Sophia Maravell '06 / Saving Nick's Farm: A Battle And A Blessing

Sophia Maravell '06 / Saving Nick's Farm: A Battle And A Blessing
Dina ElBoghdady

Sophia Maravell '06: The fight to save the farm shaped her life and career.

SOPHIA MARAVELL ’06 grew up on a farm surrounded by mansions in Potomac. Inside her home, every wall was painted a primary color by her mother, a contemporary artist. A dozen fish sculptures dangled from the family room ceiling. GDS friends remember the waft of a home-cooked-something every time they walked through the door, the kind of smell that made Sophia’s house feel like home. 

And then there was that 20-acre spread beyond her backyard—known to locals as Nick’s Organic Farm, named after her father. Nick Maravell grew organic food- grade corn and soybean seeds at the time. He and his wife, Tory, did not allow Sophia to watch television, so she roamed free on the farm, uninhibited. Her parents were not the type to hover. She’d play on the zip lines her older brother built, forage for wild raspberries on the field’s edge, and climb to the tops of 50-foot-high pine trees.

On occasion, Sophia would jump into the hopper of her father’s bean picker. The freshly harvested soybeans were fuzzy. She’d nestle into the pile and gaze at the sky.

“It was a moment of bliss,” Sophia said. “It’s a privilege to have that kind of land connection.” 


That connection turned Sophia into a fierce political advocate when local officials threatened to raze her family’s farm more than a decade ago. Nick had been renting the land for more than 30 years from the Montgomery County school system when he got notice that the county wanted to convert the plot into private, pay-for-play soccer fields. The protracted legal battle that followed shaped Sophia into who she is today: a farm-based educator committed to sustainable eating, rural living, and community-building.

“My life’s journey and my life’s focus changed because of that situation,” said Sophia, who currently co-runs an outdoor gardening program for preschool kids at Potomac Vegetable Farms near Purcellville, Virginia.

At GDS, Sophia was a four-year varsity runner and basketball player, a self-described “nerdy jock,” who enjoyed extracurricular activities more than school work. Her friends most closely associated her with the farm in Potomac, her athleticism, and her devotion to the GDS Environmental Club. She was known to join a few save-the-earth type protests or host field trips at her father’s larger farm in Buckeystown, Maryland.

Still, Matt Simonson ’04 did not think of Sophia as particularly political in her adult years, which is why he was initially surprised at how she immersed herself in school board politics when the Potomac farm was at risk. “But then I thought, this totally makes sense, it harkens back to her GDS days,” said Matt, who bonded with Sophia on the running team, when he was a junior and she was the new freshman girl breaking records for the team–-the one who inspired other girls to run. Matt said her exposure to GDS’s change-the-world dogma mixed with her farming background readied her for battle. “The political activism really showed her GDS roots. She has her values, and she creates a model for people to follow,” Matt said.

Outdoor program at Potomac Vegetable Farm, Sophia Maravell '06

Outdoor program at Potomac Vegetable Farm

“I think that’s why she was willing to take her know-how and get involved in the muck of politics for the right cause.”

Sophia credits her many mentors at GDS for nurturing her passions, including Bobby Asher (her basketball coach at the time), Elsa Newmeyer (her advisor), and C.A. Pilling (one of her favorite teachers.) She still leans on many of those mentors today, among them Anthony Belber, head coach of the GDS High School varsity cross country team. 

As Sophia’s coach, Anthony knew not to mistake her sunny disposition for lack of determination. “She was a very well-rounded athlete with a joyful and free spirit, the kind of kid who would be smiling while she raced,” said Anthony. “But she was also fiercely competitive.” 


As a freshman at Colorado College, Sophia hadn’t considered a career in farming. She joined the school's farming club at the urging of some classmates when they learned that she grew up on an organic farm. She then started managing the student farm, enrolled in food system courses, and developed an interest in vegetable gardening and cooking.

In no time, Sophia fell in with an “environmental, crunchy, hippy” crowd that revered the eco-friendly farming culture in which she was raised. Her pride in her family’s farm swelled, and she gained a newfound appreciation for her father’s regenerative farming practices, which she had taken for granted as a kid. 

“I went home and worked for my dad that summer,” Sophia said.“I asked him why he hadn’t taught me this and that about the farm, and he said: ‘You never asked.’ That’s when he started teaching me to operate his John Deere tractors and forklifts.”

Going forward, Sophia lived off campus in a co-op where students cooked collectively, shared food costs, and tended a garden together. She spent a semester in Nepal learning about subsistence agriculture and the Nepali language. During college breaks, she was on the western slopes of Colorado, working on a goat milking farm and a vegetable farm, a peach orchard and a vineyard. The pay was dismal, the hours long, and the work physically demanding. 

“I loved it,” said Sophia, who earned a degree in Sociology and a minor in Asian Studies. “Being outside, growing food, eating well, and learning to sustain a community on the food we produced brought me joy.”

Sophia Maravell '06 harvesting olives in Sardinia

Sophia Maravell harvesting olives in Sardinia

After college, she was toying with the idea of becoming a full-time farmer and enrolled for a one-year program at the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts. With about a dozen other adult students, she lived on a sustainable organic farm managing farm animals, growing crops, learning about soil, and thriving in an ad hoc community.

But just as her Farm School days neared an end, the Maravells got word that their lease would not be renewed. In March 2011, the Montgomery County Board of Education announced it would vote to rent the land to the county for development as private soccer fields to benefit local families.

After farm school, Sophia returned home to help. “I got sucked into the drama,” she said.



By then, a coalition of local residents, civic groups, and family friends were rallying behind the Maravell family. They accused the county of cutting land development deals without community input and questioned whether public land could be used for public-private partnerships, all of which led to high-profile legal disputes that generated ample media attention. The Washington Post reported that a series of petitions to protect the farm gathered 50,000 signatures, some from as far as Germany.

Sophia did her part. During one nail-biter of a night, when the farm lease had technically expired and the Maravells were waiting for a temporary extension, she slept in a tent at the farm gate on Brickyard Road, ready to block any bulldozers. “I had read call-to-action type papers on how to resist arrest,” she said. 

Sophia also developed more practical tactics. In January 2012, she launched the Brickyard Education Farm on part of her father’s leased land, a space that attracted hundreds of DC-area school kids who learned about harvesting vegetables, planting seeds, collecting farm eggs, and layering compost piles. Seven months later, she pitched a plan to then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) about creating an agricultural education hub at the farm. With her father by her side, Sophia told the governor that she wanted to expand her school field trips program; train would-be farmers and deliver their organic produce to local schools; provide farming apprenticeships to ten high school graduates; and set aside seven acres for an heirloom seed-saving program that would preserve genetic biodiversity. 

Sophia even wrote to her hero, Wendell Berry, the prolific author known for his support of small family farms and stewardship of the land. In a letter to him, Sophia explained her family’s predicament, prompting Berry to write a letter of support on her behalf to the school board. It didn’t hurt that the governor was also a Berry fan.

In August 2012, O’Malley wrote a letter urging county officials not to evict the family because it would be a “big mistake” to destroy productive organic farmland, a “priceless asset to the education, health, and well-being of generations of Montgomery students.” 

Nick Maravell was impressed with his daughter’s powers of persuasion. “She was completely up to the task,” said Nick, who worked on federal education policy before becoming a farmer and expert on organic food standards. “Eventually, she could write a grant, effectively fundraise, and forcefully take a position.” 

Sarah Choyke ’06, who lived in North Carolina when the farm debacle unraveled, remembers slapping a “Save Nick’s Farm” bumper sticker on her car in a show of solidarity with Sophia. 

“Sophia had people volunteering for her, setting up local meetings, and getting the word out,” said Sarah, who has been friends with Sophia since they joined GDS in ninth grade. “She would talk to me about meeting the governor, a local representative, or some high-ranking Montgomery County official, and she was totally unfazed. Her attitude was: I’m going to this meeting. I’m making valid points. And I’m going to convince them to preserve this land.” 

Sophia Maravell '06


The two-year campaign to save Nick’s Farm came to an abrupt end in early 2013, when then-Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced, without elaborating, that he was dropping the plan to convert the farm into soccer fields.

All these years later, Sophia hasn’t fully processed the outcome. On the one hand, it was a victory. “We celebrated because we kept the bulldozers away,” she said. On the other hand, the school board did not renew Nick’s lease, nor did it announce any plans for the plot, which still sits fallow behind the Maravell home.

“It’s not my fight anymore,” said Sophia, who still hopes the land will someday be used for farming education purposes. 

The lessons learned from that fight stayed with Sophia, and she did not give up on her vision for a local farm education hub. In 2014, she enrolled in a self-guided, remote masters program at Vermont’s Goddard College, initially exploring local school initiatives that connect students to nature’s food systems before traveling to farms in Bali, Greece, and Guatemala and earning a masters in education.

For the past five years, Sophia has worked at Potomac Vegetable Farms, a 180-acre spread in western Loudoun County and one of the oldest farms in Northern Virginia. It’s there that she settled into the lifestyle she’s always wanted, a tight-knit community in a rural setting where she grows a portion of the food she eats and tries to make time for weaving, metal smithing, cheese making, and whatever else captures her imagination. 

On the farm, she’s created a half-acre community garden and runs the “Garden Sprouts” program, which connects preschool-aged kids to food and nature in an outdoor setting. On the garden’s fringes, locals and area farmers congregate at the relatively new outdoor kitchen and pizza oven for various events. High School science teacher C.A. Piling often takes her classes to visit Sophia on the farm.

Sophia Maravell talks to C.A. Pilling's AP Environmental Science students at the Potomac Vegetable Farm in October 2018

Sophia Maravell talks to C.A. Pilling's AP Environmental Science students at the Potomac Vegetable Farm in October 2018

“In students’ end-of-year reflections on my course, [the farm visit] usually ranks at the top of their’ experiences,” C.A. said. “Sophia has played a pivotal role in getting my students to understand how one’s life and career can be driven by purpose.”

As Sophia strolls through her garden one frigid November day, she picks a few figs off a bush she planted, clearly a cold-resistant variety, and pops one in her mouth. She also grows persimmons and pomegranates. There are berries and medicinal plants too. A few of her Garden Sprout kids are there, and she hands them cotton seed pods that have popped open. “Pick the seeds out of the fluffy part,” she tells them, eager to keep their cold fingers busy. She talks about seeds a lot. Her father grew the “open pollinated” kind, known to reproduce the same plant as the parent.

 “These seeds have a memory,” Sophia said. “They adapt and survive.”

Sophia Maravell '06
Sophia Maravell '06
Sophia Maravell '06 / Saving Nick's Farm: A Battle And A Blessing
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