Early on Saturday morning, local cyclists and foodies will gather in East Mt. Airy with bikes in tow and appetites excited. They’ll spend the day pedaling across Philly’s pavement, stopping to meet local farmers and see local produce. At the end of the day, after covering between 24 and 35 miles of city streets, participants will return to their starting place and relax with local food and beer.
Whether such an activity strikes you as tantalizing or just tiring, Weavers Way Co-op’s Urban Farm Bike Tour has proved its success. Saturday marks its sixth year of introducing Philadelphians to local food and farmers.
Though last year’s event marked the first formal association with Weavers Way, the co-op’s farm has acted as home base since Germantown resident Chris Hill founded the tour in 2006. When the Farm Aid concert came to Camden that year, organizers sought locals to orchestrate local food-related events. Hill saw an opportunity.
“There were a lot of cool farms in Philly five or six years ago,” Hill said.
He combined his passion for agriculture with his love for cycling to create the first Urban Farm Bike Tour, and the reception was enthusiastic.
“People loved it,” he said. “They asked if I would do it again.”
So Hill organized it the next year – and the next.
The event combines several of Hill’s greatest loves. Most obvious, though, is that of urban farming.
“I love the people who work with the food,” Hill said, putting it simply. “I love the idea behind it. I think it makes the city a more beautiful place.”
And despite his status as a relative newcomer, Hill, a native Oklahoman, adores Philadelphia. He moved here when his wife landed an internship at Friends Hospital about 30 years ago. Though he hadn’t planned to stay longer than a few years, Hill said he and his wife “got sucked into Philadelphia.”
Three decades later, the city has kept its hold over Hill and his family.
“I think transplants tend to be the most passionate advocates of a place,” he said. “In the last 10, 15 years, Philadelphia’s become pretty lively! It didn’t used to be. The bike ride is a celebration of the city, too.”
And cycling, another hobby of Hill’s, allows participants not only to pay tribute to their surroundings, but also to pay attention.
“People get to ride through neighborhoods nobody would go to alone – and ride slowly,” he said.
He’s right. Each year’s route has traversed some less-than-savory sections of Philly. But Hill hopes that the experience will alter riders’ perspectives.
“They really get a taste for the city, this incredible diverse fabric of people, the cultures, the food, the row houses,” he said.
The tour itself traditionally draws a myriad crew, too. Twenty-somethings join cyclists in their fifties; suburbanites and Center City-dwellers join Mt. Airy residents.
Hill said cyclists unite over mutual interests.
“They love biking or love urban farms or both,” he said.
Whatever brings them to the event, he continued, “they all end up being interested in and deeply attracted to farming in the city and to the farmers.”
“The farmers are really passionate pioneers,” he said.
Hill’s own passion for agriculture grew during his youth in Oklahoma. His grandfather owned a farm where he grew cotton and grains. His brother, too, enjoyed gardening. Hill left the state to attend Minnesota’s Carleton College. But in the 1970s, his interest in farming was reawakened when he read Wendell Berry’s “Unsettling of America.”
The book opened his eyes to the present state of America’s farms.
“In the 1950s, the new model became ‘get big or get out,’” Hill said. “When you force people off the land, the people who remain don’t have imagination. It left this empty landscape, huge tracts of endless corn and soybeans.”
In Philadelphia’s urban farming scene, on the other hand, Hill has found all of the above.
“It’s magical,” he said. “It’s really a magical place.”
West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Urban Farm, where Hill serves on the board, is a prime example of that ingenious magic.
“It’s not only a beautiful little farm, but they have bat caves, a composting toilet, beehives, a cob oven,” Hill said. “They came up with so many imaginative ways to show how you can be more sustainable in the city. They generate their own electricity, they do so much.”
The Mill Creek farm draws most of its money from grants and donations, which allow the organization to sell subsidized produce to neighbors and to run various educational programs.
But while nonprofit farms like Mill Creek abound in Philly, they’re not the only kind. Hill cited the newly founded Marathon Farm, launched by the Marathon Grill, as an inventive new model.
“That was the first time there was a for-profit organization getting involved,” he said.
He noted that even among nonprofits, the city’s diversity has fostered variety, pointing to South Philadelphia’s Refugee Community Farm. It serves the neighborhood’s South Asian immigrant community, giving them the opportunity to grow foods in keeping with their culinary tradition.
In the future, Hill looks forward to seeing Philadelphians’ continued creativity.
“The urban farm movement here is one of the strongest,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how they keep themselves going.”
Some, he fears, may have to rethink their models to stay sustainable.
“There’s this big dilemma,” he continued. “Philadelphia has a hell of a lot of poor people. When people make a commitment to local food here, it’s usually a commitment also to the poor. So they can’t charge too much for the food. So they need to figure out a way that part of the operation brings in money to subsidize their service.”
And as farms refine their strategies, Hill hopes to see their produce develop a greater presence in the city’s food sourcing.
Though he admits he’s not a natural politician, Hill said he “would love to get help from someone to really lobby for the city to get involved.” He cites the commitment of the town of Burlington, Vt., whose government supports the cultivation and purchase of local food.
Returning to the bike tour, Hill said he would like to see “a more aggressive sponsorship campaign.”
“We could bring in more income to the people we’re supporting,” he said.
This year’s event costs between $25 and $30 a rider, but the size of the crowd limits proceeds. Right now, the tour can only accommodate about 150 people.
“Maybe if there’s a strong interest, we could organize two – one in summer and one in fall,” Hill said.
For the time being, though, he’ll lead the one long ride. And he doesn’t see himself dropping the endeavor anytime soon.
“I don’t have any reason to stop doing it,” he added. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”