Tour de Farms

Tour de Farms

Cycling through the central Illinois countryside and enjoying fresh food produced by local farmers seems like a natural combination.

A bike-to-farm ride Saturday will give cyclists a chance to visit several small farms in the area, sample their offerings and learn more about organic and sustainable agricultural practices. The Crop Cycle ride includes a 67-mile route, with visits to nine growers, as well as 35-mile and 5-mile routes. It also includes a lunch at Sola Gratia Farm in Urbana.

The ride is sponsored by the Illinois Organic Growers Association. Jen Burton of Urbana, a board member for the association, is organizing the ride.

"I think a lot of people bike ride by these farms a lot, and some may see them at the market. I'd like people to make the connection — this is the person caring for the landscape they enjoy out in the country, and this is where the food is grown that they enjoy at the market or in local restaurants," Burton said.Blog Photo

She believes cyclists who are interested in a healthy, active lifestyle will also like to learn more about fresh, locally produced food.

"For people who really think about their health and what healthy food is, there's a natural connection between that and seeing the farms where it comes from and the kinds of production that keep food clean and healthy," Burton said.

The Crop Cycle ride starts at 8 a.m. at Stone Court Farm in Mahomet. Prairie Cycle Club members helped identify safe routes, which will be marked, and riders will be given maps and cue sheets.

The farms will offer snacks such as goat's milk gelato, organic honey from local beehives, and fruit bars. The lunch at Sola Gratia Farm will be catered by Piato and made largely using produce from the farm.

Each stop will include an opportunity to learn something unique about the farm, whether from a short walking tour, a discussion of sustainable agricultural practices or a chance to visit farm animals such as goats and heritage chickens.

Sola Gratia is a four-acre urban farm in Urbana that is dedicated to helping feed the hungry. A portion of the farm's produce is donated to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and local food kitchens.

"Because of that, we operate under a tight budget," said Traci Barkley, Sola Gratia's program coordinator. The farm found a unique way to save money on the equipment it uses. Farm manager Clay Yapp, who is also a bike mechanic, manufactures various farm tools from bicycle parts. They'll be on display during the Crop Cycle tour.Blog Photo

Cyclists will also learn about how an urban farm must be managed differently than one in a rural setting, Barkley said.

Prosperity Gardens, which provides affordable produce to low-income residents through urban agriculture, will have its "Mobile Market" bus at Champaign Cycle for the Crop Cycle tour. The Mobile Market has produce at the downtown Champaign Tuesday farmer's market, and at Frances Nelson Health Center's prenatal clinic hours on Wednesdays. At Frances Nelson, it offers produce on a pay-as-you-can basis.Blog Photo

"We're a fairly new nonprofit, so we're trying to reach out to folks and let them know what Prosperity Gardens is and talk about the Mobile Market and the goals behind the Mobile Market, which is really to increase access and affordability to local food," said Nicole Bridges, who works for University of Illinois Extension as coordinator of Prosperity Gardens.

The Mobile Market bus will offer grilled kale chips for the Crop Cycle riders, as well as smoothies made with fruit from local farms — and blended in a bicycle-operated blender.

Each farm has designated a window of time to welcome cyclists for snacks and activities. The time frame will accommodate riders of various speeds, Burton said.

The 35-mile riders will end their ride at the Sola Gratia lunch, and transportation will be provided back to the start. The 5-mile riders will start with lunch at Sola Gratia, bike to the University of Illinois Sustainable Student Farm and then back to Sola Gratia. All riders are welcome to drive to the locations that were not part of their rides.

In addition, people who are interested in visiting the farms but don't want to cycle can register and drive to each location for the food samples, farm tours and lunch.

Burton hopes the participants will enjoy the landscape as much as the food.

"You go onto these farms and there are wildflowers in the lane and you see goldfinches. I think cyclists appreciate the good care of the landscape, and the diversity that sustainable farming brings," she said.

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

Join the ride:

For information or to register for the Crop Cycle, go to illinoisorganicgrowers.org/crop-cycle or call the Illinois Organic Growers Association at 217-528-1563. Registration for the event closes at noon Thursday.

Photos: Top: Students and Prosperity Gardens staff prepare garden beds for planting in 2013. Prosperity Gardens, which provides affordable produce for low-income residents, is bringing its Mobile Market to Saturday's Crop Cycle event. Photo by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette. Middle and bottom: One of the bicycle-farm tool hybrids used at the Sola Gratia Farm. Photos provided by Sola Gratia Farm.

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