Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Part two: Malabar Farm (okay, so tomorrow came early)

Here's a trivia question for you: where did Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall get married? The answer: Malabar Farm.


Malabar Farm is a working historic farm situated in the Pleasant Valley region of Richland County, Ohio, which is located about halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. The terrain is rolling hills dotted with farms. Mansfield is the county seat.

Louis Bromfield was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist who grew up adoring his maternal grandfather's farm near Mansfield. He mourned the loss of that farm by what he felt was old-fashioned farming methods and lack of money. Though he began studying agriculture at Cornell University, his mother persuaded him to transfer to Columbia University to study journalism. That only lasted a year when he joined the Army to fight in World War I. He returned to New York City and began work as a reporter. His first novel was published in 1924 to instant acclaim. His third novel, Early Autumn, won the Pulitzer. All thirty of his novels were best-sellers. He was friends with the likes of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

In the late 1930's, Bromfield came home to Ohio and started buying land near Mansfield to start his own farm after living abroad for many years. He acquired close to a thousand acres. Louis became widely known as the father of modern American sustainable agriculture. After spending a decade living in France, he implemented the methods he had learned there; such as, crop rotation, contour farming, no-till planting and grass-fed and finished cattle. Instead of fighting water drainage in his fields, he worked with it by installing areas with French drains and planting cottonwood trees which like having wet roots. Not only did the trees take care of some of the excess water, they also provided a home for birds which killed the insects which, in return, reduced the need for chemicals.

The farmers in the area thought Louis was crazy and continued the old method of moldboard plowing which causes deep furrows. This type of plowing is fine on flat fields, but the land in that part of Ohio is rolling hills and moldboard plowing causes a lot of runoff during heavy rains and so a lot of topsoil is washed away. To add insult to injury, most of the farmers at that time plowed up and down the hills, causing even more runoff. Louis felt that this was the reason for the relatively small crop yields. By using contour farming, or following the contours of the hillside, and using the no-till method, Louis remedied this problem.

It wasn't an easy task. The land he bought was worn out by generations of farmers who, as Bromfield put it, "had been miners of the soil rather than its stewards". In time, he proved to the neighboring farmers that it worked.

Louis had a burning desire to return to the days of a "more civilized and democratic world in which a 'natural aristocracy' and independent farmers had shaped a vital rural society". He named his farm Malabar after the Malabar coast of India where he had spent some time in the '30s. He wanted the farm to be self-sufficient, except for sugar, coffee and spices. He and his farm manager developed "the Plan" which was a cooperative farm based loosely on the collective farms of the Soviet Union. Whomever worked there would receive food and shelter free until the farm started to realize a profit, and then Louis would collect a percentage off the top. The rest of the profits would be divided among the workers. His manager wasn't convinced that this method would be successful and he was later proved right.

Part of that idyllic setting included building a manor house, which was dubbed Big House (there were several farmhouses on the property). The house was built in the Western Reserve style with 32 rooms. Louis wanted the rambling farmhouse to look as if it had been added onto over many years rather than being built all at once.

Now, this is where Bogey and Bacall come into the picture. Louis had a lot of high-society friends that he had made in New York from being a successful novelist and screenwriter, and through his wife, Mary, who was a person of high society in her own right. He invited all his show business friends and society friends to the farm for visits. The catch being while they were there they had to work for their supper. Yes, indeedy. Shoveling stalls, driving the tractors, harvesting crops, and no one was spared. Not even Bogey and Bacall. They chose to be married there for the privacy and its idyllic setting.

In due time, Louis realized that by trying to raise everything on the farm, he wasn't able to bring any one crop to perfection, so eventually he concentrated on raising the best cattle he could with rich grasses and legumes. The legumes (soybeans) were planted to release nitrogen into the soil, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers. Legumes are deep-rooted plants that pull nutrients up from the subsoil and then release it back into the topsoil when the crop is harvested leaving the roots intact. They harrowed organic matter into the soil rather than turning it under with a moldboard plow. This protected the soil from erosion. The soil became more friable, making the soil spongelike to retain rainfall. Several long-dried-up springs became viable again and even new ones developed. It was a nice little circle of life when the cattle grazed on these rich grasses and dropped manure, further enriching the soil and eliminating the need for grain.

After many years of being a fiction writer, Louis then turned to writing about his farming methods and life on his beloved Malabar Farm. Pleasant Valley, Malabar Farm and Out of the Earth are three of his well-known books. He died in 1956 from bone cancer which he hid from almost everyone. He was known as a sad and lonely man, having driven away his daughters because he wouldn't share control of the farm with them. In the end, he had to abandon a tenet of his philosophy to pay his hospital bill: he sold his watershed timber rights. His friend Doris Duke repurchased them after his death and donated them back to the farm.

Two years after his death, his daughters had to sell the farm. Friends of the Land, which Lewis helped found, bought it and maintained it until 1972. While under their care, a private educational center named Louis Bromfield Ecological Center was opened. In 1976, the State of Ohio and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources took over the farm and made it an Ohio state park. It is the Ohio park system's only working farm. People from all over the world who are interested in profitable, environmentally conscious, sustainable, grass-based farming come to Malabar Farm, especially from Eastern Europe. Louis would have been proud.

The front of the Big House.


The terraced gardens on one end of the house. Louis was influenced by French gardens in planning the landscaping.

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The rear view of the Big House.

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An AYH hostel is in one house on the farm that was built from a Sears & Roebuck package. You can book a room there.


The tractors and other farm equipment are powered by soy biodiesel.

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On the farm stands a 300-year oak. This is an oak tree that is said to take one hundred years to reach maturity, then it lives for a hundred years, and takes a hundred years to die. This particular tree was used in the filming of "The Shawshank Redemption". Most of the movie was filmed in nearby Mansfield State Prison. In the scene involving the tree, Morgan Freeman's character, "Red", sits under it looking at the money that "Andy" left buried there. The opening scene was filmed at one of the log cabins on the property.


E.B. White wrote this poem for The New Yorker in 1948. It was used as the introduction to Bromfield's book Malabar Farm. The poem is quite long, so forgive me, but I'm sure it took a lot longer for me to type than for you to read.

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
It's got what it takes to a large degree;
Beauty, alfalfa, constant movement,
And a terrible rash of soil improvement.
Far from orthodox in its tillage,
Populous as many a village,
Stuff being planted and stuff being written,
Fields growing lush that were once unfitten,
Bromfield land, whether low or high land,
Has more going on that Coney Island.

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
A place of unbridled activity.
A farm is always in some kind of tizzy
But Bromfield's farm is really busy.
Strangers arriving by every train,
Bromfield terracing against the rain,
Catamounts crying, mowers mowing,
Guest rooms full to overflowing.
Boxers in every room of the house,
Cows being milked to Brahms and Strauss.
Kids arriving by van and pung,
Bromfield up to his eyes in dung,
Sailors, trumpeters, mystics, actors,
All of them wanting to drive the tractors...
Play producers jousting the bards,
Boxers fighting with Saint Bernards...
Almost every Malabar day,
Sees birth and growth, sees death, decay;
Summer ending, leaves a-falling,
Lecture dates, long distance calling.

When Bromfield went to Pleasant Valley
The soil was as hard as a bowling alley;
He sprinkled lime and he seeded clover,
And when it came up he turned it over.
From far and wide folks came to view
The things that a writing man will do.
The more he'd fertilize the field
The more impressive were his yields,
And every time fields grew fitter
Bromfield would add another critter,
The critter would add manure despite 'im,
And so it went ad infinitum.
It proves that a novelist on his toes
Can make a valley bloom like a rose.

I think the world might well have a look
At Louis Bromfield's latest book;
A man doesn't have to be omniscient
To see that he's right--our soil's deficient.
We've robbed and despoiled this lovely earth
Of all that our children need from birth,
And it's true that the strength of the human race
Is drawn from the elements known as "trace,"
And though his husbandry's far from quiet
Bromfield had the guts to try it.
A book like his is a very great boon,
And what he's done, I'd like to doon.

All quotes were taken from a publication by The Ohio Historical Society.


Char said...

beautiful shots and I love Shawshank Redemption - nice to know that information.

Sandy Nawrot said...

What an incredible post! I want to stay at this place. And what an amazing history...this guy was ahead of his time, for sure. How sad that he died lonely. I remembered that tree immediately when I saw it. I think I've watched Shawshank Redemption a few dozen times. Thanks for that little bit of education!

Susan said...

Thank you, Char! I love that movie, too, and now I want to see it again after visiting the farm.

Susan said...

Sandy, thank you! I want to stay there, too! We will definitely go back because we didn't have time to take the full house tour this time. I really enjoyed working on this one.

California Girl said...

That was by far the most informative post of the day. I read the entire poem. I love EB White. I have heard of Bromfield. Never read his books. Fascinating to read about his farming methods. So much of what he did is now accepted in what is now known as "sustainable agriculture".

Ruth said...

Bromfield is my hero, and I only just met him, thanks to you. I love to hear about someone like him, ahead of his time, pioneering the way. It's too bad that he was nicer to celebrities than to his own children.

Do they do tours inside the Big House?

I'm happy to learn about this man and his sustainable farming so close to us. Thank you, Susie, for the deep and interesting report - and White's poem!

Ruth said...

Let me add that it seems from the details we are privileged to that he was nicer to celebrities than to his own children. Who knows what really happened, and the ins and outs of it, right?

Susan said...

Cali Girl, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It was a pleasure to learn more about the farm and farming practices there. Mostly what I knew before visiting was the story about Bogey and Bacall.

Susan said...

That's right, Ruthie, there are always two sides to every story! But, you know, Bromfield probably had to deal with a lot negativity concerning his ideas, so maybe he became a dilletante from having to overcome the prejudices about his methods of farming. And, then again, some people just aren't cut out to be parents.

They do have tours of the house and next time we go we will do that. They were giving the last one of the day when we got there, so we missed it. It sounds fascinating and I can't wait to see it.

Thank you!

Oliag said...

I'm so glad you spent the time typing out E B White's was funny and yet when reading it I got a great sense of what it must have been like to stay at the farm...

I'm wondering how I have never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winning farmer before!?...Thanks for introducing us!

CottageGirl said...

What an interesting post, Susan! Everything from farming techniques to Pulitzer prize winners to Hollywood films to E.B. White!

What an interesting place that must be to visit!

LOVE the pictures!!

ds said...

What an interesting man, interesting place, interesting, interesting history. Bromfield really was ahead of his time--and how wonderful that the current management is following his lead (soy-based biofuel, etc.).Now here's the odd stuff: we just watched Shawshank Redemption, which is Mr. Long-Suffering's favorite film & now one of mine. Synchronicity? Thanks for this.

Susan said...

Thank you, Oliag! You can't imagine how many mistakes I made typing that thing! I thought I would never get through! I got that same sense, too. It really covered all that Malabar Farm was about.

Susan said...

Thank you, CG! It was my pleasure. And it will probably be a while before I do another one that long with so much research. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Susan said...

ds, Shawshank IS an awesome movie! I haven't seen it in a long time, so I need to remedy that. That kind of synchronicity happens to me all the time! Eerie, isn't it?

Natashya said...

What a gorgeous house!
Thank you for all the information on Malabar farm, I had never heard of it before. But you are right, that tree does look familiar. Amazing that a tree can be so striking as to burn it's way into our consciousness and memory.

Susan said...

Natashya, thanks for visiting again! It really was a lovely place and so full of history. I can't wait to return and explore more thoroughly. The surrounding area was very interesting, too.