The 61 national parks of the U.S. cover more than 84 million acres and feature a vast array of protected areas from Yellowstone, established in 1872, to the 2019-designated Indiana Dunes National Park in Delaware. Each park is different, with features ranging from that of Crater Lake formed from an ancient volcano, to Death Valley, the hottest, driest place in the U.S.; the Dry Tortugas, with the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere; and the natural Hot Springs flowing out of the Ouachita Mountains. While such parks bring visitors to the U.S. from around the world, there is a national park in Northeast Ohio that attracts more than two million visitors annually — more than Death Valley, Crater Lake, Hot Springs, or the Dry Tortugas — to hike its Erie Canal towpath, ride its scenic railway, and purchase produce, eggs, cheese, meats, and wines from the families living on and working its restored farm properties.
As the only program in the country that conserves National Park land through sustainable farming, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) has about dozen land-use farms, which are leased with the understanding that they are to be managed with only sustainable practices, and the farmers are to positively interact with park visitors. To be awarded the long-term lease, farmers must submit, and have accepted, a plan to manage and farm that site through the entire term of the lease — which generally runs 60 years. CVNP’s Countryside conservation program is so unique, it has achieved international attention and is sought as a model for public/private sustainable land use. (See Farming in a National Park, page 17, for more information on the program.)
SPICE ACRES. One such family farm is that of Ben and Jackie Bebenroth. The 13-acre Spice Acres farm, which they leased in 2014, not only provides sustainably farmed produce for their Cleveland restaurant, Spice Kitchen + Bar, it provides a venue “for learning and lauding each season’s food” through tours, workshops, and events. “The true benefit of the property is how we can introduce people to eating closer to the land and closer to the season,” Ben Bebenroth said.
There are too many kids who don’t know there is potato in French fries, tomato in pizza rolls, wheat and onion in ramen — and don’t know any other way of eating. It is for just that reason that the Bebenroths established the non-profit organization, Spice Field Kitchen. A specially allocated area at Spice Acres is devoted to a Learning Garden, where students — and adults — can stroll, harvesting and eating any of the vegetables or fruits being grown at the time, and discuss each. But only culinary terms are allowed, Bebenroth said. “We tell the kids, you can’t use words like ‘nasty’ and ‘gross,’ you need to say ‘buttery’ or ‘salty,’” he said. Only by doing so can taste really be understood, and spices be added or reduced or foods commingled to better fit one’s preferences.
But there is an adaptation period to fresh foods for those accustomed to subsisting on processed foods like pizza rolls and ramen, he said. But it’s a necessary adaptation. “Your palette has been trained to eat these (processed foods),” he tells the students. “But you cannot be your best self, living your best life, giving your best if you’re not fueling yourself in the right way.” He wants the students to understand how their food choices impact their daily performance. But he starts it slow, understanding the importance of dealing with their reality while taking the opportunity to provide them with a tool for bettering their diets. For example, he will include culinary demos, a lot of which are “hacks,” he said. These could be using ramen, then adding kale and eggs, or sending the students home with a little pot of chives, telling them to plant it wherever they live, then add it to foods.
“Kindergarten through retirement,” (K through R) experiences also are conducted in a variety of formats, from the five-hour Plant and Pick — in which participants weed, harvest, and cook, discussing the various aspects as they go — to a full dining experience following an interactive tasting and farm tour.
Through such education and outreach, the farm connects the community to the source of its food and provides visitors with learning experiences around local, nutrient-dense food. It is just such public education and interaction through which Bebenroth’s farm fulfills the very reason for which Ohio Representative John F. Seiberling advocated for the national park’s development in 1974. At the Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, Seiberling said, “If our only identification is with the concrete sidewalks of the city, and with the jangling pressures of urban society, then we have lost a basic concept of ourselves and our relationship to the earth.”
COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS. But it’s not just students and consumers to whom the education is directed. “There are nuances of cuisine that even chefs don’t understand or even think about because they’ve been so far removed from agriculture,” Bebenroth said.
Prior to leasing the national park farm in 2014, Bebenroth had founded Spice Catering Co. in 2006 and opened Spice Kitchen + Bar. So the acquisition of the farm was not only to grow food for the businesses, but to increase chef understanding of the sources of the food with which they work, and to forge a deeper bond between the culinary teams and the seasons, connecting them directly to the farm’s regularly changing harvests.
The seasonal availability of produce challenges the chefs to develop recipes for unique produce or over-abundant crops that constantly change. With the majority of the Spice Acres produce being used at the restaurant, the chefs often have to get creative, Bebenroth said. “They’ll ask for 60 pounds of produce, and a bumper crop may yield 300 pounds, so I’ll say, ‘Let’s get creative and figure it out.’ And they do — developing some very unique dishes.”
Besides use of its own produce, the restaurant’s goal is to sources at least 80% of its ingredients from small family farms that are within a 150-mile radius of Cleveland and practice sustainable agriculture.
Bebenroth also has hosted other national park personnel interested in emulating the program; provided consultation for major food brands, such as Nestlé, with whom he has worked on product development, food trends, and sustainability; and challenged the thinking of many, such as the conference at which he equated fast food with deforestation.
“I love taking the opportunity to have tough conversations,” he said. “Otherwise we are cheating ourselves out of real change moments.” Choosing a fast food hamburger and French fries instead of a bag of almonds, that is much more sustainable and provides what your body really needs, is saying a lot about you, he said. “Don’t think that your choices don’t mean something.”
If our only identification is with the concrete sidewalks of the city, and with the jangling pressures of urban society, then we have lost a basic concept of ourselves and our relationship to the earth.” – John F. Seiberling, 1974
THE FARM. At one time Bebenroth’s farm also raised heritage hogs and had 300 laying hens — enabling the repurposing of scraps for feed and providing eggs for the restaurant. But he has since reverted to just produce, transferring the budget to perennials, such as purple asparagus, raspberries, and mushrooms.
Bebenroth starts 15,000-20,000 plants annually — all direct from seed, following organic practices, and maintaining everything by hand. Take, for example, the sowing of the seed for which the team uses a water-wheel planter pulled by a tractor (pictured on page 18). A center wheel punches evenly spaced holes in the ground and wets them from the water tank, while Bebenroth and an associate, sitting on the low-set seats, pick up sprouted plants from trays set on the grated ledge in front of them and place each in a hole by hand. “Everything is done by hand with just a small amount of mechanization,” he said.
Raising crops on this land is not easy. Established through a glacial deposit, it contains the sandiest soil in the CVNP, but he uses no irrigation. The farm sits alongside the Cuyahoga River, but using it for irrigation would require pulling water up 90 feet and over 1,500 linear feet of land and filtering it. So Bebenroth’s has become a home for a fraction of Brecksville’s municipal leaf collection, with the haul brought to his farm in the fall. Using the leaf mulch helps with water retention and increases the organic matter content of the soil. At 0.05% when Bebenroth took over the lease, five years later, it is now at 3.4%; 6.0% is the “gold standard,” he said.
Additionally, because the farm is in a national park, it is a wildlife sanctuary, so nothing can be done that would harm the wildlife, which includes deer, rabbits, and raccoons as well as foxes and coyotes. Bebenroth’s solution has been to fence in the land, which provides some obstruction, and to allow his two dogs to do what dogs naturally do.
The farm has not dodged the impacts of FSMA. In fact, he said, “It was a big reason we had to get rid of the farm animals.” The farm feeds families and children and hosts them on field trips. If they were to be feeding the chickens, then going over to work with and taste fresh produce, they could easily carry bacteria from one to the other — even if they washed their hands. So, while adding challenges, the regulation was good for them, he said. “It focused us.”
The true benefit of the property is how we can introduce people to eating closer to the land and closer to the season.” – Ben Bebenroth, 2019
While the agriculture challenges can be difficult, Bebenroth said he has come to the conclusion that “this is a tourist farm. It’s a tourist destination,” he said, “It’s a national park.” So, he is transitioning to holding more events with hands-on visitor engagement along with unique produce.
HOME IN THE PARK. Though Spice Acres is Bebenroth’s first farm, it is not his first farming experience. Prior to taking on the lease, he owned a suburban home in Broadview Heights, where he farmed the entire property. While the backyard was a somewhat typical, though all-encompassing garden, he also was growing plants in the basement and the garage, and, he said, “Our whole front yard was garlic.” When the city told him he had to cut the front yard because it was over eight inches high, he realized he should look at some other alternatives. As luck would have it, the Spice Acres site was currently being leased as by Alan Halko who ran a neighboring booth at the farm market. Halko was ready to move on and offered Bebenroth a buyout on his lease.
One of the stipulations of the lease is that the leaseholder live on the farm, so the Bebenroths and their two children moved into the 1873-built farmhouse and made it their home. With fewer than a dozen families in the 33,000 acres of the national park, “socially, we live on an island,” Bebenroth said. But, because the park winds through the cities of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, following the Cuyahoga River and its towpath trail, it is only a short distance from urban areas. It just that location that makes it a vital link between city and nature.
Since then, Bebenroth has grown an array of specialty crops — from that of the “ginger tunnel” (for which he had bought seed ginger from Hawaii until he realized the quality was just as good when grown from organic ginger from a local grocery store); to kale and brussels sprouts (which he never harvests until after the first frost because it makes it sweeter); to Jerusalem artichokes, fig trees, and a rare American Chestnut tree from which he has started transplanting seeds.
Bebenroth’s five years at Spice Acres have also taken him full circle. Rather than trying to determine what the land should be producing, “we’re just trying to do right by the land,” he said. “What would this land do if I wasn’t here? Let’s put in native trees and plants; let’s let things take their natural course.” As such, he is focusing on native perennials, such as those on which the Native Americans subsisted, he said, putting 10% of his annual seed budget into perennials and “preparing ourselves to age out.”
But despite his own strong beliefs and the way he chooses to live and eat, “I don’t make judgements; I just want to give the knowledge,” Bebenroth said. “I truly believe we’re changing the world — and you have to believe that if you are working this hard.”