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Pedals for the Planet

Two U of M groups seek to learn more about sustainable agriculture, encourage young farmers, and teach kids about farming—all from the seat of a bicycle.

Population growth, land use, weather extremes, and an aging farming base. These challenges have sent groups of motivated, informed, and physically fit students and grads from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) on the road and into the field. Using pedal power and pedagogy, they've set out on long-distance bike trips to inspire the next generation to become farmers and discover creative ways to feed a hungry planet.

While up-and-coming farmers are already cultivating a healthier future, there aren't enough of them to fill the widening gap. Enter a pair of unrelated two-wheeled projects with a single goal: get more young people to pursue sustainable farming. Both rides worked to generate interest in healthy food and how and where it's grown by sharing their experiences with K-12 schools.

Siri Simons, '12 B.S., led a trip up the Mississippi River for Fresh Forks, a project that told the stories of young farmers along the route who are restoring community gardens, establishing organic farms, and raising grass-fed livestock. Her interest in these issues was sparked during her time at the U, where scholarships allowed her to participate in outreach and study-abroad programs while she majored in environmental sciences, policy, and management.

Group of cyclists posing in field with farmer

Recent grads learned from innovative farmers during a bike
trip along the Mississippi River. Pictured left to right: Siri
Simons, '12 B.S.; Sang, a former New Orleans shrimper who
started a cooperative farm after his livelihood was destroyed
in the 2010 oil spill; University of Vermont grad Nate Joseph;
Christy Newell, '12 B.A.

"From New Orleans to Lake Itasca, people are engaged in sustainable agriculture. Their stories should be shared more widely," she says.

A team of CFANS graduate students in applied plant sciences biked across Minnesota through an "adventure learning project" called Grown to Run. Led by Bryan Runck, '14 M.S., and Mikey Kantar, '13 Ph.D., cyclists talked to local farmers who are using technology, biodiversity, organic farming, and other creative methods to transform their practices.

Both Runck and Kantar have classroom experience that they translated into lessons for kids during in-person visits as well as for those who followed the daily progress of the team online. And both agreed that scholarships and fellowships helped them find time to develop meaningful K-12 outreach. "We help kids connect to agriculture with the message that sustainability is about their communities. It's local," Runck says.

Both teams chronicled their experiences using social media, blogs, and videos, and are developing curriculum for teachers. And both hope to find ways to continue to inform and inspire. "If you tell the stories in ways kids can relate to, they really get excited about food and farming," says Kantar.

Watch videos and read the blog from the Fresh Forks team.

See photos, videos, and curriculum from the Grown to Run team.

—Mary Winstead