With light rain coming down, a group of five bicyclists pedaled 30 miles on Saturday and toured a cross-section of Skagit County's agricultural economy: a small organic farm, a maltster, a brewery, a tulip farm, and a restaurant that sources local ingredients. 

The Bike Northwest "Tulips & Beer" tour was hosted by Experience International, a Bellingham-based nonprofit. 

Since its founding in 1988, the organization has primarily facilitated international cultural and technical exchange programs in agriculture and natural resources.

Experience International founder Charlie Walkinshaw said the COVID-19 pandemic's shutdown of global travel forced the nonprofit to postpone its international programs. The group came up with a new program called Bike Northwest to highlight the agriculture, culture and ecology of the Pacific Northwest.

“(The pandemic) has given us the opportunity to come home and partner with organizations, businesses and individuals who are working in the agriculture and natural resources sector, and to do it in a safe, socially conscious and socially distanced way," he said.

Saturday's tour in Skagit County was Bike Northwest's inaugural tour. Stops included Blanchard Mountain Farm, Skagit Valley Malting, Garden Path Fermentation, Tulip Town and Terramar Brewstillery.

"Our mission for today is how much we can discover about the Skagit Valley," Connor Harron, director of Bike Northwest, told participants Saturday morning at Blanchard Mountain Farm in Bow.

Blanchard Mountain co-owners Walter Brodie and Linda Versage purchased the 20-acre Bow property in 2013 and had their first full growing season in 2017.

Versage told the group the farm grows organic mixed vegetables and herbs, with a focus on ingredients found in Italian cooking. She said the farm sells its produce at an on-site farm stand and to area restaurants.

Versage explained the steps the farm takes to build soil quality, such as planting cover crops, which helps return nutrients to the soil and suppress weeds.

She said after the couple purchased the property, they removed invasive blackberry plants and replaced them with red-flowering currants, a native plant that attracts native pollinators. She said native species are superior pollinators for crops. 

During the tour, Versage cut and handed out samples of lovage, an herb in the parsley family. She said the herb is a high-value crop for the farm and popular with area restaurants for making cocktails.

"Maybe you'll get a crop cocktail with one of these today," she said. 

Tina and Tim Green of Bellingham were two participants on the tour. Tina Green said the two try to eat at restaurants that use and promote local products, and signed up for the bike tour to get a closer look at where those ingredients come from.

"We love seeing the unique and beautiful farms," she said. "By car you miss a lot." 

Versage and Brodie, who both have spent careers in education, have incorporated a classroom on their farm and offered educational activities before the pandemic. 

"One of the reasons we started the farm was to help teach people where their food comes from, and educate people on what it takes to grow food," Versage said.

She said experiences like Saturday's bike tour help increase awareness of farms in the area.

"It can connect people to farms and they come back and want to buy produce," she said.

Bike Northwest has upcoming one- and two-day bike tours over the spring and summer exploring the area's agriculture and ecology.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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