Michele Mickelwait buzzed with anticipation when she learned that she had been accepted by the Claude Moore Colonial Farm’s junior interpreter program.
The Longfellow Middle School eighth-grade student has been visiting the living history museum in McLean with her mother and brother since she was about 5. She had previously volunteered as a behind-the-scenes worker and at the park’s regular Colonial Market Fair.
This will be Michele’s first year as a dressed volunteer at the farm, which offers educational lessons and recreations for visitors of what working-class life was like for a typical tenant farm family in Northern Virginia in 1771.
As a junior interpreter, Michele will wear a costume to portray one of the colonial farm family’s children, an ideal gig for a young history lover who enjoys working with younger children.
However, on Mar. 30, the same day that she ordered her costume for the volunteer program, Michele learned that the Claude Moore Colonial Farm might close in December unless it can find a way to keep operating after its current cooperative agreement with the National Park Service ends on Dec. 21.
“This place has been open since 1973, and to have such an amazing place close, I was devastated,” Michele said. “The next day, I was trying to do everything I could to do my part to save the farm, because it’s such a special place.”
The Claude Moore Colonial Farm was originally established in 1972 as Turkey Run Farm by the National Park Service, but it is now operated by the nonprofit corporation Friends of the Claude Moore Colonial Farm at Turkey Run.
The friends group was incorporated as The Friends of Turkey Run Farm, Inc., in 1981 by citizens seeking to save the farm, which was on the verge of closure due to federal budget cutbacks.
The Friends established a five-year cooperative agreement with the park service in 1981, allowing the nonprofit to take over management of the farm, which is still located on federally owned land.
After that initial term ended, the two parties signed a 30-year lease agreement in 1986. From then on, the Friends have overseen the farm’s operations while providing annual reports on the park’s activities and financial status to the National Park Service, according to Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm President Dr. Virginia Norton.
While that original agreement was set to end in 2006, it was extended multiple times until a final extension signed in March with a term ending on Dec. 21.
The circumstances surrounding the signing of the most recent extension seem to differ depending on who is asked.
According to the National Park Service, the Friends agreed to the extension on Mar. 30 after declining to sign a new long-term agreement.
“We value the memories that people have made at the farm, and we will work with the community and the farm’s many dedicated volunteers to determine its future,” National Park Service spokesperson Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said. “A proposed long-term agreement would have required to comply with current laws and policy, and included terms that are standard for National Park Service partners along with some flexibility to accommodate the organization’s interests.”
Anzelmo-Sarles says that the park service “negotiated in good faith,” but the Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm ultimately rejected the standard terms and legal requirements of a long-term agreement.
However, the Friends say that the park service indicated in negotiations it would only sign a new short-term agreement and call the required terms “burdensome, oppressive, and impossible under which to operate the farm,” according to a press release from the nonprofit.
“It is not clear why the NPS would want to close an award-winning National Park site that so well serves the public and, in addition, costs them nothing to operate,” Friends director Elliott Curzon said. “It is worth noting that the farm sits on 77 acres of land that has increased in value over the last four decades. We believe the NPS is under pressure from developers, including Fairfax County, to repurpose this land for development.”
The National Park Service disputed Curzon’s claim, saying that it has “absolutely zero interest or plans to pursue any kind of development on the property.”
The National Park Service says that the friends group has received almost $1.3 million in funding from the park service since 2001. The park service also funded the design of a sewage system for the farm, conducted safety and food inspections, and shared road maintenance services, such as snow removal.
According to Norton, however, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm has been wholly self-sustaining for the past four years, with donations and other sources of private funding supporting the farm’s roughly $360,000 operating budget, including educational programs for schoolchildren.
Some of that funding comes from sales of donated goods, such as books and estate or garage sale items. Organized and operated by volunteers, these special sales are in addition to ongoing sales at the farm’s visitor entrance facility, the GateHouse Shop, according to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm website.
The National Park Services’ conditions for a long-term agreement included limiting gift shop sales to items that focus on either the park service or the farm, and they would have to be approved by the park service before being purchased for resale, Norton says.
“The donations we received we would have to dispose of or quit taking donations, and that would cut into one of our self-supporting streams of revenue,” Norton said.
Norton says that park service approval for gift shop items is a new requirement that was not previously enforced.
“I’m not sure why they are being so sticky about it,” Norton said. “I think that some of the things are items or regulations that they have come up with in the past 10 years, so it’s not necessarily because of the new administration, but they are being very strict.”
In essence, the friends group argues that, because they are now operating Claude Moore Colonial Farm just on private funding, the park should not have to adhere to all of the same park service requirements imposed on more traditional national parks.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), whose district includes the farm, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives on Mar. 7 that would allow the farm to do just that.
The bill authorizes the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which encompasses the National Park Service, to “establish, develop, improve, operate, and maintain the Claude Moore Colonial Farm at Turkey Run,” but stipulates that “any laws, rules, or regulations that are applicable solely to units of the National Park System that are designated as a ‘National Park’ shall not apply to the park.”
The Friends have started a “Save the Farm” campaign that primarily urges community members to show their support by rallying congressional support for Comstock’s bill, which would exempt the farm from national park regulations while also guaranteeing a long-term agreement with the park service.
According to Norton, the park service said that it would agree to a contract of no more than 10 years, but the Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm needs an agreement of at least 20 years. A 30-year agreement similar to the one signed in 1986 would be ideal, the group says.
“The park service says they can do no more than 10 years, and as a farm, we can’t operate that way,” Norton said. “…We have animals and trees. There are so many things.”