Freshly fallen snow covers the ground of Ben Bebenroth's new 13-acre home. Spice Acres is quiet on this November day until Bebenroth lets out a long, high-pitched whistle to call the six pigs hiding from the cold inside the faded white barn.
After much commotion, the Berkshire and Tansworth crossbred hogs come lumbering out to feast on scraps — apples, leeks, lettuce and bread — set up in a trough. They grunt their approval as Bebenroth, sporting yellow gloves, sunglasses and a Carhartt knit hat, looks on.
"There's Joey," Bebenroth points out. "He's the funny one. Max over there is the one that's OK with touching, according to my son."
Bebenroth, known to Clevelanders as the chef and owner of Spice Kitchen and Bar in the Gordon Square Arts District, has evolved from a chef who loves to garden into a full-fledged farmer within the last year. He and his wife, Jackie, signed a lease to take over Spring Hill Farms from its previous owner, Alan Halko, in June. The exchange of land is the first in 60 years for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is home to 12 family farms.
For the Strongsville native, the path to becoming a farmer makes perfect sense. As a kid, he would spend all day in the woods with his brother cooking cans of Campbell's soup over a fire and later found his passion promoting sustainable agriculture.
"It was just an evolution of what I've always done," says the 37-year-old. "No matter where I was living, whether I was leasing a house or living at my grandma's, we had a garden in the backyard. That's where I find my peace — in the woods."Å¡«
To say Bebenroth has a green thumb is an understatement. From a garden in the back of his restaurant to packing the front yard of his previous home in Broadview Heights with onions, leeks, garlic and currant bushes, he maximized every inch to grow produce for his restaurant and catering company, Spice of Life.
"Jackie was kind of overloaded with the agricultural efforts of our suburban lot," Bebenroth says. "You walked right out the back door and there was this giant pile of leaf compost. She was like, OK now, it'd be nice to have some separation. Your farm is invading our house."
While the couple had talked about finding a home with more land for them and their two kids, 8-year-old Sydney and 6-year-old Burke, it wasn't until Bebenroth met Halko that the possibility of owning a farm became real. The two had worked next to each other at the Countryside Farmers' Market at Howe Meadow when
Bebenroth learned Halko was looking to sell his farm. They seriously started discussing the deal in December 2013.
"My kids brought him Christmas cookies," he says. "That was the first time we went over there."
Bebenroth and Jackie toured the property. While he knew it would be one of the biggest changes of his life, it was the right one. "Suddenly, we are like, Boom, we're all in, man. We're all in," he says. "Alan and I did all that on a single handshake."
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park approved the transfer but not before asking the two men for some kind of legal documentation.
"So we wrote something up on a piece of notebook paper," he says. "It might as well have been on a napkin or a feed bag."
The Bebenroths moved into the 1870s colonial house on the property in August and have adjusted to farm life quite well.
Jackie wanted a place where they could raise their children, a place that was safe and a place with plenty of space. "This property not only met all those qualifications for raising a family but is exceeding it in so many ways," she says. "We are raising free-range children at this point. They have walkie-talkies, and they go out and play and come home at dark."
While plans for Spice Acres were taking shape, the restaurant was going through a transition of its own. Executive chef Brandon Walukas decided to leave in May.
"Brandon is one of the most talented cooks that I've ever worked with in my life," Bebenroth says. "You've got to hire people who are better than you. That's what keeps you challenged and moving forward."
For Walukas' replacement, Bebenroth tapped his former Johnson and Wales University roommate, Joshua Woo, who started in June. The former executive chef at YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge in Wilmington, North Carolina, Woo brings a more rustic approach to the menu.
Beyond his interest in artisan practices such as sausage-making and sourcing whole animals, Woo provides leadership in the restaurant that Bebenroth needed since his responsibilities have grown at the farm.
"I already trusted him. I've worked with him. I've lived with him," Bebenroth says. "We sweated and bled together."Å¡«
With two barns, two hoop houses, chickens, pigs and land as far as the eye can see, daily life has changed, not just for Bebenroth, but also for his family.
"My kids now have animal chores in the morning," he says. "Sydney does the chickens. Burkie does the hogs. It's just really important that they understand that they are accountable to the well-being of those animals."
Bebenroth tries not to impose his philosophies on his kids but would rather show them the importance of natural order. Burke knows those pigs will one day be slaughtered for food but that for now their grazing helps soil turnover.
"Their comprehension of what things turn into and what they yield, and how they come back around in the cycle of life is pretty outstanding for a 6- and an 8-year-old," Bebenroth says. "It's pretty magical."
So while feeding the animals may be a small task, it's that connection to the land and animals that Bebenroth hopes to sustain — not just in his children but also in those who come to Spice Acres to participate in educational classes. Starting last year, students from South Suburban Montessori School helped plant garlic.
"Their kids come out every five weeks for five days straight," he says. "You could see it happening. You can't replace those formative years."
To help share the love he has for the earth, he has plans — pending park approval — to build a log-framed, open-air outdoor kitchen that resembles a park pavilion with a stone oven in the corner and an open pit for roasting. Cement benches or worktop tables will be available for demonstrations or places to entertain. It will be where those students and others who stop by the farm can see how to take vegetables straight from the ground and make it into food for the table.
"We want to show people how to preserve their harvest," he says.
He also hopes to integrate the farm, which will grow garlic, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and kale, with Countryside U, an educational program designed to inspire and inform home cooks, farmers and food producers in Northeast Ohio. The idea is to show people with an average-size suburban lot how to grow all the things one may find at Spice Acres.
But beyond your basic gardening, Bebenroth is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Northeast Ohio.
In one of his hoop houses, Bebenroth has dug a 100-foot-long by 2-foot-wide trench to plant ginger. On both sides of the trench, he will plant a row of fig trees.
While both ingredients are seasonal, their growing will be aided by a high-tunnel plastic cover on the hoop house that allows only 88 percent of sunlight to come in. He plans to use the ingredients in the restaurant's popular cocktail menu.
In his other hoop house, he wants to set up an aquaponics system to raise tilapia for his family and grow microgreens, lettuces and watercress for the restaurant. He's also dedicating 2 acres to a variety of hops that he can sell to local breweries as well as for use one day in Spice Acres' own craft beer.
In the utility barn — a graveyard for broken, forgotten farm equipment with old, worn coffee cans holding loose screws and shelves of battered tools — Bebenroth gets to work. He's replacing the seals on the load-control shaft of a 1966 John Deere 2020 tractor that he bought from a woman in Suffield.
What he thought would be a quick fix has become a long process that now requires him to remove both wheels. He tugs at the lug nuts caked in years of hardworking harvests. "It's like one thing after the other," he says.
He consults a glistening, unblemished manual, turning the pages with greasy fingers. "I got this manual from yesterdaystractors.com," he says with a grin.
Behind him, written on the wall in black permanent marker, are messages from those who contributed to his Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $25,000. The money will help with the cost of animals, fencing, rain barrels, hay, feed and the tractor he's busy cursing at. He invited all 136 backers out for a barn-warming party in October where they wrote the notes of congratulations and well wishes. One message, which is crossed out, stands out from the rest.
"Oh that's Sydney's," he says with a laugh. "She found a better marker and wanted to redo it."
Directly below is Burke's, written in that adorable childish handwriting with a doodle of a stick figure named Bob.
"Yeah, we're not sure who that is. It's just some character that he invented," Bebenroth says.
He climbs under the tractor and soon all that can be heard are the clinks and clatters of a man and his tools.
Points of Interest
Most Interesting People 2015
- Penny Barend and Melissa Khoury
- Ashley Basile Oeken
- Ben Bebenroth
- Elizabeth Emery
- Liz Ferro
- Fred and Greg Geis
- Morgan Goldstein
- Koji Hashimoto
- Brian Hoyer
- Jennifer Jordan
- Kevin P. Keating
- Paul T. Kirner
- Corey Kluber
- Jake Kouwe
- Zoe Renee Lapin
- Seph Lawless
- Karen Long
- Tony Madalone
- Carley McCord
- Stipe Miocic
- Pete and Mike Mitchell
- Richey Piiparinen
- Joe Pulizzi
- Ramon Rivas II
- Marika Shioiri-Clark and Graham Veysey
- Tonie Snell
- Marina Strah
- Helen Turner-Thompson
- Kaley Ann Voorhees
- Kai Wingo