Cyclists eat, exercise well on Bike the Barns tour through the Champlain Valley
By Alan Wechsler
Photos by Nancie Battaglia
The Champlain Valley sometimes seems like a forgotten part of the Adirondack Park. Instead of big mountains and valleys, it offers rolling vistas of farms, fields, and forests stretching to the shores of Lake Champlain. There’s no denying the beauty of the bucolic scenery, but outdoor recreationists such as hikers, paddlers, and backcountry skiers tend to gravitate toward other parts of the Park.
Yet the Champlain Valley’s many quiet, country roads are ideal for cycling, so it’s no surprise that the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) chose the region for a new annual event called Bike the Barns.
A nonprofit dedicated to growing the Adirondack economy, ANCA sponsored the first Bike the Barns last September, when about eighty cyclists signed up to ride from farm to farm. This year’s event is scheduled for October 1.
Bike the Barns celebrates a new generation of farmers tilling the valley’s rich soil. At a time when small farms around the country are struggling to survive, these young agrarians have achieved something that once seemed impossible: they have made farming cool, capitalizing on the local-food movement.
During Bike the Barns, cyclists visit some of the most interesting farms in the Adirondacks, meeting local farmers and sampling their products, such as apples or tacos made with local meat. They can also buy produce and have it delivered to the finish line.
ANCA offers a variety of cycling loops, ranging in length from ten miles to fifty (the latter with three thousand feet of climbing). Last September, I rode the fifty-mile loop, whereas my girlfriend Beth opted for a thirty-five-mile route. It was a perfect fall morning—no wind, blue skies, and temperatures cool enough to require a light jacket.
We started at Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. The ride was easy at first. I passed a few participants and took some photographs of cyclists climbing a hill next to sweeping rows of cornstalks in the morning light. I felt like I was in an Andrew Wyeth painting.
The first stop was a historical site called the 1812 Homestead, where volunteers had laid out the best food of the day: a table full of free cupcakes and muffins. Unfortunately, we learned that just a month earlier, in an apparent arson, the historical homestead and barn were destroyed by multiple fires. A historical schoolhouse nearby also was slightly damaged. There are no suspects, and no one knows why anyone would want to torch the buildings.
Chris Reinckens, a neighbor, helped greet the cyclists at the homestead. A carpenter (as well as a member of the Homestead board), he had volunteered his time a few years ago to rebuild the roof on the house, only to see it destroyed.
“It’s a shame,” he said, standing next to the charred ruins. “I got married here.” The good news is that there are plans to rebuild the barn this spring, using parts from a nearby (and historically accurate) barn donated by the property owner, he said.
The next stop was the Hub-on-the-Hill, a business in Essex that sells goods produced by local farms—salsas, maple cream, relish, fresh-baked bread, and jams—while offering a cooperative work space for its twenty-five members. Services include a kitchen with commercial ovens for baking as well as equipment for dehydrating, juicing, bottling, and packaging.
From the Hub’s hilltop, I made my way down to Essex Farm, a 1,100-acre spread whose owners—Mark and Kristin Kimball—grow fruit and vegetables and raise meat and dairy cattle. It’s the most storied farm on the tour. The Kimballs met when Mark was a Pennsylvania farmer and Kristin was a Harvard-educated writer living in Manhattan and working on a story about farming.
“I loved my city life,” Kristin writes on the farm’s website. “But frankly, he seduced me with the food. I married him, and we built this unique farm together, on the good soil and clean water of an Adirondack valley.” She wrote a book, The Dirty Life, about their first year at Essex Farm.
When I arrived, Mark was holding court with other cyclists. There was a unicycle and juggling paraphernalia sitting in the driveway (clearly, he is a multi-faceted farmer). Mark is a fast and quick-witted talker, and it’s easier to imagine him busking for change in Washington Square Park than tilling the soil with draft horses—the farm eschews tractors as much as possible—or milking cows. At one point, he juggled some carrots and then launched into a disquisition on the state of farming in America.
According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 90 percent of the nation’s farms are small—with under $1 million in annual sales. Most of these farms operate with a profit margin of less than 10 percent, illustrating the difficulties faced by today’s independent farmer, according to the report.
Nevertheless, the Kimballs and others like them are persevering in what is clearly a calling. Essex Farm offers grass-fed beef and fifty kinds of vegetables, among other products, to members of its Community Supported Agriculture venture. This CSA has members both locally and in New York City, where food is delivered once a week.
“We’re trying to create an agricultural enterprise,” Mark said. “The challenge is people in this country are reticent to increase the amount they spend on food.”
I jumped on my bike and continued the ride. As I pedaled, I kept running into signs of revival in the valley’s rural communities. I passed the folksy Jim’s Pretty Good Grocery and then the Whallonsburg Grange. This century-old community building had been abandoned for decades before local residents restored it. When I passed, I saw the organizers were advertising a showing of the Michael Moore movie Where to Invade Next, liberal fare for a historically conservative area.
At Reber Rock Farm, next on the itinerary, I met co-owner Racey Henderson and her young son, Lewis. Like Essex Farm, this 120-acre spread also uses draft horses for much of the labor. As the farm’s website explains: “They haul feed out to the pigs, chickens and turkeys; plow and cultivate our fields; mow, rake and ted [preparing to dry] hay; haul sap to the sugar house; and log in our woods. Because they cause less compaction than a tractor we can often get into wet fields a few days earlier in the spring, and navigate muddy roads without getting stuck.”
The farm, which is jointly managed with a couple living next door, also takes advantage of social media. For instance, it announces on Facebook when the latest crop is ready. Customers can stop by the Farm Store, which has an honor box for payment.
The 250-acre Ben Wever Farm is owned by Shaun Gillilland, a retired Navy commander and now the local town supervisor, and his wife Linda. “You have to love it,” he said of farming. “You have to be dedicated.”
I made stops at several other farms—Echo, Fledging Crow Vegetables, Clover Mead—as well as the Ausable Brewing Company, which operates only in the summertime and uses locally sourced ingredients. By the time I returned to the starting point, a party was in full swing. The bands Restless Feet and Russ Bailey Trio were playing, and beer from the brewery was on tap. Exhilarated riders sat back and discussed the event.
“I’m really impressed with all the energy the young people have here to commit to the farms,” remarked cyclist Bunny Goodwin of Keene. “They are really proud of what they do.”
Brian Delaney, owner of High Peaks Cyclery—which provided demo bikes for participants—said he expects Bike the Barns to grow in the future. “They did it right the first time,” he said. “Word will spread.”
Organizers say they’ve taken feedback from participants to heart and plan to improve signage and route descriptions (a few cyclists got lost) as well as the amount of food farms provide for sampling en route (not much was offered in 2016). Better communication will also help: one farmer forgot about the event and scheduled a birthday party for his daughter on the day in question.
“It’s all a learning experience,” said Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, regional advocacy coordinator at ANCA. “We hope to continue to improve.”
ANCA has been in touch with Washington County and St. Lawrence County about expanding bike-the-barn events to those counties. Vennie-Vollrath said most of last year’s cyclists were Adirondack residents. As word gets out, he expects the event will draw riders from farther away.
“A lot of folks don’t know there’s this rich farming culture and history here,” he said. “We find that once folks come up here, they don’t stop coming up here.”
WCS supports weeklong tour
This summer the Wildlife Conservation Society will host its second Cycle Adirondacks, a fully supported, seven-day tour through the Adirondack Park.
This year’s tour will run August 19-25, starting and ending in Schroon Lake. Participants will ride through the Champlain Valley to hamlets near the High Peaks. The event includes food and evening entertainment. Prices start at $1,295. Proceeds will support WCS. For more information, visit cycleadirondacks.com.
For those looking for a shorter ride, here are four one-day tours:
Fork to Fork, May 20.
The Hub, a bike-repair shop and café in Brant Lake, is sponsoring a fifty-five-mile culinary bike ride. Participants will stop at eateries, ice-cream stands, and a brewery. Cost: $40.
Whiteface Uphill Bike Race, June 4. Cyclists with strong legs can compete in this strenuous race. It climbs 3,500 feet in eleven miles along the auto road to the top of the state’s fifth-highest peak. Average grade: 8 percent. Cost: $80.
Black Fly Challenge, June 10.
This classic “gravel grinder” pits man against beasts (tiny, blood-sucking insects) on mountain-bike, fat-tire, and cyclocross bikes. Hundreds of cyclists compete in the forty-mile race through the Moose River Plains. This year’s runs from Indian Lake to Inlet (the start and finish switch each year). Truth be told, the bugs don’t bother you that much … unless you stop. Cost: $50. Bring your own DEET.
Ididaride! July 30. The Adirondack Mountain Club sponsors this fund-raiser in the central Adirondacks. Choose between twenty-mile and seventy-mile rides. The latter ride includes 3,500 feet of climbing. The club offers snack stops and a post-ride party in North Creek. Cost: $75 to $85, plus $15 for shuttle (for twenty-miler).