Exploring sustainable agriculture and land use in Wisconsin by bike!

As of November 2022, the world needs to feed 8 billion people (https://www.worldometers.info/world-population).  This is a daunting task made more complicated by climate change, soil loss, and the social justice issues associated with industrial farming.  A few years ago I rode my bicycle from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ithaca, New York.  This trip brought the depth and complexity of these problems into focus for me.  Pedaling through the countryside at a leisurely pace allowed me to see and reflect on why and how people use the land.  On one hand, we hear that the planet is struggling to feed its 8 billion people — but I saw acres of cropland used to grow corn for biofuel, to feed livestock, and make high fructose corn syrup.  None of which feeds people directly, or at all.

Today, more than 40% of land in Wisconsin is devoted to agriculture and more than 50% of that is devoted to corn (USDA 2021).  Of the corn that is grown here, the majority is used for biofuel with livestock feed next in line.  Only 1% of the corn grown in Wisconsin is fed directly to humans as sweet corn (wicorn.org).  In addition to miles of monocropped corn, I saw acres of lawn that were void of biodiversity, fed a steady diet of chemicals, and mowed with fossil-fuel powered machines.  If only they had been gardens.

Even though the majority of our students have grown up in the agricultural landscape of Wisconsin, and many have grown up in homes carved out of agricultural land, these issues generally seem far away and food is often taken for granted.  But while these problems are local, how we deal with them has global implications.  I want students to have the same eye-opening experience I had on my ride to New York and explore the complexities of our food system by embedding themselves in the landscape.  Thus, I propose an immersive, high-impact course that will allow students to explore, via bicycle, the environmental and social impacts of various forms of agriculture and uncover the innovative ways that some farmers in Wisconsin are attempting to reshape our food system.

This will be an eight-week summer course where students pedal around Wisconsin and learn about our state’s agricultural systems and immerse themselves in land use in their own backyard.  This course will be primarily developed by me but will be taught and led in collaboration with the Campus Sustainability Director and the Assistant Director of Programs for the Student Rec and Wellness Center.  At the moment, the first four weeks will be a 1-credit course through Physical Education and the second four weeks will be a 3-credit Environmental Studies course.  The 1-credit PhyEd course will take place in Oshkosh; we will run weekly clinics where students will learn basic bike maintenance, talk about bike and camping gear, and go on training rides.  The CSD and I will interject academic discussions into this period but the focus will be physical preparation.  Weeks 5-7 will be spent biking around the state talking to various stakeholders who see agriculture from a diversity of perspectives.  We will be camping in public campgrounds and, hopefully, on host farms as we travel around the state.  Week 8 will be back in Oshkosh and spent reflecting on our experiences and connecting food issues in Wisconsin to those around the world.

Not only is cycling an intimate way to see the land, it is physically and mentally rewarding.  The fact that cycling is good for physical health is self-evident.  Research has also shown, however, that cycling is good for mental health.  One study found that commuters who cycled to work were less stressed than those who drove (Brutus et al. 2017).  In another study, individuals being treated for depression saw a decline in stress hormones after just 15 minutes on a stationary bike (Ida et al. 2013).  A third study examined coping mechanisms for anger and depression in youth and found that bike riding was associated with decreased likelihood of depression (Goodwin 2006).

Issues such as the global food crisis, especially when coupled with climate change, can induce severe levels of anxiety and depression (termed eco-grief) in young people who are inheriting these overwhelming problems.  Ultimately, this class will provide the students with lifelong skills that will help them take care of the planet and take care of themselves.