You may know Ben Bebenroth as the chef and owner of Spice Kitchen + Bar. You might even be aware that he and his family moved on to a farm last year. But did you know he’s got a flock of 200 chickens and a deep love of dirt? Read more about what we learned, including why he’s so excited to be hosting a very special dinner on his own farm this summer and how you can still get tickets.
Why did you decide to move to a farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park this past year?
Timing is everything. We had been seeking affordable access to land because we were growing out of our suburban farmstead and city plot. When Darwin Kelsey, the executive director of the Countryside Conservancy, approached me about the opportunity to potentially take over the Spring Hill lease, it was as if the stars aligned.
What’s been the most gratifying aspect of your move from table to farm?
With this move, I’ve been able to experience a deeper connection between the rhythm of the land and the quality of the ingredients. For example, the smallest adjustments in our grazing habits can make the largest difference in the nutrient density and flavor of our eggs and produce. Being surrounded by the national park, the ecosystem that borders our fields, has been eye-opening. The shifts in seasons, both in sight and sound, have been both dramatic and peaceful at the same time. Each night we hear the howls of coyotes and in the morning a symphony of woodpeckers. We’ve had a few run-ins with predators—foxes and raccoons—so the chickens are well protected with electric fence. The bugs are bigger here. Just last weekend I found a spider in our house that barely fit in the rocks glass I used to capture it. We’ve only been here for a few months, so we’re really just taking it all in, listening carefully, and learning from nature as we go.
What have you learned about how soil contributes to the quality of your crops?
This is the sandiest soil that Shawn, our Spice Acres farm manager, and I have ever worked with, so it has its own set of challenges. Irrigation is always on our mind. We need water frequently; the sand allows the water to run right through it. We’ve proposed an irrigation plan to the national park that involves pulling water from the Cuyahoga River. We’re hoping it will be approved for next year. For now, we’re trapping water out of our wells, cisterns, and pumping tanks. It’s almost like hydroponics, but over many acres. This will do in the short term but it’s very impractical over time. Without water, quality is not the issue; plant survival is our main concern. Needless to say, we’re very happy when it rains.
What are you doing on the farm to help enrich the soil?
I wish we could be doing more, but we’re just getting started. It’s a long game. Once we have this place on a seven-year rotation, that’s when I’ll feel good about the quality of the soil. There will be a lot less disturbance and a lot more perennial crops. Right now, there’s a balance between what we need from the soil and what we can give back to it. We’re planting a lot to serve the needs of our restaurant and catering company, so I sometimes feel like we’re being selfish about taking too much.
But, we’ve started by composting our own vegetable waste. We also rotate our flock of 200+ chickens around the fields every 2-3 days. It’s been interesting to see that the more often we move the chickens, the more access they have to foraging for bugs, larvae, and new leaves, which makes their egg yolks a deeper shade of orange—therefore, more dense in fats, proteins, and flavor.
What are three important lessons about soil health that you want everyone to know?
1. Never underestimate the power of animals in this equation. They contribute nutrients back to the soil in higher quantities and concentrations than any plants. They also dispose of waste—our pigs eat 200 pounds of food scraps from the restaurant every week and then return it to our land. Animals also suppress insects, which is helpful in sustainable farming.
2. No-till layering is the way to go. We’re still working on how to make it practical with the numbers, but it’s for great moisture retention, nutrient concentrations and absorption, and aeration. This strategy lends to a bio-diverse mini-ecosystem around your plant roots. All the better for healthy plants.
3. Soil health directly contributes to the nutritional density of food. This fundamental link between how foods are grown and our own personal wellness is one that many people are just starting to understand. Our focus should become less about calorie content and more about natural nutrient density that comes from foods that are grown on sustainably farmed lands with rich, healthy soil and an incredible bio-diversity.
Can you tell us about the special dinner you’re hosting at Spice Acres with author Kristin Ohlson?
This is not your typical Plated Landscape dinner. This dinner will be much more enlightening and interactive. It’s a family-style event with a great wine presentation and pairings by Rob Murray from Force of Nature Wine. We’ll conduct a farm tour as well, where Shawn and I will talk about our initial experiences with the soil here at Spice Acres—what we’ve learned so far and how we’ll contribute to the soil in the future.
Kristin’s book, The Soil Will Save Us, was introduced to me by Mary Holmes, a founder of North Union Farmers Market and Innovative Farmers of Ohio. She said it would be truly transformative and she was right. Kristin is a respected journalist and author originally from Cleveland who now lives in Portland. She’s in town for a talk at The City Club of Cleveland and we invited her to join us on the farm for this very special dinner. She will speak to key concepts in her book as we enjoy dinner in the barn with a menu that features ingredients from the surrounding fields. I can’t wait.
One last question, with summer just getting started, what’s your favorite seasonal food to enjoy?
Chanterelles—which I have absolutely no control over, but that’s all the more exciting, don’t you think?
Seating for An Evening with Author Kristin Ohlson at Spice Acres on June 24th is very limited. Reserve your seat today by calling 216.432.9090.