A farm in Montgomery County, MD may be shut down to build soccer fields. Will the community defend the farm?

Nick Maravell has farmed the land on Brickyard Rd. in Potomac for 30 years. He has farmed it organically and sustainably, benefiting the local community, consumers and other farmers in the county, and our environment, including the Chesapeake Bay. He has farmed so well that in September of 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed Mr. Maravell to the prestigious National Organic Standards Board.

Nick’s Organic Farm is a heritage farm, one of the few organic farms in our county and the only one to produce genuine organic seed. And now the Montgomery County government wants to destroy it.

Earlier this year, the Montgomery County School Board, which owns the land, gave Nick three weeks notice that they intended to cancel his lease, and give the lease to the county government in order to build… soccer fields. The deal was made with no public or community input.

We support sports and youth sports in particular. But we are appalled that the Montgomery County government would destroy a 30 year old organic farm – and the only one in the county producing organic seed – in order to construct the county’s 502nd and 503rd soccer fields.

We do not intend to let this happen. Our vision for the farm is a down-County educational anchor to provide opportunities for school children and adults to learn about local food and agriculture, and their relationship to the soil and water that sustains us. But we need your help to make this vision happen.

If you care about the environment, healthy local food, and organic, sustainable agriculture, we need you to join our effort. We need to demonstrate to the Montgomery County government that the citizens of this county value organic, sustainable agriculture, and we refuse to see it destroyed because of back room political deals.

Visit the website for more information.

h/t Adam Nicholson


Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
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  1. So he didn’t own the farm? Can’t say there’s a whole lot to complain about here. If the school board wants soccer fields, why shouldn’t they have them?

    I’m not saying it’s a meaningless protest. If the citizens of Montgomery Count prefer that their school board lease the land to a farm, then they should raise hell and let them know. But since this isn’t really a travesty of justice or principle, what does it have to do with all the rest of us?

  2. Patrick writes : “But since this isn’t really a travesty of justice or principle”

    Actually, what it does involve is justice and principle. Specifically justice and principle which are not common recognized in our modern world of absolute ownership.

    Trowing someone off their tenant farm without a very good reason is unjust because it’s not only depriving of home which is serious in its own right, but it’s depriving of livelihood as well.

  3. What constitutes “a very good reason”? Clearly the owner of the land is entitled to use it for other purposes if he wants, so what makes this instance unjust? Anyone leasing land from a school board must realize his stay is temporary – governments only lease land out to private individuals until they decide to use it for something else. If they didn’t have future plans, they would have sold it.

  4. “But since this isn’t really a travesty of justice or principle, what does it have to do with all the rest of us?”

    Dr. Mitchell answered that question in his second sentence: “Will the community defend the farm?” In other words, does a belief in the absolute property rights of the owner trump the community’s desires for how the property is used? This is not a question just for Potomac, MD.

  5. I certainly don’t believe that property owners have absolute rights over their property – my career as an urban planner would be hard to justify if that were the case. But I do think that someone who leases property to a farmer for temporary use should have the right to revoke that under the terms of the lease whenever they please.

    As I said, no government leases property forever. If a local government holds property it is only because it hasn’t found a use for it. Nick is foolish if he thought he’d be allowed to farm it forever. On the other hand, maybe the community’s reaction is of interest to others here. I apologize if I ignored that interest.

  6. Patrick, as you well know, there’s “a right” to do something, and then there’s “the right” something to do. I suggest that this case is one of those hard cases.

    You seem to be suggesting that because the school board broke no laws they’re “right.” But if that’s all there was to it, there wouldn’t be much point in any discussion of right or wrong outside a courtroom, would there? In any case, there may be legalities we know nothing about, like clauses in the original purchase agreement, or terms of the lease, or bylaws of the district itself…

    For myself, I rue the exchange of a rare organic seed farm for a commonplace soccer field. I rue the underappreciation of powerful people for their community’s unique assets. And I rue the preference of society for sports fields over farm fields.

    As for leases being, de-jure, temporary: well, yes. But there have been many land use arrangements in the history of mankind that were unjust though legal. Are the arrangements of our time so perfect we can’t regret them, protest them, and debate them?

    And how could we debate them if we first abjured the words and principles of “right” and “wrong?” And could that debate really commence in the abstract, or would it perforce begin with a particularly egregious (to some) case? Consider: emminent domain reform needed “Kelo vs. City of New London” to get rolling.

    Your urban planning career puts you in a unique position to address this debate, and I’d love to hear your advice for we rueful regretters of the status quo. What can be done? In this case, and in general?

  7. It seems to me that this is a local issue, that the pro s and cons of a soccer field vs an organic farm is for the community to decide given that the issue requires particularized knowledge that only the community can possess and that it is a bit presumptuious for outsiders to agitate for either. As far as the farmer goes, great that he established the farm but he had to know that this could happen at any time.

  8. Roger, as it’s the only one in America, Mr. Maravell’s organic seed farm is as “local” a supplier as we can get. Couldn’t the definition of a “local” problem be one that affects me, personally?

    I think a common habit is to conceptualize a farm like any other business. I suppose some farms are, but not organic farms. It takes years to cleanse the soil and establish organic purity. An organic farm can’t be moved or outsourced like a shoe factory; it’s more like a tree that can only live where it grew up.

  9. Huge believer in private property rights here. I would not support any intervention to interfere with that. I also question the question the wisdom of establishing an organic farm on leased land.

    However, it was done. And what you have here is a quasi-governmental entity selling to a governmental entity. Putting public pressure on corporations like that is entirely appropriate. Local community pressure is even better. Just because it’s legal for this transaction to take place doesn’t mean people have to approve of it or accept it.

    I could see myself joining in the campaign to save the farm. It reminds me that all too often, new rural schools are built not in town, not as part of the community, but out in the country on prime farm land, where the students are separated from the life of the community. Much of the reason for despoiling these vast portions of the landscape is to provide parking for buses, teachers, and students to park their cars. Especially for students. We consolidate local schools into huge units, destroying family and community in the process, then take over vast expanses of countryside to build schools with huge asphalt parking lots where students can travel great distances to learn how to be critical of their parents for being poor stewards of the environment and for not supporting cap ‘n trade.

    I would be glad to join in bringing public pressure to bear against those practices, too, though local pressure is better than outsider pressure.

  10. Man cannot live by Soccer alone.

    While it is a basic issue of ownership, the point would seem moot because we long ago forsook any ownership of a grounded existence. Instead, we find ourselves preferring restlessly insatiable want, leisure and ceaseless motion to any kind of productive relationship with our land.

    But, its good the kiddies will be set loose for a little exercise so that their magically produced pre-packaged meals will be eaten with relish, the kind of relish possessing a few preservatives.

    Ownership as a concept is entirely lacking in merit when it has been so roundly reduced to a zero sum manner as ours has.

  11. I would think that degrading private property rights in favor of communal oversight would lead to an increase in “back room political deals.” Would it not feed the interest group frenzy as corporations lobby local governments to exercise eminent domain powers for the corporations’ benefit? In effect, we’d be trading free market capitalism for crony capitalism.

  12. Travesty of Justice is what it is all about:
    The Board of Ed (BOE) did not follow process and gave the community only 2 days notice to the BOE vote to transfer the lease. The process states that the “future school site” was to be made “surplus” prior to any changes (and those changes a neighborhood park was possible consideration) , and the site has not been deemed surplus (according to Potomac Master Plans).

    BOE President Christopher Barclay is even on video (Tues., March 8th mtg@ MC BOE site) stating:
    “[He did acknowledge a lack of ]…back and forth with the community,” and shockingly added that “you may say politically you don’t want to do that because you don’t want to give someone the opportunity to gin up the defense of this.”

    The Farmer, Nick Maravell, was “stewarding the land” for the BOE ~ as many of our local farmers do. Although he is highly educated, and appointed by Sec. Agricultre, Tom Vilsak (Fall 2010) as 1 of 4 on National Organics Standards Board”; the lease between Maravell & BOE didn’t allow for anything but farming.
    He farmed it w/stipulation that the BOE could take control @ any time w/only 90 days notice to vacate ~ for a SCHOOL.

    The week of March 5th, the BOE notified Nick Maravell that his lease was not to be renewed, and that he had 22 days to vacate: This vacate order was changed @ the March 8th BOE mtg to Jan 2012.

    The new lease, meanwhile, has a 2 year vacate, and local soccer org, MSI, has been talking w/County Exec Ike Leggett since way back in 2009 ~ documents reveal.

    Same documents reveal more: MSI, a non-profit, has $6Mil in extra funds, made $1mil in profits in 2009, decides to hire consultants and particular Lobbyist, Jerry Pasternak in 2009 ~ allocating $350K for the means “to maneuver the political environment…” (as noted in the April 23, 2009 executive minutes).

    Travesty of Justice for sure ~ IF this goes through (which they, the BOE and the County Exec’s ofc are trying to push through). Go to “SaveNicksOrganicFarm.org”
    or “BrickyardCoalition.org” and find more out for your selves.

    The real question: “Why?”

    (btw: Potomac has a surplus of fields player:field ratio, while other areas have a “negative” # of fields for their player:field ratio ~ add to that: areas are available to develop fields with public transportation closer than almost 3 miles away.)

    There’s a Petition on websites w/the suggestion to incorporate the Farm for an educational use ~ a “Down-County Ag-Hub.” Teaching about soil, water, sustainability and the environment.

    Let’s get a “holler-out”:
    Executive Leggett why take Montgomery County’s ONLY seed and feed farm (supporting Sustainable AND Green living), and put MoCo’s 502nd, 503rd and 504th soccer fields?
    Why not support and promote Green-Living and Sustainability and use this 30+ yr old organic farm to do that?
    The latter would be a good legacy!

  13. As is often the case of late, the debate here seems to revolve around an issue of property rights, rather than the issue of what is in the public good; and what is government’s role (including a school district) in being a steward for the public commons rather than a particular interest group. Personally, I think supporting athletics is an important part of supporting public health, and dealing with the epidemic of childhood obesity. However, a school district’s role in promoting the health of our youth is not just about supporting a particular sport, it has an important role in transforming our youth’s relationship to food; which is fundamentally about having an informed and engaged relationship with where food comes from, what’s accessible at what costs, what space there is to prepare and serve food in their lives, as well as what they put in their bodies. That engaged relationship includes understanding the issues of food justice; including the struggles between small farms, and huge agri-business – and the impact of those struggles, on local communities. It includes engaging school children and families, in their role in stewardship of their local food systems and sustainable local economies. The educational, nutritional, and civic opportunities offered by an intimate relationship between a school district, and a local organic farm are of far greater potential to a school district, than the creation of a new field – no matter how strong the constituency of soccer lovers (or the allure of money from private soccer clubs) . In a moment where there is talk everywhere of privatizing everything, can we not include in our discourse, the unique role of government in looking at the bigger picture than money; ie in what is in the public interest, (rather than private interest). Saving the farm is not about pitting one private interest over another. It is about how saving the farm is what is in the public interest.

  14. There are new developments about the battle over a plot of public land in Potomac that has served as an organic farm for years.

    The county and a nonprofit group want to turn the land into soccer fields, but some residents are outraged about a lobbyist at the center of the fight.

    “The process has been done in secret,” said Potomac resident Curt Uhre. “It’s been without public input, it’s been a dictatorial process.”

    Throughout 2009 and 2010, Montgomery Soccer Inc. paid almost $70,000 to well-connected lobbyist Jerry Pasternak.

    But the nonprofit, known as MSI, says its lobbyist filed the documents as a precautionary measure and he didn’t actually lobby at all.

    “We brought on Mr. Pasternak to help us understand the public/private partnership process, to help us in the drafting of proposals,” said Doug Schuessler, Executive Director of Montgomery Soccer Inc.

    But residents don’t buy it.

    “I’m flabbergasted that they would make that type of suggestion,” Uhre said. “Documents were filed with the Montgomery County Ethics Commission under oath.”

    The controversy surround the brickyard property, one of several plots MSI has considered for development. The nonprofit also insists that Pasternak did no work related to the Brickyard proposal.

    “The notion that we have any type of undue political influence is completely belied by 11 years of not succeeding on any of the projects that we have proposed,” Schuessler said.

    Pasternak currently serves as a Vice President at Pepco. He was at the center of a 2006 Washington Post story for reportedly helping a group get a county contract while raising money from the groups supporters for a political campaign.

    Pasternak did not respond to requests for comment.

    Residents demand MSI release records relating to Pasternak.

    “The Washington Post articles obviously raise very serious questions, which is why I think MSI should just release those documents to the public and the press,” Uhre said.

    MSI says with the County’s permission, it will release all of the proposals in which Pasternak had any involvement. It says that will not include anything related to Brickyard because he did not touch that project.
    Throughout 2009 and 2010, Montgomery Soccer Inc. paid almost $70,000 to well-connected lobbyist Jerry Pasternak.

    But the nonprofit, known as MSI, says its lobbyist filed the documents as a precautionary measure and he didn’t actually lobby at all.

    “We brought on Mr. Pasternak to help us understand the public/private partnership process, to help us in the drafting of proposals,” said Doug Schuessler, Executive Director of Montgomery Soccer Inc.

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