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Going the Distance for Sustainable Agriculture

A couple weeks after she receives her Vassar diploma, Caitrin Hall ’13 will enroll in a “graduate school” that’s about 3,000 miles long.

Hall and a longtime friend will tour the country on their bicycles, meeting dozens of organic farmers and conservationists and chronicling their travels on their own website. They plan to leave June 1 and end the trip in San Francisco in late August.

Hall and her friend Lake Buckley, a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio, hatched the idea for the bike tour when they were discussing career plans last year. Both are involved in farming and sustainability projects at college, so they decided to visit some organic farms during a cross-country car trip from their hometowns in Marin County, California, to Oberlin and Vassar. “We were both studying these issues at college, but during that trip, we were blown away by how much we didn’t know,” Hall says.

Since they’re both avid cyclists, they decided to launch their post-graduate studies visiting farms, food cooperatives, and sustainability activists across the country, a few miles at a time. They’ll post videos of interviews with the people they meet and write blogs on what they’ve learned on their website (

“I think we both see the trip as a way of crystallizing where we want to go and what we want to do when we leave college,” Hall says. “We’ll be asking farmers about the struggles they’ve encountered and the solutions they’ve found to make their farms sustainable.”

Hall and Buckley are particularly interested in visiting farms run by women, who are joining the agriculture community in growing numbers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of female-owned farms in the country has increased by more than 30 percent in the past decade, Hall notes. “We want to hear more from these women about one of the most important issues of our time: our broken industrial food complex,” she continues. “We have a lot to learn from them about how to live on a finite planet.”

Hall and Buckley have arranged to stay overnight at several farms along the way, and they’ve lined up other lodging at campsites and private homes. Hall says she found a website for long-distance bikers, “showing where you can take warm showers along your route, and we’ve researched that extensively.”

Hall says planning for the trip has been a team effort. She and Buckley have sought advice from faculty and students at Oberlin and Vassar as they decide on what issues to explore and what questions to ask. Hall has consulted with her advisor, anthropology professor Candice Lowe Swift, and environmental studies professor Paul Kane as well as fellow senior Meghan McDermott, a member of Slow Food Vassar, and other students from Vassar Greens, a campus environmental group. She is also working with Vassar’s Sustainability Committee and Alistair Hall ’11 (no relation to Caitrin), the college’s assistant for sustainability affairs.

“We’ll be asking questions like, ‘How do you do what you do? How do you preserve the land, grow food in a healthy way, and market your products?’” she says.

While Hall has been a cyclist for most of her life, this will be her first long-distance trip. She says she’s been “living in the gym lately, riding the stationary bike and lifting weights,” and she and Buckley have solicited donations from bicycle shops for spare tires and other gear they’ll need along the way.

While their mode of transportation is certain to present some daunting challenges, Hall says she and Buckley want to make a statement about the importance of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. “As an ecologically mindful, actively engaged, and socially concerned project, Shifting Gears strives to embody the real ethics of change,” she says. “We believe this combination of adventure and responsibility embodies what it means to be truly active.”

--Larry Hertz


Photos © Vassar College-Buck Lewis