A Dialogue with Darwin Kelsey

Earlier this year, Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, sat down with Darwin Kelsey, the executive director of the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, to learn about how farming is a growing part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In honor of this year’s 10th anniversary of the Countryside Conservancy Farmers Market, we are delighted to share with you the story behind the Countryside Farm Initiative and the small farms that have become a national model.

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Tell the story of how you became involved in all of this work.

I came to Ohio in 1989 to help get Lake Farm Park started, and I was there during those years that John Debo was struggling with the issue of how to get the farms and the park rehabbed and operating. He went on a sabbatical in 1996 to England and discovered that 10 percent of the English landscape falls within the boundaries of National Park. And 90 percent of that is in farming. Well, the Brits are into their landscape, their rural landscape or what they call countryside. So he was pretty surprised by that and he’s saying to himself, ‘How come we can’t do this in America? How come I can’t get this done at my park?’

When [John] came back from England a mutual acquaintance got us together and he told me about his rural landscape model and wondered if there was a fix. I don’t know if I would have said yes 10 years ago, but here we are at the end of the 90s and we’ve got 20–30 years behind us in the organic movement, the sustainable agriculture movement. So there are ideas out there that are sharper now than they were. There is a network of people that didn’t exist before, so we could draw on that. We could put together a concept that dealt adequately with all of the rules and regulations and values that the park service has for management of its natural and cultural resources, and we can still get real farmers on real farms doing real farming. The point is that if you want to have a rural landscape and rural character, where’s it come from? It’s a by-product. It’s what you get when you farm.

What was your own experience farming in the national park?

Well, I told John Debo that if I were to come here and be engaged in the project I should live on one of the old farms myself and put myself through the same misery that everyone else has to go through, because it changes the way you think about things. If I’ve got to live with all of the rules and regulations like the other farmers are doing, it changes the way I think about that, makes me understand their problems from their point of view. That’s what we decided to do. They assigned a property to the Countryside Conservancy and I was to live there and take care of it using the same considerations that the other farmers were. I was to solve problems that would get things done for the other farmers. You know, what kind of fencing is acceptable to the park? Get it out there on the land. Model livestock shelters that could be adapted or replicated by other farmers. Let me go through the exercise of clearing the land and how the park expects it to be done so the next farmer who comes along doesn’t have to do that. Work out an acceptable buffer for a wetland and for a stream. All these kinds of things.

For example, I was thinking about livestock—what am I going to do? In the process I was reading that about 90 percent of the world’s population eats goat meat on a regular basis. Oh really, I hadn’t noticed that growing up. But if 90 percent of the world’s population is doing this regularly and we have 125 ethnic communities in Northeast Ohio, most of which are from goat eating countries, wouldn’t that be a marketing opportunity? So I set out to do that.

Four years later, in our next round of offerings, we had a proposal to do that, based on what they saw me doing. So when the farmers came in, I sold them all of my best animals, and they took it and they’ve gone with it. It’s certainly one of the most enjoyable farms because they create this landscape—this pastoral landscape. Of all the farms, visually that’s one of most interesting and attractive because it’s populated with animals. So that’s what I did. I went there to try to put myself in their shoes and learn to deal with the world from their eyes

How long did it take to get the farms going?

First of all, when the founders of the park said they wanted to prevent the disappearance of the rural landscape and the rural character, the truth was it was already disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century you had between 700 and 800 farms between Cleveland and Akron. Fifty years later, end of World War II, half of those are gone.

So the first thing we did was inventory the dead and decaying carcasses of about 85 old farms and try to figure out how many we could save. Well, we were kind of naïve. At first we thought we could save 30 or 35. Five years later we said 20 or so. And now we know it’s about a dozen. And then there are some body parts out there that we’ll use for other things.

Who were your first farmers?

We put out a request for proposals and a couple of hundred people said that they were interested. Then they read what they had to do and they backed off. One hundred or so were interested in applying and half of those got it done and half of those were pretty bad; so we got maybe 2 or 3 percent of the folks that we started with. We offered five farms the first round in 2001 and we had a pretty good proposal for a place across from Blossom. A schoolteacher and his nurse/wife said they wanted to start a vineyard. We chose them and they created what we call Sarah’s Vineyard now, named after their daughter.

When we review candidates we ask ourselves four fundamental things: 1. Do they have a really good farming plan that fits the site? 2. Do they have a really good marketing plan? 3. Do they have the knowledge, experience, and resources to pull it off? And if we got to yes on those, the last question we ask ourselves is do we really want to be married to these people for the next 60 years?

Because that’s what it is, a 60-year lease?

Yes, the option is 60 years, and we tell them they’re crazy if they don’t want to sign up for 60. Because one, it gives them stability;. two, it’s a potential degree of equity. They don’t own the farm, if they have to leave for whatever reason: death, divorce, can’t stand Ohio and must move to Florida, whatever. They can leave and they can sell their remaining leasehold, subject to approval. So we have to make a judgment because when you come in to farm the park, it’s a different world. I always say farming in the national park is a federal case. Not only do they have to deal with all of the issues on the outside, but they have to work in this set of complex rules and regulations about how they deal with the cultural resources, the historical resources, the buildings. They have to farm sustainably. There is a whole set of rules about how they deal with the environment. So they have to be willing to able to live within that framework.

But I always ask them, too, do you want to live with us for the next 60 years? Farmers tend to be very independent and want to do the things their own way. And that’s okay, up to a point. We need them to be resourceful. But still, in our case, this is a very special context and they get some very positive things. They get to live in a national park with a lease, which means that they don’t have to have a half million or a million dollars up front for the land and they get to move into a context where people pay attention to them; and the good part about that is that is a ready made audience.

When you began this in the mid-90s you thought you might be able to do 30 farms, and then it was 20 farms, and now you’re aiming for a dozen. Do you feel like your definition of success has shifted or did you just not know what you were getting into in the beginning?

Nobody had ever done this. And the intent of the founders to do something about the farms was really out of synch with both the National Park Service and Americans’ attitudes about farming in general. There’s no tradition within the park service of ascribing value to things agricultural the same way they do to other resources like wilderness, seascapes, and battlefields. And so there’s no tradition of that. But that’s not true on the rest of the planet. When the national park idea went around the world, it changed. National parks were created in places where people were living, and they expected them to continue to live there. Go to Italy: 24 national parks, 7 million acres. Tens of thousands of small farms protected. That’s unthinkable in America. But they understand that who they are is related to …

The food they eat and the food they make.

It is. So Italian cuisine, French cuisine, it comes from the land.

It comes from that particular environment and they, as a culture, treat it in certain ways. And so, of course it sounds simple to protect small farms. Well, that didn’t happen here. The truth is, not only had our farms been disappearing for a better part of a century, the ones left had badly deteriorated.

What do you mean things that were left? In my head, I’m thinking there’s a field, there’s dirt on it. How’s that deteriorated?

Well, they built fences, they built houses, they built barns, they built outbuildings, and so on. So they created this infrastructure. Well, when we got there after 25 years of additional deterioration for most of those facilities, beyond what had happened the previous 75 years, there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars required to rehab those farmsteads. And then there’s the land itself. In some cases we had to clear land if it wasn’t so far into natural succession that it wasn’t reasonable anymore. So all of those things had to happen physically. And they all have to happen in the context of rules and regulations about how you do things in the park service.

Are there basic farm practices that your farmers can’t engage in because they’re in the park?

Of course. Sometimes I say, tongue in cheek, if you’re going farm here you’re going to farm our way and you’re gonna like it. You know you have to do it this way because we are stewards of this property and there’s an expectation that you take an active part in stewardship. We don’t require them to be certified organic. We recommend it, but there are several good reasons not to do that.

But if you’re not certified you still have to be on that end of the spectrum with other practices and we spell that out in considerable detail. And beyond that you’re going to engage with the public and not be a hermit. You’re in the park and you’re going to engage people. You’re going to be educators.

Can they make a living?

Sure, of course. Not that that’s easy. I often say these people aren’t just producing semi-worthless commodities for global trade. They’re producing high-value specialty products for direct local retail sale. That means that they can do it on a small acreage. They don’t need a thousand acres, 500 acres, or even 100 acres. They have to do something very well, something very intensively on the acreage they have, and then they have to engage their customers and cut out all or most of the middlemen. So what they’re selling is going directly to the public.

Can you tell us a little bit about the success of the land use model?

The thing that’s different about this is that it really is a public/ private partnership. Not only was it different from the parks, and not just national parks, but also state parks and local parks. Many of them had acquired old farms and tried to figure out what to do with them. We jumped right in the middle of these troublesome problematic things that cost a lot of money and slowly, but surely, worked our way through to things that work. So there are many other farms in the park service that looked at that and said, ‘Alright, well help us adapt what you’re doing to our situation.’

Parks Canada has been here three times in the last year because they’re doing their first big national urban park. They have 4,000 acres of land that they want to keep in agriculture. They’re looking at how we solved a whole range of problems so that they can adapt them.

So what does success taste like?

Have you ever had a sun sugar tomato? It’s really, really good. The sweetest tomato you’ve ever had.

We think several of our farmers are being very successful because they have created farming operations raising high-quality food products. They’re processing it, they’re selling it to the public, and they’re succeeding financially as well as creating a life that they see as meaningful and successful. To see them do that and engage their society in something that’s really socially important today is what it’s about. We see these as models. We want people to look at them and start talking, thinking, and doing things that will become part of this larger culture change. We’re in big trouble if we can’t do that.

Countryside Initiative Farms

Basket of Life Farm

Basket of Life Farm, 4965 Quick Rd. Boston Township, 440.476.2722, BasketofLifeFarm.com

This 30-acre family farm offered the first Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Initiative Farm program. Their CSA provides farm-fresh, sustainably grown food to over 200 families. They also sell their produce at their farm stand and the Countryside Farmers’ Market.

Brunty Farm

Brunty Farms, 2470 Martin Rd. Bath Township, 330.594.7315, BruntyFarms.com

Jeff Brunty and Melanie Schenk have established a thriving pastured poultry and livestock farm business near the southwest corner of CVNP in Bath Township. They specialize in all-natural, clean, pasture-raised fresh eggs and meats for sale at the farm, through a CSA and at Countryside Farmers’ Markets.

Canal Corners Farm & Market

Canal Corners Farm & Market, 7247 Canal Rd., Valley View, 216.624.3916

The Wingenfelds have extended their growing season from April through December by growing asparagus, vegetables, pumpkins, and Christmas trees through on-the-farm sales and a CSA. Originally the Gleeson Farm dating back to 1850, the farm features an 1850s restored sandstone house and 1905 Wisconsin-style dairy barn. They host live theater and lantern tours.

Goatfeathers Point Farm

Goatfeathers Point Farm, 4570 Akron Peninsula Rd., Boston Township, 330.657.2726

Goatfeathers Point Farm has Tennessee Fainting Goats for breeder stock, meat and cashmere fiber, heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, chickens for eggs and of course occasionally stewing chickens, pigs, bees and beef cows. All are naturally raised on the 37 acres of pasture established as a farmstead in 1875. You can take a hike on the bridle path and see the farm and their livestock.

Greenfield Berry Farm

Greenfield Berry Farm, 2485 Major Rd., Boston Township, 330.657.2924, GreenfieldBerryFarm.com

The Greenfield Berry Farm features naturally grown pick-your-own strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries and offers a wide variety of small fruits and vegetables. Honey is available from their hives and jams from their berries. Daniel is also an environmental educator, and uses their farm to host classes and special events.

Neitenbach Farm

Neitenbach Farm, 3077 Akron Peninsula Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330.321.9026

AJ and Pamela Neitenbach use biodynamic farming methods and combine vegetable crops with culinary and medicinal herbs. They sell their products through an on-farm stand, at the Countryside Farmers Market, and offer a unique CSA. In addition, Pamela offers her herbal tinctures, teas, and salves as well as healing, holistic bodywork at The Banyan Tree in Peninsula.

Sarah's Vineyard

Sarah’s Vineyard, 1204 W. Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330.929.8057, SarahsVineyardWinery.com

Mike and Margaret Lytz operate a vineyard, winery, and art gallery where they grow several grape varieties, and make nearly a dozen wines, including an estate wine. The vineyard hosts an annual Summer Solstice Wine, Art and Music Festival in June. In addition, Sarah’s Vineyard offers indoor and outdoor dining, live music, and entertainment.

The Spicy Lamb Farm

The Spicy Lamb Farm, 6560 Akron-Peninsula Rd., Peninsula, 330.657.2012, TheSpicyLamb.com

Spicy Lamb Farm is owned and operated by Laura DeYoung in Peninsula, Ohio. The farm focuses on sheep, grazing services and education. The farm offers gourmet lamb, wool products and herbs. Laura’s farm is a regional favorite for family fun agritourism events, always putting an emphasis on environmental education.

The Trapp Family Farm

The Trapp Family Farm, 1019 W. Streetsboro Rd., Peninsula, 330.657.2844

The Trapp Family Farm is a mixed crop and livestock farm powered by two draft horses. By having a wide diversity of plants and animals, they are able to focus on capturing as much sunlight as possible and keeping it on the farm in the form of increased fertility and the healthiest imaginable plants and animals. They sell a limited number of shares for their Food Guild.