In an era of increasing industrialization, Cuyahoga Valley National Park serves as an undeveloped island sustaining the preservation of American farm life. The National Park Service's Countryside Initiative program promotes living, working farms that represent the rural heritage of the Cuyahoga Valley, while also protecting the park's resources. Through Countryside, the National Park Service keeps alive the idea of the family farm.
The Cuyahoga Valley Countryside was established in 1999 as a nonprofit cooperating partner of the National Park Service. During its first four years, Countryside focused primarily on the Countryside Initiative farm rehabilitation program. As of 2020 there are 10 operational Countryside Initiative farms and over a dozen restored farm properties in the program. During its first decade, Countryside developed numerous educational programs to support new farmers, as well as to engage and educate the general public. For more information visit Countryside's website.
2011 Oral History Project: Darwin Kelsey, the founder of Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, describes the organization's history, goals, and how he helped inventory the valley's historic farms.
“Well, one of the first things we had to do was what I described as inventorying the dead carcasses of old farms to see how many body parts could be stitched back together. You know, because the old farms are in tough shape, badly decayed. Houses are gone, barns are gone, fields are gone, fields are overgrown, you know. Describing them as dead body parts is pretty appropriate. And we inventoried the dead carcasses of about eighty-five, and that was what was left. And that was what was left, you know, a century and a half after there began to be farms here, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when people began to move into this part of Ohio, and began to move into the valley, and they began to settle the valley.
"Then you go from a landscape that, you know, had agriculture in the year seven, eight hundred with Native Americans, but not European Americans until the early nineteenth century, and not many. And then throughout the nineteenth century their numbers continued to grow; several hundred. By the end of the nineteenth century there were probably somewhere over seven or eight hundred farms, small farms in the valley between Cleveland and Akron. You move into the nineteenth century and America's changing, radically. America's urbanizing and industrializing. Agriculture is industrializing or getting bigger and is moving to other parts of the country, and some of the things that are beginning to happen cause the kinds of farming that was being done here to really struggle.
"In the twentieth century you began to see a decline of what was an increase in the nineteenth. We don't know how many were left by the middle part of the twentieth century but it surely was less than half of what had been here. And by the time that the park was formed about twenty-five years later, you can see why, you know, there was this anxiety or angst about preventing the disappearance of the landscape and character. And I should say, I don't think, on their part, it was about a romantic pining for a lost world. I think they clearly perceived that something very valuable, very fundamental, about our society was disappearing, and it was something not to be welcomed, and something to be worried about. And I think that's what they were after.
"However many there were left . . . it's gotta be, I would say, a couple hundred, but . . . by the time, twenty-five years later we started out, as I say, we were sort of looking at the bits and pieces, what was left of about eighty-five or so. We thought at first, naively, that we might be able to salvage thirty, thirty-five. Five years into it, when we looked at how badly the body parts were decaying, we began to say twenty; twenty, twenty-two maybe, a couple dozen. And ten, twelve years later, we're saying we'll probably get thirteen or fourteen, in terms of farms that are actually operating again as individual farms. We started that inventorying process in '99 when the Conservancy was created. Now, twelve years later, we have eleven farms operational. We'll have two more that we'll offer for long-term lease this summer, and probably one more. After that, you know, we'll take some of those body parts that I was talking about, those fields that don't have houses and barns and outbuildings and things, and we'll use 'em for other things we call 'production and demonstration sites' and education centers and so on, so we'll create other things.”
Beth Knorr, Local Food Programs Coordinator/Markets Manager, explains how Countryside Conservancy makes sustainable farming more visible.
“Because the National Park is such a visible place, I mean, we really do have a 'bully pulpit' to talk about the importance of sustainable agriculture. We're right in the middle of two very large populations, and so the access to farms by those populations in their national park is really a fantastic opportunity that many people wouldn't have otherwise. And I think it just demonstrates that . . . you know, I think many people have this image of farming as being very destructive, and . . . to the environment in particular . . . and I think having examples of agriculture within a national park that are not is a really important thing to highlight.”