Sustainable Farming in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
On any given night people flock to Spice Kitchen on Detroit Avenue in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood for great food, but diners might not realize where that food comes from prior to arriving at their table. Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen has a 13-acre farm aptly named Spice Acres located in Cuyahoga Valley National Park which supplies some of the food that he cooks. The produce he grows also inspires the dishes he cooks, which vary based on what’s in season. The food he cooks in early summer will be vastly different than what appears on his menu in the early fall. What he doesn’t get from his farm he buys from local farmers in a 150-mile radius from his restaurant. Bebenroth is committed to the farm-to-table ideal as a means to provide the best cuisine to offer his guests. Even the floral decorations that grace the tables come from his farm.
Spice Acres is one of eleven farms that are part of the Countryside Initiative, which promotes sustainable farming practices within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Those lucky few, like Bebenroth, who get a long-term lease, are then able to continue the tradition of sustainable farming practices. The process of acquiring a lease is a time-consuming process, in order to ensure that the lessee’s vision and business plan are in line with the Initiative’s stated mission. The Countryside Initiative was started in 1999 as a way to incorporate working farms into the National Park landscape. Farming was a part of the Cuyahoga Valley for generations prior to the suburbanization that started to consume farmland starting in the early 20th century. One farm that has been able to hang on is Szalay's Farm, which has been around for about 80 years. With the creation of the Countryside Initiative the plan was to implant farming ventures back into the Cuyahoga Valley as a means of education as well as allowing farmers to come in and farm the land. As part of the lease process, a farmer who is bidding on one of the current farms submits a business plan which outlines how they will use the land once they sign the lease. The application process takes several months to complete so as to ensure the right fit for the prospective farmer and farm. This process also helps to sort out those who are able to really farm for a long period of time. Once the application process is complete, the Initiative and the farmer enter into a 60-year lease agreement.
Bebenroth’s vision is to promote the farm-to-table ideal in which people are able to get food within a 150-mile radius of their home, which aligns with the Initiatives mission of preservation. What started as a small garden in his back yard led to signing a multi-year lease with the Countryside Initiative so as to expand his growing capacity for Spice Kitchen. At Spice Acres he brings that vision to life as he adds a variety of produce and livestock to his property to support the variety of menu items on offer at his restaurant. Thus far he has added pigs to his farming venture and hopes to continue to add other livestock to his ever-expanding farm bounty. Farming for Bebenoth has also become a way of creating an environment of social change on a local level. He has found that educating children is often easier than reeducating adults in healthy eating habits. Although he offers a variety of education programs that focus on being health-conscious in what they eat, Bebenroth also encourages people to be good stewards of the land.
In recent years Spice Acres has offered themed outdoor dinners, called Plated Landscapes Dinners, which feature in-season produce. As part of the dinner Bebenroth offers tours of his farm prior to the beginning of dinner, and he also engages with his guests during dinner. His hope is to show people the benefits of eating food that is grown closer to their home. Offering these outdoor dinners allows people to get a better feel of how the farm-to-table movement works and could have a positive impact on their daily lives. Interacting with people on his farm while having a meal together also allows for dialogue between those who grow the food and those who partake in the themed dinners. Interacting with his guests is an important aspect of his work, at both Spice Acres and Spice Kitchen, to inspire people to eat more local food. During the summer months he also allows families to visit his farm and encourages them to procure items from special meals from his farm. One example of people getting food items from his farm is obtaining flowers for their Easter table or a ham for Thanksgiving.
The Countryside Initiative has impacted how the Cuyahoga Valley National Park educates visitors on farming practices not only within the boundaries of the park but within the greater Cleveland-Akron area. Over the years the Initiative has increased its presence not only by leasing farms but also by setting up farmers' markets so people have a means of buying locally grown food, such as the farmers' market at Howe’s meadow during the summer months. The hope is to ensure that people can become more aware of how their food is grown and encourage engagement between the grower and the buyer. Allowing farmers to lease land from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park has meant that a way of life may be preserved for future generations to experience a way of life that is slowly fading from the American landscape.