By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Where do gardening, small-scale agriculture and the future of planet Earth converge? For three Washington women, it's on a road less traveled, on byways unseen from the gotta-get-there, high-speed chaos of the interstate.
It has been a year since Lara Sheets, 26, Liz Tylander, 25, and Kat Shiffler, 24, climbed on their bicycles in Mount Pleasant and pedaled north, eventually to Montreal. Along the way they visited thriving inner-city gardens, innovative suburban farms and rooftop vegetable plots as they chronicled a grass-roots movement seeking to change the way we put food on our table.
The result is a low-budget documentary, "Garden Cycles Bike Tour," which captures the spirit of their unusual 2,000-mile sojourn and the much larger movement that inspired it. The trip has also generated a Web site and blog, http://womensgardencycles.wordpress.com.
In the course of their three-month odyssey, the women found a community garden in the gutted ghettos of Baltimore, were run off the road by a truck in New Jersey, abandoned efforts to cycle across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York and got hopelessly lost in New England towns. They slept in the gardens of strangers, discovered new ethnic food and recipes and cemented their desire to change the world by growing vegetables.
Sipping tea in a Mount Pleasant cafe, they exhibit a playful friendship burnished by the endeavor, along with a sober commitment to a cause and a belief that they can make a difference.
When the film premieres at an environmental festival in rural Virginia in September, viewers will see a documentary that speaks to a generational disenchantment with the world these women have inherited. Industrial agriculture, with its energy dependence and huge carbon footprint, is not a sustainable way to farm, they argue.
But they also see solutions: the growth in organic farming, in farmers markets and farms supported by a network of direct subscribers -- CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). And, of course, we can become our own farmers in the back yard or a community garden plot. Sheets tends an intensive herb and vegetable garden in the rear yard of the home she shares with others in Mount Pleasant. Tylander and Shiffler, roommates in Woodley Park, tend a plot at the Twin Oaks Community Garden at 14th and Taylor streets NW.
"People of our age want to get back into farming, and we wanted to get those stories out," said Sheets, explaining the goal of the film and the journey that spawned it.
"It's a social movement," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. "It's not just young people, but it's really grabbed the attention of young people because it's so totally tied to climate change and other issues that concern them."
Nestle, author of the book "Food Politics," said the movement is "not organized and very spontaneous and grass-roots, and represents the best elements of American democracy."
For Sheets, the call to social activism occurred as an anthropology major at James Madison University. Tylander and Shiffler were similarly galvanized by their studies at American University. After college, Sheets and Tylander were working together at an environmental organization called D.C. Greenworks. In college, they had made environmental films, and they decided in the fall of 2006 that they would document the movement in a monumental bike ride.
The original plan was to take a two-year nationwide tour, but they realized that would cost too much, said Tylander.
Just thinking about the scaled-back version, however, is enough to make the hamstrings quiver. The journey, roughly, took them to Baltimore, through Amish country to Philadelphia, Princeton, N.J., New York (all five boroughs in one day), up the Hudson Valley and on to Montreal. At the Canadian border, immigration officers asked if they were employed. "They let us in, but it took some time," said Tylander.
They returned via Vermont, riding to Burlington and Middlebury, and then traversed Massachusetts to Boston.
Needless to say, their touring bikes -- they paid about $800 each for them -- look well used. (They own no cars.) Sheets calls hers Iridium Flare, Tylander's is Pearl, and Shiffler's L'etoile Noir.
Sheets's bike has a sticker that reads: "Minimize Your Miles to Market. Shop Local." She also has the backbone of a fish taped to the handlebars and, secured to the front, an owl emblem she found in Vermont. "Wisdom," she says. Tylander's has its own cryptic talismans from the trip, including a cattle vertebra attached to the crossbar with plastic flowers. Shiffler's sports a simple sticker, "Cars Suck."
The three would stay with friends and remote acquaintances, and sometimes they would knock on the door of a house that gave off friendly vibes and ask to pitch their tent in the garden. In a village in Vermont, they were drawn to a pink house draped in vines and featuring mannequins as outdoor sculpture. A sign announced free gardening classes once a week, and "we also fix broken violins." The lady of the house was a free spirit who invited them in, fed them, and told them her life story of hardship and love. She read some of her poems. "After that experience, it was embarking on a journey that was something imaginary," said Sheets.
Sometimes the back roads were just beautiful and they took their time; other times were harder. Approaching a city was always tense, the conflict with traffic tightened their grip on the handlebars. They worried about getting lost. "If you go the wrong way on a bike, it takes much longer to correct than if you're in a car," said Shiffler. Approaching Montreal, they were hours behind schedule. They were tired, it was getting dark, they checked into a chain hotel. "The only time," said Tylander. "The only time," added Sheets. "I want you to document that."
Their itinerary was driven by research into the innovative urban agriculture projects that they could film along the way.
One might expect echoes of the hippie movement, except this is different. In the 1960s "you went to a farm to hide," said Nestle. "You didn't go to a farm to make money, unless you were farming marijuana."
Amy Trubek, a food science professor at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying that the local food movement is "a much more pragmatic notion."
Michel Wattiaux, a professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin, said he sees his students "I wouldn't say rejecting, but questioning the traditional methods of industrial agriculture based on a large amount of inputs and chemicals and things like that."
But more than a documentary film, he says, the check on the agribusiness model of large-scale production and long-distance shipping is the rising cost of energy.
"The situation we are in right now forces us to go back to basic assumptions," he said, though "we aren't going to go back to hunters and gatherers; it's a matter of degrees."
Bill McKibben, an author and food activist, makes the point in the documentary that were it not for the current back-to-the-land movement, the tradition of local farming to fill that void would have been lost. "Farmers markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy, and it happened just in time, just before the last links with the last generation of people who knew how to grow food were completely broken."
Probe a little deeper, and you find something else in these young women: a rejection of the consumer-driven, debt-financed, career-funded lives of their parents' generation.
Back at the Twin Oaks Community Garden, Lara Sheets is talking about her own future. "I want to go into farming, and I want to be as self-sufficient as possible," she said. "A life seems much more fulfilling to me by becoming as self-sufficient as possible."
Meanwhile, she and her fellow cyclers are reliving the Summer of 2007. "Sometimes it was really beautiful," says Tylander of the trek. "And sometimes it was really hairy."