Young farmer Pedaling Vegetables
Hannah Converse Pedaling Vegetables in Conway.
Hannah Converse with greens in some of her cold frames at her Conway Farm.
Hannah Converse and her bicycle inspired farm implement plans
Hannah Converse with a wheel hoe at her Conway farm.
Hannah Converse of Pedaling Vegetables
Hannah Converse Pedaling Vegetables in Conway
CONWAY — Hannah Converse calls her fledgling farming operation “Pedaling Vegetables,” and she’s hardly spinning her wheels.
As she tends her newly planted melon seedlings and prepares the three-quarter acre of rented fields at Open View Farm for her first season as a Community Supported Agriculture venture, the 26-year-old Hampden native is already hatching plans for how to put her love for cycling to work for her.
For starters, without a car, Converse climbs the hills of Conway on her bicycle to get to the Newhall Road farm from where she’s living, about a mile and a half away. With help from a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for start-up farmers, she recently bought a trailer, 8 feet long and 3 feet wide, to attach to the bike to help her get vegetables and cut flowers to the farmers markets in Conway, 3½ miles down the hill, and Shelburne Falls, nine hilly miles away.
For Shelburne Falls’ Friday afternoon market Converse plans to sell her heirloom tomatoes, basil and cut flowers, along with tempeh and sauerkraut made by her Great Barrington friends. But Conway’s Wednesday market will probably mean lugging more carrots, beets and other heavy vegetables, so she’s thinking about upgrading to a larger wagon, capable of carrying a 600-pound load.
It’s a big upgrade from the tiny wagon she’s been using to haul her dog around, but Converse is already gearing up for other ways to pedal her way around the farm to cultivate, haul compost and do other chores on the farm.
Growing up across the street from Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, the home of “Peter Cottontail” author Thornton Burgess, Converse says, “I think I spent the most time there of anyone over the last 20 years,” and was influenced by “being able to be in woods every day, seeing owls and deer,” and reading Burgess’ books.
At Colby College in Maine, where she studied environmental biology, Converse thought she might want to prepare for a medical career. But that changed when she began working in the college’s large garden.
“I’ve always really liked working with plants and animals and the natural world, and the environment’s really important to me, particularly human health and the environment,” she says, but adds, “I feel our health care system doesn’t really take care of people; providing wholesome, healthy food does.”
After Colby, and working on a farm in Maine, Converse co-managed an urban farm in Worcester where she’s still a board member. It was tiny — just one-sixteenth of an acre in an industrial park — but using dense, vertically oriented techniques, they grew vegetables for a family shelter and for sale at the farmers market and nearby restaurants.
While there, she worked on several bike-building projects, including helping to design trailers for a seed-exchanging expedition through Brazil, building cycle-powered grain mills in Bolton and then nearly completing a “longtail” cargo bike that can be used for hauling lumber, materials and even people.
“When I was apprenticing on a farm in Maine, I got to try out a bunch of hand tools, but none of them worked for me,” said Converse, who began researching different technologies and looking into better ways to harness energy from a bicycle, while taking a bike mechanic class. And then she found a farmer in Milton, south of Boston, who was using a bicycle cultivator for his tomato crop.
Now her ideas — complete with preliminary drawings she’s done with skills gleaned from her mechanical-engineer parents — involve building “a four-wheeled contraption the width of your beds, with a bicycle welded in the middle of the frame to a bike tractor, a bike cultivator,” with the gear ratio lowered and the kind of combination “toolbar” popularized by the Allis-Chalmers G cultivating tractor to make use of different kind of components for different jobs, including different ways of turning over cover crops and hauling compost.
“One of the more labor-intensive things I do right now is shoveling compost into a wheelbarrow and then hauling it,” says Converse, who farms primarily by herself. “The great thing about bikes is they can be up to 98 percent efficient mechanically. They’re ergonomic and use your biggest (leg) muscles, which means you’re expending the least amount of effort to actually do the work. With the wheelbarrow, you’re using your arms and your shoulders.”
The four-wheel gizmo she has in mind would ride over the beds without compacting the soil, with beefier back wheels. You’d scoop off the compost as you go.
On the Conway farm, which in part serves as a training ground for start-up farmers, Converse says, “I feel like I couldn’t have asked for a better place this year. They’re very supportive, I have the tools I need and there’s good soil. This is my next step toward having my own, permanent farm.”
Converse is also accepting for a CSA that can support about 12 shares, two of which will be work shares to help her in exchange for some of the roughly 40 crops she plans to grow.
“Having my own farm, I get to choose how I do it,” says Converse, who’s just down the road from largely horse-powered Natural Roots CSA but doesn’t think using animal power would work for her — especially after she was gored by “an unhappy milking cow” a few years ago and is “a little nervous around large animals.
“I think it has a place,” she says, “but it’s not something I think I’ll get into. I’m not interested in operating on the scale where it would make sense” — especially because of year-round feeding requirements.
What she is interested in is working toward her long-range goal of building bike-powered farm tools that let her farm more efficiently and ergonomically, but without the kind of large, heavy tractor that burns fossil fuels.
“My goal isn’t just that I get to use bikes, but also to get people to rethink our transportation system and how we use things,” says Converse, who may seek a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant or launch a Kickstarter campaign to help her build the equipment that she admits is “mostly up here,” pointing to her head. “Our country’s so invested fossil fuels, it seems impossible to do it any other way, for a lot of people. But if more people started thinking about this and supported alternative systems, I really do think it can be a viable option.”