One of the most significant challenges facing young farmers today is access to—and retention of—quality farmland. Innovative land tenure models are the focus of many advocacy and research organizations. The role of public lands in farmland retention is less clear—but one national park in Ohio is navigating a public/private land use model aimed at keeping regional farming traditions alive.
In Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), ten privately-run farms are managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy’s (CVCC) Countryside Initiative program. Recently profiled by Mary Beth Albright in National Geographic last February, CVCC was established in 1999 as a nonprofit cooperating partner of NPS and sought to fulfill CVNP’s mission of protecting the traditionally rural Cuyahoga Valley region. The Initiative spent its first few years renovating historical mid-19th to mid-20th century farmsteads that dotted CVNP land before beginning to offer farmers leases on selected sites. By 2009, eleven privately supported farms were operating on CVNP land. Today, there are 10 farms on CVNP’s 33,000 acres.
CVNP hasn’t advertised a request for farmland lease proposals since 2011, but according to Albright’s article, the park is expected to open the next round of its competitive proposal process in May. To qualify, applicants must present an economically sound proposal and show they will engage in sustainable agriculture practices and direct marketing, among other lease terms. Leases can extend for up to 60 years, which may require a more significant monetary investment by the farmer, but also allows them to reap the long-term benefits of land stewardship. Land parcels vary in acreage but include a single family home (some renovated, historical models, others modern structures), and farmers of all ages—and experience levels—are welcome to apply. Further information on past land parcels up for lease, model leases, and examples of Requests for Proposals can be found on CVNP’s 2011 Request for Proposals and Countryside Initiative pages.
In this unique management model, publically funded CVNP manages lease agreements and is responsible for dedicating resources to rebuilding historic farmsteads. Privately funded lease holders farm the land within lease terms. Meanwhile, nonprofit CVCC facilitates farmer recruitment, helps select farm sites and provides resources to farmers and the park to foster mutual success. Farming in national parks is a new concept in the U.S., but according to NPS, globally the practice is more common; for example, over 90% of national parklands in Great Britain are privately owned. Here’s hoping other national parks in the U.S. can follow CVNP’s lead and help grow land tenure opportunities around the country.