is my sister Lonnie, who was one and a half years younger than me said, "Get our mother off that tractor. She's not strong enough anymore." And I said, "How am I going to do that?" And she said, "Just start driving the tractor. Don't say a word. Just get on the tractor." So that's what I did. And after a while you said, "How come I'm not driving the tractor anymore?" I said, "Lonnie told me to do it."

Hiu Newcomb: So it was a traumatic thing for me!

Hana Newcomb: I'm sure it was.

Hiu Newcomb: And I said it to you that it was, because I thought I could be on a track for, until, you know, in my eighties and at least was something I could do. But now I understand more that 80-year-old muscles are not the same as 50-year-old muscles. And I've accepted getting older very well. I'm very glad I who I am, who I am. I do have more time to go swimming and to sing in two choirs and to not play the piano if I can and to say yes when somebody wants us to talk about farming and the value of local food and all that. I think there's, I think my happiness is having a loving family, a smart older child who has taken over the farm and who has helped me accept that we can change and the change is good.

Hana Newcomb: Right.

Hiu Newcomb: And that is certainly the case has been for our family, our business. Yeah.

Hana Newcomb: I think what are the underlying themes of the farm in the last 55 years is that we are in a constant state of change. And it's partly because people change all the time and, but it's also that you can't do the same thing for 55 years without having it changing all the time. Or I can't do it. And the people that come through our farm are also causing change all the time. Whatever they do, they might come for two years, they might come for five years, they might come for two months, and they're causing change. And so I love that. I love that feeling of always trying to figure out what's going to happen next and not knowing. I mean, of course we know that we're going to plant radishes, but we don't always know who's going to pick the radishes. We just know that there will be radishes. And so that to me is why we can still do this because our environment keeps changing. The political climate keeps changing, the people that we are keep changing and we can still keep putting tomato plants in the ground. And I love that, the continuity and the change at the same time.

Hiu Newcomb: But we didn't get to talk about what we think one of our best things that has happened to us in the last 15 years or so was, um, we got introduced to the idea of co-housing. I, up to that point, I had felt a little bit guilty about living on all this land and having just my family, who loved being on that land, and us doing good work with that land, but it just felt a little bit, eh, selfish. And when we heard about the possibility of creating a community on part of the farm, the whole family went to this seminar, this building seminar, and learned about how you can get such a community going. And it was a piece of cake for us who had all grown up in co-ops at our colleges. And it was a little bit harder to inoculate the idea in people who were, had not had such experiences. So you want to talk about that?

Hana Newcomb: So we built 19 houses on the very wooded sloping back part of our farm that we would never grow vegetables on. But it turned out to be quite a difficult space to build on because it's so slope-y, but also makes it a very interesting place. So we built a community and we just found the people to come and live in it. And I live there and my sister lives there and it has changed the nature of our farm because now we have neighbors very close to us who care about our farm and who want our farm to persist, as opposed to the neighbors who we can see from our fields. They've already stated pretty openly that they don't want our farm to persist. And so it's great to have 19 houses right next door who think farming is a good thing right there in the suburbs and who eat our food and help us, you know, when we need help. We didn't know. That was a big unknown, how it was gonna turn out and everybody we knew said you guys are crazy and why would you do such a thing? And no one's done this in Fairfax County! And it's still still doing it. It's still working out. So we have 18 years behind us, so far, of living in co-housing right in the middle of the farm. And we didn't sell our land for very much money because it was a tough project. But that's okay because we're not about monetizing in order to make profit when we wanted to make community.

Hiu Newcomb: Well, we had have it cheap enough so that we could buy lots back for ourselves so we could have houses there!

Hana Newcomb: That's right. And so one of the challenges of sustainable agriculture is to create enough money that people, that the farmers don't feel like they ever have to sell their land in order to make a graceful exit from this earth.Because if every farmer can leave their farm in a state of farming when they go, they are sustainable agriculture. Because you cannot have people saying, I need this money to go into a nursing home. I need this money to do blah, blah, blah. I mean this farm is my, is my money. And it's like, that's not gonna make it sustainable, then. There just has to be such a value put on farmland being farm land and stop thinking that it's going to be something else.

Hiu Newcomb: And I've often thought when I've gone before the Board of Advisors talking about zoning things and they're always talking about the highest and best use. Yeah. You know, is it the high rise? I said, "No! The highest and best use is a family-run sustainable farm."

Speaker 2: That's it for this week's dynamic duo. You were listening to Hana Newcomb conversation with her mom, Hiu Newcomb. If you'd like to learn more about their vegetable farm. Take a look at our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in downtown Columbia, Missouri. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I'm your host, Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform like iTunes or Stitcher. We're releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students, and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.