Countryside was created in 1999 to help Cuyahoga Valley National Park solve the problem of how to conserve the quickly disappearing rural character of the Valley – the dozens of once vibrant farmsteads had fallen to the plow of industrialization and the concentration of our food system.
We began by helping the park identify the farms with the highest potential to be resuscitated. Then, we helped create a competitive Request for Proposals to attract like-minded people who wanted to realize their small farm dream while being part of something bigger than themselves – the Countryside Initiative program. Fourteen farmsteads were rehabilitated, 10 are currently leased to privately operated farmers who participate in this unique land tenure program.
Next, we set out to build a community to support these new farmers’ enterprises, or history would surely repeat itself. As a true visionary, our founding Director, Darwin Kelsey, knew we must also focus outside the park boundaries and build awareness and advocacy for a local food economy. We began a farmers’ market program in 2004, first in CVNP to offer the Countryside Initiative Farms direct to consumer access, and then, soon after, in Akron to expand the opportunity for producers and consumers regionally.
It was also clear that small farms attracted new farmers and connecting them to educational and technical resources would play a vital role in their development and sustainability. Countryside U was launched as an educational tool where people considering farming could explore their small farm dream, and where growers could hone necessary skills like propagation and season extension. Countryside also provides technical support by sourcing experts to address their agricultural challenges as well as compliance issues brought on by farming on federal land. In addition to this, we provide technical guidance to CVNP to understand the needs of the farms and problem-solve how to balance those in the complexity of the National Park construct and in the spirit of the program.
No conversation about our food system would be complete with talking about the lack of access and equity. To deny people access to food, what we consider a fundamental right, would not align with our core values. In 2009, Countryside began accepting food assistance and offering a nutrition incentive to increase buying power for locally -grown and fresh produce. Countryside in now one of the regional spokes for the Ohio Nutrition Incentive Network, facilitating Produce Perks, the statewide SNAP nutrition incentive program for Summit, Stark, Portage, and Medina Counties. In 2019, we piloted a new nutrition incentive, Carrot Cash, to increase access of locally-grown, fresh produce for WIC recipients. Over the years, we have developed operational and strategic expertise and a reputation as the authority in farmers’ markets and food access locally, regionally, and nationally.
In the over 20 years since our founding, Countryside’s core programs have evolved significantly and our work has come to include programs related to the key links in a sustainable food system – farmland, farmers, food, and community.
Today, in addition to the Countryside Initiative farming program in CVNP, we operate two farmers’ markets, multi-county food access programs, a Beginning Farmer Intern program and provide technical assistance on food and farm issues across northeast Ohio.