For much of Ohio's history, thriving agriculture and untamed woodlands just didn't mix. Trees were the nemesis of pioneer farmers who had to carve farmable plots out of Ohio's dense forests as a matter of survival. Before the soggy but fertile soils of the northwest could be drained and plowed, the towering elms of the Great Black Swamp had to be toppled. Even in the last bastion of Ohio's crowded frontier forests, the hills of the southeast, hardscrabble farmers scalped the natural tree cover off any patch flat enough to till. The transformation from plentiful to paltry was gradual but undeniable as folks noticed the decline in the environmental benefits of trees, especially keeping soil put and keeping water clean.
Many modern farmers have taken this lesson to heart, and strive to restore balance. Louis Bromfield, perhaps Ohio's most famous farmer, was ahead of his time. In 1939, the globe-trotting, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist turned farmer and conservationist when he pieced together his famous Malabar Farm from four traditional family farms in his native Richland County. Among the conservation practices Bromfield advocated was to preserve woodlots and weave them through the fabric of the farm.
His experiences at Malabar inspired Bromfield to pen non-fiction prose. In his book Malabar Farm, Bromfield describes his plan:
"The natural topography with its combination of thick woods, marsh, springs and streams with productive agricultural land interspersed among them had inherent advantages and these have been steadily exploited and improved.
In the beginning the 140 acres of woodland scarcely provided shelter for more than a few birds and a few squirrels since the woodland area had been heavily pastured for years and consisted entirely of large mature trees with the ground beneath bare of cover or tree seedlings. As such the woodland provided little or no cover or shelter for wildlife. The first and most effective step taken was simply to fence the cattle and sheep out of the area and allow the bare, sometimes gullied earth to grow again the natural, thick cover which was normally characteristic of our beautiful, virgin, hardwood forests in Ohio.
Once the step was taken, nature provided the cover with a rush. Bromfield studies the land. Ferns and wildflowers came back in abundance and with them hundreds of thousands of seedlings of the native trees, among them hundreds of those important nut and food trees?the beeches, the walnuts, the hickories and the lovely dogwood, with its white blossoms in spring and its scarlet berries in the autumn. New wild grape seedlings appeared and flourished and the Solomon seal berries and the creeping partridge berries began again to spread.
The results of allowing nature instead of undernourished sheep and cattle to take over the woodland have been satisfactory and in some senses miraculous for in a period of eight years, the woods have regained that almost tropical appearance which the first settlers found on entering Ohio." 1
Today, Malabar Farm State Park remains true to Bromfield's management philosophy. One of the park's finest features is the Doris Duke Woods, named after Bromfield's famous friend whose generous donation helped the Friends of the Land purchase Malabar Farm after Bromfield's death to ensure that it remain intact. All year round, from the first taste of maple sap to the warbling of songbirds and the fading of fragrant blossoms, visitors are reminded of the sweet life these woods bring to the farm.
1 Bromfield, Louis, Malabar Farm, Harper and Brothers, N.Y., 1947