Christy Newell, Siri Simons gear up for 2,000-mile bike ride designed to impact farming industry
Farmers from 10 states will behold an unusual sight in the coming months: a handful of recent college graduates, led by two young women, will roll in on bicycles for in-depth conversations about the farming industry.
Those summer plans of Christy Newell and Siri Simons may seem rather bizarre, and they are hard-pressed to explain them in a short manner. There’s talk about farming, a river, bicycles, camping. They mention blogs, videos, a curriculum, community events.
It’s worth hearing out, though, and the 2008 Forest Lake High School graduates will undoubtedly tell many more tales in July upon returning from their two-month adventure.
Learning and Sharing
Starting in mid-May, the friends will bike along the entirety of the Mississippi River, stopping at farms and towns to discuss the nation’s food system as they make their way north to the river’s source in Itasca. The project’s mission is captured in its title: Fresh Forks. Fresh describes a younger generation of farmers with new ideas, and forks represents both a dining utensil and a bike part.
“The mission of this trip is getting young people excited about pursuing careers in the food system,” Newell said.
If two young women, neither of whom grew up on a farm, can become passionate enough about agriculture to launch this project, they feel they can get their message through to others.
To do so, they have reached out to young farmers who are new to the industry or incorporate fresh ideas. The Minneapolis residents, along with one or two traveling companions, plan to stay with a farming family about every third day. They will film and photograph their encounters and put the results, along with blog entries, on the project’s website, www.freshforks.org.
“It’s an opportunity for us to be learning,” Simons said. “It will be much less us saying what we know than us listening and communicating. …This is one of those things where we’ll never be 100 percent prepared. Honestly, the best material we’ll get is stuff we can’t anticipate.”
They will also head into town and put to use their backgrounds in environmental studies by facilitating a series of community conversations, open to the public. The University of Minnesota graduates will present their findings from the trip and help residents develop a vision for their local food systems.
There is work do be done even after the team has conquered the course.
“Another big part is producing a curriculum that can be used in high schools to encourage and empower high-schoolers to pursue this as a career option and actually show them real-life examples of young people doing it,” Newell said.
Newell and Simons leave May 12 for New Orleans. There they will meet a former New Orleans resident whom they recruited as a full-time team member. The group will spend one week in the Crescent City meeting local farmers and testing technological equipment by producing a pilot video. From there, they will hit the newly mapped Mississippi River Trail.
It’s a far cry from the Minneapolis classroom where the idea for the project first came to Simons last spring. A class for her environmental science policy and management major featured a guest speaker who discussed the new trail along the Mississippi.
Newell majored in sustainability studies, along with art, so she and Simons talked often of common environmental concerns and had overlapping classes centered on food systems.
“She wrote on my Facebook wall and was like ‘How cool would it be if we rode this trail down to New Orleans and explored issues of water quality and farming and whatever else along the way?’” Newell said. “It was half-jokingly, but we realized the idea had a lot of traction when it got tens of likes and comments and shares. We were like, ‘Whoa. OK, we might be on to something here.’”
The pair got serious about the effort last fall and fine-tuned its purposes while applying for a grant. The project had the potential to address a host of shared interests: farming demographics, water quality, the growing need for food, the impact upriver pollution has on those downriver, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and more.
Rather than tackle each of those shared concerns, Newell and Simons narrowed their focus to the impending shortage of farmers.
“Our thought behind it is, how can we even begin to address those issues if the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 55?” Newell said. “We need to be supporting a new, young workforce so that we can begin to address our food system issues.
“It brings up questions of ‘What are we going to do next?’ and ‘What is the future of our food system going to look like?’ and ‘Who is going to be farming?’”
Naturally, the age conversation will shoot off in other directions, and that is fine, too.
“The food system is huge and complex, and there are all of these different things influencing it, and (the age of farmers) is one piece of that,” Newell said. “You can’t talk about this one piece without it being connected with those other things.”
Up to the Task
Newell and Simons may be unlikely ambassadors, but they are qualified. Both are wrapping up work involving food systems. Simons, 22, helps bring healthy food to college campuses via a position with the Real Food Challenge and to food shelves via a position with the city of Minneapolis Health Department.
Newell, 23, helps children take a unified stance through work for the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network. She also teaches climate literacy through the YEA! MN environmental clubs network.
Simons took interest in the environment while in high school thanks to Bruce Leventhal’s Advanced Placement biology course. In college, she learned of the shifting dynamics of the farming industry and it triggered a memory from high school in which a teacher asked how many students lived on a farm.
“Only a couple students raised their hands, and the teacher said that 10-20 years ago, half would’ve,” she said.
Newell took a course on environmental issues at the advice of her college advisor and knew she had the right field.
With the idea in place, the former Rangers laid the trip’s framework while seeking short-term employment that left this summer available.
A fundraising dinner in March brought in over a quarter of the project’s ideal budget of $7,000. A second took place this month in Madison, Wis., the hometown of the Fresh Forks team’s fourth rider, whom Newell and Simons went to college with.
The crew will camp when not staying at farms. Each member will haul gear on panniers and racks.
“We’re packing light,” Newell said with a laugh.
The plan is to cover an average of 50 miles per day, though they are prepared to be flexible if weather demands it. They also hope to pull off at least one 100-mile day.
Newell and Simons are confident in their physical abilities because they are outdoor enthusiasts and bicycle commuters.
“It’s definitely not the same, but biking 10 miles a day on ice and snow is a real test to your courage and spirit of adventure,” Simons said. “I think if I can do that, I can bike on flat land with some wind for 50 miles.”
In general, they will follow the Mississippi trail, but they may travel up to 50 miles off the shore. The Fresh Forks team hopes to pedal close to Forest Lake in early July. If all goes as planned, the riders will reach Itasca around July 10.
“This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime, and Christy and I are privileged to get to take two months to get on our bikes and to get to talk to young people,” Simons said. “I just feel like we hit the sweet spot. We’re going to have a great time.”