Between Akron and Cleveland, within a 22-mile, 33,000-acre stretch of woods and fields interspersed with rivers, lakes and waterfalls, there’s a lot more happening these days than just cruising. Not that long ago that land was simply known as “the valley.” It was a lush rural landscape at the northern edge of Akron that we cruised in the summer to escape the city’s heat, or visited on field trips to Hale Farm and Village or Virginia Kendall Park.
Since then the valley has evolved into a true destination. Officially becoming the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) in 1974, it now offers an expanding array of cool things to do year round. You can go biking on the ever-lengthening Towpath Trail, take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad or take the dogs on a shady hike followed by a dip in Indigo Lake. There’re also winter activities, such as sledding and cross-country skiing, in addition to myriad educational programs for all ages and interests.
But to an increasing number of residents, chief among CVNP’s offerings are the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy’s farmers’ markets, which enable us to eat organically, locally and very, very well all year long.
Connecting people, food and land
Thanks to the Countryside Conservancy, which launched in 1999, we’ve had access to lively farmers’ markets bringing us locally and organically produced food and products since 2004. With three locations, the farmers’ markets are held outside from May through October at Howe Meadow in Peninsula, the largest market in CVNP with about 60 vendors, and at Market Street and Conger Avenue in Highland Square. Throughout November and December, a Saturday farmers’ market is held at Old Trail School in Bath.
Countryside Conservancy’s mission is to connect people, food and land, so what better way than through farmers’ markets?
“It’s about quality of life, and making that connection with the people who grow and produce the food you eat,” said market manager Beth Knorr. “It’s a very special connection.”
The farmers’ markets feature pastured-raised meats and cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan breads and bakery items, jams, jellies, syrups, and even soaps and lotions. You name it and if it’s organic and able to be grown locally the markets likely offer it.
“You can do all of your grocery shopping there, but you might have to go somewhere for milk,” says Heather Roszczyk, Countryside Conservancy’s education and marketing manager.
In fact, Countryside Conservancy’s efforts put Northeast Ohio on the cutting edge of the “eat local” movement in 1999, years before hipsters on either coast were into the movement.
“The good news is we happened at just the right time,” says Darwin Kelsey, Countryside Conservancy Executive Director. “When we started, what we were doing was a little weird and fringy — not just in the park service, nationally.”
The broader “eat local” movement didn’t take off until publication of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivores Dilemma” in 2006, which took a sharp look at what’s really in America’s favorite foods, Kelsey says. “Then, all of a sudden there’s a national conversation about eating locally. What was weird and fringy is now a mainstream idea.”
The farmers’ markets are evidence the food awareness is gaining ground, as attendance grows each year.
According to Knorr, a lot of pre-planning goes into the markets. Vendors are carefully selected once a year through an application process. Niche products are sought out to provide market-goers with variety. Then, as market days get closer, maps are thoughtfully drawn up that place complementary producers near one another, Knorr says, such as cheeses next to breads.
Another important feature of the farmers’ markets is that they accept both debit cards and Ohio Direction Cards. As an added nutritional incentive, “Carrot Cash,” paid out in tokens, matches purchases of produce dollar-for-dollar up to $15 for families with Ohio Direction Cards.
Many people visit the farmers’ markets to do more than shop. Cooking demonstrations and food competitions are featured every year, like the annual tomato-tasting competition that draws area chefs who sample more than 30 varieties of locally grown organic tomatoes. Knorr recalls the year a “salsa smack-down” took place at the market and the local chef who won came back the following year as a vendor, selling his winning salsa.
“For us the future is really about building a food culture,” Kelsey says. “Local and organic actually is healthier and tastes better. If it’s long-distance industrial then there’re issues. Environmental issues and taste issues aren’t important to those producers.”
Last year, the Countryside Conservancy celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its farmers’ markets, which happened to coincide with reaching $1 million in sales at the three markets combined.
Each component of Countryside Conservancy’s work is designed to help complete that connection between people, food and land. The farmers’ markets were started to help sustain the working farms within the CVNP borders while introducing residents to the benefits of sustainable farming practices.
This notion is essential to the mission of the CVNP. According to Kelsey, the founders of CVNP, led by Congressman John Seiberling, intended for the national park to preserve the valley in its original state—its beauty, history, recreational aspects and agricultural heritage. There had long been working farms in the valley and when the valley became a national park the NPS was mandated to bring the farms back. But this was no easy task as many of the farms were greatly deteriorated and required Herculean efforts to rehabilitate them for modern farmers.
In 1999, CVNP Superintendent John Debo asked Kelsey to leave Lake Farmpark, a Lake County agricultural and environmental education center, to help CVNP develop a plan to rehab the park’s farms. A farm boy from New York who had owned a livestock farm in Connecticut, Kelsey had the know-how in historical rural settlements and agricultural field systems to make CVNP farms operational.
Kelsey’s first move was onto one of the valley’s farms.
“I went there intentionally to make myself live through the issues that all the other farmers were going to have to deal with so I would really understand and really empathize with them as well as with the park and its needs,” he says.
But Kelsey didn’t take a traditional approach to farming. He knew about 90 percent of the world’s population eats goat meat on a regular basis.
“I was thinking this is Northeast Ohio,” he says. “We’ve got 120-some ethnic communities here, most of which come from goat-eating cultures. That might be a market opportunity.”
So for the next 10 years he and his family lived on a farm called “Grazeland,” with goats Kelsey bought in from Virginia, some of them of the fainting variety. (One of his best breeding bucks was, of course, named Elvis.) Intent on keeping the farm as sustainable as possible, Kelsey selected the goats for their ability to live off the land, without the need to bring in grain and hay. The farm flourished.
Kelsey’s success at “Grazeland” led to more pilot farms.
By 2001, Sarah’s Vineyard was planting its first vines while two other farms were also taking shape. In 2004, more RFPs went out to residents with an interest in farming and a solid plan. With only two farms left, Countryside Conservancy plans to issue the final RFPs in the near future.
From goats and eggs to berries and herbs
Today, Countryside farms feature fresh eggs and meats (goats, sheep, chickens and turkeys), vegetable and fruit crops, culinary and medicinal herbs, and even cut flowers. Greenfield Berry Farm farm offers a pick-your-own-berry operation along with an array of vegetables, while Sarah’s operates a thriving vineyard and winery. Many farms offer educational programs and special events as well.
In addition to participating in Countryside’s markets, the farms offer residents opportunities to participate in Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs). With CSAs, residents can sign up to purchase products from the farms on a regular basis, such as monthly through the summer or quarterly. Each farm’s CSA program is unique and information is available on the farms’ websites or Facebook pages.
Buying fresh, organic, locally grown food available is one thing, but knowing how to use it to prepare good meals is sometimes another. To help residents understand how to handle the various products, the Countryside Conservancy started Countryside U, which offers classes for home cooks, gardeners and beginning farmers. Past classes have involved pairing cheese with wine or using fresh ingredients in cocktails, such as Bloody Marys starting with fresh tomatoes. The popular cocktail series will continue this summer. Canning, food preservation and introductory gardening classes are also offered. (Check Countryside Conservancy’s website for a listing of classes.)
“We’re really seeing a return to so many lost arts,” says Roszczyk. “Countryside U is about helping people relearn those skills. This generation now wants to reclaim those skills that their grandparents were so proficient at.”
Between Countryside’s farmers’ markets, its farms and its educational offerings, the organization is clearly intent on changing the way we eat. But new initiatives are likely on the horizon.
“It’s not just the food culture we’re talking about, it’s changing other things too,” says Kelsey. “We plan to go after the suburbs and get them to rethink what they do. We want them to plant gardens and do things organically, instead of pouring chemicals on their lawns.”