Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park embraces a novel idea: the best way to protect the land may be asking people to farm it.

By Jeff Chu; Photographer: Bob Stefko
Cleveland chef Ben Bebenroth and his wife, Jackie

On a misty spring morning, Mark Trapp emerges from his farmhouse shortly after 7. He checks his chattering hens, topping off their feed and water. He greets his Tamworth pigs. Then he guides two plough horses to pasture.

Sans tractor, morning chores unfold like a scene out of a bygone century. Except that Mark is a Carnegie Mellon-educated mechanical engineer who often Instagrams his produce and animals. And his farm sits on national parkland, within one of Ohio's largest metropolitan areas.

Mark Trapp uses no gas-powered equipment for his fieldwork in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Bisected by two interstates, Cuyahoga Valley National Park stretches 20 miles from Cleveland's southern suburbs to Akron's northern edge. Where Yellowstone has Old Faithful and Yosemite boasts El Capitan, Cuyahoga Valley claims no sparkling solitaire. Instead, the park offers a string of pleasures along the Cuyahoga River: waterfalls, meadows abundant with goldenrod and milkweed, forests of hickory, birch and sassafras. But 11 working farms set this national park apart from any other.

Partnering with a nonprofit called the Countryside Conservancy, these farms have become labs for innovation and engines of transformation on the land. The program-the only one incorporating sustainable agriculture into the national park system's conservation efforts-acknowledges that no ecosystem is static. The American landscape has undergone near-constant change, human interaction and development. Since there's no going back to what once was, we can only imagine what could be.

Play, Farm, Sustain

Covering 51 square miles, Cuyahoga Valley is one of America's smallest national parks, and among the most-visited. It attracts more than 2.4 million guests annually, more than the Everglades or Sequoia, partly because of its proximity to urban and suburban areas.

A day here can merge conventional national park fun-marveling at Brandywine Falls, which tumbles 60 feet into a gorge framed by wildflowers; hiking through Lord of the Rings-worthy woods at the Ledges-with a glimpse of the pastoral life that delights Mark and his family. Most of the farms are within a 15 minutes' drive of each other and welcome visitors. At Greenfield Berry Farm, you can pick blueberries and sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share. At Brunty Farms, watch the grazing cows, then buy some steaks.

Top row, middle: Chef Ben Bebenroth, Spice Acres. Middle row, left: Mark Trapp, Trapp Family Farm. Middle row, right: Cindy Bechter-Smith, Goatfeathers Point Farm. Bottom row, middle: Daniel Greenfield, Greenfield Berry Farm. Bottom row, right: Sarah's Vineyard.

The Countryside Conservancy launched in 1999 (one year before Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area earned national park status) with the goal to protect the rural character of the valley and build a healthy, resilient food culture. Inspired by strategies more common in Europe, it uses responsible farming as a tool to nourish the land and honor its complex history.

Inviting farmers onto protected land hews more faithfully to the national parks' core purposes than you might think. The first national park, Yellowstone, symbolized a familiar goal set by Congress in 1872: a "pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," set in tracts of wild wonderland laced with a few access roads and lodges. But in addition to protecting the land for us, these parks protect it from us. President Theodore Roosevelt didn't just have scenery on his mind when he vastly expanded national parkland. "What will happen when our forests are gone," he said in 1908, "when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields?"

And what do we do with a place like the Cuyahoga Valley, which is far from pristine wilderness? Indigenous people had a long history of farming here, and 19th-century settlers decimated old-growth stands of sycamore, oak and maple. Countryside Conservancy director Tracy Emrick says, "We are taking a cultural space, a human-driven space, and saying it is valuable."

While seven other national parks have limited ranching and grazing-holdovers from preconservation days-Cuyahoga Valley's 11 farming families weren't grandfathered in. Instead, they applied for 60-year leases to live and work here.

Best Practices

At Goatfeathers Point Farm, located in the park's southern reaches, Cindy Bechter-Smith and her husband, Terry, recently received a grant to create habitat for bees and butterflies. Their partners in the process? Goats. After Cindy and Terry seed a meadow with pollinator-friendly milkweed and black-eyed Susans, they run the goats through. "Their hooves help get the seed in contact with the soil," Cindy explains, "and the goats fertilize as they go."

The couple began raising Tennessee fainting goats and other rare animal breeds in Cuyahoga Valley in 2006 as part of their retirement plan. Cindy says the myotonia that causes the goats to faint makes for tender meat. Then she sprints toward the herd. Two goats promptly fall over, then jump back up a few seconds later.

The Countryside Conservancy receives detailed sustainability blueprints from each farm. It also imposes strict rules; livestock must be grass-fed, for instance, with careful pasture management to maximize soil health and minimize runoff. Activity that might mark the ecosystem requires both environmental and archaeological approval.

At the Countryside Conservancy's Saturday farmers market, even vendors with off-park farms must embrace sustainable practices. At Liz Calvelage's Little Bean Farm and Larder stand, for example, a note about deterring pests with neem oil sits beside lush heads of lettuce.

Growing Curiosity

On Spice Acres farm, Ben and Jackie Bebenroth cultivate vegetables, figs, berries and myriad greenhouse herbs, such as dark opal basil, lemon mint, lavender and chervil. Much of their harvest goes to Ben's Cleveland restaurant, Spice Kitchen + Bar, where even the stems and leaves of the couple's home-grown ginger are reincarnated as bitters for craft cocktails.

Cleveland Chef Ben Bebenroth and his wife, Jackie, lease a 13-acre farmstead in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Passing a field planted with cover crop (oats, peas) and another with perennials (currants, raspberries), Ben discusses the importance of welcoming guests-passersby, school groups, employees from corporations such as Nestlé. The Bebenroths host twice-weekly yoga lessons in the fields. Every summer, they offer pick-your-own flowers. A walking trail traces the property's edge. "The worst thing we could do," Ben says, "is put up a no-trespassing sign."

Though they are for-profit, each farm in the park is expected to engage the public, a charge that helps restore an understanding of where our food comes from. "We take for granted that the food we purchase at the grocery store had to have a piece of land attached to it," says Tracy from the Countryside Conservancy. "We can't continue to have that disconnect."

The land constantly offers new culinary inspiration. Spotting a spruce, Ben plucks tips from a branch. Bright, and more citrusy than piney, the ingredient will grace his spaetzle and mojitos. Enlightened curiosity is the farm's driving philosophy. "I don't like people leaving with answers," Ben says. "I like them leaving with questions."

"If we treat the land properly, it will flourish. And I'd like people to see how beautiful this life can be." Mark Trapp

Explore the Valley

Trace the old Ohio and Erie Canal by bike; 20 miles of the Towpath Trail cut through the national park. Or board a vintage train ($5 with a bike) after morning yoga on a farm. More than 100 miles of trails reach forest, wetlands and waterfalls. A park expansion created a 327-acre birding meadow, where Richfield Coliseum, home to the Cavs, stood until 1999.

Left to right: Yoga at Spice Acres; Blue Hen Falls; Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for cyclists and sightseers

Taste the Farms

On Saturdays, April through October, the Countryside Conservancy hosts a farmers market in Howe Meadow within the park. Find park-raised meat and produce, plus vendors like Akron Coffee Roasters from the surrounding area. At Sarah's Vineyard, sip wine at the first alcohol producer in a national park. And at Spice Kitchen + Bar in Cleveland, try signature savory beignets featuring seasonal ingredients.

(Left) Sarah's Vineyard; (right) Spice Kitchen + Bar in Cleveland, photo: Spice Kitchen + Bar
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