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Below is a short reflection by Class of 2019 student Ellen Rose.

On October 27, the first year students of the MFA Products of Design and the MFA Design Research program exchanged their Manhattan classrooms and studios for the vegetable farms, apple orchards and open fields of Washington County, New York.

The retreat marked the launch of the Designing for Sustainability and Resilience course. Co-taught by Claire Hartten and Kate Bakewell, this year's syllabus revolves around food as medicine.

The course aims to instigate our design-research skills, and this retreat served as the basis for that evolution. We immersed ourselves in the subject matter—happily getting our boots muddy— meanwhile, engaging with farmers about their processes and challenges, as well as the ecology and economics of small-scale farming in the context of industrial and globalized food systems.

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The landscape from the window of our Albany/Rensselaer-bound Amtrak train reminded of us of the difference between city and countryside, but also of their close connection and interdependence. My classmates and I were instructed to relax and ponder our changing surroundings during the train ride, which was our first assignment of the trip.

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The food that we ate throughout the weekend all came from farms within a 10-mile radius of where we stayed. We all want to extend a huge thank-you to MFA Products of Design alumna Zena Verda Pesta (Class of 2014) for cooking all our meals—no small task!

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Beets were just coming out of the ground inWashington County, NY, so: borscht!

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Our first dinner of the retreat was hosted in a 19th-century train station, which has been converted into a ‘tasting room’ for local cider mills and community center. We experienced first-hand how food has the power to bring people together, as the meal was shared by SVA students from two different programs, our course instructors, staff member, and local farmers.

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The following day, Ted Blomgren of Windflower Farm showed us some of the awe-inspiring machinery that he employs on his farm. He showed us his weeding plow that his two sons adapted so that it could accommodate different attachments that require different size settings. They also retrofitted a 1940s tractor with an electric motor and hydraulic lift mechanism. These tools showcase the mix of traditional methods and modern technology used on a 21st-century farm.

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We then travelled to Saratoga Apple—an orchard and farm stand in Schuylerville, NY—where we met with founder & owner Nate Darrow. We absorbed Nate’s stories of the realities of running an apple orchard with a seasonal “Pick-Your-Own” offering. As a sixth-generation apple grower, Nate Darrow definitely knows his apples. He can identify an apple type based on look and smell alone. There are over 50 types of apples at his orchards, so that is quite an astounding skill!

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The discussion continued the following day over a hearty brunch consisting of locally-farmed eggs and cheese, along with the apples we had picked the previous day. 

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The Products of Design and Design Research students would like to extend a huge thank-you to Claire and Kate for having the idea—and actually putting it into motion—for thirty people to leave the city and explore the country for “weird and wonderful weekend” (Claire’s words). Thank you Claire and Adam for opening up your homes to the group and offering us a place to rest well and connect with one another. And thank you to Steven, Sue, Ted, Nate and James for graciously sharing your time and expertise. 

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We look forward to continuing our research as we better understand what it means to be a responsible designer in the ‘food space’ and beyond.