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Update on Malabar Farm: Ohio’s Sustainable Agriculture Legacy at Risk

Manatee Manatee Update on Malabar Farm: Ohio’s Sustainable Agriculture Legacy at Risk
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Malabar Farm in the Spring. Photo by Tom Bachelder.

Today, “organic” and “sustainable” are agricultural buzzwords, and many Ohio farmers strive to farm in an ecologically responsible way. But the shadow side of this story is also well-known to us: it is becoming more and more economically challenging to live a full and happy life from cradle to grave in a rural Ohio town, and the majority of Ohio’s farming practices have contributed to our status as one of the most ecologically degraded states in the US.

Decades ago, following the second World War, one man saw things very differently. Mansfield’s Louis Bromfield thought that farming could heal Ohio’s soil, and that the lives of Ohio farmers could be so vibrant and fulfilling that they wouldn’t have the time or inclination to feel inferior to anyone from any great city in the world.

Louis Bromfield had been born in Mansfield to a long line of farmers, and farming was one of his great loves. As a youth he had enrolled in Cornell University to study agriculture, but his plans were cut short by World War I, where he saw battle many times and was awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for heroism. After the war he returned to the US with his family, and began to work as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He was a popular and prolific author and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for his novel Early Autumn.

Around this time, Bromfield and his family left on vacation for France, and ended up staying for 13 years. He took careful note of farming practices in France and Italy, which fascinated him because they were so different from the farming practices used by the majority of US farmers, and because they seemed so nurturing toward the life of the land and communities around them. During his time abroad, Bromfield also became the toast of the world’s most forward-thinking, elite cultural circles, befriending other artists like Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, and Gertrude Stein. But as the second World War drew to a close, the Bromfields’ status as Americans made daily life in Europe an unsafe situation, and they returned to Louis Bromfield’s beloved Mansfield, Ohio. This time, he would remain for the rest of his life, and embark on his most dearly cherished project yet: Malabar Farm.

Nestled in the aptly named “Pleasant Valley” of rolling Richland County, Malabar Farm (named after India’s Malabar Coast, setting for one of Bromfield’s novels) was a living laboratory for Louis Bromfield to experiment with innovations in sustainable farming practices. The 1,000-acre farm, a recovering quilt of contiguous worn-out farms, was also a playground for the world’s cultural elite. The “Big House,” centerpiece of the farm, was a sprawling 33-room farmhouse Bromfield had had designed for him, featuring all his favorite bits from his favorite Ohio architecture (“Western Reserve Architecture,” as he called it—though in practice it looks fairly Greek Revival).

It wasn’t uncommon to see stars like Clark Gable, Jimmy Cagney, or Errol Flynn doing farm chores in exchange for room and board, and Malabar Farm’s most storied event was the marriage of a young Lauren Bacall to Bromfield’s friend Humphrey Bogart in the front door entryway. Malabar Farm was lively with farmhands, farm animals, celebrated visitors, family, and Louis Bromfield’s beloved boxer dogs—and Bromfield had his writing office tucked away in the back of the house, full of rare books and room to spread out manuscripts. The memory of happy times still echoes around the house today. Eat your heart out, Paris.

Louis Bromfield died in 1956. He is seen as a pioneer in organic farming, with devotees like Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. Says Salatin:

Well Louis Bromfield, he has a lot of lessons to teach us! One was that fertility starts from the inside, not the outside. We have this notion today, in industrial agriculture, that fertility has to be imported from outside. And what Louis Bromfield showed was that the foundation of fertility was internal, was recycling the biomass from the decomposition of the plants and the animals. Another thing that he certainly showed us was that the farm should be primarily perennials, not annuals. And he converted a lot of plowed fields into perennial forages that have deep roots and mine those minerals from down deep. And he was a lover of ponds. He said the answer to flooding in the Mississippi is not the big Army Corps of Engineers dams; it’s rather millions and millions of farm ponds up here at the headwaters. Like little hoof prints on the landscape, to not let the water get to where it could flood, but let it seep gently into the aquifers and recharge everything. He was a big believer in very, very innovative machinery. The tillage tools that he promoted, or like the barn that dried down the hay by leaving a space under the floor to let the heat come in and dry the hay. Those were marvelous and still cutting edge ideas. So yeah, Louis Bromfield, they don’t come any better.

Bromfield was awarded the Audubon Medal for Conservationism in 1952, and was inducted into the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1980. The Ohio Department of Agriculture is headquartered in the Louis Bromfield Building in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

Today, Malabar Farm is an Ohio State Park. All of our state parks are in a perilous funding situation, but Malabar Farm is in particular danger because it is our only working farm state park. Louis Bromfield’s conservation farming techniques are still in use, but are now put in practice by only 2 (very dedicated) full-time employees—and this is a near-1,000-acre farm!

Due to the farm’s commitment to education, generations of urban schoolchildren know Malabar Farm as their only, free of charge, exposure to “where food comes from.” The visitor center, “Main House,” trails, outbuildings, nearby cabins and hostel are still open for tours, hiking, lodging, festivals and barn dances, but the land and buildings are all desperately in need of tender loving care in the form of dollars.

Across from the farm, Malabar Farm Restaurant serves up classic French-country-style cooking using the farm’s produce and grass-fed meat (which is also seasonally available at an adjacent roadside stand as well as at the park’s gift shop, call Park Manager Jason Wesley at 419-892-2784). Park staff and volunteers are hearty and courteous, but in desperate need of financial and volunteer assistance.

We all know the heartbreak of good land gone unloved. Please don’t let Louis Bromfield’s inspiring legacy of sustainable agriculture go by the wayside. Become a member of the Malabar Farm Foundation today.

Visit www.malabarfarm.org, call 419-892-2784, or send your membership to: Malabar Farm Foundation, 4050 Bromfield Road, Lucas, OH, 44843.

We can no longer rely on state funds to save our cherished Malabar Farm—it’s up to us now. Please join today.

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