Valley Bounty: Pioneer Valley Food Tours
Deborah Christakos founded Pioneer Valley Food Tours in 2017 by transforming her passion for fresh, local food into walking and bicycling food tours. Christakos shares her inspiration: “My husband and I did a bicycle tour in Italy. Since I am not a cyclist, but a trained chef, I insisted there be great food on the tour. We found one that suited us both and planted the seed that bicycle tours are a fantastic way to see an area and experience it with all your senses.”
Moving to the area almost twenty years ago, Christakos immediately tuned in to the availability of food on local farms here. “Small, local farms are front and center if you live here. It struck me right away,” says Christakos. “Of all the places I’ve lived, this area has the best access to farms and the food they produce. I’ve lived in a number of places, including a couple of other countries, and the farms we have here are remarkable,” she added. “CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and the Local Hero campaign is what brings that to the forefront of the community’s awareness.”
The walking tours are an overview of a city’s many shops, restaurants, and food producers who source local ingredients. By contrast, the bike tours go to the source of where food is grown or produced, including farms, vineyards, dairies, or breweries. “You’re really looking at what is grown or made and who is doing that,” Christakos says. “The bike tours vary their location and routes because there are so many wonderful places to bike in the valley.”
The farms that receive guests on the bike tours enjoy that visitors take their time to savor the experience of visiting their farms. Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley is one such destination. Owner Nicole Blum, notes, “My dream vision of the future is where everyone shows up to our farm shop on bike! I know that when I am on a bike, I feel more connected to my surroundings, other cyclists, and am more likely to stop and check something of interest out. People on these bike tours that focus on food and farming are generally curious and engaged – not to mention, rightly impressed with the local food production in our valley. And, we always have something for them to drink, which I know is what everyone on a bike wants.”
Keeping hydrated while cycling takes on new meaning when on a food tour, where stops may include breweries, vineyards, cider houses, and dairies. Mayval Farm sees lots of cyclists in addition to those on Pioneer Valley Food Tours. Margie Parsons, owner of Mayval Farm in Westhampton shares, “We have bikers of all ages stopping by our farm store as we are on a popular bike route through the Hilltowns. Many stop for our chocolate milk, which has gained recognition as a recovery drink. Customers often say it is the best they have ever had!”
To determine the farms for a bike tour, Christakos chooses farms that distribute their products locally. Above all, farmers have to have the time to visit with a tour group. “Farmers are remarkably busy. It has to work for them, or it doesn’t work for me,” Christakos notes. After Christakos chooses the farms, she develops a route.
Christakos works with local bike companies to offer half day tours. Generally, the clients use their own bikes and are casual riders who are more into the food than the biking. The routes are scenic, with flat roads and gentle hills that are suitable for recreational riders. For those wanting a more rigorous ride, Christakos partners with a cycling company out of Boston to offer a full weekend bike touring experience.
“Biking builds your appetite. You get exercise and you can eat along the way,” Christakos shares. On the half-day tours, they stop at two farms and finish with a picnic sourced from a variety of local food producers.
Ryan Voiland, owner of Red Fire Farm on Meadow Road in Montague, reflects on cyclists visiting his farm, “This is a very popular biking route. It’s scenic in general, with views of crops and the river from the road. There are frequent bald eagle sightings. Tours are a special way to sample in-season produce. People get to see and taste what is growing.”
Mary Hamel, owner of Glendale Ridge Vineyard, also receives cyclists at her farm. She adds, “We love having bicycles come through because we believe we’re on one of the most beautiful roads in western Mass. It rolls through on a plateau. We’re happy to have Pioneer Valley Food Tours bring their visitors to our vineyard. This is a particularly beautiful year for the vines, with the recent rain, the vines are lush and green. We welcome all cyclists passing by to stop.”
Christakos concludes, “When I travel related to food and see something unique, whether seeing grapes in Bordeaux or hops growing at Four Star Farms Brewery and then taste something at that place, that taste makes an imprint in my memory that makes the experience last. Food touring by bicycle is a deeply sensory experience.”
Beyond scenery and tasting local foods and drinks along the way, hearing the story of the farms from the farmer is a highlight. Christakos continues, “when you get to meet the farmers and hear about what they do with passion and love, it is irreplaceable.”
Christakos concludes, “The food community here is tightly knit and collaborative. It starts with the farms as the source for all the food operators. CISA has fostered those relationships and supports that culture here in western Massachusetts.”
For more information or to book a food tour, go to the Pioneer Valley Food Tours’ website at pioneervalleyfoodtours.com. To see the grape harvest on weekends at Glendale Ridge, check their social media.
Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms, what’s in season, and where to find it, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.