National Park Offers Farmland of the People, by the People, for the People

If you’ve ever daydreamed about fleeing your desk to start a farm, or trading in your mortgage to live in a national park, doing both at the same time might feel like winning a custom-made lottery (after scratching off your bacon-scented ticket, of course).

In May, the National Park Service’s (NPS) Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio will announce its latest call for applications in a program that awards 60-year leases to farm on park land. Lease holders live in single-family renovated farm structures within the park. Only three coveted leases will be awarded in this cycle, and the NPS doesn’t see another call for applications in the foreseeable future.

The successful competitors will join 10 national park farms already established in Cuyahoga. Cuyahoga is on 33,000 protected acres nestled between Cleveland and Akron. Today, the area surrounding it is mainly suburban, but at its peak in the 19th century, the valley had 700 to 800 farms. “One of the park’s goals is preserving that rural farming landscape,” says Jennie Vasarhelyi chief of Interpretation, Education, and Visitor Services.

Preserving the countryside was both an original mission and a challenge for the park, as its establishment in 1974 coincided with both suburban sprawl and increased environmental awareness. The farmers who dotted the land 40 years ago didn’t universally practice techniques consistent with the NPS’s charge of “preserving the natural resources of America,” according to Vasarhelyi, but farmers have greater awareness of those techniques now.

The park took years renovating salvageable historic farm buildings, eventually offering the 60-year leases for a variety of farm endeavors. Current Cuyahoga farmers who were successful in past Requests for Proposals for the farm leases represent a cross-section of the American farmer: young and old, experienced and inexperienced, single and with large families, living in historic and modern structures. They have at least one thing in common: They are committed to making this revolutionary public-private partnership a new model for the sustainable food movement.

Picture of the Duffy Farm

Duffy Farm was built in the 1880s and restored in the early 2000s. Today it houses the Basket of Life Farm. Photographs by the National Park Service

NPS requires each farm to include a public service and education component. Chef Ben Bebenroth of Spice Acres Farm owns a Cleveland restaurant and catering company with his wife Jackie and uses the farm to source the best ingredients for his and other Cleveland businesses, connecting the country to the city. Canal Corners Farm & Market is on historic farmstead land, and a regional theater company performs out of its renovated century-old barn. A couple now in their 50s started Sarah’s Vineyard and Winery, planting their first grapes in 2003 and opening the winery in 2007 across the street from Blossom Music Center, the summertime home of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Of course, farming can be back breakingly hard work, particularly the kind of farming involving stewardship of a national park. And all kinds of laws restrict the use of the land. Alan Halko of the now-defunct Spring Hill Valley and Market recounts that before he could put fence posts into the ground, he had to wait for an archeological study, delayed until the next visit of the official government archeologist. Acknowledging its lack of farming expertise, the NPS helped created the Countryside Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to sustainable food culture, to teach farming skills and integrate the program into the Cleveland and Akron local food scenes.

“We help people pursue the small farm dream,” explains Tracy Emrick, who manages partnershps for the Countryside Conservancy. With Countryside’s help, the farms’ acceptance by Cleveland’s food cognoscenti has established Cuyahoga as a trusted brand. For a business, associating its ingredients with the park is valuable shorthand for quality and deliciousness. Countryside thereby helped create a brand-new government asset at it simultaneously educated the public on food and farms. “When you buy food, even if it is completely processed and in a box, somewhere there was a farm involved,” Emrick notes.

Picture of goats

A herd of heritage goats wander through Goatfeathers Point Farm in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Countryside also offers food-related courses to the public, including cheesemaking and gardening, bringing in the area’s best food minds as teachers. Shepherding the smooth management of the business side of the program is a key Countryside role as well; farmers pay fair market value for the leases (reduced for loss of privacy, among other things) so they must work on profitability.

The effort’s structure is sparking interest. Several national parks have visited Cuyahoga to study its pilot program, including Point Reyes National Park’s livestock farming leadership team.

The Park Service’s counterintuitive involvement in farming, and the anticipated involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services in farming’s environmental and sustainability concerns, show food’s relevance to every aspect of policy and politics. Food is taking its place as the ultimate interdisciplinary issue and its integration into every U.S. agency provides valuable opportunities for creative thinking.

Cuyahoga’s success has likely benefited from being the right idea at the right time, harnessing the food movement’s snowballing energy in the 2000s and having the substance to grow well past a fad. According to Emrick, Cuyahoga Valley’s summer farmers’ market brought in more than $1 million in sales in just six months, with approximately 1,500 to 2,000 visitors. As an added incentive shoppers with government benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps) receive double face value at the market.

Interested applicants for May’s lease competition will need to demonstrate concern for the public welfare in their farm business plans, in addition to access to startup capital. “We look to see if the objective of the farmer is compatible,” explains Emrick (Countryside traditionally plays an advisory role in the selection process). “The more sustainable their practices, to more committed to healthy soils and water and educating the public about farming and agriculture, the better. The farmer must protect, preserve, nurture, and invest in that property for the good of everyone.”