Pedal Power

Freewheeling cyclists keep cargo moving

By Mary A. Nelen | Photos by Nikki Gardner

In a perfect world, food stays close to home and the circle of life is complete when food grown in fields is harvested, consumed, and goes back into the earth as compost. Two groups located on either side of the river work are working together to close this circle.

In summer, food is everywhere in the Pioneer Valley. Rows of asparagus take center stage followed closely by corn. Hand-lettered signs with cheap, right-off-the-farm prices remind us the farther away we drive, the farther we are from the source; prices are higher, freshness is compromised.pedalpeople_6

In winter, two bicycles cross paths on the rise of Elm Street in Northampton. Each is burdened with bulky cargo. One heads into the snow and climbs the hill, inch by snowy inch towards its destination at Smith College. The other sails past in the opposite direction, headed for the landfill on Route 10.

Winter Moon Roots is a solar-powered distribution center for root vegetables grown in the Valley, and an example of an extended-season growing scheme. Multi-hued carrots, fennel, squash, turnips, celeriac, and beets are available all winter long in the Valley at various retail outlets. The Winter Moon Roots farm is owned and operated by Michael Docter, an originator of the Food Bank Farm, also in Hadley. Docter and another rider traverse the Coolidge Bridge twice a week to transport over 500 pounds of food between the chilly months of November through April. Deliveries are made to Smith College Dining Services, followed by Serio’s Market and ending at Cornucopia Foods before the two repair to Amanouz Café for a spot of lunch.

Across the river at Pedal People headquarters, monthly meetings of the co-op’s workers are held to divide the labor to service their Northampton-based clientele. Services include transporting food to individuals and compost to local landfills. Between Docter and the Pedal People, the “Farm to Table” model becomes “Farm to Table to Farm.”

Docter has influenced many people in the Valley in his 30 years as an organic farmer and proponent of localizing the Valley’s food system. Young farmers who got their start working for Docter at Food Bank Farm went on to begin their own CSAs including Mountain View in Easthampton, Next Barn Over in Hadley, and Riverland Farm in Sunderland. One of those young farmers went on to start Pedal People in Florence.

When Ruthy Woodring met Docter, he was grinding corn on a stationary bicycle. Ruthy was also an avid cyclist. Once her company was established, Docter offered to ride for Pedal People and continues to do so on occasion. In addition, the two conferred on the development of an ideal design for hauling items behind a bike.

“Michael checked out our trailer,” said Ruthy. “We [also] had advice from our friend Erin Wheeler who did her Div 3 at Hampshire College on designing bike trailers with Michael’s input.” The first bike trailer was made of conduit. Eventually Winter Moon Roots and Pedal People upgraded to trailers manufactured by Bikes At Work of Ames, Iowa.

Ruthy started Pedal People in 2002 with Alex Jarrett. Together they devised a collaborative business model based on a lifestyle that offers physical exertion and work they believe in.

“We do deliveries for Valley Green Feast [a local food CSA], it’s great to have that cooperative exchange,” says Ruthy. “In addition, we have a contract with the city to pick up all the trash downtown seven days a week. We also make deliveries for a co-op diaper service called Simple Diaper and Linen.”

She adds that rather than depend on the “consume and spend” lifestyle she and her partner decided to build a co-op. “We do all do the hauling as well as the administration,” she says in reference to their monthly group meetings. “One of the joys of the collective is that we can bring in people with various skills.” All of the workers have a have a say in the direction of the collective at their meetings.

Worker-owners own their own bikes and the 12 Pedal People trailers are shared among them. A typical work day lasts four hours and most of the workers are part-time. Needless to say, the work is very physical.

Riding with Pedal People means being able to haul at least 100 pounds for an average of four locations a day. And that doesn’t include the lifting. According to another worker-owner, Will Berney, a typical day involves picking up at four homes, hauling up to 250 pounds to the transfer station, and then doing it again. He enjoys the work and has been doing it for over seven years, taking time off to attend college.

Pedal People services are not limited to hauling waste, recycling, and compost. Individual items such as mattresses, computers, or solar panels are also picked up and brought to one of two local recycling stations. In addition, Pedal People offers yard and garden care services.Their monthly charge for weekly trash pickup for Northampton residents is competitive with other options. The city doesn’t provide trash removal services to citizens so there is a natural market for the innovative service. The ballpark figure for hauling service is quoted on the website as $33.50 per month for weekly pickup and delivery of trash.

Pedal People has grown from two to 17 workers since the collective’s inception. But when it comes to growth, the key to success at Pedal People is not focusing on it.

“We’ve never had pressure from the outside to be anything that we’re not,” says Ruthy. “We try to plan ahead and have some vision to diversify. We’re not trying to increase our profits but we would love to employ more people. We want to make a fair living but we don’t want to own anybody. We let growth happen organically.”

Mary A. Nelen is a writer and photographer who lives in Easthampton and comments on the local food scene at Valleylocavore.com and is writing a book called A to Z Locavore.