Gaithersburg Then and Now


Hanson Family Farm In North Potomac Is Working To The End

187 houses, townhouses planned for 170 acres near Quince Orchard and Travilah road


By Cody Calamaio
The Gazette
Wednesday, July 21, 2010  


Saturday morning still operates like it always has on the Hanson Farm. Animals are fed first as the family wakes up to morning chores before filing into the kitchen for a sourdough pancake breakfast.

"Then we do all the talking about the farm, what work needs to be done, and share any news," Robert Hanson said standing by the kitchen sink. When he and his wife JoAnne built their house in 1964, they started with the kitchen and built the rest of house around it.

That kitchen will someday be a baseball field since the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved residential re-zoning of the 170-acre North Potomac farm near the intersection of Travilah and Quince Orchard roads on June 15.

Though they had watched neighbor's farms close, Robert and JoAnne Hanson were determined to live the twilight of their lives on the farm they loved and where they raised their three sons. JoAnne Hanson died June 25 at the age of 84.

When the family decides to sell, the property would be developed with 187 single-family homes and townhouses, and at least 10 acres of park land dedicated to the county park system.

Plans have not changed for Robert Hanson, 86, who continues to live and work on the farm. The family does not intend to sell the farm until Robert dies, and no developer has been selected.

"Our process is to continue doing what we've done in the past because it was clear that's what dad wanted to do," eldest son John said. "He grew up with the idea that he was going to be a farmer. He paid for my mother's wedding ring by selling pigs."

The family-operated farm has existed for three generations, and currently raises and sells black Angus cattle.

"I love every inch of this place and I know every inch of it. I've enjoyed it for years but I know it has to be developed someday," Robert Hanson said.

The 2002 Potomac Subregion Master Plan recommended that the farm be rezoned residential. While the guidelines were being developed, Montgomery County Park and Planning staff asked the family about its thoughts for the future, John Hanson said.

The family was shown several rough plans for the redevelopment of the farm and got involved early in the process to help guide the development toward something they would be happy with.

"It had baseball diamond in the park and the pitcher's mound was about where mom's kitchen was," John Hanson said about the original designs. "That's when we decided we better start paying attention."

The Hansons kept the community involved through meetings and outreach efforts beginning two years ago.

"That's why it's been a long process, but one where we tried to give everyone an opportunity to speak to," John Hanson said.

"We recognize that they have been very good stewards of the land and their interest in continuing to be stewards of the land even when they will no longer be owning the land is reflected in work with they've done with the community and work with the county," said Dan Drazan, president of the North Potomac Citizen's Association.

Since the 1940s, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have camped on farm, John Hanson said. Travilah Elementary School students also visit every year to learn about agriculture.

"There are a lot of roots here" John Hanson said. "That's one reason why nobody wants it to change."

Shadows of the past,

visions of the future

The re-zoning marks the end of a farming tradition, but also echoes of bigger changes because the Hanson Farm is the last major working farm in the Potomac subregion, which includes Potomac, Travilah and Darnestown and encompasses 66 square miles bounded by Interstates 270 and 495 on the east, the Potomac River on the south, Seneca Creek on the west, and Darnestown Road and the City of Rockville on the north.

When Robert's parents, Minna and William C. Hanson, purchased the land in 1941, the community was full of booming agriculture businesses.

"It was an agrarian society where you knew your neighbors and you helped them when they needed help and they helped you," Robert Hanson said.

In his youth, Robert rode a horse 13 miles to Landon School in Bethesda, had a lucrative pig business, and then was one of the founders of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. After spending time in the Air Force and working as a member of New York Stock Exchange in Washington, D.C., Robert moved his family from Bethesda to the farm he grew up on after purchasing a parcel of land from his father in 1964.

While the Hanson families worked their land selling grain, wheat, soy beans and cattle, they watched other farms close and new neighborhoods dot the landscape, John Hanson said.

"It's not evolving into an urban area, but it's in transition. Things are always changing. You go from a stop sign to a stop light," John said. "There is less and less tolerance for a tractor going 15 miles per hour going down the road."

Developers made attractive offers to buy property from people who had labored on farms their entire lives, Robert Hanson said. The Hanson family was approached many times over the years to sell, he said.

"People realized they could live more comfortably instead of worrying about where next dollar would come from," Robert Hanson said. "But it was a good life, and you lived day by day."

As farms closed, and development crept in, the Hanson Farm's business suffered because there was no longer nearby infrastructure, such as truck routes, to support agriculture, John Hanson said. They stopped producing grain in 1987.

"When you're way off here surrounded by housing, it doesn't work," John Hanson said.

Rapid development beginning in the 1950s spurred the county's creation of the Agricultural Reserve in 1980 to protect 93,000 acres of the county's agricultural lands, said Montgomery County agricultural services manager Jeremy Criss. Remaining farms beyond the reserve's borders, which encompasses the uppermost third of the county and does not reach Potomac, experience the pressures of outside development, he said.

The county has approximately 79,000 acres of agriculture assessed lands today, 10,000 of which are outside of the Ag Reserve, Criss said. At the time of the reserve's creation in 1980, the county had 128,000 acres of agriculture assessed lands.

One farm closed in 2009 and no farms have closed to date in 2010, Criss said. The economic recession has lessened the demand for new housing developments that may buy farms, he said.

Family will keep its roots

Even with development looming, the Hanson family's roots will not be severed from the property. Of the original 170 acres, the Hanson family will retain a two-acre property.

Robert Hanson's youngest son, Tim Hanson, followed his father and owns the house he built next door. Tim Hanson lives with his wife, and two daughters — the fourth generation of Hansons to live and work on the family farm. The girls have a few sheep they care for, and hope to move some of the horses to their property after their grandfather's farm is sold.

"They've grown up enjoying this very special experience," said Tim's wife, Alicia Hanson.

Tim and Alicia Hanson's property will remain untouched by the looming development, but they acknowledge that things will never be the same.

"The real connection is through the family, and that is fleeting," Alicia Hanson said. "You have to appreciate it while it lasts."