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Farmer Strives To Stay On School Land

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Nick Maravell on his farm in Potomac, Md. He's settled with Montgomery County Public Schools to be able to farm at least one more season on the land.
Jessica Gould
Nick Maravell on his farm in Potomac, Md. He's settled with Montgomery County Public Schools to be able to farm at least one more season on the land.

Nick Maravell has spent decades farming a plot of land he leased in Montgomery County. But now, Maravell is fighting to keep his farm alive. The land is owned by the Montgomery County School District, and school officials are saying it's time to put that land to use for athletic fields.

Maravell originally leased the land from the Montgomery County School Board to grow his own food and promote organic farming. Earlier this year, the school leased the land to Montgomery County, which gave him permission to continue farming the land until the end of 2011. But the county notified the organic farmer earlier this year that they exploring the possibility of building ballfields at the site. 

Every day, Maravell leaves his home in Potomac and walks a few feet to the farm he's tended for more than 30 years. 

"Right here what we produce are seeds primarily and some grain, food-grade corn, food-grade soy beans, cereal rye grain, and hairy vetch, which is a ground cover that fixes nitrogen from the air," Maravell says as he walking among the crops. 

"In conventional farming you use pesticides and herbicides specifically to kill everything on the surface of the soil and then you can plant right through it," he says. "Here we don’t have to spray any chemicals, and we can still plant right through it."

Eventually, Maravell acquired another farm in Frederick and cultivated a business selling heirloom seeds. Now, the farmer who has been at the forefront of the sustainable food movement is worried he won't be able to sustain his farm. 

“The seed is sold to other farmers and companies that specialize in heirloom seeds. Some I may be the only grower of. Some I may be the only grower of the organic variety,” he says.

In the school district's master plan, the land is slated to be turned into ballfields if it's not needed for a school. Patrick Lacefield, a spokesperson for Montgomery County, says it's time to put the public land to public use. 

"We're really exploding in terms of the youth population that wants to play on fields and we really need to address that," Lacefield says. 

 

In fact, Doug Schuessler, executive director of Montgomery Soccer Inc., says his organization -- which he says includes 14,000 players at any time -- is seriously strapped for space.

“We’re overplaying fields the fields that exist. It’s like having a road that you never do a repair on. And every winter the freeze puts more potholes and ruts and if you don’t have the ability to repair them, they become unsafe,” he says. 

Lacefield says the county has held public meetings to discuss the future of the land, and plans to release a request for proposals for the site within the next week.

“We have offered the private farmer who is located there a number of other sites in the county to relocate to,” he says. “He has declined to take us up on any of those measures.” 

But some neighbors are unhappy with the plans, and say the process of transferring the land from the Board of Education to the county was less than transparent. They want to see Maravell’s farm stay, and they worry new soccer fields would increase traffic in the quiet neighborhood. 

“There was a total going around the community,” says Potomac resident Naomi Bloch. “It frankly … has not mattered how many signatures we get, how many counter proposals we make.”

 

For now, Maravell is hoping he’ll be able to extend his permit to August, and he isn't giving up. He's still challenging the county's authority to transform the land into soccer fields. And he's offered to open the farm up for educational use. Meanwhile, thousands of supporters have signed petitions to protect the farm, he says. 

"We're still hopeful," he says. 

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