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uncle sam wants you to live and farm on a national park

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Farming-view

For readers who are staring out the window of a chilly office on a sunny day, dreaming about a life digging into the land, with miles of hiking trails and quiet, pastoral valleys right outside of your front door…the National Park Service may have a job for you.

Monday, Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio released its long-awaited application for 60-year leases to live and farm on federally-protected historic land—no experience necessary.

Among the offerings, Edgar Farm is a 100 year-old three-bedroom, two-bath home with nine farming acres and the potential for three more for $500 per month. Schmidt-Foster Farm has 12 acres and a 2,800 square-foot home for $825 per month.

Nine farms already operate within Cuyahoga, with specialties ranging from a vineyard to pick-your-own berries, and some of the startup farms had little more than a passion for farming and some capital. For most, farming is a second or retirement career.

Back in February, we were first to report that Cuyahoga would accept applications this year for more farms. A bit of a media frenzy ensued (the government wants to give you cheap land!), and will probably follow today’s release of the application.

Instead of following hype, hearing from an actual Cuyahoga farmer may shed light on whether you really want to quit your job and buy the farm.

Mark Trapp runs Trapp Family Farm, a small, diversified growing operation worked entirely with two horses–Doc and Dan–and no tractors. Trapp is not against electricity or modernity (he was an engineer before Cuyahoga awarded him a lease). He had simply read about problems with the food system and wanted to be part of a systemic change.

“When I first got into farming,” Trapp says, “it was a negative reaction to a lot of things I saw in society, a local solution. But we’ve been here for three years and once I saw the plants and animals responding to sustainable farming, I was a convert.”

farmer

Trapp had read articles on draft horse farming as a mechanical engineer, with an engineer’s mind toward preserving energy expenditure. “Twenty acres with two horses forces you to think about energy thoughtfully. This kind of farming was appealing to me on an intellectual level.”

Of course, farming is also notoriously backbreakingly difficult work and Trapp still marvels at his productivity with horses. “I really thought we would need to buy a tractor at some point. But in a lot of cases, the horses do better work than a tractor, though certainly not faster. They can weed vegetables and plow a field, do both delicate and big work. I had a mentor tell me, you’ll be amazed at what you can do with a team of horses in a day. And what I’ve accomplished with the horses has far exceeded my expectations.”

Cuyahoga’s long-term 60-year leases allow its farms to plan ahead for sustainability, not just worry about short-term profitability. Trapp’s starting goal was to feed as many people as possible, including himself and his fiancé Emily, from the farm’s diverse offerings, including produce, chickens, pork, dried beans, and sunflower oil. (That last one arrived when they brought their cut-flower bouquets to a nearby seed press, and got back eight gallons of premium cooking oil.)

When a farmer takes a Cuyahoga lease, public education is part of the deal. Trapp conducts tours of the farm and welcomes schools and garden clubs as part of his agreement with the National Park Service. NPS is dedicated to preserving the country’s natural resources, so teaching the public about sustainable farming is critical to the mission, as is abiding by strict constraints and resource preservation laws. It’s part of the reason he and the other Cuyahoga farmers receive a favorable rate on leases.

All nine farms, and the two new ones (with potentially two more in the future), receive support from the Countryside Conservancy, the National Park Service’s partner running the farming program. The Conservancy offers training, organizes farmers’ markets, and promotes the farms, functions that are critical to new farmers. “They’re incredibly supportive,” says Trapp. “The farms can’t collaborate with each other a ton because we are all at different points because everyone started at different times. We buy and sell products from each other but it’s hard to get together a lot, other than our book club in the winters.”

Trapp and his fiancée, whose lease also includes the adjacent historic farmhouse where they live, are also growing most of the food for their August wedding. On the menu: pork shoulder from one of their hogs and lots of Trapp Family Farm produce. But no vacation now. “In summer, I have to be here every day to take care of the animals.” Trapp says he would love to see another horse-powered farm or small dairy among the new lease awardees.

Jennie Vasarhelyi of the National Park Service says that Cuyahoga will likely be looking for greater expertise in small farming now that the program has grown and been established.

And farming isn’t free. One farmer who is also a chef conducted a Kickstarter campaign to raise the capital he needed for his Cuyahoga farm, which supplies produce for his restaurant and catering company. He, along with Trapp, are the younger farmers whom the industry is courting, with 60 percent of American farmers now over the age of 60. And the National Park Service generally is courting millennials (because really, who isn’t?).

Although farming is challenging, Cuyahoga is a great opportunity for people who share the Park Service’s goals of sustainability, healthy soil, public education, and agriculture in harmony with natural resource preservation. Says former engineer Trapp: “I’ve never had a day that I wish I was back in the office.”

Read in The National Geographic: http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/13/uncle-sam-wants-you-to-live-and-farm-on-a-national-park/

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