Friday, March 13, 2015

OH: March 12 Trip Log: Malabar Farm, Northeast Ohio

Another five, six, I've lost count, hours in a windowless state archives building and I'm beyond done for the day. Out here in Ohio doing archival research for my PhD dissertation and with longer days and warmer temps, it's been perfect to escape in mid-afternoon for a hike. My last Trip Log entry for this trip is for Malabar Farm State Park in Northeast Ohio - not entirely an outing since I had planned to visit anyway. The farm is integral to my research in sustainable agriculture and restoration landscape ecology.

Not too far off of I-71 - an easy visit for travelers in NE Ohio.

Louis Bromfield and his family moved here in the 1940s after living in rural France for almost twenty years. He was born near here in Ohio and attended Cornell for agriculture, but left university to pursue his passions to become a writer. He won a Pulitzer with his third book and went on to write thirty more books before his death here in Ohio in 1957. But it's the farm that earned him the most fame. He took a run-down one hundred and fifty acres of eroded, stoney ground, and in less than five years (the family was here for fifteen years) applied restoration strategies to create a world famous pasture/beef/dairy operation. It was a story of bringing back the land - in a big way. The farm attracted thousands of guests a year, all of whom were welcomed by the Bromfield family.

Bromfield applied methods of soil conservation he had observed in Europe when he served during WWI and when he lived there with his family. The 'manure economy' of farmers who rotated their herds across many pastures ensured that soils were maintained for generations over hundreds of years. The careful management of forests ensured that woodland assets such as mushrooms, maple syrup, lumber, and nuts were always abundant. So, no cattle or pigs allowed in the woods - a real change of practice for American farmers who were used to letting cows and pigs roam freely through the woodlot!

Woods are protected from grazing livestock and deer populations heavily controlled to allow forests to thrive.

The farm is actually several farms that Bromfield bought and combined. He began right away to restore the stony, highly eroded soil. For generations this ground had been farmed poorly, mostly in corn, cultivated in rows that ran up and down the hills, and with no crop rotation or contour plowing. These methods simply did not exist in America up until the great Dust Bowl radically changed the way we thought about farming. 

Hilly ground was taken out of corn production and put into pasture use.

Bromfield purchased a small herd of dairy and beef cattle to graze large interconnected pastures that spanned across the wasted hillsides. He planted all kinds of grasses - good for both forage and soil holding qualities. By constantly moving herds - see my previous post on prairie restoration with bison - the soils stopped eroding, the grasses grew lush and high, and the cattle became fat! All within a few years!  Neighboring farmers who had previously teased and mocked his methods now stood in awe. Word spread and farmers from all over the country started stopping by.

The main barn and home site, tucked neatly into a hillside.

My visit today was to both learn more about the methods Bromfield and his farm staff applied to this broken and hurting landscape - as well as to hike the grounds of the park to gain a landscape-scale appreciation of what happened here. The trails were slushy under a foot of snow in some places so I kept to the roads, some paved, most in mud. Later in the season when the ground begins to dry, a hiker can do almost ten miles of interconnected trails. But not today - again, I was soaked up to my knees!

A cave!

The geology here is a complex layered mix of Silurian ocean bottom sandstone overlaid with  thick till and outwash from several glaciers that overspread Ohio over the past several million years. An ice cave can be visited up on the rocky ridge ( I couldn't down to it for the icy trails!). A young couple came stumbling and crawling out of it when I arrived - laughing "It's all ice in there!"  

Sugar house getting ready to boil sap this weekend -mmmmm!

Bromfield documented the transformation of this property primarily in two books Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948) but he makes mention of the methods and outcomes in many others including in his autobiography From My Experience (1955).  This 'experiment' became the basis for changing how and why we farm the way we do today in conservation agriculture. Though much work had been done during the Dust Bowl years to conserve soil and restore working lands, it seemed to all come together at Malabar and the farm has remained an agricultural demonstration site under the management of a Friends group and Ohio State Parks. And still people come. By the tens of thousands every year - a sort of pilgrimage site to many.

Cattle are important conservation staff at Malabar!

Today Malabar Farm hosts many sustainable agriculture workshops and conferences while it remains a working farm. Like in Bromfield's day, many area farmers, staff, and volunteers all contribute to making the farm a living example of how to do farming in hilly, highly erodible areas. The cattle are very important and when the pastures open for the season, they'll soon be romping and running on green grasses and dropping their precious cow plops all around.

Visitors Center and meeting rooms - an important education site.

My hike included stopping by the barn to visit with the livestock and the barn cat. There must be a barn cat, I thought. I was greeted by lambs, goats, little ponies, and the most loving, most adorable, most cutest-in-the-world calico barn cat ever. She followed me around the barn, tried to climb my Carharrts, jumped on to my backpack and rode around the barn complex purring into my ear, jumped off for hugs and kisses at a porch rail, and rejoined her best friend (according to a barn worker) a beautiful little Shetland pony for a nap in the fresh straw.

Barn cat was the sweetest kitty I've ever met.

As a working farm, Malabar produces grass-raised beef, cheese from Nubian dairy goats, alfalfa hay, soybeans, feed corn, wheat, and oats. The beef can be purchased here. In addition there is an active weavers group and wool sheep are raised here too. This time of year the sugar house is running on weekends while sap is collected from the maple woods. Tours of the farm and house are given on weekends in early spring but by April the farm will be up and running for visitors all week long through harvest. The trails are open all year for skiing in winter and hiking when the snows melt. I hiked on the roads today which was a little tricky between the normal community traffic and the slippery mud.

Don't let dusty old milk cans fool you - this is still a working farm!

In conservation farming, Malabar is also home to wildlife and an extraordinary list of native plants and trees. The bird, reptile, mammal, and amphibian lists are huge! Water is an important asset here, and when Bromfield purchased the land he noted that all five springs that once flowed into the creek from the various farm properties had been dry for years. After his applied conservation techniques began to secure the soils and his protected forests began to recover, all five springs came back to life and now contribute to thriving pond and wetland system throughout the park. It was one of his proudest accomplishments to make the water flow again. He wrote in From My Experience, his last book before his death from cancer:

I knew in my heart that we as a nation were already much further along the path to destruction that most people knew. What we needed was a new kind of pioneer, not the sort which tore out the forests and burned the prairies and raped the land, but rather pioneers who created new forests and healed and restored the richness of the country God had given us, that richness which, from the moment the first settler landed on the Atlantic coast we had done our best to destroy.
 I go out each morning and see miracles of restoration.  It makes you feel a little like God.


Malabar Farm State Park (note the many events and programs they hold here)

Contour farming is working the land according to its natural slope and aspect, rather than forcing it to conform to straight row plowing, a common and damaging way to farm up until the 1940s.

Wikipage for Louis Bromfield - note the list of books!

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