Bike the Barns (Madison, WI): An Experience Not To Be Missed

IMG_2809.JPGI went to undergrad in Madison, WI, left for Peace Corps right after graduating, and then returned to the city for a year and a half. After that, I settled in Minneapolis. As is the case for many, Madison had its hold on me during impressionable years. In Madison, I developed a ritual of attending farmer’s markets religiously. I started brewing beer in Madison. I purchased my first road bike (a brown steel frame 1970s Bianchi) and learned to love the hills in the area. These hills had a much different glacial experience thousands of years ago than the flat bike routes of Minnesota to which I’ve become accustomed.A few years after I moved from Madison to Minnesota, the Underground Food Collective started organizing a ride called Bike the Barns. The Underground Food Collective is a group of people doing some very cool things with food, with an intense focus on how to best respect the resources from which our food was grown or raised. Last weekend’s visit to the Collective’s Underground Butcher yielded several treats that came back to Minnesota, such as hot sauce that was fermented in lambic barrels for a year, which is as incredible as it sounds.

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Back to the ride, which is now run by the Fairshare CSA Coalition. After many years of thinking about doing the ride – and joining the waiting list last year – I rode this year.
Madison is always a special trip as my wife and I met there and enjoyed its magic while getting to know each other. In fact, Bachelor Porkchop is a dish that I cooked for her a few weeks after we met. It was a joke at the time but, like the best of jokes, took on a life of its own. A late summer afternoon on the Union Terrace sharing the view of Lake Mendota with a few hundred people after a football game is still one of the best things going.
If you like biking and you like food, do not miss this ride. I have done many organized medium-to-long distance bike rides with varying levels of support, comfort, and entertainment. This is a unique ride, and not just for the beautiful 54 mile course among cows, green fields, endless rows of corn, and rolling hills. During this ride, we visited four active, organic farms that are part of the CSA Coalition. We ate wonderful food that had been prepared using ingredients from each farm, went on farm tours given by people who worked on the farm, and even had a plated lunch at the last farm. One of the tours was via a hayride. All the farms had live bluegrass music. At the end of the ride, the organizers hosted a party with small plates from several Madison restaurants. The weather was picture perfect: 75 and sunny for the bulk of the day.
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Lavender growing in a Snug Haven hoop house
During the first tour at Snug Haven Farm, I quickly realized just how much I don’t know about day-to-day organic farming, despite spending a lot of time hanging out at farmer’s markets. The farmers who spent time with us were very focused on weeding strategies and were completely obsessed with how to get adequate nutrients into the soil. Most of the vegetable farms used hoop houses to extend the growing season. They are so effective that the side doors will be open until it goes below 20 degrees or so, resulting in a harvest of frost-sweetened spinach. The methods and results were fascinating, with a constant balance of technique, labor, and machines always at the forefront. Snug Haven has experimented with burning the soil and solarizing the soil during the hot summer months in hoop houses between plantings and using cover crops to control weeds. They also produce early season soil-grown tomatoes and herbs, and are able to offer tomatoes by June without the use of hydroponics.
A soil burning demo:
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The farms we visited use cover crops that are sometimes partially harvested, like rye, and sometimes are entirely tilled into the soil, like Sorghum Sudangrass. At Crossroads Community Farm, we talked a lot about using fossil fuels to support organic farming. While tilling by hand isn’t practical for medium scale operations, farmers are concerned about the environmental tradeoff of using tractors. Irrigation is also a must, even with wet summers due, to the need for a consistent water supply to avoid “small, funny looking” produce that isn’t salable.
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Tour of the Farley Center – in front of an area growing for local foodbanks

At the Farley Center, 11 farmers use the land of the non-profit organization. They have the ability to sell on their own, sell as part of a CSA, or be designated as the primary or secondary supplier for a specific crop to be sold to Madison restaurants through Farley Center’s marketing efforts. This is where a lot of organic farmers get their start, and a variety of ethnic backgrounds are represented. I thought it was particularly cool that the farmer who led our tour, Ian Aley, is experimenting with Paw Paw trees in an area that can be submerged under water a few times a year. (Check out this great piece on the resurgence of Paw Paw trees from Andrew Moore on the Splendid Table.) I’ll be checking in three years or so from now to see how they grew. The Paw Paw example really highlights the broader theme of crop diversity to protect against bad weather that is devastating to a specific type of crop, and to take advantage of little pockets of land that won’t necessarily support traditional crops.

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The Valley Floor at Farley Center, showcasing beets, long beans, kale and other vegetables
Prairie Bluff treated us to a hayride and overview of raising grass fed cattle and free range chickens. These portable chicken coops, called pasture pens, can be moved from field to field to optimize fertilization and feeding. Each pen holds up to 65 chickens.
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Prairie Bluff Farm’s movable chicken pens with capacity for 65 Hens
While the farm experiences and the ride itself themselves were enough to make for a very special day, the food was spectacular. Highlights include breakfast empanadas, El Sabor del Puebla tamales, humongous Cress Spring Bakery cheesy scones with chives, NessAlla kombucha, iced coffee, and a plated lunch with salads of fresh corn and tomatoes with pork tacos.
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Plated lunch at Crossroads Community Farm
Were there some big hills? Absolutely. Did the beer taste really good after learning first hand from organic farmers and a few hours of riding in an unforgettable, green, bucolic paradise? You betcha.
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