The Spicy Lamb Farm
On this day, the vibe at The Spicy Lamb Farm is energetic and a bit frenetic — not quite what you’d expect at a century-old farm tucked in a remote corner of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Bleating Dorset sheep, meandering Rouen ducks, a new llama in the barn, a donkey, horses, a giant rabbit and border collies contribute to the pleasantly spirited atmosphere. Laura Minnig and her supportive husband Mike, assorted friends and helpers — not that there’s much of a distinction between the two — create a sociable swirl of energy on the bucolic farm.
The Spicy Lamb Farm is one of 11 in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park operated in partnership with the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy. The farms are remnants of the many small, family homesteads that dotted the valley for two centuries and by Native Americans for thousands of years before then. The Minnigs and daughter Erika live on the farm and operate it under a 60-year lease with the national park.
The Minnigs raise a flock of carefully tended sheep, and hand in hand — or paw in paw — with that enterprise are border collies (“The only dogs, the best dogs,” Laura says) and assorted animals. The large ducks parade lockstep across the farmyard while the persistent bleat of sheep provides a soulful background.
Laura and Mike have corralled a host of friends and farm supporters who help educate visitors and run the busy Spicy Lamb Farm at the dead end of Akron-Peninsula Road off Boston Mills Road in Peninsula.
Laura, who grew up in England, is by day an urban planner. Mike retired from the auto industry and works in retail. Their team includes Maureen Hillen, who holds Saturday herding classes and rents sheep for handlers to practice, and Barbara Gedeon of Josiah Lincoln Clouser Flower Farm, who grows flowers in the farm’s greenhouse and sells them. Others are Ed Pepera of Richfield, who manages the beehives on the farm, shearer Jay Campbell, Greg Shellabarger, volunteer coordinator and project manager, along with a chef, friend Ken Cormack, local musicians and others.
The farm’s honey, wool blankets, roving and other items are sold during special events on-site and in Peninsula at the Yellow Creek Trading Company.
On a tour of the farm, Laura walks deliberately, a whirlwind of plans and thoughts and stories and facts about her 50 ewes, herding dogs — both hers and her visitors’ — coyotes, and the science of keeping sheep.
Ohio is 13th in sheep production. Most of the meat lambs she sells go directly to consumers, not local restaurants. The reason? Her grassfed flock, like others in Ohio, isn’t large enough to provide enough meat to meet their demand. Laura’s goal is to work with a co-op of sheep producers who can raise lambs with the right consistency to provide a high-quality, similar-standard supply of meat.
Laura describes the March 2014 fire that destroyed the farm’s historic barn and the awful scene when she returned (she was out of town at the time). It was rebuilt a year later using traditional construction techniques, slightly expanded with modern updates. She points to the wetlands, an orchard and other features on the 10-acre farm, with plans to replant an orchard, promote special events and expand programs.
Though the Spicy Lamb Farm is at the end of a dead-end road, hikers and others find their way there during unscheduled visits. Laura occasionally finds a stranger standing in her kitchen. She says the benefits of farming in a national park outweigh the occasional lack of privacy.
“I’m living right off the bridle trail and I’m a horseman. It’s like living in a bed and breakfast year-round, except I have to do all the chores,” she says, smiling.
“My goal is to be an economically viable farm and to provide opportunities to visitors to the park and to educate people (about) sustainable farming,” she says. “I look at it as a privilege to live and farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.”
Spring lambing keeps everyone hopping at the Spicy Lamb Farm, but as that season winds down the farm pace shifts to community programs that entertain and educate, from urban sheep herding to annual farm-to-table events.
Shepherdess Laura Minnig is a founder and executive director of Urban Shepherds, a nonprofit group that encourages urban areas to replace mowing with grazing. Again this summer, some of Minnig’s Dorset sheep will be grazing at the Perkins Stone Mansion in Akron, owned by the Summit County Historical Society.
Edie Hardin Steiner, a friend of Minnig’s, and a member of the Urban Shepherds Board will be doing herding demonstrations with her border collies at Mutton Hill at Perkins Mansion. Mutton Hill was a 19th century name for the Perkins property, which at one time had 1,500 sheep on its 150-acre farm. For a schedule of Steiner’s sheep herding demonstrations at Mutton Hill, visit summithistory.org.
This summer, Minnig also will be grazing sheep on property adjacent to the farm and owned by Camp Ledgewood, operated by the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio. She’s planning Saturday educational events for visiting scouts.
And over at the Bellwether Farm in Wakeman, Minnig will be assisting in the new sheep operation getting underway by the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.
Before Easter each year the farm holds a Spring Fling which includes an egg hunt, The Blessing of the Sheep, sheering and herding demonstrations, a bagpipe player and sheering and herding demonstrations, with an opportunity to see new lambs and ducklings.
During the first weekend in May, the farm had a two-day sheep dog clinic with trainer Lyle Lad, a renowned handler from Georgetown, Ohio.
The Spicy Lamb Farm will host the Wandering Aesthetics Theatre Camp the week of July 9 “A Play Within A Play On A Midsummer’s Day” performances will run at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 and 3, and at 2 p.m. Aug. 4.
On Aug. 25, the farm’s popular farm-to-table dinner prepared by Chef Larkin Rogers will be held in the outdoor pavilion.
Wrapping up the season will be the Cuyahoga Valley Sheep Dog Trials Oct. 13-14 in a field just down the road from the farmhouse. Visitors can watch some of the smartest (or the smartest) dogs around move sheep in a huge field commanded only by their handler’s subtle whistles and short commands. Bring folding chairs and watch what the handlers and dogs can do.
The Spicy Lamb Farm is available for private tours and special events. A recently expanded pavilion that seats 72 and an outdoor kitchen is available for rent. The Minnigs can provide a list of local food sources, preferred caterers and arrange for a sheep dog demonstration, music and similar activities.
From the craggy Grand Canyon down to the steamy Everglades, each national park earned its designation because of its natural beauty, its plants and animals, or its historical significance. Sometimes it’s all three.
All play a role in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but arguably most noteworthy is its humble role as a place where men and women have farmed for thousands of years.
Today the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park has 11 working farms, all part of the nonprofit Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy. The goal is to promote sustainable agriculture while providing a way to educate and showcase the region’s rich farm history. The conservancy partners with the national park to link farms with farmers.
Families operate farms on land with long-term leases from the national park. Farmers raise and sell berries and honey, fresh eggs and fresh flowers, goats and turkeys, jam and wool, among other products.
Countryside hosts the Farmers’ Market at Howe Meadow on Riverview Road in Peninsula from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, and Countryside Farmers’ Market at Highland Square in Akron’s Will Christy Park from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.
The conservancy arranges tours and offers classes and other support to farmers and those interested in becoming farmers.
To learn more about the national park’s farms, visit cvcountryside.org.