Day 21: Dayton to Yellow Springs, OH

4 Sep

What luxury to ride bikes in Ohio! Dad and I rode almost the entire 32 miles today on nicely paved off-road bike paths, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather.

We started the day at the only farmers market I could find in Dayton, the Wright Dunbar Farm Market, which consisted of one truck from Stubbs Family Farm, loaded down with beautiful produce and meat and baked goods from their farm and an Amish friend’s farm in Indiana. Not quite the bustling Urbana market, but I did talk to a few people. Like the 61st Street Farmers Market in Chicago, the Stubbs take EBT cards, and this farm stand is one of the few sources of fresh food for neighborhood residents. They’re in their first year, and while Dayton is evidently a difficult municipality to convince of the value of markets, hopefully the success and popularity of the Wright Dunbar Farm Market will lead to more much-needed markets throughout the city.

And, it was across the street from the Wright Cycle Co, home of the Wright Brothers’ famous bike shop!

And, across from the studio/gallery of Willis “Bing” Davis, an incredible artist, ambassador, and bringer of life and inspiration to Dayton and the Wright Dunbar community. The neighborhood was burned down after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and left to rot until Bing Davis took initiative a few years ago, got some local resident contractors and construction workers to team up with students at the nearby vocational school, and reconstructed the building that now houses the Ebonnia Gallery. It’s no ordinary gallery, though – it’s a school, a youth center, and the heart of many initiatives run by Bing and his wife to promote the arts, culture, and history of Dayton. He has truly transformed the Wright Dunbar neighborhood, so that riding our bikes across the river in the morning, I remarked at the spirit of the place – it really shone above the surrounding, languishing residential areas, and meeting Bing makes me certain that he is to thank.

We got on the road in the early afternoon, with no fears of overheating after such a chilly morning. Dad took some videos on the road, complete with lots and lots of wind noise. See if you can hear anything we’re saying.

We were lucky enough to stop for a little drag racing outside of Xenia…a perfect addition to the county fair and baseball game of the previous evening.

Yellow Springs is a beautiful town. I liked it even before we’d reached the center of the village, thanks to this sign.

After a tour through this beautiful, perfectly chill town and a delicious, long-awaited pizza dinner, I sat listening to Aaron play piano while the parents chatted around the fire circle in the backyard. Yet more wonderful people I’ve met on this trip, which should be inspiring to all those timid souls who think America’s country roads are full of crazies.

Day 20: Brookville to Dayton, OH

3 Sep

It was wet and cold when I woke up in Brookville, OH, on the outskirts of Dayton Friday morning, so I waited out the bank of clouds in the library and got on the road for perhaps the best half hour of biking of my life. The wind was at my back, I was on a beautifully paved rails-to-trails path through cornfields, and the morning showers meant everything smelled fresh of autumn.

I reached the edge of Dayton, and the bike path disappeared. I asked at the gas station on the corner, and they finally realized that what I was asking about was the wide sidewalk along the side of the road “right through the ghetto.” It was pretty neglected, but it did get me downtown to the river.

I bounced over cobblestones for the last couple of blocks, and minutes later met up with Dad!!

For the last day or two, I’d been passing signs for the Montgomery County Fair, and I was excited to visit. I’d thought the Fairbury fair was impressive, but it was nothing compared to Dayton’s – beautiful old white barns reminiscent of Walker Evans photos, countless booths selling fried foods of every kind, and hilarious rides that make my stomach turn just imagining.

The best part, though, was the 4-H show goat judging – the setting was one of the most beautiful barns at the fair, with bleachers on two sides and pens of goats, sheep, and llamas in the back. Kids of all ages dragged stubborn goats out in the ring, and a critical, nurturing older man with a magnificent mustache and hat silently inspected all of the animals as the poor kids struggled to hold onto the stubborn goats.

You urbanites may have the same questions Dad and I did – what is 4-H? Google to the rescue, and the 4-H website tells us a bit of history:

The seed of the 4-H idea of practical and “hands-on” learning came from the desire to make public school education more connected to country life. Early programs tied both public and private resources together for the purpose of helping rural youth […] Adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural discoveries. But, educators found that youth would “experiment” with these new ideas and then share their experiences and successes with the adults. So rural youth programs became a way to introduce new agriculture technology to the adults. […] A.B. Graham started one such youth program in Ohio in 1902. It is considered the birth of the 4-H program in the U.S. […] 4-H has as its goal the four-fold development of youth: Head, Heart, Hands and Health.

But the goats were just the beginning. We went on to feed some of the laziest pigs I have ever encountered, watch the hair on cows’ behinds get blown around by fans as they watched the wooden walls of their pens, and listened to a barn full of poultry crow and gobble and squawk endlessly.

Highlight of the poultry barn? Easily and confidently, Dad and I both agree it was the chick incubator WITH a merry-go-round. No kidding. Check this out:

And then, as if the day couldn’t get any better, we had delicious BBQ for dinner and went to the Dayton Dragons minor league baseball game in Dayton’s fantastic downtown.

Days 16, 17, 18, 19: Indianapolis, IN to Ohio

2 Sep

I’ve spent a lot of the last two days on Highway 40 – the historic route across the country built in 1806, according to the many signs I’ve passed. The days on the bike are starting to blend together – the riding itself is no longer the major event of the day, although it is certainly consuming. Perhaps it’s a sign I’m breaking into a rhythm.

This should give you an idea of why I so prefer nicely-paved roads, and why a lack of traffic is such a wonderful luxury, and a hint of the change of scenery since reaching eastern Indiana:

In any case, the towns I’m passing on Hwy 40 are all historic, all-American towns, each with its own post office and library, and a LOT of antique stores, and as I approached Richmond a spattering of motor-lodge style motels cropped up, most of them (sadly?) abandoned. But the highway runs through the middle of town, lined with American flags, and many of the buildings are being repainted and cleaned up, and I’ve enjoyed stopping for water and snack breaks under the trees and at local shops.

My stop in New Castle, IN, was a last-minute, lucky one. Deb was a fantastic host, welcoming me into her home and even getting me an interview with Rachel Sweeney, her next door neighbor and long-term reporter for Richmond’s daily paper, the Palladium-Item. And as I left Richmond on Thursday morning, the woman who made my sandwich at the Lemont Hotel said, “You’re the yogurt lady!” and pointed out the article that had appeared in the paper that morning.

I arrived at Earlham College in Richmond, IN, at noon on Wednesday, and I navigated the swarms of students heading to lunch, and soon I was set up in the middle of the Heart. Unfortunately approval delayed my set-up until after the lunch rush, but I talked to a handful of curious, enthusiastic students during class changes, and I was surprised by how many already made yogurt, as well as beer, sourdough bread, and kefir.

Then I headed to the Clear Creek Food Co-op in downtown Richmond – a sleepy Rust Belt downtown with plenty of potential for great pedestrian street life but unfortunately no pedestrians. Clear Creek was a great storefront, recently moved from a much smaller location, and I met a couple of local residents but spent most of my time waving at people staring at me as their cars slowly glided by on the street.

My hosts of the evening were also generous to accept my last-minute couch request, and Mark, his wife Hopie, their daughter Lena and exchange student Janeen were so kind and comfortable. Mark even took me on a ride on his amazing electric-assist bike, which Hopie, Lena, and Janeen can all ride together, coasting up hills with barely an effort. Pumping my legs struggling up the smallest hills, and anticipating more hills in the weeks to come, it was thrilling to coast up hills at the slightest turn of my thumb.

On Thursday, climbing past the Interstate and up a long, slow hill into the bright morning sun, I finally passed into Ohio! Oh, and as of Thursday night, in Brookville, OH, my total mileage for the trip has reached 531 miles.

Camille Farms/Blue River Natural Foods

1 Sep

I learned about Earl and Mickey Smith’s farm by chance from a volunteer at Freewheelin’ Bikes in Indianapolis, and I was excited to visit an Organic Valley Co-op farm. Camille Farms is a fourth-generation dairy – Earl’s son Mickey took over in 2008, after managing the Kroger produce department for 8 years, and he has dreams of expanding the dairy in partnership with a friend, and starting a farm store to sell products made on the farm as well as other local, organic products.

The Smiths’ herd is made up of crosses between Jersey and Guernsey cows, and Mickey keeps track of all of the cows on an impressive board with all of their names right inside the door of the milking parlor.

They’re milked twice daily, and it takes about 1 ½ hours each time to milk all 28 cows. The milking parlor was built in the 1970s and sports awesome round globes where the milk is held. When the milking machine is pumping, I felt like we were watching over some great Cold War nuclear experiments.

A calf was born the night before I arrived, and “Josh” was a real sweetie. Mickey’s friend Lexie strokes his head and he seemed to really enjoy it, unlike the two poor skittish calves that Mickey’s nephew riled up.

Earl has been an active member of the Hancock County community for years, and he’s a real advocate of real, organic food as a leader in the Buy Fresh Buy Local movement. He and his wife Barbara go to a handful of local markets each week, selling milk and dairy products from the farm, Organic Valley, and other local producers.

I was intrigued by what I saw at Camille Farms; the Smiths are a well-established local family like the Kilguses. Camille Farms’ current and future marketing is focused on staying small and local by going organic, currently through the Organic Valley co-op, but Mickey’s aspirations lie in a more direct farm-to-consumer organic network. The Kilgus dairy has refocused their marketing to a specific niche – pastured and grass-fed, but more importantly, they process and bottle on-site – which has retained their local market but also expanded to a speciality market in Chicago and Indiana.

I truly wish the best of luck for Mickey and his hopes for taking over the farm; it’s a beautiful herd, a good farm, and he works incredibly hard to keep the place running and flourishing every day.

Apple Family Farm

30 Aug

I made it out of Indianapolis, which was quite a climb, much to my surprise, and made it to Apple Family Farm by mid-morning. Mark and Nora welcomed me in their store, which sold an impressive array of locally produced products – meat, milk, cheese from dairies including Traderspoint and the Swiss Connection, as well as honey and soaps and candies and even some books. All of their business comes out of this shop, and their raw milk cowshares.

It is illegal to sell raw milk in Indiana for human consumption, but Apple sells their milk to people who own a share of the cow, and sells raw dairy products from other farms (and this is method used at Traderspoint) exclusively to be given to pets. Every state has different regulations regarding raw milk, but farmers everywhere go to a lot of effort to provide raw milk for consumers who demand it.

Most of Apple Family Farms’ customers connect with them through the Weston A. Price Foundation, one of the country’s biggest advocates for raw milk – they even have a lobby in Washington, DC – as well as other traditional, nutritious foods. According to their website, they are “dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” Because Mark’s customer base is so small and local, there’s no need for him to have organic certification, even though he’s done everything organically since re-starting the farm 11 years ago. He raises his own hay, but hasn’t yet made it through a winter without having to buy some.

One of Mark’s customers Mike arrived – he’d heard about my visit and has recently gotten interested in making his own ice cream and sour cream – and the three of us headed out to see the farm. Mark is a third generation dairy farmer on this land, but when he grew up his father hated dairy farming so by the time he retired the dairy was no longer used. Mark returned to Indiana from Tennessee eleven years ago and restarted the farm – the milking parlor and holding tank are still original from the 1950s, when they were built for Mark’s parents as a wedding present. At the time it was revolutionary, a “pet parlor” system with raised floors for the cows to make milking easier. This it the expected system now, but was the talk of the county when it was installed decades ago.

Mark’s herd of 25-30 milking cows is mostly the Dutch Belted breed, a funny-looking cow, black with a white belt around the waist. They were first brought to the US by PT Barnum for the circus, but Mark chose them for his herd because of their genetic purity and suitability for grazing on grass.

Weekend in Indy

29 Aug

I spent a wonderful weekend in Indianapolis with my old friend Loren and his awesome mother Chartley.

Saturday morning I trucked down at dawn to the Binford Farmers Market, where I spent the morning chatting with a much older crowd than at Urbana’s last weekend, but a welcoming one nonetheless. People were markedly more hesitant, which led me to break out a hastily drawn “Ask me about yogurt!” sign and stick it prominently to the back of my cart. And as I packed up to leave, two new friends took most of my yogurt off of my hands to use as cultures for their own incubation experiments. I hope they go well!

After lunch I eagerly headed to Freewheelin’ Bikes, a fantastic Earn-a-Bike program close to downtown Indianapolis. I was lucky enough to meet Nancy, the program’s founder, as she rushed off to prepare for a party, and set myself in front of the truing stand to straighten out a few wheels.

One of the kids, Daniel, finished earning his bike on Saturday, and he truly impressed me by his knowledge and comfort overhauling a really sticky headset. Congratulations to Daniel!

Loren and I spent the rest of the afternoon at the library, then searched in vain for a street performance on the fringe of IndyFringe before settling down happily to beers and a game of Carcassonne at Upland Brewing Company.

sweet bike racks!

Sunday I was excited to visit DigIN, a festival that was supposed to promote local food producers and connect local restaurants. Loren and I waited in a couple of sweaty lines for tasty, but meat-filled, food, found no local farmers or producers to meet, and ultimately decided we’d rather eat melon at home than stand in a sunny field with hundreds of other people.

It was another good choice, but first we had to take a quick sweltering traipse through one of Indianapolis’ many downtown parking lots.

Changing goals and reflections

29 Aug

This weekend in Indianapolis marks the halfway point of the Yogurt Pedaler trip. I’ve ridden about 400 miles, and I’ve visited two farms and two farmers markets. I’ve learned a lot, and the project has evolved in many ways.

One key lesson has been the real, inescapable prevalence of corn and soybeans to the agricultural – and physical – landscape of these two states. When this project was born, I had dreams of biking from farm to farm, learning about one farm from another and building my route as the days passed. Luckily, I decided to plan a little more – there really aren’t enough dairy farms to fly by the seat of my pants and make any real progress – but I keep finding out about great people and places a day or two after I visit them. And I’m certainly still building my route as the days pass.

Another key discovery has been that milk and yogurt are really heavy. As are a big glass jar, ice, and a cooler. Halfway through week two, after a couple of days of incessant headwinds, I seriously considered leaving my yogurt-making supplies in Indy and continuing on my way purely as a documentarian and yogurt ambassador. I was forbidden to give tastes of my yogurt to curious passersby at markets in both Urbana and Indianapolis – as the law states, to be fair – but it’s frustrating to make a big jar of yogurt and only be able to point to it when people wonder how it turns out, then toss it down the drain after hauling it around all weekend.

But the essential missions of the Yogurt Pedaler have also become much clearer to me on the road. The project is about getting people excited about making things, and it’s hard to do that if I am not even making yogurt. Sure, it’s about visiting the farms, but it’s also about getting to know the farmers and the animals and the products that are produced. I’ve tasted Kilgus ice cream, and I’ve tasted Traderspoint ice cream, and they are two completely different products from two completely different farms.

I’m sure I’ll visit even more diverse farms – but even visiting these two has made me ask lots of questions about the missions of these “sustainable” dairies, whether third generation and newly grass-fed like Kilgus, or new organic farms with missions that far surpass producing dairy products, like Traderspoint.

Kilgus is a third generation farm, but only recently did they refocus their market to the grass-fed, bottled-on-site niche. They’ve always been a responsible dairy, but this change in marketing has meant their survival, now that restaurants and speciality shops in Chicago are drawn to their product for its unique appeal.

Traderspoint, on the other hand, was founded in 2003 by a couple whose background and startup capital are found far from dairy farming. Their operation is beautiful, their herd of Brown Swiss is attractive and healthy, and their farm is bustling with activity from visitors to the farm, customers at the shop, and diners at their restaurant. Their marketing is so successful, spreading demand for “Fresh. Simple. Organic.” dairy nationwide, that they’ve had to bring in milk from other organic, grass-fed dairies to produce enough product to sell. They’ve done wonders for the organic movement, which I support and am frustrated by in equal measure.

The inescapable fact of the comparison I have just described is that the economic position of Traderspoint’s owners (they inherited the land, he is a plastic surgeon) allows more publicity and a greater reach of the message and products from grass-fed, sustainable, healthy food. But what are the real advantages of marketing over a family farm like Kilgus, with deep roots in the community, and with wisdom and a connection to the land and a way of life that is truly entrenched in the region’s economies and social networks? Would Kilgus be aided by investment in marketing to the higher-profile niche to which Traderspoint’s customers largely belong? Or by going organic? Or would they lose a valuable local connection, one that they have relied on and which has supported the dairy for decades?

As I ate lunch before leaving Traderspoint on Friday, I overheard Fritz Coons, one of the owners, say to a potential product supplier that their desire was to “express the brand through glass.” This gets at the essential difference I’ve been expressing here – through words and pictures – and I’ve become comfortable with the two dairies in their own ways and niches. I am attracted to Kilgus’ community connection at such a heartwarming level, and I truly believe it’s important to furthering American culture’s agricultural foundations. But I’m also convinced that what Traderspoint is doing to advance the “Organic” movement in this country, while I’m incredibly frustrated by its class limitations, is important to creating healthier and more balanced food systems. There is no perfect dairy, and I hope I continue to discover diverse models in the coming weeks, but these two welcoming places have provided me with plenty of calcium-rich food for thought.