A farm in the park

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio – As Alan and Susan Halko lounged in their backyard after a busy day moving into their new farm in 2002, a limo pulled into their gravel drive.
“I’ve always dreamed of getting my picture taken in front of this barn on my wedding day, would you mind?” the bride asked the Halkoes as her wedding party spilled from the car and a photographer set up a tripod.
Looking across the farm straddling the scenic byway that winds through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park
, the bride confirmed what the Halkoes suspected. This picture-perfect farm meant as much to the community as it did to them.
Future find. Alan read about his future in the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in 1999 and was so intrigued that he clipped the article.
At the time, he didn’t know it was his future. All he knew was the newspaper talked about people being able to lease farms in a park.
Great idea, he thought – farm in a gorgeous location, preserve agriculture in a well-traveled area, and have a ready-made market.
He told his wife and then tucked the article away.
He already had so much going on in his life. In addition to working full-time as the Bainbridge Township road supervisor, Alan and his wife were running a 3-acre farm in Geauga County and spending the weekends at a farmers’ market selling their extra produce.
But about a year later, he found time to sneak away for a presentation on this new program. He learned people could write proposals and, through a competitive selection process, they would be granted 60-year leases on one of several farms in the park.
Alan and Susan put their names on the list for more information and figured maybe in another decade they might get picked to lease one of the farms.
But by June 2001, they were in final interviews.
By June 2002, they were moving in.
By June 2003, they were preparing their fields.
And by June 2004, they had their crops in the ground and a stand at the local farmers’ market.
The one. Alan and Susan could’ve applied for one of several farms in Cuyahoga Valley National Park when they submitted their proposal, but they chose this one.
Originally called Vaughn Farm, it has a tidy white bank barn, restored 1870s farmhouse and 13 acres.
When the Halkoes first toured it, they could picture the chickens on pasture, the rows of tomato plants, the patches of annuals, the greenhouse with vegetable starts, and the farm market across the street.
Not only was it a beautiful location, close to trails and waterfalls, but it was also on the main thoroughfare into the park. And since the park boasts 3.5 million visitors each year, the customer base was a sure thing.
They wrapped their visions into a proposal, and the park agreed this was the best place for the Halkoes’ Spring Hill Farm.
Now they have vegetables, eggs, cut flowers and so many plans for the future that they aren’t sure which to conquer first.
Ownership issues. But this is farming in a park and things don’t run quite the same way they would everywhere else.
The biggest hurdle, Alan said, was ownership. The farm is owned by the park; no matter how long they farm here and what strides they make, it will never be theirs.
But then Alan, 51, thinks about the 3-acre farm they had before they came here. They had 27 years left on their mortgage, owed more than what they’d originally borrowed and basically were paying rent to the bank, he said.
This situation is more affordable, Susan said. They had looked at other farms and knew that to get something in their price range, they would be buying property in rural southern Ohio, far from the customer base they needed to make a farm market work.
Now they’re right in the middle of everything, Susan said. If they had tried to buy a 13-acre farm here in Brecksville, Ohio, the cost would’ve made it impossible, she said.
In addition, Alan reasoned, they’re building a business here.
The lease is for 60 years but if they decide to move after 30 years, they can sell the other 30 years to another lessee with the park’s approval. And they know a thriving business will make those 30 years worth even more money.
Many farmers elsewhere think about building a farm that can be handed down to future generations. But what guarantee is there that, at 7 and 4, the Halkoes’ children will be interested in farming in another 20 years, Susan asked.
The government. This isn’t just leasing a farm in a park, it’s leasing a farm from the federal government, the Halkoes said.
Alan was used to going outside on Saturday and putting up fence when it needed done. But now it’s not so easy.
Instead, they submit an annual operating proposal each November and detail exactly where they want the fence, ask for permission to put up a greenhouse, and describe the need for a water line trench.
Once it goes through the proper channels, Alan gets his OK to begin work.
At first it was frustrating, he admits, but now he realizes his operation is better because of all the planning.
Plus, Susan added, the park wants them to succeed. It isn’t fighting them on every change and update, she said. They want this farm to be profitable and picturesque, too.
The ‘family.’ Perhaps what the Halkoes like best about their farm is the history and the feelings of warmth it fosters.
A man who lived in the house in the 1960s stopped to welcome Alan and Susan and to say he had the best memories of the farm and hopes they do as well.
Another person remembered living on the property in 1937 and wanted to walk through the fields to find the spot where his house once sat.
Other out-of-town visitors driving through the park stop just to say how much they wish they had a place like this.
And at the local farmers’ market, another bride stopped at the booth and told Alan her wedding pictures were also taken in front of his barn.
This, again, was confirmation that the Halkoes are not only doing something they love, farming, but also doing something for their community, preserving a way of life.
That is why they’re here.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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