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A journey across the breadbasket leads back to Georgia

POSTED: April 3, 2011 1:30 a.m.

My first meeting with Justin Ellis took place at an outdoor cafe in Athens. I drove my car there. He pedaled on his bike.

We agreed that our respective rides looked awful. But Ellis had a much better excuse.

He rode 5,000 miles on that very bicycle during a five-month, cross-country trip dedicated to farming. Me, I hopped in the Honda to go to the grocery store less than a football field away.

No comparison in our travel stories, I shut up and let Ellis talk.

"It was one of those mind-blowing experiences that I really enjoyed," he said at the time. "Listening to the stories of farmers, I really feel like (they) have a story to tell. Most people would love to hear those stories, but our culture has gotten out of the habit of hearing them."

Ellis planned his 2006 trip after reading a book. In it, a Buddhist monk professed how much they learned about people during a long bike tour that stretched over vast geography.

As a student with a passion for river ecology, Ellis realized how much agriculture and land use mattered in that discussion. He pledged to discover more about farmers — on his bike.

"The relationship to the people on the land is different once they see you’ve worked hard to get to them," he said.

Ellis started in Virginia and headed west. The flavor of American farming changed by region, by people and sometimes by history.

He witnessed the storied tobacco lands give way to creative endeavors such as wine. He studied how 300-acre family farms graduated into 3,000-acre megas. And he recognized a shift in marketing and growing practices launched by men and women dedicated to "organic."

Ellis also fell in love with the country’s heartland, producer of wheat, corn, grain and soy.

"Everyone I talked to could give you an incredible lesson on something related to agriculture ... without Kansas, we’d be in a lot of trouble," he said.

The people Ellis encountered taught him a thing or two about kindness, too.

"It hardly seems possible that in the course of a few hours I would make such strong connections with total strangers," Ellis wrote in his own travel blog on the trip. "I think it had something to do with the bicycle."

That’s where we disagree.

I can say that now, four years after our original meeting and his unfathomable travel story.

Since that time, Ellis moved to Habersham County to resume his ecology work as executive director of the Soque River Watershed Association. I moved, too.

But our paths only crossed about two months ago when I was assigned to cover the nonprofit at work.

The day-long event focused on the watery landscape that makes Habersham County unique.

Ellis and his team discussed the erosion of streams, mainly, and their protection. They broke complicated natural science into digestible information.

People arrived early, stayed late and listened hard.

Among them, a once doubtful farmer. Lamar Whiting possessed family land they worked for decades; land that has changed in the wake of development.

The stream has eroded into a mess.

Ellis, as coordinator of the nonprofit’s alliance, helped convince the man to consider natural protection.

"They’re trying to help me do more of a project than I planned to do," Whiting said, at the time. "We’ll see what happens."

That’s a credit to Ellis, no matter his mode of transportation.

His open way with men and women throughout Habersham County has led to a partnership made up of 20 or more organizations. The goal: to improve water quality.

For such diligence, the Georgia River Network named the Soque association Ellis leads as its watershed group of the year. The honor seems fitting.

"We are thrilled about this award and feel that it acknowledges how hard this community as a whole has worked over the last many years to be a leader in watershed protection and environmental sustainability," Ellis said. "The association hasn’t done anything but tap into the resources, talents and enthusiasm that literally hundreds of our partners have poured into some diverse projects."

Erin Rossiter is a reporter for The Times whose columns appear
on Sunday’s Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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