The Farmer in The Dell

Deep in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 33,000 protected acres, Alan Halko has a farm. On this farm he has some chickens (and some peas, and some summer squash and lots of flowers). And even though there’s nothing quite
Alan Halko is worrying about rain.

His skin already brown as a walnut from days spent outdoors, he sits under towering trees at a weathered-wood picnic table behind his home on Riverview Road. Brow furrowed, he periodically glances at the puffy, white clouds and then out across the bucolic landscape.
Birds are twittering and the family’s dogs, Ginger and Jack, romp in the yard. Halko, dressed in shorts and a faded T-shirt with cut-off sleeves that reveal a rose tattoo on his upper arm, is not feeling the least bit playful.

Unlike most of his Brecksville neighbors, who hope for June weekends filled with blue skies, bike rides, backyard barbecues and baseball games, he’s yearning for a downpour. Alan is a farmer, and his five rows of trellised sugar snap peas are having a tough time thanks to an unseasonably hot, dry spring. He’s been watering them, but something’s gone wrong with the cistern. Trying to fix it is the next thing on his never-finished chore list.

“First thing this morning I got the mowers repaired,” he says. “Then I took a look at the pump in the water tank. I’d been having trouble with the pressure. Seems like this little float thing might be broken. Sure hope I don’t have to call a well guy.”

Halko, his wife, Sue, and their children, 9-year-old Sarah and Seth, who just turned 6, live on Springhill Farm amid crowing roosters, wooded groves and fields he’s making fertile with a big investment of sweat and determination. He loves it here. It’s a good place to raise corn, chickens and kids. He’s got 55 birds, and there’s such a demand for their eggs that he’s increasing the size of his flock. He found the breed he wanted in a catalog, placed his order, and the hatchery mailed him day-old chicks in a cardboard box. He was still putting the finishing touches on a new coop when the first shipment of 25 Golden Comets arrived at the post office.
This picturesque piece of Americana tucked off state Route 82 is 3 1/2 miles from shopping malls, housing developments and the other hallmarks of sprawl. Joggers — lean, muscled and wearing high-priced running shoes — are a common sight on the paths of the nearby park trails. Alan, 54, grew up in Wickliffe and acquired his own trim, fit physique from work, not workouts.

The land he plows and plants is located in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 33,000 protected acres between Cleveland and Akron. The house he lives in was built in the late 1870s and is listed on the National Historic Register. It was in bad shape before the park service renovated it.

Alan could never afford to buy property like this, so close to these two urban hubs and complete with a move-in ready home. But this place is owned by the federal government and he and his wife are tenants. They signed a 60-year lease in 2001, after being selected from a group of 22 applicants to a program called the Countryside Initiative, a joint venture of Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the nonprofit Countryside Conservancy.

There’s nothing quite like this happening in a national park anywhere else in the country. They’re making deteriorating and abandoned old farms within the park’s borders productive again. The plan is to get about 25 of them running by 2015. It’s a way to preserve the rural heritage of the valley and nurture small-scale local food producers with an earth-friendly philosophy — people like Alan Halko.

Halko checks the sky again, shakes his head and shrugs. It’s up to Mother Nature now. Meanwhile he’s got to hoe between the rows to keep the weeds down. They do well, he reports, no matter what happens. If the rain comes, he should have about 50 pounds of peas to bring to the Countryside Farmers’ Market at Heritage Farms in Peninsula eight days from now. “This is the first crop we harvest. My regular customers start lining up to get the sugar snaps before the market even opens. If I don’t have much, there will be lots of disappointed people next Saturday morning.”
The rain never comes. Less than 2 inches fall in the region during what turns out to be an unseasonably warm June. Farmers who irrigate have some added security, but it’s expensive to put in a system and Halko can’t afford it. He spends so much time watering that he never plants his corn.
This year marks their fourth harvest. The Halkos haven’t had a profitable one yet. Last year, a fungus brought on by early rains wiped out 350 tomato plants.

Luckily, the Halkos don’t depend on the farm to pay all the bills. Alan is highway superintendent for Bainbridge Township. He started out on the road crew when he was 25. In a couple years, he can retire with a pension.

“I’m just looking forward to having one full-time job instead of two,” says Alan.

 Until then, he gets up at 5:30 a.m., leaves the house an hour later and puts in a second shift beginning at 4 p.m. when he gets home. He hasn’t had anything resembling leisure time in years, unless you count the occasional winter indulgence of “The Sopranos” on late-night TV. For relaxation, he flips through seed catalogs, catches up on back issues of Farm & Dairy Newspaper and attends the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association conference. He saves his paid vacation days so he can take Fridays off in the summer for harvesting. 

Even so, he’s only managed to get a small portion of his 10 acres under cultivation — three-quarters of an acre for vegetables and two-thirds of an acre for Sue’s flowers. Her beautiful bouquets are always a hit with farmers’ market shoppers.

“From March through September, I don’t even get back inside the house until long after dark, except for a short dinner break,” Alan says. “There’s always a lot to get done around here, even in the off-season, so I can’t let myself think about being tired. I don’t realize how tired I am until I sit down.”

His friend and neighbor Bob Hall, whose Blue Hen Family Farm is also among the nine properties currently in the program, calls him the hardest working man in the farm business. “That makes me the James Brown of agriculture,” says a grinning Alan.
Alan first considered farming 30 years ago during the whole back-to-the-land movement. He read “5 Acres and Independence” and subscribed to Mother Earth News. “But life goes how it goes,” he says.

He didn’t do anything more until 1994 when he and Sue bought a little place in Geauga County. “I put in a small garden and had a few chickens,” he recalls. “I had this idea we were practicing for something bigger.”

In 1999, he saw a newspaper article about the Countryside Initiative. “I cut it out and kept it. For the future, I told myself.”

Then he got more information, took a tour of the properties and filled out a proposal. “I never thought mine would be chosen,” says Alan, who was among the first group of participants.

When he moved in, his land was filled with waist-high weeds. Plowing unearthed piles of broken glass and chunks of concrete from commercial greenhouses torn down by the park service in the late ’80s. The debris had to be hauled away and the soil nursed back to health. Alan has added nutrients and compost, put in cover crops — buckwheat in summer, clover for winter, rye in fall — that he turns under to supply nitrogen, and has rotated what and when he plants among three fields. “It’s a long, slow process,” says Alan. “I’ve got another acre I can’t even use yet.”

There are times, he confesses, that he’s glad he’s not responsible for more land. Other days, he wishes he had another few acres. “I’d like to put in raspberries, a small orchard.”

Sometimes in the early spring, he likes to stop the tractor up on a small rise just as the sun is setting. He turns off the motor, and there’s nothing to hear but birds singing their goodnight songs. Sitting up on the old, blue Ford 4000, he looks out over his newly plowed field. It’s just a rectangle of brown dirt. Nothing’s even planted yet, but to him it’s beautiful and full of promise. He forgets about all that could go wrong and everything that needs to be done. “I know not everyone would be happy doing this. I am, and it feels good, feels right.”

His wife doesn’t exactly share his passion — although she does her share of chores. But the 48-year-old from Russell knew this was what Alan wanted when she said “I do” 12 years ago.

“Why couldn’t he go for a fast car like other men,” she asks of Alan’s midlife agricultural crisis. “He’s the kind of guy who’s always talking about what could be, not what is, and he has this way of convincing you to come along for the ride.”
The shadow of failure is always one storm front, one bug infestation, one uncontrollable act of nature away. For farmers, it’s a daily roll of the dice and the odds were not good this past spring and summer. It was dry when it should be wet, scorching when it should be balmy.
In February, the Halkos’ tiny parlor becomes a potting shed. After helping Sarah with her homework and getting Seth bathed and to sleep, Sue spends evenings hunched over a folding table, wearing magnifying glasses, picking up single seeds with tweezers.

She places them, one by one, in plastic starter flats filled with a special growing medium. Certain seeds sit just on the surface, others are buried a mere eighth of an inch into the dirt. This is where her flower garden begins.

In the first round, she’ll do petunias, snapdragons, vining brown-eyed Susans for hanging baskets, and then a few weeks later, she sows perennials such as yarrow, veronica and butterfly bush. When she’s finished, she’ll have around 50 flats, or about 4,700 “starts.” In March and April, they do the vegetable seeds.

The starts germinate under grow lights in the basement. Although the century house has been updated — there’s a laundry room and an enclosed porch that serves as the family room — the cellar is part of the original structure. It’s tiny and cramped with a low ceiling. The entrance was outside until a very steep, narrow interior staircase was built. Sue navigates the steps carefully each day to check the plants’ progress and water them. All their hopes for a successful season are in these spindly little green shoots.

By late March, Alan is still waiting for a mild, windless day to get the propane-heated hoop-house ready for them. It serves as a way station between the basement and the fields, where the mature plants will go once all danger of frost has passed. Alan built the 22-by-48-foot frame for this inexpensive version of a greenhouse three years ago — in the winter, working on it whenever the temperature was above 20 degrees. Each season he must cover the curved metal ribs with a skin of heavy-duty polyethylene film. On March 31, the temperature reaches 58 degrees and although there’s rain in the forecast, he decides to get it done. The mercury hit 65 the day before — better for making the plastic stretchy and pliable — but he had to be at his other job.

Because a new roll is expensive, Halko is making due with the plastic he has, despite a few rips. It takes more than one person to slide the huge sheet up and over the struts, so Alan recruits Sue and their neighbor Bob Hall. These days, farmers rely on cell phones just like everybody else — when it’s time to get started Hall, out in his own field, gets a call to come over.  

It’s not an easy task. The slightest wind gust can turn the huge piece of plastic into a giant sail. Once it’s in position, Sue and Bob must hold it taut, but not so tight that it tears, while Alan tucks the edges into channels inch by inch and secures them with strips of wire pressed into the grooves. To reach the peak, he climbs an old, rickety wooden ladder that belonged to his father. “My inheritance,” he announces with a chuckle.

Seth, wearing pink, hand-me-down rubber boots from his sister, hangs around, sometimes watching and then wandering off to poke in the dirt or run around with the dogs. He’s used to amusing himself while his parents are busy.

With the job almost done, Alan sends Bob on his way, promising to come over in a couple of hours to take a look at a finicky piece of machinery.

“There’s only one guarantee on a farm,” says Alan.

“That something will go wrong,” Sue chimes in. They recite a list of their own woes — constant equipment breakdowns, marauding groundhogs that devoured an entire pumpkin patch overnight, and the loss of most of their heirloom tomato crop to disease last

“Nothing ever goes according to plan,” Sue says.

“You don’t just turn on the tractor,” Alan explains. “You turn it on, it stalls out, and you spend half a day fixing it, half a day you were going to use for planting.”
“That’s why we’re always behind,” Sue comments.

“It could be worse,” he replies.
“Oh yeah, how’s that?”

“We could have 20 things waiting to get done instead of 10.”

When the last hole in the plastic is patched, Alan, beaming with pleasure, says, “Hot dog, we just saved $300.”

“That’s great,” says Sue without missing a beat, “cause there’s a sale at JC Penney’s that starts tomorrow.”

Alan reminds her that it’s expensive to keep the hoop house warm, $570 for a tank of propane. With a sense of humor that belies his anxiety, he makes a prediction. “If I fire up the heater and bring the plants out here, it’s sure to snow. But if I wait, I could miss some good growing time.”

Sure enough, flakes started falling on April 3. The cold snap continued for weeks. By the end of the month, he had almost run out of fuel. If that happened, the thousands of seedlings would have died. “When the delivery guy showed up,” he recounts, “it was like the cavalry arriving.”
Three inches of snow fall on the farm in April. May is even more extreme: the low is 37, the high 88. Alan fears a frost will kill what is already planted. Then he worries the hoop house will turn into an oven, even with a shade cloth slung over the top.

The Halkos’ small white house, the henhouse and a barn in need of major repairs sit on one side of Riverview Road, the fields and the equipment shed on the other. Small working farmsteads like this, once a common sight, are disappearing fast, and with them a way of life. So Springhill Farm is something of a tourist destination, a kind of a window into the past.

“People pull over, explain what’s going on to their children, take pictures of the chickens pecking in the yard.”

Halko, like everyone accepted into the Countryside Initiative program, must combine the pursuit of profit with stewardship of the land and social responsibility. He doesn’t use harmful herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

His hens are not caged and eat a natural, certified-organic and drug-free diet. Instead of focusing on one crop, like modern commodity farmers, Halko grows a variety of things. And by selling his vegetables at a market just six miles up the road, he’s burning a lot less fossil fuel to bring them to shoppers than the big commercial growers that truck produce across the country.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park superintendent John Debo has been an advocate of recapturing the rural quality of the valley ever since he visited England’s National Trust parks in 1996. There, as elsewhere in Europe, traditional family farms are an integral part of efforts to preserve and manage greenspace.

Not everyone is a supporter of the farm program, however. Some believe that national parks should be wilderness areas, not places where people live. Others are concerned with the for-profit character of the undertaking. “Public land should not be used for private enterprise,” says David Dvorak Jr. of the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Sierra Club. “As an organization, we support the goals of the conservancy and the idea of preserving small family farms, but not in the park.”

There’s evidence that Native Americans raised food in this spot 1,000 years ago. Europeans arrived in the 1800s, cleared forested tracts, grew wheat, oats and corn, and kept sheep and dairy cows. Truck gardens flourished in the early years of the 20th century.

These old ways still make sense for the 21st century. Industrial-scale agriculture has created a roster of ecological problems. Small, diversified family farms serving their communities are an alternative. And the public is hungry for locally grown food like Alan’s. Between 2002 and 2006, there was a 40 percent growth in the number of farmers’ markets nationwide. It’s a food revolution, and Alan Halko, his bushel baskets of freshly picked pattypan squash and all the folks who wait in line to get some are a part of it.

“Farmers feed us,” says Darwin Kelsey, executive director of the Countryside Conservancy and one of the driving forces behind the farmers-in-the-park program. “We owe our lives to them, but people no longer have a connection to where their food comes from.”

He’s betting the program can re-engage the public “in this fundamentally important activity” and show how bigger issues such as clean air, soil and water, and healthy animals, plants and people are all linked.

It’s why, on a Saturday in May, Greg Embry and his wife, Jann Filion, work side by side with the Halkos, digging holes, nestling a seedling in each one, and walking up and down the new rows of cucumbers, peppers and eggplants with watering cans.
While little Sarah and Seth Halko make mudpies at the edge of the field, the Akron couple, regular customers of Alan’s at the farmers’ market in Peninsula, don’t stop for lunch. “We depend on the food he grows,” says Jann, who is committed to eating an organic diet. “It makes sense to be part of the process.”

Greg and Jann finally call it a day around 3 p.m. “Since we don’t pay you,” Sue jokes, “you’re free to leave whenever you want.”

Yet knowing that her husband won’t waste a moment of daylight, she turns back to him and asks, “What’s next, boss?”
“Rain was predicted for the Fourth of July,” Alan says, “and I was so excited. Then it suddenly cleared up, and I knew we were screwed again. Seems like even when we get storms in the area, they pass us by.” He is forced to do so much watering that his cistern can’t keep up with the demand and he has to have additional water trucked in. What hasn’t shriveled up and died has gone dormant.
It’s 9:30 a.m. and already almost 80 degrees on this July morning. The Saturday farmers’ market in Peninsula has only been open for half an hour, but Alan has just about sold everything he brought. That’s no surprise since there wasn’t much to load into the family minivan, which does double duty hauling kids and crops.

“I had about 50 heads of broccoli, plus some cucumbers and hot peppers. Glad I decided to try broccoli this year,” he says. “It’s held up real well and gives me something to sell.”

Night after night he’s been hauling the hose up the hill to fill a 55-gallon drum that sits by the field. Then he dips a can in and waters all the tomatoes and peppers by hand. It usually takes him 2 1/2 hours. “I can keep them alive this way, but they are not thriving. I think I’m gonna lose the pumpkins.”

Sue’s bouquets are the money-maker this week. She can make about five an hour, and each one is a unique mix of whatever’s blooming: daisies, zinnias, Chinese forget-me-nots, delphinium and asters. It takes her a full day just to gather the flowers. Then after supper, she sits in the yard most of the night, under a canopy with a light that Alan rigs up for her, assembling them into eye-catching arrangements. Usually she drinks coffee to keep herself going. Sue had 41 bouquets ready for today’s market by the time she went to bed at 3 a.m.

Craig Gordon is hanging around Alan’s stand, keeping him company. The 51-year-old from Berea is considering a career change — from mental health to growing vegetables. He might even apply for one of the Countryside Initiative properties. First, he wants to know more. He chose Halko as his mentor and has been coming out to Springhill Farm to work beside him. Alan can’t afford to pay for help so Gordon is a godsend.

A week or so later in mid-July, it’s official: Northeast Ohio, like most of the state, is experiencing a moderate drought. “I’m frustrated. I did some cursing. But it’s not like you get a choice,” Alan says. “So I just keep doing whatever I can. No matter what happens, at least I’ll know I gave it everything I had. And my eggplants are looking good. I been weeding and watering like crazy to give them a boost, and they rebounded.”

He’s cutting flowers with Sue today because he finished harvesting vegetables early. The sky is a brilliant blue. Yellow and black butterflies flit through the air. It seems peaceful, idyllic.

Unless you’re a farmer, desperate for rain.

“I should’ve put in more water lines like I planned, but we didn’t have the money,” Alan says. He’d already gotten approval from the park — no small thing. One of the challenges of farming here is the bureaucracy. Even simple things like sinking postholes require mountains of paperwork. “Maybe I’ll get to it this fall.”

The rows of sunflowers in shades of orange, yellow and magenta are stunning viewed from afar. But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see the toll the weather has taken. Their big heads droop and the petals are browning and falling off. They’re also being devoured by Japanese beetles. Gordon’s off by himself, snipping stalks of purple salvia. Few are perfect and many are too damaged to use. Others aren’t open yet.
“Flowers don’t bloom on schedule,” says Sue. “I’ll have things that are gorgeous on Tuesday, past their prime by Friday.”

Still, by 4 p.m., every bucket they own is filled with flowers.
Rain finally comes in August. With a vengeance. Springhill Farm gets 5 inches in a week, more than in the preceding three months.
“We needed it,” Alan comments wryly, “just not so much, so fast. It would’ve been nice if it was spread out a little.”

On a scale of one to 10, Friday, Aug. 17 is a 12. With temperatures in the 70s, breezy, and not a trace of humidity, it’s perfect picking weather. Alan is out in the big field by 8 a.m. where he’s got zucchini, pattypan squash, peppers and Rosa Bianca eggplant. Everything looks lush now. The tomatoes are jungle-thick, and he has to crouch down and push the tangle of leaves aside to find the ripe fruit hiding underneath.
“Ow! Ow, again,” he shouts. Thorny nettles growing between the plants prick his bare hands, tinted brown from the dirt in every crack and crevice.

Gathering all this bounty is slow going, a backbreaking, knee-straining day of squatting and bending. And it’s only the first step. Before he goes to bed, Alan will cart it back to the house in the minivan, sort and wash everything, and pack it up for the market. If he’s lucky, he’ll be finished before midnight.

He’s got lots of tomatoes, so many varieties that he has to read the tags to remember all their names: sweet olive, pink ping pongs, sun sugar, ava purple balls, Kellogg’s breakfast. But many are splitting open and others are already rotting on the ground.

“Only one out five is still good. Getting all that water so fast made them blow up. Some types are more susceptible than others. It’s a sad sight.”

He plucks a “garden peach” off the vine. It’s a yellow tomato with a pink blush and a slightly fuzzy skin. He bites into the juicy, sun-warmed flesh and savors the flavor.

“It’s hard, harder than I expected,” he says. “We haven’t had a really good year yet. But out here, on a day like today, when I pop one of these in my mouth, it all makes sense, and I remember why I want to do this.” 
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