Cuyahoga Valley farms resurrected

PENINSULA, Ohio – Somewhere between the city and the wild is a place where nature has been tamed but not destroyed, where people live with nature and still have what civilization has to offer.

And in the 1890s when people began to pour out of Cleveland and Akron looking for a little piece of that middle landscape, an escape from urban tensions, they found it in the Cuyahoga Valley.

It was a neat and tidy place, with manicured fields and animals behind fences, with farm houses and orchards, with pastures rather than wild expanses of tangled overgrowth.

The history and culture of the Cuyahoga Valley, that area along the Cuyahoga River that stretches 22 miles from Cleveland to Akron, was agricultural. The land had been farmed by native Americans and by European immigrants for hundreds of years.

And it is this landscape that the Cuyahoga National Park is hoping to recreate by re-establishing the farming heritage of the Cuyahoga Valley within the national park.

When the park was created in 1974, the legislative mandate was to preserve and protect the historical, scenic, natural and recreational values of the Cuyahoga River and adjacent lands.

And in the past 25 years, great strides have been made in returning the area to its original scenic and natural diversity.

Wild areas of forest and wetlands harbor a wide range of plant and animal species, including a recent colony of beaver that returned to the valley after a 150-year absence.

The historic Ohio and Erie Canal heritage has been well preserved, and the 20-mile towpath trail that opened in 1993 as a hike and bike path is the most utilized resource in the park. The 19th century railroad is running once again.

But park managers have never been able to design any place or program that fulfilled its mandated obligation to the agricultural past of the valley.

Enter Darwin Kelsey.

Kelsey was director of the Lake Metroparks’ Lake Farmpark in Kirkland, a cultural center outside of Cleveland dedicated to agriculture and country life.

At Lake Farmpark you can milk a cow, take a wagon ride, see horses, pigs, lambs, and poultry, learn about crops, and see plants growing. But, like other historical and cultural reconstructions of farming, “it is fairly artificial,” Kelsey said. “In that kind of situation there is no way to create a natural farming situation.”

Now, as director of the Cuyahoga Countryside Conservancy, an organization created by the park service and in partnership with the Cuyahoga National Park, Kelsey is creating an experiment in agricultural recreation unlike anything that has ever been tried in the national park system.

The Cuyahoga National Park is going to re-establish farming in the park, and on the same land and from the same farmsteads where it was being pursued before the park was created 25 years ago.

Kelsey said all of the former farms in the park have been surveyed, and it has been determined that 35 of them are salvageable.

So starting in 2001, people who have an idea of what they would like to do on a small farm in the middle of a national park, a farm that will be viewed and visited by millions of park visitors each year, are being invited to submit proposals.

There are five farms currently up for bid. It is expected that there will be three more each year for the next 10 years.

Kelsey said the concept of countryside conservancy, creating countryside within the park, came from what he has seen in England.

In England, where there is no wilderness land, only degrees of manicure, 10 percent of the land in the national park system is privately owned and farmed.

“It has never occurred to them that parks were places where people don’t live,” he said.

Kelsey himself has moved onto a 25-acre farm in the park so he will understand the challenges and the problems of the people whose lives and enterprise he will soon oversee.

While these 35 families are recreating the past of the area, Kelsey hopes they will also be creating a future for the kind of farming they will be practicing.

He expects that by being successful in the enterprises they design, the park families will help prove the premises on which his experiment is based: that farming can be environmentally friendly and that small farms can be profitable.

Successful proposals will be based on the modern concepts of sustainable farming. And they will include a business plan for a farming operation that is based on having the experience to be able to do what is proposed, justifying the economic feasibility of the farm concept, identifying markets for the proposed products, and proving sufficient financial ability carry the project through.

“We are not asking anyone to give up everything and come be a yeoman farmer,” Kelsey said. “If they have nonfarm sources of revenue that assure the financial stability of their farming proposal, that’s fine.

“How each family arranges its business and runs the farm is its own concern. What we are concerned about is that they are able to use this opportunity to make a successful life.”

What the conservancy envisions for these farms, Kelsey said, will probably include a lot of fruit and vegetable growing, a lot of grazing, and a large quantity of integrated livestock operations.

The business plans will likely focus on the production of very high quality, speciality goods for a kind of retail farming. When enough of the farms are settled, the conservancy may establish a farmer’s market in the valley.

“It will only be a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the population that will be willing and able to live here,” Kelsey said. “They will have to abide by a whole range of expectations and limitations.”

He believes that if the project is successful it will have implications beyond the Cuyahoga Valley.

Out of the almost 400 units in the national park system, he said, there might be a few dozen that could profit by replicating the system of having agriculture practiced in the park. It could also serve as a model for state and local parks.

But outside the parks, Kelsey said, it will be a demonstration and a model for smart farming.

On the urban fringes, he said, where development encroaches on open spaces, the concept of encouraging small farming operations would create a benefit for the entire community.

Rather than urban sprawl, there could be a way to preserve a portion of countryside, a place of open space where it is still possible for people to connect with nature.

Because it will take specific qualities and qualifications for the families who will eventually farm in the Cuyahoga National Park, the National Park Service is offering them an attractive opportunity.

Each of the farms 35 farms that will eventually be offered will be rehabilitated before it becomes available.

Each farm has a 19th century farmhouse on the land, and the houses are being completely restored. In some cases that means they will be gutted and the entire inside structure remodeled.

Outbuildings will be repaired and made usable.

The land attached to each farm, which in the case of the first five farms being offered ranges from 13 to 63 acres, will be cleared of vegetation.

Kelsey said the farms will be in shape for selected families to move into the house and to begin farming immediately.

The park service will offer leases of up to 50 years.

“Some of this land was leased for farming in the past,” Kelsey said, “but with only one- to five-year leases. That didn’t give anyone the security they needed to make any improvements or to create any sense of stewardship of the land.”

The cost of the leasing is divided into two parts. The houses will be rented at monthly rates based on a percentage of fair market value. There will be an additional discount for those homes that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Kelsey said rents should range between $400 to $750.

Percentage lease. On the land, Kelsey said lease payments will be figured on the production value of the land itself, and will be based on a percentage of gross revenue.

After the first 10 years, the lease payment will be 10 percent of gross revenue. Initially, payments will begin at 5 percent, and then increase each year by half a percent until it reaches the full payment.

“We want to give them the time to build the soil and reach a sustained level of production,” Kelsey said.

If a farm is operating on a certified organic basis, everything is further reduced by 1 percent.

Kelsey said there has been a fair amount of interest expressed in becoming part of this project. Many of the people, however, will not have enough experience and background to qualify.

After the first offering of five, now available for proposal, three more farms will be offered each year for the next 10 years.

Individuals interested in farming in the Cuyahoga National Park can now submit a proposal for the five farms now available for lease.

The five farms being offered range from 13 to 63 acres. Each has a restored 19th century house, two of which are homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All have at least one outbuilding, and most come with a barn that has had the outside walls and roof restored and repaired.

The Cuyahoga Countryside Conservency is about to release its Request for Proposals, which will automatically be mailed out to the more than 250 people who have already expressed an interest in the opportunity.

Proposals for the farming operation that would be conducted on one of the five properties are due 60 days from the date the proposal is released.

In one case the farm is already occupied.

Kathleen Varga had purchased the remainder of the 25-year retention rights on the house and land that were granted with the sale of the farm to the national park in 1978.

Her rights to the 22 acres and house on the Muranyi Farm, which she now calls Crooked River Herb Farm, will expire in 2003.

Rather than wait until then, she requested that the farm be included in this first offering, and she is planning to submit her own proposal to retain control of the farm.

The conservency will be offering tours of all five farms during the latter part of January. Each farm will be open for inspection twice during a two-week period.

For information about the the offering or to receive the RFP, contact Darwin Kelsey, director of the Cuyahoga Countryside Conservancy, at 330-657-2532 or by e-mail at darwin_kelsey@nps.gov.

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