Pedaling into the Heart of Ag-World

Thousands get an annual look at where their food comes from…
As the world population continues to shift from rural to urban, many lose touch with “the good earth.” They eat food, but often their knowledge of its origins ends in supermarket aisles or at fast-food counters. However, some find ways to glimpse life beyond the concrete and steel of the city limits, and by chance, a bicycle ride that began 38 years ago has grown into a week-long excursion that gives thousands of riders a look at some of the most productive farmland in the world.

During the final week of July, the Des Moines Register organizes the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (Ragbrai), a cross-state trip that gathers more than 15,000 riders daily on the country roads of Iowa as they take seven days to get from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. Along the way, bikers from all 50 states and many foreign countries see farmers in the fields, they taste sweet corn and watermelon at roadside stands, and they smell “bacon” when it’s still on the hoof.

Participants have many reasons for joining the nearly 500-mile odyssey, but one constant for them all is the rural panorama that unfolds in front of them. As David from Arizona biked along a corn-lined stretch, he noted the stark contrasts with his native desert environment. “This is like coming to a foreign land,” he said. “The green, lush beauty puts me in a completely different world.” Ron from Seattle also commented about the verdant crops. “Ragbrai is a way for ‘coastal people’ to know the heart of the country.” He added, “Once I came around a bend and saw a little farm girl selling her mom’s pie; it was excellent, so I started calling to other bikers, ‘best pie in the state.’ As I pulled away, I heard another biker take up my call.”

Food is the reason for the ag-economy and culture that has developed in rural areas around the country, and food is also a key attraction for Ragbrai participants. Like a peaceful, spandex-clad army, they eat their way across Iowa, and in doing so, they savor the products that farmers produce: Melon slices, fruit smoothies, egg omelets, home-made ice cream, barbecue beef, and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. Bob from Golden, Colorado, viewed the ride through “pie-tinted glasses.” “I consumed eight different types of pie last year; so far this ride, I’m up to twelve including mixed berry, butter scotch, red raspberry, apricot, and pecan, which is my favorite.”

Although bikers do not actually become a part of the agricultural production line, they do some hands-on activities that include horse-riding, sitting on a longhorn steer, and inspecting a vintage tractor. One of the most important benefits comes from the face-to-face interaction as urban-dwellers chat with locals to find out how peaches-and-cream sweet corn was developed, why new farm equipment appears to be designed like huge techno-machines from Star Wars, and what scientists are doing to alleviate the “sweet smell of livestock” that floats in the air when the route is downwind from confinement operations.

At the end of a week, some riders discover specifics about agriculture: the cabs of a new tractor are like well-appointed offices; farmers start work early in the morning; it’s best to squeeze not pull when milking a cow. Others do homestays with local residents and learn about the hospitality that still runs deep in rural communities. But regardless of a rider’s involvement, by the time they dip their bike wheels in the Mississippi River, all seem to have a better understanding of food production and the importance of “the good earth.”

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