Chip Planck '62 and Susan Hilgart Planck '63 have trained dozens of such apprentices over the years, including a fair share of Obies. The pair has been running Wheatland Vegetable Farms in rural Virginia since 1973, where the biggest challenge, says Chip, is not bad weather, but "being a good manager of people"—a task that most business owners face daily. It's crucial, he says, that farmers recognize that they are running businesses; Wheatland sells its products almost exclusively at producer-only farmers markets within a 50-mile radius. Over the past 30 years, The Plancks helped launch many of these markets to help create demand for their vegetables. Wheatland even produced its own professional advocate for the farmers market: daughter Nina Planck '93 (see sidebar below).
The Plancks say they owe their own start in farming to yet another Oberlin couple, Mariette Hiu Newcomb '58 and her late husband, Tony Newcomb '58, who were farming in Virginia when the Plancks arrived in the 1970s. "We wouldn't be farming here it weren't for them," Chip says simply.Just off Virginia's congested Route 7 (which leads to the shopping mall at nearby Tysons Corner), a swatch of orange jumps out between housing developments. Here, the Newcomb family owns the last remaining commercial farm in Fairfax County—Potomac Vegetable Farms—whose large pile of pumpkins beckons visitors to the entrance.
The Newcomb's wooden farm stand is closed to the general public today, but that doesn't prevent a constant stream of regulars from pulling in to pick out a pumpkin or snatch some ripe tomatoes. Their eyes linger on baskets of crisp stir-fry greens, fresh brown eggs from the henhouse, and locally baked Bourbon walnut pies.
"They love to tell us how long they've been coming here," smiles Hana Newcomb '80, who, with her mother, Mariette, is busy pulling apart garlic bulbs for planting. Lani Newcomb '82, another daughter—a veterinarian—stops by to help. It's clear, however, that her mom and sister are the farmers of the family; their fingers and nails are stained so deeply with dirt that it seems a part of their skin.
Mariette and Tony, after meeting at Oberlin, returned to the region of his childhood home in Virginia. The dairy farms of his youth were gone, but the mall had yet to be built and farmland was cheap. Tony worked as an economist at the National Capital Transportation Agency, yet dreamed of other things, such as building a business and community connected to the land. Never mind the fact that "we had no land, no equipment, and no knowledge," or that his parents were not exactly encouraging, says Mariette.