At the end of October, the first year students headed upstate for a 3-day retreat to learn about sustainable food production and to commence their Design for Sustainability and Resilience course. Will Crum wrote a diary throughout for the blog; enjoy his reflections below!
Madison Square Garden, 7:25am
Laden with a backpack and duffle bag, I trudge across 33rd street on 7th avenue and spot my classmate Smruti. She and I are among the first to arrive at our meeting place beneath the blue signs of Madison Square Garden—but our ranks swell quickly.
Sleepy but excited, the class chats in small groups as we wait for the stragglers. Listening to the swelling hum of morning city traffic, we become gradually aware of its impending absence in the country. What will silence sound like?
Penn Station, 8:15am
Less than an hour in, our trip hits its first snag. Our train is delayed indefinitely due to mechanical problems and has yet to arrive in the station. A large line has formed, with PODers comprising a twenty-foot chunk near the end. Amtrak updates are vague and infrequent, and I am among the first to adopt an inventively comfortable position: strewn across twos bags, I catch up on the weekend’s assigned reading (Carolyn Steel’s essay Sitopia). As always, the rest of the class teases—then follows my example.
After several false Amtrak promises and more than an essay’s worth of reading time spent on the floor of Penn Station, I am finally on a train, in a seat, ready to go. At last, we roll out of the station, gaining steam. Albany, here we come!
We are surrounded by a dense fog as we emerge from the tunnel, which obscures the far side of the Hudson River. As we continue north, it begins to rain—hard, but not torrential—and the Perfect Storm For Nap-Time emerges.
I wake up to an idyllic hillside staring back at me across the Hudson, complete with a rust-colored freight train keeping pace across the divide. The rain has cleared, and my decision to sit on the west side of the train is evidently worthwhile.
The main train station in Albany is decidedly smaller than Penn Station. We disembark and quickly meet our teachers-turned-weekend hosts, Claire, Kate and Adam. Eager to eat lunch and get started, we do our best impression of a clown battalion and cram ourselves into two rented vans and Adam’s Subaru.
Riding shotgun in Claire’s van, I soak up some architectural history along the way:
- The city of Troy (adjacent to Albany) has a very similar plan to early Brooklyn, so much so that films set in historic Brooklyn are usually shot in Troy.
- 95% of the buildings in Cambridge are over 200 years old
Windflower Farm, 1:19pm
We roll over colorful hills until we arrive at our first agrarian destination, a fully organic vegetable and cut-flower farm owned and run by Ted Blomgren. We are greeted by fresh mud, more rain, and breathtaking views of the hillsides around us. We rush indoors for a simple lunch of fresh-baked bread, homemade cheese and hard-boiled local eggs. As we stuff our faces, Adam gives the class a streamlined version of his master craft: the art of the interview. No sooner have we finished clearing our plates and jotting down Adam’s tips than we’re putting them to work, as we head downstairs to meet and interview Ted.
Lanky, bespectacled and soft-voiced, Ted looks more like a scholar than the stereotypical farmer—but that’s because he’s both. A first-generation farmer with a knack for innovation and a commitment to learning everything he can to help grow vegetables in a completely natural, chemical-free way, Ted explains the basics of seasonal rotation, how he wards off weeds, disease and pests, and why social media have helped expand his business in New York City.
The sound of rain on the tarp roof above slowly dissipates, so we poke outside to explore the farm. Ted shows us some of the larger machinery and the fields where his last remaining un-harvested greens are. He invites us to “glean” whatever we want, and so classmates split up into scything and gathering teams to harvest fresh greens for dinner. As we work, the sun finally pokes through the curtain of grey, splashing its light across the surrounding hills, teasing out their deeper reds and golds.
Cambridge Food Co-op, 5:15 pm
Having left Windflower Farm, we arrive at the co-op food market in Cambridge, a cozy store in the middle of the village. It’s run by Cory McMillan, a Cambridge native and veteran of the paint distribution industry who now manages the co-op’s staff and inventory. He gives us a quick tour and explains that most customers are also members, meaning they can work four hours a month to get a 15% discount in the store. While small by city standards, the Cambridge co-op has 330 active members—not a bad haul in a village of just over 2,000 people.
With the sky still clear and the town quite small, most of us elect to make the ten-minute walk home to Claire’s.
Claire’s house, 6:15 pm
We arrive at Claire’s and begin to drape ourselves on every soft surface we can find. It’s been a long day of travel and talking—and it’s not over yet. But we take the time between now and dinner to decompress and discuss some of what we’ve seen and heard. As most of us relax, Claire and a few helpers busy themselves in the kitchen, preparing dinner.
Claire’s dinner guests—interesting people in Cambridge—begin to arrive. They show no signs of intimidation at the sheer quantity of students crammed into Claire’s house, and are quickly locked in conversation with scattered groups of us. I had the pleasure of chatting with Steven Sanford, a retired wildlife conservation ecologist—who now expertly crafts his own duck decoys, duck boats and more—and his wife Susan, president of the Cambridge co-op.
Cory from the co-op and his wife Sarah, a teacher and happy transplant to Cambridge, were in attendance, among others. We were also joined by Andy Terry, one of the co-op’s founding members back in 1976. Soon we launched into a broad discussion, ranging from the origin of the co-op to just what gives Cambridge its magic.
The conversation is so rich that dinner has to be reheated a few times before we’re ready for it, but finally a delicious array of sausages (made from pigs raised by local farmer Michael Yezzi), polenta, broth, fresh vegetables and salad is served to all.
After a long day and a long night of conversation, the guests are gone, the dishwasher loaded, and the nine men sleeping at Adam’s house in nearby Salem have piled into two cars to make the twenty-minute trip.
When we arrive, we light both fireplaces and take a quick tour. A former ‘cheese house,’ Adam’s home is essentially two houses in one, with a common ground floor but two disconnected second floors. As the fire’s warmth permeates the old house, we gravitate towards our beds and couches, settling in for the night.
Adam’s house, 9:16 am
I wake up to grey skies and a steady rain. I’m shocked at the time, but realize that our original morning plans to visit a nearby sheep farm must have been scrapped along with the weather. I grab my towel and change of clothes, and head downstairs so I can access the shower on the second floor of the building’s other side.
Dressed and out of the shower, I’m offered tea by Adam, which I gratefully accept. But while he and I are ready for the day, the rest of the men still need to be roused from their beds.
With the troops finally rallied, we hit the road and head back to Claire’s in Cambridge. We arrive in thirty minutes and begin to quickly stuff our faces with scrambled eggs and a hearty oatmeal prepared by our classmates, many of whom have been up since eight.
“Where were you?”, “What took you guys so long?” they ask.
“No one woke us up,” I sheepishly reply. “I think Adam and Claire decided to start late because of the rain,” I add.
The class and instructors then gather to review our syllabus and take inventory of the ingredients we’ll have on-hand when we cook dinner at Adam’s place in the evening. We’re already feeling the pressure, as we’re informed that our guests for the evening will be thinker and writer James Howard Kunstler and Rebecca Sparks.
We ride out from Claire’s; Saratoga Apple is our destination. Along the way we pick up sandwiches from the town deli. Hot ham and cheese never tasted so good! I think it was the sauerkraut. The rain continues to fall.
Saratoga Apple, 3:18pm
Having arrived at the orchard, we take a brief tour of their cider distillery (since it’s a bit too wet out for a trek through the apple trees) before settling into a storage room to chat with the owner, Nate Darrow.
Nate is a lifelong apple farmer from a family of orchard-runners, but he is far from set in his ways. He introduced us to the practical challenges of every way that he has sold apples over the years—wholesaling to supermarket chains; farmer’s markets; selling via “direct-marketing” (i.e. private roadside stands)—and his cultivation process.
His most recent foray is apple-derived products, which he says grant greater room for differentiation due to branding—plus higher margins. Nate notes that “the waters are deep and the fish are big,” with industry powerhouses like Angry Orchard making it difficult for a small-scale distillery to break through. But he’s betting that enough consumers will prefer a product made from organic apples, rather than from inorganic concentrates. It certainly sounds better to me.
After tasting ciders, fresh apples and a few of the best apple cider donuts I’ve ever had, we bid farewell to the Saratoga Apple team and head to Battenkill Valley Creamery, home to what has officially been deemed New York’s Best Milk. Our stop here is brief, as cows are less fun to interact with in the mud and rain. We grab a few gallons of high-quality vanilla ice cream and head to Adam’s house.
It turns out Adam’s house is harder to see than I remembered—with the sun long gone, phones almost dead and in a GPS dead zone, our car takes a few trips up and down the same road before we finally spot his Subaru and pull in.
Adam’s house, 6:30pm
Finally, cooking is underway. The class demonstrates its incredible chemistry by self-organizing into ingredient prep, cooking, and cleaning teams. Our guests arrive and chat with the instructors as veggies are peeled, chopped, sliced, sautéed, baked and fried into a veritable feast. Claire provides the feature dish of the night: pot roast lamb. From the array of squashes, leafy greens, potatoes, cheese, bread, we come up with nine separate dishes. There are even two dessert choices: molasses cookies and apple pie!
At long last, dinner is served. We form a buffet line (guests first, of course), spread ourselves around Adam’s sprawling living room, and dig in.
As eating winds down, we begin our chat with Jim and Rebecca. Jim shares his bleak outlook on our nation’s future, claiming that it’s already too late to save ourselves from the grim outcome of the fossil fuel economy’s impending collapse in the next decade. “Techno-narcissism” has led us to believe that new innovations will make the difference, but he instead anticipates mass emigration and violent collapse of most urban centers.
After our guests and classmates leave, those of us sleeping at Adam’s reflect on Jim’s projections. While our own predictions all differ from one another, we all agree that, as designers, we need a more optimistic perspective than throwing our hands up and waiting for the end to come. Call us techno-narcissists, I guess!
Adam’s house, 7:15am
My alarm sounds and I hop out of bed (making sure not to disturb my bunkmate, Andrew). No one else was interested in the early wake-up, but I plan to get to Claire’s by 8:30 so I can join the group going on a morning tour of the Fortunate Ewe sheep farm, rescheduled from yesterday.
I’m showered, packed, and out the door. Borrowing Claire’s car (which she left behind overnight), I make the solo drive back to Cambridge. In the inescapable irony of every vacation in my life, the last day promises to have the best weather—if the incredible sunrise peeking over sleepy hills is any indication.
In twenty minutes, I’m at Claire’s, sharing oatmeal with the classmates who are also up for the trip. Twenty minutes later, we’re on the road.
We arrive at the farm and meet Jay, a former consultant for General Electric who now owns and operates this small sheep farm. He gives us a quick tour of the barn where the lambs spend their first few months before we trek through a small wood toward the sheep’s meadow. After five minutes of crunching through fallen leaves, we break onto a wide expanse of grassy hillside. In the far corner of the slanted field are two pens of sheep and a truck beside them.
We meet Ashley, Jay’s daughter and one of the chief architects of the project here. She teaches us about the basics of livestock rotation (sheep need to be moved every day or two, or else the parasites living in their excrement have a chance to hatch and jump on the sheep), the role that rotation has on health of the grass and soil filling the hillside, and more. Fortunate Ewe’s mutton and wool business is not large enough to be profitable in its own right, but one of the practical reasons for its existence is the tax breaks the state grants to farming properties in the Hudson Valley. That, and the simple satisfaction Jay and Ashley get from working with their hands while they raise animals in an ethical, sustainable, and natural way.
On our way back through town, we stop by what looks like a red antique carriage in a driveway, with a small line queuing at the other side. Standing inside it is a woman selling some high-quality, home-made doughnuts. Apparently, Claire and Kate had placed a special order with Mrs. King of King Bakery Donut Cart, a hallowed Cambridge institution, so we quickly grab a stack-full of pastry boxes—make one or two special orders—and head back to Claire’s.
Not long after we return to Claire’s and begin feasting on a doughnut brunch, Adam and the sleep-in crew join us. We meet Michael Yezzi, the man of the house and farmer whose pork we ate on Friday night. He returned late last night from his grueling weekly trip to the Union Square Farmer’s Market, where he sells half of his eggs, pork and chicken meat.
After an hour spent working on assignments for other classes (read: taking a nap), we pile into two vans, Adam’s Subaru and Michael’s truck to head to the farm.
We arrive at Flying Pig Farms. Our tour starts in the hut where suckling piglets live with their mothers until they’re big enough to join the rest of the adolescents on the hillside above. As we trek uphill, Michael explains how the pigs are rotated between two massive fields each year to allow the soil to re-seed. Every few weeks, he marshals the pigs from one penned section to another to avoid parasite-related health problems, just like with the sheep we saw earlier.
Claire’s house, 1:51pm
Back at Claire’s, we share lunch with Teri Ptacek, Executive Director of Agricultural Stewardship Association, a non-profit land trust. A land trust is a non-profit organization that buys certain commercial development rights from landowners to safeguard that property’s future use exclusively for farming. Teri explains how land trusts are a civic response to the government’s weak central planning, the field she left behind to manage the farmland in Washington and Rensselaer Counties in the upper Hudson River Valley. In the 14 years she has been in-charge, she has seen the trust grow from 3,000 to 17,000 acres.
Our chat with Teri was cut short by our need to get on the road to Albany—or else miss our train back to NYC. We begin the final performance of our clown car routine and start the hour-long journey to Albany.
Final farewells have been said, and we’re all tucked in on the southbound train. But not long after we leave the station, we stop unexpectedly on the tracks. The conductor sweeps through to explain that the train ahead of ours had a tree fall on it and we had to wait till they could clear the tracks. But in an hour, we are moving again. It seems no Amtrak journey is complete without an unexpected hour-long delay!
Penn Station, 8:00pm
After a train ride filled by group work sessions, necessary naps and one gorgeous sunset, we are back in the Big Apple. We part ways for the night, perhaps not quite ready to see each other back in the studio the next afternoon.