Farm advocates oppose County plan to sod paradise and put up a soccer field

Nick's Organic Farm in lower Montgomery County will soon be replaced with soccer fields.Nick's Organic Farm in lower Montgomery County will soon be replaced with soccer fields.

There was always going to be a day when a county farmer would have to pack up his dusty tools and tractors, and see his 20-acre backyard organic farm destroyed, replaced in part by parking lots and soccer games. But for the owner and supporters of Nick’s Organic Farm, the change isn’t quite what they expected.

The Montgomery County school board decided not to renew their lease of the plot, in the Brickyard area of Potomac, with farmer Nick Maravell, and instead leased the land to Montgomery County, which plans to partner with a private organization to build soccer fields, fulfilling what officials say is a desperate recreational need at no cost to the county. The school board can still reclaim the land to use as a school site.

“We don’t have enough soccer fields. People are scrambling all over the place,” said county executive Isiah Leggett. “And four fields is a big change, instead of kids being driven from one side of the county to another.”

Nick’s Organic Farm mainly grows seeds for soybeans, cowpeas – also called black-eyes peas – corn and other legumes. Maravell also resuscitates seeds in poor condition that other farmers send him, maintaining biodiversity, and experiments in other sustainable farming practices like using a past harvest as underbrush and planting different crops together to mimic how plants grow in nature.

Maravell – and 39 other county residents who felt they were wronged or negatively impacted by the change – appealed the school board’s actions, although only 21 responded to a motion to the state school board to dismiss their claims. According to a response from the county’s attorneys, eight of the appellants filed their appeals too late and none of the 40 have the right to appeal because they are not “aggrieved” or “interested” parties – they aren’t affected more personally than the general public, and don’t hold a claim to the land.

If the school agrees at upcoming hearings in late July, the fight that has included a petition and the planned proposal of a food education center on the farm will largely come to an end.

Controversy over the loss of the farm has mostly stemmed from the lack of warning Maravell received, and the lack of community input over how the land will now be used – he’ll now be on the farm until at least January but originally had just three weeks notice that his lease would not be renewed.

Since county school board officials say the land is no longer being considered for a school, some say they should declared the site surplus. According to the Potomac Subregion Master Plan, it would then change hands to the county for good, to be used for a local park with other recreational uses.  The plot doesn’t meet the 50-acre requirement to be used as a publicly owned regional facility, according to Maravell – which is different from the currently proposed public-private partnership – so four soccer fields would not be possible.

Privately constructed and scheduled ballparks with a walking track provide a community service, however Brickyard is only meant to fulfill a recreational need if it is declared surplus.

County reports on the soccer fields and a letter from the county’s attorney assert that the lease is consistent with the Master Plan. Privately constructed and scheduled ballparks with a walking track provide a community service, however Brickyard is only meant to fulfill a recreational need if it is declared surplus.

And even though there are four middle schools less than 10 minutes from Nick’s Organic Farm and it’s no longer being considered a future school site, county board officials have said there are no plans to let go of their valuable real estate.

“There’s no [soccer] need in Potomac,” said Maravell, adding that trends in fighting childhood obesity, hunger and other health issues are here to stay. “There are many people in Montgomery County and they all eat. You have to balance the public policy considerations.”

Some community members have expressed concerns about the traffic impact of four soccer fields where there was once open land, but the county is planning to hold a traffic study and Leggett said limitations set in the lease will keep traffic under control.

No artificial turf, lighting or sound system means the fields won’t be used at night or during adverse weather, and since a private organization will be scheduling the fields, they won’t see much Monday through Friday use, Leggett said.

“You can’t have the argument both ways. They want to limit [the field’s use] to keep traffic down, but then they say “It’s limited, so its not justifiable.’”

However, before the appeal proceedings can take place, the Maryland Board of Education will have to decide whether county residents have the right to appeal the county board’s actions at a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting later this summer.

Maravell – who owns another 165-acre farm near Buckeystown – said the county school board can’t provide him precedence for the way they have dealt with the land and said he expected he would get to run his farm until they reclaimed it for a school.

And while his lease prevented him from doing anything but planting and harvesting, he said he would like to adapt his farm – the only organic seed farm in the county – to be a food education center, providing hands-on learning experiences for school students and helping fulfill curriculum requirements for environmental literacy.

“With a farm, you can touch, it you can see it, you can hear it. It adds a dimension to what children can remember and take away from a learning lesson,” Maravell said. “And you can reach certain children who are not as directly oriented to learning, say, from a blackboard.”

County officials have said there’s no need for another center when the state already has the 410-acre Agricultural History Farm Park about 15 miles away.

And if Maravell relocates his farm to a site near the reclaimed Oaks Landfill, as the county as suggested, he would be just an eight minute drive from the farm park. Maravell will also have to wait two to five years before a new farm is suitable for organic growing.

A fraction of the county’s fourth graders take field trips to that park during its agricultural-education Extension program, according to Rex Reed, president of Friends of the Agricultural History Farm Park. The group is also developing a curriculum to expand the programs they have in the next few years, but Reed said it’s a huge undertaking and they can’t service all of the county’s students.

“Initially there may have been some thoughts that farmers don’t understand the issues but I think as more and more people have been able to discuss this whole situation from a policy standpoint, it becomes clear that farmers do understand the issues and want to engage in the process as much as anyone else,” Maravell said.

Farmer Nick Maravell checks cowpeas he planted using a Native American method

Farmer Nick Maravell checks on cowpeas - also called black-eyed peas - which he planted using a Native American technique of iron and clay. By Rebecca Lurye

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About the Author

Rebecca Lurye
Rebecca Lurye was a summer 2011 intern at the Voice, covering local news and happenings. She is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is studying print journalism and Spanish.