Darwin Kelsey discusses the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Initiative, a nonprofit founded in 1999 to rehabilitate local farms within the park. A former employee of Sturbridge Farm, a living history site, Kelsey discusses working in the research department and how a background in historic preservation and living history facilitated future endeavors such as the CVCI. Kelsey discusses in detail the necessity of agricultural and farm preservation and how increased awareness of farm advocacy can have an impact on the economy of local areas.


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Kelsey, Darwin (interviewee)


Boone, Bill (interviewer)


Rivers Roads and Rails 2008



Document Type

Oral History


40 minutes


Mickey Krivak [00:00:00] You ready?

Bill Boone [00:00:00] Yeah, I think so. OK, OK. Today's Monday, June 23, and our interview here is with Darwin Kelsey, the executive director of the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy.

Darwin Kelsey [00:00:15] That's right.

Bill Boone [00:00:16] And obviously, Darwin Kelsey is here. My name is Bill Boone. I'll be doing the interview

Mickey Krivak [00:00:23] Thank you for the feedback on the tech equipment. [inaudible]

Bill Boone [00:00:29] OK, I think would probably be an appropriate question to start. What is the Cuyahoga Valley hot Countryside Conservancy and initiative for someone who has no idea of what it's about? What kind of background information would you give?

Darwin Kelsey [00:00:45] OK, well, the Countryside Conservancy was born in 1999 as a nonprofit to help the National Park Service, particularly I mean, this particular park CVNPA, no CVNP, to figure out how to rehab and revitalize the old farms in the park. When the park was originally created '74, there was a lot of hope on the part of the supporters, the founders, that the park would do something to prevent the disappearance of the rural landscape and rural character of the Cuyahoga Valley. Well, that was a nice idea. But, you know, there's no tradition within the National Park Service of ascribing worth or value to things agricultural in the way that they have, say, to wilderness and seashores and battlefields and rich white guys' houses and things like that. So because there wasn't any tradition of that, there wasn't any particular expertise or knowledge base or conceptual base for actually pulling off what the founders had hoped. And so we went through they went through about 25 years of not a whole lot of success. In the early years, the leaders, the administrators of the park here, took out a lot of old farms, a lot of fences, a lot of barns, a lot of houses. And it really wasn't until John Debo became superintendent in the '80s that that began. I mean, there was a commitment to beginning to change a little bit earlier before he came, there were studies done that actually began to identify the remnants of the old farms. And there was a sense of, wow, there are quite a few here. Maybe we ought to do something with them. But they didn't get it done. And in fact, you know, most of the first 10 years of John's tenure, it was more wishful thinking [than] accomplishment. Not necessarily his fault, not necessarily the park's fault. There were a lot of things going on in society that didn't help them. I mean, it's not that the Park Service is without its faults, but it's not all their fault. You have agriculture in America and the world heading in a very different direction from what it had been. The emergence of agribusiness on a grand and aggressive scale. Where food is grown and produced began to move away from close-by, began to move to far away and to move south and west in North America. And it was a very different kind of agriculture than the old farms were here. So that's one paradigm. You know, the agribusiness people sort of looked at the dinky little old farms in the park, what was left of them, as basically a joke and irrelevant. And you've got environmentalists. On the other side of the spectrum, at least a portion of them that tend to view all forms of agriculture as pretty much the same, inherently evil and nothing you want in national park. So you put that together with the Park Service's lack of experience or enthusiasm, and you can begin to grasp why not a whole lot was really happening. But John was still interested. He still thought it was possible based on the experiences he had in the Park Service and the museum world. He and others around him were sort of looking at the models of success that emerged in the '60s, '70s, '80s around the country for doing something to get the public engaged with farms and the history of farming. He... Certainly his years in New England had exposed him to some of the things that was going on there. The first one in the country, the so-called historical farm living history farm, the first one successful that actually functioned, happened at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. That was my baby. That was long, long ago when my hair was dark. [laughs] Went there in '66 to help them get their project off the ground.

Bill Boone [00:05:31] So you already had some positive experiences with this before?

Darwin Kelsey [00:05:34] Yeah. Yes. You know, I mean, those experiences, you know, emerge and evolve in a variety of ways. You know, I grew up on a small dairy farm in south central New York, the very northern tip of Appalachia. Actually, we didn't know we were that bad off until the government told us. But in retrospect, we were. But, you know, that experience in that world, you know, stuck with me for a while. I mean, I guess it's always stuck with me. After high school, I went to junior college for electrical technology and then got hired by Argonne National Laboratory and trained as a nuclear reactor operator. So that's a different kind of world, um, a couple of years of that. And it occurred to me that being a reactor operator really wasn't going to get it for me as a person. So I thought, well, I almost got killed in auto accidents. And, you know, that focuses your mind a bit. You ask yourself, OK, well, not I'm not dead now, but and I thought that I was going to... I wanted to do something that I really cared about that was purposeful. I thought I'd go back to school, get a degree in history and teach history because I liked history, and then I thought I'd work with high school kids who were trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. So that was the notion. Went off... Well, I was working in Idaho. I went off to Seattle to get a... Seattle Pacific College to get a degree in history. When I got through that, I decided I didn't quite know enough to teach, so I decided to go back for another year. A master's degree in American folk culture and... New York State. And the New York State Historical Association, that's where I bumped into the museum world. I'm one of my professors there was retired president of Old Sturbridge Village. He was aware of their interest, their intent to develop a historical agricultural program. And he had a chance to observe me and decided to get us together. And so I went up to Sturbridge to join the research department, spent two years doing research on the history of agriculture in New England. And then we put together an actual operating program to create that living history fire. So that happened between '66 and '72 that, you know, emerged, it evolved. Well, that was the first one. But, you know, by the mid '90s, there was 300-plus of these around the country. And so those were sort of the models of success that the folks here in the park were thinking about looking at, kind of museum farms.

Bill Boone [00:08:46] At what point did you get involved with the Lake Farm Park and what was that? I know in the interim between what you were just talking about in the early '70s and then getting involved with the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Initiative, you were involved with that. What years were you involved?

Darwin Kelsey [00:09:04] Yeah, well, I left Sturbridge in '82, went to Kentucky, to become director of the National Museum for the Boy Scouts of America. Um, that was an interesting experience. But I decided, you know, I really wasn't a southerner, among other things. I mean, I had different attitudes toward blacks and women and the prevailing culture. And I miss that being involved with farming and agriculture. So one day when I got a call from this funny little place near Cleveland called Lake Metroparks, they said they like to have me come and be part of a team that sort of critique their ideas of creating a living history farm and historical village. So I went up. I was the last person that they brought in. Everybody had loved their ideas. And they asked me what I thought and I said I didn't think much of it. So that was a surprise. And they wondered why. And I said, well, why is a good question. Why would you want to do this? It's been done. There are 300 around the country. You've got a dozen within a day's drive. Why don't you do something that's never been done that maybe ought to be done? Why didn't you develop a place where you really can focus on why and how people work with plants and animals to grow things on purpose to feed us? Because living history sites don't do that. They dabble at it, but they get distracted with blacksmithing and furniture and things like that, and they don't get focused on a very important kind of thing. So they were intrigued with that idea and asked me to put together a concept. And over the next six months I gave them a couple of drafts and they liked it. And then we got married and I went up to Lake County here in Ohio. And we spent a decade working on that concept. And, you know, we had a 235-acre site, had been a farm, and we tried to turn it into something that was, in my mind, a cross between a zoo and botanical garden and a museum and science center, but focused on domestic plants and animals and growing food rather than wild flora and fauna. So that was an interesting exercise, too. But a decade into it, I had, you know, sort of come to some conclusions about what you can do with a place like that and what you can't do, and I thought I wanted to move on to some other things, but that might take me to one coast or another but... Then my brother in law, Tom Yablonsky, who knew John Debo pretty well, had been listening to John bellyache about why they didn't have any success here in the park with what they were doing. And, of course, you know what I was doing. And so he told me I go talk to John and he told John he ought to call me up and let me come over. And and so eventually we did do that. We got together. And I came to the Valley one cold January morning and Jane in, what was it, 1998, and I met with John and three of his staff and and they told me about their agricultural landscape problem and wondered if there was a fix. And I said, well, I don't know. Ten years ago, I might have doubted there was I but I think there is now, you know, here we are in the late '90s. You know, we've got 20 years, if not 30 years, of the emergence of the organic agriculture movement, the sustainable ag movement, ideas that were kind of flaky and not to have sort of crystallized in a way that they weren't there even five years ago and and we now got a network of people that we could get engaged that weren't there. So I think there's the possibility of really doing something, I think. I think you could have real farmers and real farms doing real farming. And you don't have to be stuck in that old paradigm of museum farms or farm parks or so on.

Bill Boone [00:13:42] And there were, correct me if I'm wrong, around 85 farms initially to look at to decide which ones to try to restore, and the goal was 20 to 25 over a 10, 15 year period? Am I right about those numbers or is that all wrong?

Darwin Kelsey [00:13:59] They're as close as anybody ever gets. [laughs] You know, in the 19th century, late 19th century, there are probably seven or eight hundred farms here in the valley between Cleveland and Akron. Well, and, you know, they emerged through the 19th century, well, the beginning of the 20th century, they began to disappear. And that's because of all those forces that were at work that I was telling you about out there. So by the time the park was created, most of those were gone. After the park was created, some more were gone. They you know, they began to take out some. In the late '90s when we began this project, once we got going, one of the first things we had to do was do an actual physical inventory of what's left out there. And we did inventory the remains, the dead bodies of about 85 old farms and began to scratch our heads and try to decide about how badly the bodies were decomposed and how many arms and legs and torsos were left that we could stitch back together and breathe life into. And we thought at first that there might be 30, 35. That's the number that we used 10 years ago. Nine years into it now, we know that some of those bodies are never going to come to life. And the number that we're using is 20 or so, 20, 22. John says he'll declare victory at twenty, if not earlier. [laughs] So...

Bill Boone [00:15:44] How many are up and running now?

Darwin Kelsey [00:15:47] Well, last year we had nine. One, one farm family, young farm family had to leave, give up their lease. So that one's going back in the mix this year, along with two others. We just did a request for proposal. It hit the streets in April 16th and last Monday, June 16th, the proposals were due.

Bill Boone [00:16:13] So if I'm an individual and I want to get a lease for a farm, what type of things do I have to show that show that I am worthy to be able to handle the responsibility?

Darwin Kelsey [00:16:27] Well, [laughs] it's a bunch, actually. The request for proposals, which is open to everybody, any citizen in the United States who's interested. It doesn't matter who you are, if you're interested and can do the job, got capable, you can compete. The request for proposals, you know, gives you a pretty good understanding, a description of what the program's about and if the philosophy behind it and so on. And and then it's asked of you 15 questions. These are open ended questions, which means you can soar or hang yourself, and we're probably going to know the difference. Those 15 questions probe a lot about you. And it comes down to us asking ourselves these four fundamental things. Number one, do they have a good farming idea that's really good fit for this farm? Number two, do they have a really good marketing idea, a concept plan? Because this is about retail farming. This is about growing high-value specialty products for direct local retail sale. It's not about growing semi worthless commodities for the global trade. So you're going to have to be a businessperson, an entrepreneur, somebody that's going to be out there selling as well as riding a tractor. So that's the two questions. The third question is, do we really think they can pull it off? In other words, do they have the knowledge, the experience? The resources or access to them to pull it off. Do they have he human resources? Do they have family? Do they have friends besides themselves to get the work done? Do they have equipment? They have access to the equipment. Can they afford it? Do they have access to money? Do they have capital? Do they know how to do an operating budget? Do they understand cash flow? All those kinds of crucial issues. So, farming plan, marketing plan, can they pull it off? And then finally, the last question, and which is in most ways, in many ways most important is do we really want to get married to these people for 60 years? Are they compatible with us? Can they put up with all our crap and red tape? And there's a lot of that. And so that means that they need to ask the same question in reverse. They need to ask, can we live with those jerks that are going to give us a hard time that are in our face and in our lives all the time. So that's a pretty tough question, because if they decide they want to live with us and we decide when to live with them, this is going to fundamentally alter their lives. They will come here and their lives will change. They're going to invest their life savings probably in many cases they will and they're going to live in a fishbowl. People are going to be coming in and gawking at everything they do. They'll be on their farm or they'll be in their face at the farmer's market or what have you. Or if it's the CSA, you know, people will be in their lives and they need to be temperamentally suited to coping with that. And they need to be temperamentally suited to dealing with all the red tape and rigamarole and the pace at which things happen here. They need to be able to deal with the fact that when they want to do something they can't without permission and that cuts in several directions. You have to do this and you can't do that and do what you want to make a hole in the ground for a fence post. Are you kidding? We got to do an archeological survey first and see if there's, you know, early Americans were here and left a shard in the ground. You know, there's just a range of things that happen. And they're all part of a set of rules and regs that are put in place prevent bad things from happening in a national park. And they're there for a reason. They're, sometimes they're good reasons. And the truth is we got to live with them and we have to put up with them and you got to put up with them. So you've got to be able to go through all of that.

Bill Boone [00:21:09] And so far nine, as you said, have their own farms at this point that are up and running. How successful have they been? I think over the last decade, it seems like Americans' attitudes about buying locally and using local farms to purchase from has increased, at least I know in our suburban area there seems to be increasing awareness of that. Do you think that's helped their chances of sustainability of profit overall?

Darwin Kelsey [00:21:37] I'd say yes to probably seven or eight of those questions.

Bill Boone [00:21:42] There was a lot! [laughs]

Darwin Kelsey [00:21:45] The answer is yes. Well, have the, you know, there are not currently nine. There are currently eight because one left.

Bill Boone [00:21:53] That's right.

Darwin Kelsey [00:21:54] And that's coming back in the family that left. It was, you know, personal things. I mean, they went there as a young couple with no children. And five years later, they had three children. Well, for them and the things that they wanted to do with the kids, they knew that they weren't going to be able to do that and do all the things that they expected of themselves and we expected of them in terms of getting the farm done. So, you know, these things we knew were going to happen. And that's why everybody signs a lease that's about an inch thick with, you know, all kinds of rules and regs that are in place and processes that are in place to deal with these kinds of situations. So we knew that was going to happen. Now, their next door neighbors also have young kids. But for them, you know, it wasn't the same set of issues or problems. So it depends on, like I said before, those issues about who you are and what you want to do. But it's also about how you evolve as a person, a couple, a family, whatever. So, you know, for them, although they did OK while they were there, you know, it wasn't going to be a long-term thing. For everybody else, so far, you know, they're still cruising and they've been pretty successful. You know, their next door neighbors, they've got a nice vegetable operation. They have chickens as well, and they sell eggs, but it's mostly about raising veggies and flowers and so on, and they sell from the farm and they sell at the farmer's market. The other people that are still in the class of '01, 2001, they moved onto their farms and began to plant a vineyard, built a winery, and it's known to the local world as Sarah's Vineyard. Now, last year, the... Well, they're there and they've done very well. They have a summer solstice festival. Last year it was 3500. We haven't done a count on this past weekend, but it's a pretty big deal. So they're pretty successful. And the next round, well, we had a hiatus, a four-year hiatus, had to do an environmental impact statement. That's a big exercise with study after study, public hearing after public hearing, response after response and so on. So that's a big deal. Half a million bucks and four years later. And, you know, there's an incredible amount of stuff in place. And and, you know, we had permission to go ahead and do what we set out to do in the first place. But all those questions and issues that were raised that have to be answered about them, all kinds of impacts on the park and the surrounding communities were answered. But the next class, '05, we had three farms available. And all of those were awarded. We had a pick your own berry farm. We had a CSA, community supported agriculture, where people buy memberships. Um, and, you know, they paid the farmer four or five hundred bucks at the beginning of the season, and then they show up every week during the growing season and haul off their their loot. And then the the other farm was a livestock operation, meat, goats and heritage turkeys. So, you know, those were those are the ones except for the farm that I'm on. I live on one of the farms myself, and they asked me to come here. I said I, I needed to live on one myself and put myself to the same misery everybody else had to experience because it changes the way you think about things. You're not just shuffling papers. You're living with all the rules, all the regs, all the headaches. And the other thing about my place is that I tried to do little demos and experiments that would solve problems for the other farmers. And if you get some kinds of generic program issues solved in one place, they're applicable all over the whole program.

Bill Boone [00:26:16] What kind of farm?

Darwin Kelsey [00:26:18] I've had the meat goats. You know, I was doing other things. You know, first, you know, we did the riparian buffers and wetland buffers there as a model and how we were going to do it in other places and fencing types. Yes, you can use this style of fence and use this material and so on. And everybody once I got that settled that for my place, you could use pretty much the same thing on a lot of the farms. Yes, these are acceptable small livestock shelters. And we don't have to argue this out on the next three farms that want livestock. So we did that kind of thing. And then and then the meat goats, it was me making a statement about a business opportunity. I mean, here we are in northeast Ohio, over a hundred and twenty ethnic communities around northeast Ohio, all or most of them come from goating cultures. So there's a market opportunity. Most Americans and most Americans in agriculture fail to notice, growing up as I did, that 90 percent of the world's population eats goat meat on a regular basis. 60 percent of the red meat consumed on the planet is goat meat. Well, that's not the world I noticed. But I knew that at that time. And I said, here's an opportunity for somebody in the park. So has turned out somebody in the second round jumped on it and they had a proposal to do that and now they're doing it. In fact, I sold most of my best goats to them. So give them a good start, you know, and I'll go off and do something else down the road. Some other weird thing that nobody's doing that somebody ought to do.

Bill Boone [00:27:57] Over your career, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

Darwin Kelsey [00:28:03] Oh, I don't know. I don't know that there's any that I'm most proud of. I mean, I look at the years at Sturbridge and what we did, those were pretty innovative here. Like I say, you know, that was a model that got imitated 300 times around the country or more. And those, a lot of those are still doing really good things. The experience with the Boy Scouts was very positive. And I wouldn't not I wouldn't give them a chance at the same point in my life. I'd do it again, I expect. Lake Farm Park was interesting. This is, this is, this project here in the valley, in some ways it's not as flashy as some of the other projects, although in other ways it is. I mean, no other national park in America has a project like this, but we've moved on from this project in the park. I mean, we came here to do that. But that's only a, you know, a quarter of what we're doing now with the Countryside Conservancy. You know, we moved on to the farmer's markets and then we began to look at rebuilding local food businesses around northeast Ohio, as a major opportunity, helping not only farms in the park, but helping this whole thing. And we got involved in farmland preservation. The Center for Farmland Preservation became part of us in '06. So now, you know, the thing is, even though we're still a tiny, dinky, fragile little nonprofit at this point, we are doing some pretty important things. And it may well be that what we're doing is going to contribute to this larger movement that you're talking about, this awareness of local food in a fairly significant way, and that's going to have an extraordinary impact on America and on the planet. We as a society probably don't get it yet. We don't get it here in the U.S. So my beloved country, the United States of Obliviousness, and we are oblivious to a horrendous range of things. We are in general oblivious to where our food comes from. We don't get it that where and how food is grown has changed radically over the last fifty years. In particular, it was, you know, on its way 150 years ago. But the last 50 years, post-World War Two, you know, and where food is grown, moved south and west. I mean, one county in California now has gross agricultural sales that exceed 22 states. It's eas[y]... And it didn't stop there. I mean, a lot of our food comes from Chile and China as well as in, you know, everywhere in between. 98 percent of all the food consumed in America, over 98 percent is long-distance industrial food. We're incapable of feeding ourselves now here in northeast Ohio, which means we're typical of every metro region in America.

Bill Boone [00:31:32] I think most Americans are probably like me. Right down the street, there's a Giant Eagle. It's convenient. It's easy. How do we break Americans of that habit of just continually going to the big supermarkets for the meat and vegetables and the fruits? And I think you've touched on a couple of those already with what you've already given but...

Darwin Kelsey [00:31:52] Well, it's not going to be easy. I mean, it took us several decades to get into this mess. It's going to take us several decades to get out. We will get out eventually because we have to. The decline in cheap energy is going to drive it down. The change in climate around the world is going to drive it. So we will have to eventually, whatever eventually means, 15, 20 years, 30 years. I don't know. Nobody knows for sure. But it's coming at a faster than most of us would have supposed. So we ought to... We will change because we have to. But we ought to change now because the alternative is a better option. Most of us look at the current food system as giving us food that's abundant, cheap and convenient. Those are the three issues that most of us focus on. Well, it is for most of us, it's not for maybe one American and 10 that goes to bed hungry. You know? What do you make of that? That's I think it's shameful, I think it's disgusting in a country as rich as ours, but it's not because we can't grow the food. It's just that we lack the moral will and the political will to deal with it. For most of us, food is abundant. When it's like you said, when we think of something we want at McDonald's or Acme, we're pretty sure it's going to be there. So abundant. It's not so abundant in many other parts of the world. It's not, well, cheap, too. We think it's cheap and it is. Americans have typically, over the last many decades, spent about 10 percent of what they make, what they earn or their income, on food. They go to Europe and it's more like 20 percent or even 30 in some places. Go to Egypt now. Last month, they're saying, you know, it's more like 60 percent. Go to Nigeria, it's over 70 percent. Well, wrap your mind around that. Cheap. Well, the other thing about cheap is there are a couple of meanings. One meaning of cheap is inexpensive, which is what we've been talking about. Another the meaning of cheap is crappy, inferior, and even if you concede that our food supply is an achievement, to me, you've got to deal with the crappy side of cheap. Taste. You call this a strawberry? Tastes like cardboard. Call this a tomato? Why would any self-respecting Bubba want a slice of that on his burger? But nutrition on average, every piece of fruit and vegetable that we consume in the grocery store and everyone beyond our average, the great majority of it is inferior nutritionally to food that we were eating 50 years ago. My hair was dark. I was eating better food. I don't think the whiteness necessarily got anything to do or much to do with that. But it's true. You know, you eat an apple a day, you think an apple a day'll keep the doctor away. Well, at least for the iron in the apple, you can eat three apples compared to the one apple you might have eaten 50 years ago. That's reality. We as a society have never said that nutrition is important, that farmers have to produce that, that food businesses have to give us better food. So that's the reality. That's one. But there are other side effects that come with abundant, cheap, convenient. And, you know, we grow things in industrial ways, which means we grow them cheaply, we grow them in quantity. We use herbicides and pesticides and chemical fertilizers that get in groundwater. And they get in streams and they get in lakes and they get in the Gulf. They cause enormous problems. We use a lot of energy that contributes to global warming and climate change. We use cheap labor. We abuse cheap labor. And there is the list goes on. So those are the unintended side effects that come with our current system. And so you can stand back and say, let's we ought to change now. But the truth is, only a few of us will change slowly because we're starting to pay attention to that list. Think about it and beginning to make a conscious choice. But the great majority of us will change only when we have to. But that's coming. Now, the good news is that if we get started, we'll have the ideas in place, the concepts in place and the plans in place to make the force change less painful. And the truth is, that's what I think these little farms are about in the park. It's about we're not going to feed the valley. We're not going to feed northeast Ohio. We're not going to feed America with these little farms. It's about getting in people's minds as much as their mouth and belly. It's these little farms that are going to give this park in the National Park Service a voice that it's never had to begin to talk about important things like land use to grow food. 60 percent of the use of land on the planet by humans is for agriculture. And it ought to be. I mean. Food's fairly important, you know, you, you breathe, you drink and you eat or you die. But to eat, you've got to have food and how you grow food has an enormous impact. There's probably nothing that most human beings on the planet, most Americans certainly could do to change the environment for the better than to... Think differently about what they're eating.

Bill Boone [00:38:33] Just personally, I sense a momentum with that. As you said, you're not going to feed the whole area, but you create that momentum of more and more people becoming aware that that is an option.

Darwin Kelsey [00:38:47] Yeah, that there is a momentum there. I mean, it's, it's way different than it was 10 years ago when we started. It's different than it was five years ago. The last two years, you know, we may have seen the tipping point and, you know, the tide may be running in the other direction now. I mean, I sometimes think I'm pretty sure it is. And lots of things are starting to happen, like the Conservancy now, we're not dealing just with little farms in the park. They're part of the key. They're important thing. But it's this larger set of issues that deal with land and the farmers, growing a next generation of farmers. And, you know,

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