Off the Grid - Pedal to Plate
It takes just the right kind of person to enjoy spending an entire Sunday riding up and down steep mountain inclines with bicycle pedal power in order to see small farms in action. I guess I fall into that “right person” category because I had a ridiculously good time at Pedal to Plate in Madison County.
Some parts of this rugged North Carolina terrain did not get electricity until the 1950’s. Historic log cabins are tucked into “hollers” between the curves of insanely steep pastures. Old tobacco barns with rusted tin roofs dot the landscape and line curving roadways. Farming can be difficult in this area where wind, floods, erosion, and access have to be considered at every turn. The term “hard scrabble” takes on a whole new meaning when you have to practically repel down the side of a mountain to get to your field.
Yet even with these challenges small family farms continue to thrive in Madison County. Many use technology developed without the luxury of electricity because it is more economically or environmentally sustainable. Water, wind, and passive solar power have been used for decades in these mountains because the folks in these parts use what they have on hand.
So, on a sunny September day 60-70 cyclists road around to take a look at how it can be done. Pedal to Plate, organized by Sarah and Morgan Decker from Root Bottom Farm, enabled folks to feel firsthand how difficult but rewarding it can be to grow food.
As we sweated and huffed from farm to farm along the picturesque prescribed route we gained an appreciation for the heavy lifting, exhilarating but exhausting work these farmers do.
Our first stop, Double Tree Farm, showcased off-the-grid, fire powered, sorghum production. Cathy Guthrie uses a horse powered mill to juice the sorghum and a wood fire to cook it down into syrup. She shared sorghum candy she made and the sticky-taffy-caramel-like treats were the best kind of pedal power.
We road on to Wendy Town Farm where Wendy and her husband hike down into a ravine to get to their fields. Many cyclists opted to forgo the tour because the hike was too steep, but a brave few of us were rewarded to learn about “Hogbrains Cowpeas” they grow. An heirloom variety of field peas, huge and hearty enough to sustain someone who has to hike all their produce back up the steep hill to go to market.
As we made our way to the Farmers Hands we realized how hungry-making this kind of sight-seeing could be. Luckily this picture perfect farm and event space shared incredible home-made garlic jam with all the bikers. It was delicious on crackers, but imagining it on a grilled cheese sandwich made me buy a jar for later. Obviously these folks had some practice turning homegrown veggies into mouthwatering dishes. Wandering around and seeing the herbs drying and the outdoor dining space made me want to come back sometime when the tables held platters of food from the Farmers Hands.
The ride to the next farm included an extra challenge up to the top of Bone Camp road. My guess is people died before they got to the top of this 10% incline and their bones were camped out along the way. Somehow we managed to get up to the top where the incredible view helped us appreciate anew farming these vertical mountains.
Zipping down the back side of Bone Camp Road led us to East Fork Farm where the water wheel powered Grist Mill immediately impressed us. Not only do they grow corn but they dry it and grind it without electricity into cornmeal and grits. Until very recently all the folks in this part of the world had to feed themselves without the benefit of electricity, and small farms like this one employed the ingenuity and self-reliance required to survive.
Finally, the plate part of the experience awaited. The all-downhill ride back to Root Bottom Farm was a nice way to end the pedal part of the day, and the plates of homegrown home-made delicacies did not disappoint.
The farms we toured supplied the raw materials and Sebastian owner of The Farmers Hands, and Dava Melton of Blessed 2 Cook prepped it in the old tobacco barn. Field pea hummus, sunchoke spread, grit cakes with onion jam, dilly beans, pickles, and fresh veggies were just a few of the appetizers. Dinner included grilled chicken with berry jam BBQ sauce, and not one, not two, but three different salads. I loaded my plate with an apple winter squash and sunflower microgreens salad, a red leaf lettuce and beet salad, and the best marinated tomato salad I’ve ever had. Dessert was Pear Crisp with whipped cream, which looked delicious but my salad filled belly would not let me partake.
Even without the inspired meal this type of experience enables me to envision a world where food and farming are a way of life that does not involve a power grid. Community support mixes with ingenuity and self-reliance. Historical tools and modern insight allow these hard working farmers to be stewards of a sustainable agricultural model. Cycling enthusiasts who may or may not be aware of these practices beforehand are allowed to touch and feel a world where food is hard earned and well deserved.