Fresh Forks team encounters adventure, inspiration on ride up Mississippi River
Serious and growing challenges face the nation’s food system, but opportunities abound for a new generation of farmers valuing innovation and determination.
That conclusion is the crux of a volume’s worth of observations made by a pair of local young women on their recently completed bicycle trip up the whole of the Mississippi River.
Christy Newell and Siri Simons took their passion to the road from May through July on a 53-day tour of farms in the heart of the nation. The Forest Lake High School and University of Minnesota graduates came across plenty of adventure and new friends but stayed focused on their goal while studying agriculture practices at 17 farms and community gardens.
The longtime friends learned about aquaponics at a farmers cooperative in New Orleans, discussed the increasingly high level of the river with residents throughout the South, visited a woman tackling the shortage of produce for sale in rural Mississippi, stayed with young men who have revitalized a community garden in Arkansas, discovered a pastor’s “farm hacking” techniques in Tennessee, met a surgeon who is financing a farm in Missouri, and pondered migrant farm labor issues at an orchard in Wisconsin.
“We got so much out of it,” Simons said. “It was a really good learning and reflection experience for us, both in terms of our personal world views and our career goals.”
A main thrust of the women’s “Fresh Forks” initiative was to contemplate the future of the food landscape and, inherently, to learn from representatives of the next generation of farmers.
Inspiration struck early in the planning process. The women wrote on their blog that they got goosebumps from an article in which U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan warned of woes coming if more young people do not get involved in farming. There are five farmers and ranchers ages 75 and older for every one under 25, and the biggest age category of farmers – those 65 and up – grew nearly 22 percent from 2002 to 2007, the article said.
The Fresh Forks women came away from their trip certain of the need for fresh faces in the industry but also optimistic about the opportunities present.
“We see a huge market and a huge demand for young farmers to be growing food,” Simons said. “People are just clamoring for fresh fruits and vegetables, for local meat.”
The team, which was rounded out by New Orleans resident Ducky Slowcode, found creative, functioning examples of this all over. The New Orleans co-op was formed by former fishers and shrimpers forced to adapt in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the gulf. They took advantage of a land-leasing program created as part of the Hurricane Katrina revitalization effort and marketed their produce to high-end restaurants. Now, many involved have doubled their income from their fishing days. While in the Crescent City, the bikers also visited a charter school where students grow crops and learn to cook.
A former hospital worker in Shelby, Miss., started a farming training facility after witnessing widespread heart conditions and chronic disease she believed stemmed from an inadequate food supply. The woman eventually grew her training farm from her backyard to a 2-acre lot by actively seeking a good deal on land.
The woman was surprised to learn her visitors had bought an onion, tomato and green pepper in town.
“She told us we were lucky to get those vegetables and had no chance of finding a banana, an apple and certainly not an orange at any store in town,” Simons wrote on the Fresh Forks blog.
“I left Shelby feeling hopeful,” she continued. “After hearing some grim statistics (i.e. this is the most obese county in the most obese state in the most obese nation in the world), I was curious what was being done about it. But, Ms. Grady, her staff and her friends showed us that people can make a community better by working hard to change it.”
During an early June stop in Helena, Ark., the riders met a young newcomer to the city who has reinvigorated a community garden that had fallen into disrepair in a rough part of town. The man’s energy not only brought back the garden but has revived the whole neighborhood.
“This garden in particular – something that I’ve seen in Minneapolis, too – it did have the power to basically take drugs and prostitution off of that corner,” Simons said. “Now, it’s gone from a place where illegal activities happened at night to a place where there’s bonfires and community gatherings. I was just really impressed with what this guy, who’s about our age, was able to do in about a year with a couple thousand dollars.”
In Proctor, Ark., the team found another young entrepreneur. This one returned to his hometown from California to start an organic farm. He makes a living off of it through creative measures, such as selling flowers to well-to-do women at markets in Memphis, Tenn.
The bikers happened upon a memorable visit in Hickman, Ky., by encountering a woman who took interest in the Fresh Forks project. The woman and her husband, both pastors, also farm and describe themselves as “sustainability missionaries” and “pastors and pastoralists.” During an extended stay, discussion ranged from serious matters, such as increasing suicide rates among farmers, to business, such as a value-added income model. A friend of the couple’s downsized the conventional side of his operation and began selling homemade cheesecakes.
The male pastor was also an accomplished farm hack. Hacking refers to the resourceful use of everyday parts to make repairs or original inventions. He showcased creations such as an electronic coop door fashioned from an antenna rigged with a timer.
“Our time with John and his family was full of reminders like these that in tough times, instead of pulling away from each other or pushing forward in the same way we always have, creativity and innovation are the path forward,” Simons wrote. “Our conversations with John and Nancy reminded us that the future of food will have to include people who can think outside the box to succeed.”
Another unique business model presented itself in Perryville, Mo. Two brothers who grew up on a traditional cattle farm now run a grass-fed cattle operation, financed by a doctor from St. Louis. The doctor was interested in the grass-fed trend but did not have time to run a farm, while for the brothers the arrangement solved problems regarding land access and financial capital.
“It was exciting to see young people who were open to trying something new, and again, that it was working for them,” Simons said.
Such ingenuity proved one hallmark of the trip. Another was the high demand for local and organic produce. For example, the team learned that the number of farmers markets in Memphis grew from one to 17 in only five years.
“In terms of people looking for careers in farming, I think that is a huge niche right now that can be filled,” Simons said.
A goal going into the trip was to analyze the relationships between conventional and new-school farmers. The team came across a pair of Arkansas brothers who refuse to talk farming with each other due to their contrasting beliefs.
“I think there’s a big opportunity for small-scale, organic fruit and vegetable growers to talk with conventional farmers and work together more to build a food system to provide healthy and local food,” Newell said.
The riders were encouraged, though, with the interest in farm training and food system school curriculum.
“A lot of people we talked to were really excited about bringing really young people into the equation and starting to talk about farming at a really early age, which I found to be really hopeful and exciting,” Simons said.
On the road
For better or worse, the ride brought its share of memorable moments. Simons needed stitches after dropping a bowl on her foot, and Slowcode left the team in St. Louis for health reasons. Each of the women suffered a bad spill on the day they attempted to ride 100 miles.
On the bright side, they mostly avoided storms, took a liking to a turnip-like vegetable called kohlrabi and happened upon a team of women biking east-to-west across the country to interview female farmers.
The latter highlight occurred during a farm visit in Solon, Iowa. Both groups were scheduled to stay at the farm the same night, and organizers did not realize the coincidence until days before.
“We had a blast,” Newell wrote. “(They) were the first pair of bike tourists that we were able to have substantial conversation with thus far on the trip and we had incredibly similar interests and trip focuses.”
Newell and Simons held a community conversation in Minneapolis and took part in Forest Lake’s July 4 parade on their way to the river’s source in Itasca.
“There was so much buildup to the end of trip,” Newell said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Congratulations, you made it!’ and we’re like, ‘We’re not done yet!’”
A four-day ride brought them to Itasca on July 9. They faced one of the most significant storms of the journey as they reached Itasca State Park, then realized the river’s source lay another eight miles into the park. Between those factors and the excitement of reaching their journey’s end, the women did not take much notice of the crowd lining the path. Eventually, they spotted family members and realized the reason for the applause.
“I thought we had stumbled upon a race or something, like we had interrupted some other event going on, because there were literally 100 people cheering for us,” Simons said.
Work continues on the Fresh Forks project. Newell and Simons are editing and processing their videos and notes in hopes of creating a curriculum to be used in a high school agriculture or career discovery class.
Both women plan to utilize the experience in their careers. Newell has returned to her job at the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network, while Simons markets social change-based college trips for the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs. Simons also is in talks with higher education leaders regarding the development of Fresh Forks-like farm tours.
After more than 1,800 miles on the road, one checkpoint remains: a Fresh Forks celebration and trip recap to be held this winter at Sunrise Cyclery in Minneapolis.