Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hunt For "All Natural": Navigating Food Labels

There is no denying that it is more difficult than ever to be truly aware of what we are eating. Reading nutrition labels can be an exercise in frustration, to say the least.

It doesn't help that the food industry takes labels that were originally designed to help consumers make more conscious, informed decisions about their food, and uses them to tart up less than desirable products. Terms like "grass-fed" or "cage free" are often peddled by those who are more interested in getting their slice of the growing organic sector than in actually selling grass-fed or cage free foods, which take considerably more money, effort and time to grow/raise than their conventional counterparts.*

A major part of the problem is that these terms, by and large, are not backed up by any government regulations. And even if the USDA or FDA have defined a term, there are usually some gaping loopholes.

Take, for example, the word "natural". According to Marion Nestle, the FDA has a definition dating back to 1993. According to the FDA, in order to be considered "natural" the food must not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. As Nestle points out, this means that products like high fructose corn syrup are considered "natural".

Take this as an example. A few weeks ago, I found this "natural" product in the aisle of an organic grocery store in Washington DC:

Turn the bottle over, and what did I see?

Hate to break it to you, guys, but real maple syrup comes out of trees. With organic corn syrup as their first ingredient, I fail to see how this product is "the natural choice", as they claim on the front of the bottle.

This is but one example of a company using such a term in a less-than-appropriate way. So while the folks over at Shady Maple Farms might put a horse-drawn sled cavorting through a snowy maple grove on their bottle, and while the FDA can claim that they are following the letter of the law, I very much question whether their use "natural" is really all that accurate. Not to mention, I'd love to see the "farm" that makes anything with corn syrup as its base. Somehow, I doubt it looks anything like the bucolic scene displayed above.

This is why reading nutrition information is so important, instead of blindly taking everything that's printed on the label at face value.

That being said, Animal Welfare Approved (or AWA) has put out a comprehensive food labeling guide called Food Labels for Dummies, which is available on their website to download for free. Having a good grasp on what food labels and terms you're likely to see, and whether they really mean what they say, is an important first step to understanding exactly what it is we're eating.

So what does all this mean? It means that today, it is harder than ever to be a conscious consumer - if you're buying from grocery stores, that is. In my opinion, the easiest and most conscious way to be sure you're eating food that was raised the way you want it - whether that's organically, free range, "all natural", or what have you - is to grow it yourself or to purchase your food directly from the farmer, either at a farmers market or by purchasing a CSA share.

That doesn't mean that it makes you a terrible person to buy food from a grocery store. It just takes a lot more work to find out where your food came from.

*It's not dissimilar to the fate of the term "gourmet", which once upon a time meant that something was of exceptionally high quality. Now? Not so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Hello all. It has been a few weeks - and quite an action-packed few weeks, chock full of holiday goodness, job hunting, and the ever enjoyable task of whittling away at the small mountain of my childhood stuff.

2011 is coming to a close. Rapidly. It's been a year of enormous change - for me, and for my family. Both my grandmothers and my great grandmother passed away. My grandfather is losing ground with his health, and fast. My mom accepted a job in Atlanta, which means that my childhood home will soon no longer be available to me. On a practical level, that means I need to move my butt and all my belongings somewhere in the next year (the timing for grad school couldn't be better), but on an emotional level... well, I've been avoiding thinking about it, to be honest.

But then, I've also learned so much about farming and food. I've learned about what I want to do, where I want to go, and who I want to be. And miracle of miracles! I fell in love. Didn't see that one coming.

I have yet to make any resolutions for 2012. Frankly, I've never been so great at that. I think I'd do much better to continue what I've started this year - writing this blog, for example.

So my resolution - such as it may be - is to improve my blog. I've been nursing a few ideas with that in mind.

Pictures. Lots of 'em.
With my shiny, (almost) new dSLR strapped to my back, this should be no problem. Or so one hopes.

Updating once a week, at least, should be a good baseline.

Finding my focus.
In 2011, I worked on a farm. Plenty of fodder right there. (Like the pun? Thank you, thank you.) But it looks like that is not what I'll be doing in 2012 - not unless I end up WWOOF-ing, at any rate. So what direction will I be taking this blog? Food policy? Recipes? Articles and interviews showcasing local food and local farms? Documentation of my own bumbling attempts to "live green"? Or some combination thereof? (Of course, the question is somewhat moot until I find out where I'll be and what I'll be doing between January and August... but another goal is to have that figured out quite soon.)

Anyways, these are the directions in which my mind currently wanders. I would greatly appreciate any ideas and/or feedback from those of you who check this blog out periodically.

A happy new year to all - I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back To Square One. Again.

What does a head of cabbage have to do with job searching, you ask? Absolutely nothing.

Hello all. It's been a couple weeks... and what an eventful two weeks it has been, between Thanksgiving, helping my parents do some home renovation work, and excavating my pit of a room as Step One of the "I'm Going to Grad School Next Year and Need to Move Out" plan*...all of which helped to distract me from the email I got right after arriving home.

The email, from the Sieberts of Clear Spring Creamery fame (remember them?) basically told me that while they like me, they can't afford to have a full-time, paid intern who will be leaving in August. They did offer me an unpaid but full room/board sort of situation - not unlike being a WWOOF-er - for a few days a week, which would allow me to find a part-time job off farm. It's not ideal, but what is?

It is, however, a plan fully dependent on my ability to find some sort of part time work. Which I definitely could, but I am picky, and I'm the first to admit it. Also, said part time work would likely be in Baltimore or DC, which would be a lot of driving.

This is unfortunately the same story I've heard from multiple farms - "We'd like to hire you, but we need someone here the full season. Sorry." So while I'm not totally back at Square One... I'm sort of back at Square One.Which has me re-evaluating my situation. After some thought, I've come up with the following three options:

Continue the Farm Search
Just because I keep coming up empty doesn't mean it will happen forever. I actually sent in a farm application just this morning. Who knows? It never hurts.

WWOOF-ing Galore
Not gonna lie... I find this a very attractive idea. It gives me the chance to travel around, to work on a variety of different farms, meet a ton of people, and to continue learning. It allows me to be as flexible as I want with my schedule, which is handy. And wonder of wonders... one of my AmeriCorps friends emailed me just yesterday asking if I'd like to WWOOF with her in California for a month, starting in late January. Serendipity? Perhaps.

There are some cons, however. A big one is money. I saved a few thousand this past year, which is not too shabby, but I was planning on keeping it back for grad school. So before I go haring off into the Wide World of WWOOF, I will need to do some calculating and some budgeting.

Another con is that, in an ideal world, I'd like to stick close to DC for (ahem) personal reasons. At any rate, the idea bears some thought.

Other Job Options
Although farm work is pretty high on my list of what I'd like to do, there are a lot of other opportunities out there that could be very valuable learning experiences. There's a lot to be said for working in a nonprofit or for an agency where I can learn about grassroots organizing, the legislative process, media/communications work, or other skills useful for advocacy.

I've been checking Idealist and Good Food Jobs regularly for internship opportunities - sent in two applications this morning, as a matter of fact. A lot of those jobs happen to be unpaid, however, and if I'm going to be unpaid, it will be while WWOOF-ing.

So that is where I am. Updates to follow, of course. And any thoughts or ideas are appreciated, naturally.

*No judgment, please. I have 25 years worth of stuff in there.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Comparing Apples and Egg Yolks: Why Organic Food Costs More

As some of you may recall, a few weeks ago I attended the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference in Washington, DC. I attended sections in Food and Nutrition with names like "Farm To School Implementation," "Principles for a Healthy, Sustainable Food System," and "Farmers Markets & Fresh Produce in Urban, Underserved Communities".

Something I realized over the course of the conference was that the word "organic" was scarcely being used.* This surprised me. Given the many public health issues associated with problems like pesticide use and antibiotic resistance, I'd thought that conversation about organic agriculture would definitely be on the table.

I started to get a clue why this was the case when I talked to a woman from The Food Trust, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that works to increase fresh produce availability by creating farmers markets throughout the city. She told me that the farmers are conventional, because organic food would cost too much.

The idea that organic food is prohibitively expensive is a common one. Yes, it does cost more. And no doubt there are farmers out there who over-charge because they have customers in big cities they know will pay those prices. But overall, there are good reasons that organic food is a little more costly.

First of all, quality is an enormous factor. Organic and conventional foods are completely different products in that respect. An organic apple and a conventional apple are not the same, nor is a conventional chicken at all similar to a pastured, free-range chicken. There are fundamental nutritional differences - pastured animals have higher levels of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids and beta-carotene. Just compare the yolks of a grocery store egg and an organic, pastured egg - the color difference is astonishing. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan points out that by selecting produce for larger, higher producing, and more shelf stable specimens, the amount of nutrients in the produce has decreased dramatically. He says, for example, that an apple from the 1940s had three times the amount of iron as a conventionally grown apple today.

The costs of growing organically are also higher than conventional agriculture - it takes more time and more labor to be organic. (Anyone who has spent four hours hand-weeding can tell you that much.) An organic farmer who charged conventional prices would be out of work in short order. Additionally, organic certification is an expensive undertaking - farmers have to pay fees that can add up to thousands of dollars to organic certification agencies, not to mention the time they must spend organizing and filling out paperwork.

There are deeper reasons I think we're unwilling to pay extra for food in this country. Americans only spent on average 10% of their income on food in 2009, compared with 22% in 1949.We have a skewed idea of food cost due to our food production system, which externalizes costs to taxpayers in the forms of health care, workers' rights, and environmental sustainability.

When you break down the costs of organic foods to serving size amounts, it may surprise you. Check out this economic breakdown of a $100 turkey, for example - she estimates a $1.25 serving size cost when all is said and done. A $4 bunch of beets is also about $1.25 per serving. A half pound bag of lettuce mix at $6 a bag? For eight people, that's less than a dollar per serving. A soda, on the other hand, costs $1.50. A Big Mac is $4. Frankly, I call shenanigans on anyone who regularly spends $5 on a latte at Starbucks but says they can't afford fresh, local, organic produce.

Buying local/organic food does not have to cost that much. It can and should be affordable. And the best way to make it affordable is to purchase your food directly from the farmer, either through a CSA or at a farmers market.

*Of course, there are all kinds of issues about the use of the word "organic". Not all organic food is created equal - compare "industrial organic" farms in California to small, local family operations in your area. A lot of farms aren't certified organic because of the expense and the bureaucracy it involves, but if you take the time to talk to your farmers, you will often find that they do grow everything organically.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Crunching Numbers

I found myself today in the unprecedented position of not having anywhere I needed to be. Weird, right? I'm always running around doing something. I didn't like the feeling, so I gave myself a homework assignment.

Specifically, I was curious what I did with my money this year. Now, $200 a week isn't an enormous amount, I know. But with room and board included, it's more than enough for me to have a little fun on the side.

The above graph isn't 100% accurate - I had to withdraw from savings to pay for car repairs, for example. The "Savings" slice also includes the money I set aside for my new phone and camera. But I think it's a close enough approximation.

Of course, that's for the whole year. When you break it down into the first four months and the last four months, it gets even more interesting.

There are a few reasons for the discrepancies here. For one thing, I started traveling a lot more to Washington DC in the second half of the year, which accounts for the higher car, ATM and grocery costs. The huge difference in "Shopping" can be attributed to my $650 camera. As for "Entertainment and Travel," that is probably due to my two trips to Indiana and Kansas back in April/May.

So what does this all mean? I really don't know. To be honest, it's more than I thought I would spend over the course of my farm internship. But the added and unexpected expenses of flights, car repairs, and a new camera certainly skewed things in that direction. However, I also saved fully half of what I made this year, which is not too shabby.

Of course, a lot of the "little" purchases - Goodwill runs, books, cups of coffee - certainly add up. That could be something to tackle in the future. It will be something to think about as I head home this week, since I won't have any income for a few months and it will probably be a challenge to avoid hemorrhaging money. 

So what tools do you use to be financially responsible? Any tips for next year?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Visiting Farms 101

Hello again, dear blog. The last three weeks have been a whirlwind. I spent two weeks in Washington DC, drove up to Boston for an extended weekend, and have been in Perryville, Maryland for the last two days, where I attended the awards ceremony and graduation for NCCC's Class XVII. There were lots of friends to see, unending beers to drink, many miles to drive, countless Fresh Air interviews to keep me company on the road, and far too few hours spent sleeping. It was, in short, amazing.

It hasn't all been partying hard with old friends, though. Last week, I visited three farms in the DC area to interview for apprenticeships next year.

See, here's the thing: I can only work through the end of July, since I should be starting grad school in late August, pending my acceptance. That makes finding a farm job a little awkward, to say the least. No one wants a worker who will leave right when the harvest is ready. So as I started my search, I kept that in mind. In the end, I had interviews with three farms: Clear Spring Creamery in Clear Spring, Maryland; Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland; and Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia.

Clear Spring Creamery is a small family operation run by Mark and Clare Siebert. They have about forty milk cows, which are a mixture of Jersey and Holstein. They took me for a tour around the farm, which has been in Mark's family for more than a century. Housing is a camper with a full bed, a bathroom and shower, and a kitchen (although the stove doesn't work). Meals can be on your own or with the family (they have two kids, 10 and 13).

The day is about half farm work and half in the creamery, pasteurizing, bottling, and making cheese and yogurt. I got to try some of their milk, cheese and yogurt, and all of it was quite delicious. Interns get two full days off, usually Sunday and Monday.

The farm itself is quite nice, but the surrounding area doesn't have a whole lot. There is hiking nearby - the Appalachian Trail is about twenty-five miles away, for example. And DC is just a two hour drive.

Overall, I liked Mark and Clare a ton. They were incredibly personable, and answered my rapid-fire questions without batting an eye. They get 100% of their income from the farm, and I think I would get an in-depth look into not only the business of running a small farm, but also the ins and outs of working with government agencies and all the accompanying bureaucratic shenanigans. They also attend three farmers markets, so I would get more experience in that aspect of farm work.

Whitmore Farm focuses on animal husbandry, and has a very diverse operation with chickens (layers and broilers), rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats. Almost all their livestock are heritage breeds, including fainting goats. Sadly, I didn't get to see them. (YouTube them if you haven't already.) One really cool thing about this farm is that they do their own breeding, rather than buying chicks or stockers from an outside source. They also do a little bit of vegetable production.

The housing was a beautiful old home that Will and Ken, the owners, restored a few years ago. Interns get their own rooms and share a bathroom. The area is pretty rural, but being Maryland, you don't have to drive too far to find something.

Ken works full time off-farm, however, which makes me a little leery, since I specifically want to learn more about the business of making a farm profitable. Additionally, Will described their meat products to me as "boutique" and quite high priced. The question of how to price organic products is something I think a lot about, and while I think there is definitely a place for products like this, it's not what I'd like to focus on. I see my farm jobs as much or more about educating myself as being employed, and I believe firmly that organic food can and should be affordable for the majority of people out there.

Additionally, Will told me that they might stop doing their only farmers market and switch to entirely wholesale to high end restaurants next year. While the farm, the housing and the people were all very nice and while Ken and Will are running their farm in a very sound and ecologically friendly way, I don't think this is the farm for me. It's just too different from the food system I want to learn about and work in.

Waterpenny Farm happens to be just half an hour up the road from Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I worked this past year, and is run by a couple by the names of Eric and Rachel. They specialize in vegetable production, and get 100% of their income from farmers markets, CSA shares, and on-farm sales. They're also very open about the financial aspect of their farm, and I know I could get an excellent education about the business of running a farm and running it well.

Housing is a house that I would share with the other five interns, complete with kitchen and two bathrooms. I would only get one and a half days off, and they probably wouldn't be back-to-back, which would be problematic for visits to DC. Also, my leaving at the end of July would be more problematic for this farm than the other two, since they're entirely vegetable production and late summer is their busiest time.

Other than the farm itself, which is great, one thing I love about Waterpenny is the surrounding area. Sperryville is a fantastic little artistic community pretty much entirely comprised of local businesses - not a chain in sight. Also, Shenandoah National Park is just a few minutes' drive away. Unfortunately, however, I do not get a lick of phone service there, which - not gonna lie - would be a little difficult for me.

So. What does all this mean? All three farms would be a good experience, and I'm especially drawn to Clear Spring Creamery and Waterpenny Farm. I can expect to hear back from them in January, pretty much across the board. In the meantime, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for other farms where I can apply.

In the meantime, I'll be heading back to Indiana next week for the holidays, applying to grad school, and cooking my little tushie off. Expect lots of pictures of baked goods in the upcoming weeks.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The First Post-Farm Update

Hello again, dear readers. If you thought I would stop posting after my teary-eyed farm farewell, you are mistaken.

I've spent most of this week attending the American Public Health Association Conference in Washington D.C. I am now a new member of the APHA, thanks to my lovely mother, who is a long-time member of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs section. I, on the other hand, attended sessions in the Food and Nutrition department.

I won't go into a ton of detail yet - there will be exciting Public Health posts soon enough! - but I did learn a lot, met some people, and pulled some interesting conjectures out of the whole business.

A quick review of what's coming up for me: Next week, I will be visiting/interviewing with at least two farms, possibly three, for apprenticeships next year. Those farms are Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia; Clear Springs Dairy in Clear Springs, Maryland; and Whitmore Farm in Frederick County, Maryland.

After that, I'll be popping up to Boston to visit family and friends, and then heading home by way of DC. I'll try to post a time or two, but it might be a couple weeks before anyone hears from me.

So stay tuned, gentle readers. This ride ain't over yet.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Goodbye, Farm. Hello, Rest Of Life.

Tomorrow is my last day at Brightwood Vineyard and Farm as an intern. Once evening arrives and my car is packed, I'll be driving to Washington D.C., where I'm attending the American Public Health Association conference next week. After that, I'll indulge in visiting friends on the East Coast, and then head back to Indiana for the holidays.

The end of an adventure is always bittersweet. I've enjoyed this year so much. Susan and Dean have been unstintingly gracious and kind, Autumn and Brian have been amazing co-workers and friends, and I've learned an incredible amount about farming, food, and myself. (Sorry, I know that's cheesy. But true.)

This experience hasn't been without its hardships, though. For one thing, I've had to cope with being the most ignorant person on the crew. When I got here, I didn't know a damn thing about gardening, farming, or agriculture. It's never easy for me to admit to myself that I don't know what I'm doing - is it easy for anyone, I wonder? - but I chugged along, and improved steadily. Whatever farm I find myself on in the future, at least I won't feel quite so stupid and ill-prepared.

More notably, I've had three deaths in my family since this time last year. I've had to deal with my own personal demons on that score, on top of the ever-present cloud of my own curious insecurities. (One memorable day comes to mind, when I was harvesting by myself and sobbed nonstop for an entire two hours, blowing my nose on my shirt as the goat bucks looked on with a nonchalant curiosity tinged with wondering when I would get around to feeding them.) Something I didn't expect, however, was that being on a farm would help me cope with losing some of the people dearest to me. I wrote an entry about it at the time, but since then I've taken part in the circle of farm life myself, killing and eviscerating chickens on my own.

That's perhaps one of the best parts of being on a farm for an entire season - being witness to the cycles that occur here over time, from washing chicken eggs to processing old layers, from watching baby animals grow up to picking up lamb meat from the butcher. Experiencing closely the progression of seasons, the change in the grasses and depth of the river, the temperature and humidity at night as I laid in my tent. And there's something weirdly symbolic, too, about ripping out tomato plants that you planted yourself and harvested for weeks on end while your skin burned and your hands turned green. I wish I could watch over the next few years and experience the even wider circles that I have sensed, but have yet to see.

I have the feeling that certain thoughts and opinions and ideas have solidified within me this year that I'm only now beginning to understand. One of them caught me completely by surprise this afternoon, when I was doing some last-minute errands. Being woefully unprepared in the sartorial department for this conference next week (Business casual? Puh-lease.), I've been stalking the racks at Goodwill for the last several weekends and have managed to accumulate a few outfits that at the very least don't sport the remnants of chicken poop. But even if I could buy tights second hand, I wouldn't. So today I ran to Target for that purpose.

I was, to put it mildly, pretty uncomfortable. As I walked along the rows of cosmetic supplies and clothes and DVDs, I realized how completely incompatible shopping at a Target has been with my lifestyle this year. The whole idea behind farming is to produce something that you and your neighbors can use. The whole idea when you go to Target is to indulge in orgasmic consumerism. Being there made me realize how important reusing and recycling has become to me - not just when it comes to making compost out of vegetable waste, but in my choices as a consumer. And when I was done, I felt none of the temporary satisfaction that making a purchase once gave me. I was just glad to get out of the parking lot.

Perhaps even more surprising to me has been the realization that I could see myself farming one day. When I began this internship, that was the furthest thing from my mind. I saw working on a farm purely as a learning experience, a sort of hands-on aspect of my upcoming graduate studies, and a way to learn the issues facing today's small family farm. That still holds true, but now I ask myself questions like, "How would I do this if it were my farm?" It doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility, at any rate.

The truth is, working on this farm feeds my soul. I'm even tempted to say that it has given me a sense of spirituality that I've never felt before. I don't know what it is - the smell of soil, feeling the sun on the back of my neck, the heft of a shovel - but I've never felt more alive, or more at peace.

There will things I won't miss, I guess. It will be nice to finally be able to sleep in as late as I please. I can't wait to wear clothes that don't have stains from five different kinds of animal poop. It will be an absolute pleasure not to shake out my jeans in the morning and watch five stink bugs fall out. I'm practically panting in anticipation of the day when I look outside at the terrible weather, and know that I don't have to go work in it. I'm looking forward to seeing my family and friends, to using a shower that doesn't flood and lightly electrocute me when I touch the handle, to doing nothing but read bad fantasy novels for four consecutive days.

But, man. I sure am going to miss this farm.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Goblins, Ghouls and Garlic

Since it's that time of year where vampires take center stage, I thought garlic would be a pertinent subject. And it just so happens that we planted 2.5 rows of it this this week. What serendipity!

Garlic has got to be one of the easiest crops in the history of putting things in the ground and watching them grow. You take a clove, bury it about three or four inches down, and leave it over the winter... and voila! By spring, you have an entire head of garlic that you pull out, cure, and can store for what seems like an unending period of time.

I'm simplifying things a teensy bit, of course. But garlic is actually very easy, requires fairly little maintenance once the planting is done*, and if it is cured correctly, it won't go bad for a long, long time. Compared with pretty much any other crop, garlic is just about scraping the bottom of the "I need constant supervision" chain.

Of course, you do have to plant the garlic first. And that can be quite a process.

First, you start with a head of garlic.

Every head of garlic comes with many cloves. Each clove, if planted, can produce another head of garlic. You want a head that is plump, with fairly large, well-formed cloves.

Since you're planting the cloves separately, you have take them apart.

Multiply this by 50 pounds of garlic.**

Once the cloves have all been torn asunder and any rotten ones removed, it is time to plant. In the past, Susan has done this by using the very labor intensive method of digging four trenches in each bed, laying the cloves out, and covering them with dirt. Brian, however, stepped in to save the day.

This device is called a dibbler. Seriously. Brian made it out of scraps in the garage, based on the devise he used last year to plant garlic.

The dibbler is 30 inches across, so it fits our beds perfectly. The pointy bits protruding from the bottom poke holes in the dirt, into which individual garlic cloves fit quite snugly.

One person "dibbles," going ahead of the rest of the crew and dibbling the row with hundreds of tiny holes. Everyone else follows, poking the cloves in and brushing dirt over the top. What could be easier?

Garlic also likes to be mulched, so I guess I know what we'll be doing with the forty bales of hay that arrived this evening.

*If you're growing hard-necked garlic, you do need to watch for scapes, the curly green tendrils that grow in the spring. If you let scapes grow, the garlic will be ruined, but cutting them back sends all that energy back into the bulbs, and THEN you can eat the scapes. What could be better?

**To put this number in perspective: our 50 lbs. of garlic yielded two and a half rows. Our rows are 90 feet long, so that's approximately 225 feet. To put this yet further into perspective, the farm we visited on Tuesday ordered 150 lbs. of garlic. Radical Roots, an organic farm in the valley, also ordered 150. Waterpenny Farm, which I will talk about in a later post, ordered 220 lbs.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Old Rag Revisited

As some of you may recall, the first hike I did when I got here was Old Rag, an 8.8 mile circuit that features a one mile "rock scramble" to the summit, and enjoys a reputation as one of (if not the) most strenuous hikes in Shenandoah National Park.

Old Rag seen from the top of Hawksbill Mountain
On that day in early April, a mere two weeks into my time here, Old Rag kicked my ass. I was sore for three solid days, but riding high on the knowledge that I actually finished the hike.

Last weekend, I decided to hike Old Rag again. I thought it would be a good way to see if the "farm fitness program" actually worked. It was a beautiful day - sunny, cloudless, highs in the low 70's. The fall foliage was promising to pack in the tourists, so I went early and reached the trail head at 9 a.m.

The hike was absolutely stunning, between the blue sky, the purple mountains, and the fiery leaves. I went at the perfect time of day, and passed relatively few people on my hike - far fewer than back in April, actually - which allowed me to enjoy everything in peace.

As for the farm fitness program... all I can say is that it has been a resounding success. I certainly wasn't in poor shape when I started here, but I had to take frequent breathers on my first trip to the summit. This time, I didn't have to take any. (I did stop a few times to take pictures, though.) After, I had a bit of soreness in my upper arms and back, but it was gone a day later.

Perhaps most telling is that I shaved an hour off my total hike time, going from five hours to four.

I'm so pleased with myself, in fact, that I'm going back for thirds tomorrow.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Me Take Pictures

Since my blog was out of commission for the month previous, I thought I'd post a selection of pictures that I've taken in that time for everyone's viewing pleasure. It's sort of but not really in chronological order, and pleasingly arranged by subject.

Stuff around the farm: Every day, it seems like I see something I've seen a hundred times before in a new way, whether that's because of the afternoon light or the morning dew not burning off yet. Sadly, I don't usually have my camera with me at those times, but occasionally I do manage to bring it along.

Hikes: I've gotten over my lethargy, and have been hiking again on occasional weekends. I'm planning a longer entry soon about my latest foray to Shenandoah National Park, so stay tuned, dear readers.

Washington D.C. Botanical Gardens: Went there on my birthday weekend with the boy. I enjoy using my macro function more than a sane person probably should.

Other farms: We went on tours to Maple Hill Farm (which is owned and funded by Dave Matthews, incidentally) and Babes in the Woods, which has free range piggy goodness. I also joined Autumn and Brian one afternoon when they visited an 18 acre farm for sale.

P.S. I saw a recent Facebook post where someone said, "Everyone's a photographer." I guess I resemble that remark somewhat. But I refuse to pretend to be ashamed about it. I like taking pictures, darn it, even if they aren't professional quality or dripping with artistic brilliance. And I can't help but be happy with the improvement that is the result of using nice equipment. SO THERE. Harrumph.