The Countryside Initiative
This innovative program began in 1999 as a way to preserve and protect the rural landscape in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). When the National Park Service created the boundaries of this National Recreation Area in the 1970’s, there was a struggle to stop the loss of rural character and cultural resources in the Cuyahoga Valley. After a trip overseas, former park superintendent John Debo wondered why the countryside of Cuyahoga Valley couldn’t be successfully managed like the countryside in Europe – with farming. Much of the public land in Europe is leased to farmers for grazing and crops. In a very cooperative relationship that has been in existence for centuries, the rural landscape of Europe is protected by these land stewards that we call farmers. Debo needed a champion of this plan, so he enlisted Darwin Kelsey to take the charge.
Darwin created the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy (now known as Countryside), a private nonprofit organization, to partner with CVNP to accomplish this monumental task. A formal Cooperative Agreement with CVNP was created, whereby Countryside would help CVNP manage the farming program by selecting farm and field sites to be rehabilitated, recruiting potential farmers, providing agricultural expertise to both the park and farmers and finding the resources needed to help both parties succeed. The park’s role would be to invest the resources to bring these old farmsteads back to life, and administer the lease and fiscal management of the program. The third partner in this innovative land use model is the farmer.
The farmer is competitively awarded a long-term lease of a proposed site only after powerfully articulating his or her plan to manage and farm that site through the entire term of the lease. These farms are expected to be managed with only sustainable farming practices, and the farmers are required to positively interact with CVNP visitors. The participation and stewardship of these special farmers are the key to the success of this program. Here is the 2015 Request for Proposals (now closed but for informational purposes). The 2015 RFP resulted in two farms being leased to new farmers.
To date, there are over a dozen restored farm properties in the program. The farms and Countryside bring over 100,000 people into the park each year and have an economic impact of over a million dollars per year.
This innovative land use program has achieved international attention and is sought as a model for public/private sustainable land use.
We are pleased and proud of the Countryside Initiative’s success and the farmers who live here. Because of this program, the rural character of the Cuyahoga Valley is safe, sound, and growing the next generation of land stewards.