AUGUSTA COUNTY — About 40 years ago, when Walter Brown finished his shift as a police officer in Staunton, he came home to the house he built with a little something extra — five calves. If the family was going to live on a farm, then they were going to be farmers, Brown had decided. He and his wife Joan laughed thinking back to all of those years ago.
“One of them got away, we had to chase him,” said Joan. “I’ve never done that before, but we chased him.”
In Brown’s mind, he said he wanted to maintain the farm in the family, a labor of love. Their daughters learned to drive tractors when they were 9 years old. “They could barely reach the pedals,” smiled Brown. But they got paid, so they loved it, he said.
“They were my farm hands. We did it, we enjoyed it, it was time we spent together. It made us closer.”
An Augusta County native in Arbor Hill, Brown and his family have been on a lifelong journey to ensure the legacy of Hidden Spring Farm, the same property purchased by his grandfather in 1896, where his father Noah Brown was born, and where he lives now with his wife of 57 years, Joan.
Over the years, his siblings continued to purchase more parcels. Brown remembers back in the 1950s when a neighbor told his father that someday all their property would belong to him.
“‘One of these days, all this land right here will belong to me.’ “And he was waving his hand over dad’s property. That did not sit well with my father,” said Brown. “And he told that story to every one of the children. I think that’s one reason why I, even when dad died, we thought, ‘We are going to hang on to the farm.'”
Brown said, he never wanted to be a “full-time farmer,” but Joan chimes in and says, yes you were.
“You would get up in the morning before you go to work and feed the cows, and come home in the evenings and check on the cows,” Joan said.
As the siblings grew up, they moved on to other places, but Brown and Joan would stay and raise a family on the farm. His daughter and relatives would return to farm as adults and build their own homes across the street and further down the road. Brown keeps an old red pick-up truck on the property and when you go for a ride, you can see the generations that have made Hidden Spring Farm their home.
Now a 100-acre family-owned farm, Hidden Spring Farm and the Browns were recognized as a “Valley Treasure” in 2023 by the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley.
“The Shenandoah Valley is an extraordinary place, with its iconic farming landscapes, beautiful streams, public forest lands and rich cultural history,” according to a press release from the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley. “The Valley Treasure is an opportunity to meet and recognize those community members who have been working quietly to conserve the land, water, and way of life in their corner of the Valley and preserve the things we love about the Shenandoah Valley.”
The Brown family started with a USDA easement to protect the powerful 300,000 gallons-per-day spring on the property that the farm is named after.
The farm then earned a Virginia Century Farm designation, a recognition of farms that have been in the same family for more than one hundred years.
“There is pride in having your own farm. I am going to hold onto this for my daughters and my nieces and nephews,” said Brown. “I know that it makes them feel good to have that legacy.”
The Browns are now working with the Black Family Land Trust to permanently protect their third-generation family farm under a conservation easement, a legal agreement limiting certain uses of a property to preserve its natural resources. That easement ensures the family legacy as one of the last African American farms remaining in Augusta County.
“That land is an economic and spiritual asset that connects African Americans to their rich ancestral history,” said Ebonie Alexander, executive director of the Black Family Land Trust.
Walter and Joan Brown have dedicated years of service to the community. Long retired from public service careers as a police officer and a schoolteacher, they continue to volunteer in the community and operate the circa 1896 family farm.
Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley envisions a Shenandoah Valley sustained by farms and forests, clean streams and rivers and thriving communities. The Alliance informs and engages people to protect the natural resources, cultural heritages and rural character of our region.