Bike trek connected kids with farmers

Over the past week, four bicyclists and one runner from the University of Minnesota have been crossing the state from west to east, stopping at farms along the way to explore innovations. As part of the project, called "Grown to Run," the team has posted a short video every day showing a different aspect of farming for school kids around the state to view and talk about.

The team even stopped to talk to classes in person in Clara City and Watertown. The idea behind this sort of "adventure learning" is to get kids excited about something that's happening in real time.

U of M graduate student Bryan Runck, who dreamed up the project, said that around 300 kids have participated over the past week. In one of the best moments, he said, he showed a map to a seventh grade agriculture class of crop cover in 1937 compared to 2002.  The early map showed wide crop diversity and the latter showed almost exclusively corn and soybeans. "They gasped," said Runck.

Bryan Runck
U of M graduate student Bryan Runck. (Courtesy of project)

"It was I think a really overwhelming success," said Runck of the project, which ends Friday. "We had a consistent flood of new people joining in the conversation online." He said he was surprised that farmers even watched each other's videos. "We didn't anticipate the farmers engaging at that level."

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So far, the team has shown Madison farmer Carmen Fernholz standing in a field talking about the importance of crop rotation--growing dried field peas one year and corn, soybeans or barley the next--in order to improve the soil. It showed Larry Schueler, a farmer near Echo, discussing water conservation methods like buffer strips and settling ponds. A farmer named Jim Burns, who also is a computer scientist, explained how the newest technology can make farming more efficient, right down to tracking how many seeds go into a planting hole. Watch the videos  here.

The final video, Friday, will discuss the future of agriculture and focus on Garden Fresh Farms, which grows indoor herbs and greens near St. Paul.

Despite grappling with wildly varying weather on the trip, the team arrived back in the Twin Cities Wednesday, earlier than expected. "We camped one night where it was below freezing and had a day where we had 100 degrees," Runck said. And then there was the wind. "We were all aware of the extreme winds you get on the prairie, but we didn't fully anticipate that really. There was one day, Saturday, where the bikers were really struggling with that."

Now that they are back to their everyday lives, Runck says the team is considering a new trek soon. "We all decided, this is an amazing experience and we definitely want to do it again," he said. "Because there has been quite a bit of buy-in."