More than 2.8 million people visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park last year, but recreation is not the only thing changing the face of the Valley. Since 2001, nearly a dozen small farms have sprung up inside the boundaries of the National Park.
Through a program called the Countryside Initiative, a select group of entrepreneurial farmers were granted long-term (60-year) leases to make the land productive again. By restoring individual farms, they are helping to preserve the rural heritage of the Valley while making more healthy, local foods available to people in our region every year.
Here’s a look at three of those Countryside Initiative farms and the farmers who live and work on them. Their crops and livestock are similar to their 19th and 20th century predecessors but their approach combines the best of traditional farming with the best new sustainable production methods.
Basket of Life Farm
Nothing ever grows as fast as they think it should, and there are new problems to deal with every year. “Last year, it was an infestation of Colorado Potato Beetles,” Heather Walters says. “We spent so many hours hand picking those darn things off the plants.”
Pest control is just one challenge Heather and her husband, Eric, face as they work out their dream of creating a future for their family on a natural and sustainable farm.
The Walters operate the Basket of Life Farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Their farm is a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a relatively new idea where members buy a share of the season in early spring, then come back weekly or biweekly, for about 18 weeks, to pick up their portion of what is harvested.
CSA members share in the risks and the rewards of the farm. At Basket of Life, members typically get five to 15 pounds of produce each week—a mix of five to nine different varieties. Their investment comes with no guarantees because some years will be more productive than others. Plus, certain crops may fail and others may be harvested only on a small scale.
“By the end of the season, we hope to give members a little of most veggies which will grow in Ohio,” Heather says. Greens, radishes, lettuce, summer and winter squash, peppers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and root crops—heirloom varieties whenever practical—are some examples.
Last year, Basket of Life was able to provide food for 38 CSA-member families. This year they’ve expanded enough to provide fresh local produce for more than 60 families. Still, the demand for their produce exceeds the supply.
The Walters find great satisfaction in the life they are creating and the food their small but growing farm can produce. “We are picky about what we eat, and if we would not eat it, we will not sell it to you,” Heather says.
Despite the difficulties, the pair is thrilled to have the opportunity to lease the land for their farm from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “It was one of those things that seemed too good to be true... one of those programs you hear about but never get a chance to try for,” Heather says.
They moved to the 30-acre property in mid-summer 2006, planted their first veggies on about half an acre in 2007 and expect to have three acres in the ground by the end of this growing season.
This April, Eric left his job as a sales and technical rep to work on the farm full-time. Now, he does the lions’ share of day to day work on the farm—managing the crops, watering, weeding as well as doing the tractor, building and repair work.
Heather works as a “green” building project manager for an architectural firm. On the farm, she communicates with CSA members, does bookkeeping and runs pickups.
The couple plants new crops and harvests them together.
“For now, it’s just my husband and I on the farm,” Heather says. “We look forward to starting our family here. You could not ask for a better place to raise children.”
For a closer look at the tears and joys of this new farm family, check out Heather’s blog at csa-days.blogspot.com.
Brunty Farms LLC
After tasting fresh eggs at a friend’s house, Jeff Brunty decided to get a few laying hens of his own. Initially, his hens provided enough eggs for his family to enjoy, but soon they had more than they could use. With his grandparents’ help, he remembers selling extra eggs to the Springfield VFW for a dollar a dozen.
“It was a hobby,” says the young man who started out at the age of 14 with seven chickens, “but I always wanted to turn it into a business.” Brunty lived with his mom but raised his hens on his grandparents’ land, a former pig farm, in Springfield Township.
While still in high school, Brunty spent lots of time researching various breeds of meat birds and how to raise them in a natural habitat. When he discovered that meat birds could be ready to sell in just a matter of weeks, he decided to try to raise a few of his own. He started with 15 meat chickens which he sold to neighbors and friends. Soon, Brunty’s meat birds became as popular as his eggs.
By the time Brunty was 20, his business grew—“mostly by word of mouth”—into a full-scale game bird and poultry farm raising laying hens, meat birds, game birds and ornamental pheasants, and shipping them all over the United States.
When he heard about the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy’s mission to restore the historic farms in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, he believed this might be just the opportunity he was looking for.
With the help of his girlfriend, Melanie Schenk, an international business and marketing major at The University of Akron, Brunty completed the intense application process for a lease on a 17-acre property in Bath. He filed the application in April 2008, earned the lease, and then moved into his new farm on Martin Road last October.
Brunty Farms LLC currently has 250 Golden Comet laying hens, each producing six eggs per week—about one egg every 25 hours. He plans to double egg production, adding 250 more hens to his operation, this month.
Brunty sells his eggs right from his farm. He’s also a regular at the Countryside Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings at Howe Meadow in Peninsula. In fact, they use his eggs in the breakfast burritos there. His brown eggs sell for $3.50 a dozen; double-yolk eggs are $5 a dozen.
Because Brunty’s hens are grass-fed and pasture raised, his eggs are much lower in bad cholesterol than eggs from grain-fed hens. They also contain high levels of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to selling eggs year round, Brunty provides about 200 fresh chickens to customers every two weeks. This will be his seventh year to offer turkeys, and he plans to sell 500 this year, processing them through mid-November.
No stranger to hard work, Brunty supplements his farm income working for a roofing contractor during the day.
“It’s not easy,” Brunty says. “I couldn’t do it without my family.” Brunty’s dad helps process the meat birds, his mom and grandparents work the farm markets, and his stepdad helps with the vegetable garden.
Brunty wants to give customers “a true healthy alternative to what you would find at the store.” In the process, he’s trying hard to go “above and beyond” what he proposed to the conservancy in his lease agreement. “We’re like a model for national parks all across the country, so it’s very important that we succeed in this,” he says.
Greenfield Berry Farm
Living close to the land and trying to make it produce was a longtime dream for Dan Greenfield, who jokes that he must have been born with a farm gene—a longing and desire to get back to the land. He and his wife, Michele, moved into their farm on the outskirts of Peninsula Village in the fall of 2006.
The Greenfields operate a Certified Naturally Grown farm, (an eco-label for small farmers that grow using organic methods, but have chosen not to become USDA certified organic). Their farm features pick-your-own blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. It also offers a CSA program for member subscribers.
Greenfield Berry Farm offers a wide array of produce including garlic, onions, cabbage, peppers, gourmet potatoes, beets, radishes, carrots, okra, spinach, tomatillos, beans, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, cucumbers, kale, kohlrabi, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and sunflowers for cutting.
A beekeeper, Dan also harvests honey, lightly filtered with cheesecloth. Michele makes strawberry, blueberry and raspberry jams, which are available at the farm and at the Countryside Farmers’ Markets.
Always on the lookout for unusual varieties of vegetables, the couple loves Purple Majesty potatoes, which are a little bigger than a large egg. They’re great roasted and topped with a smoky brie cheese, Dan says. Stored properly in a dark, cool place, they’ll keep for a few weeks.
Each year, the Greenfields refine their operation, learning from the successes and trials of the year before. This year, for the first time, Dan is cultivating edamame—healthy, in-the-pod baby soybeans.
Dan, who has his PhD in the cultural foundations of education with a focus on the philosophy of farm-based environmental education, came into farming as a result of his interest in the organic, local foods movement.
He read about the Countryside Initiative program and started researching it in 2001. Along the way, he explored many aspects of farming and continues to take every opportunity he can to add to his skill set. He has been active in organic farming conferences and workshops, taken master gardening classes and even completed blueberry school.
While Dan admits he was perhaps “more gung ho, originally” on the idea of living and working on a farm, Michele, who works off the farm writing computer software manuals, has become the ideal partner on the farm. “She follows all my crazy ideas,” he says with a chuckle. “She’s really the better of the two workers. I start a lot of things, but she’s able to finish them. I call her the finisher.”
Dan loves sharing what he’s learned with willing learners and he loves having visitors on his farm. He enjoys watching people gather their own potatoes from the field—“it’s like a big Easter egg hunt,” he says. He offers custom farm-based educational experiences to school, church and scout groups.
The organic fashion of farming is “a hell of a lot harder than we thought it would be, but that’s okay,” Dan says. “We have a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We have to be clever and work with nature. It’s a constant exercise in problem solving.”
Dan and Michele are always thinking of new ways to generate more income from the farm. They’ve been bringing in volunteers to help with harvesting, but there’s still a limit to how much they can realistically produce.
On the up side, the market is definitely there, Dan says. “When you’re growing something good, it sells itself.”
For more information about Countryside Initiative, visit the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy Web site at