Vanlife Farm Stay: Southwest Virginia

October 19-December 2, 2021

I arrived at the farm after 10 pm. After calling the farmer to find out where I should park and access the buildings, I went to bed. The following day welcomed me with a colorful sunrise–I realized the farm was on a hill overlooking a small valley and a small mountain range in the distance. This would be the first of near-daily beautiful sunrises.

A New On-Farm Routine

The southwest Virginia farm was one part farm with cows and produce, and two parts farm market with a sporting event and wedding catering business. I got to help with all of it. But each day began with cows, or calves, to be more specific. I arrived on the farm just after their first round of calving. The first calves were already weaned and gathered in a dry lot near the buildings. I filled their water troughs each morning and fed them a bit of grain. A week into my stay, I helped during a visit from the vet. The vet and the farmer explained some common health challenges in calves this age and what to look for in the herd. After this, I began daily evaluations of the group while I filled water troughs. 

After caring for calves, I called the farmer to find out my next task. At the start, I was usually in the pumpkin fields picking varying sizes to refill the farm stand, the farm market in town, or to fill an order for a local business, school, or nonprofit. Sometimes, I would help another farmhand with the cows–pregnant cows, dry cows, or cow-calf pairs filled other fields on the farm. From time to time, I’d join a young man named Malachai to check on each area and repair fencing if necessary.

A few times, I also helped at catered events. The farm market was within walking distance to the Virginia Tech campus, and the farmer has strong ties to the school. Many of their catering events included football activities and other sports teams’ needs. They also catered several weddings while I was there. I helped at one on a nearby farm-turned-wedding venue. It was a beautiful property, and the owner was more than happy to share how and why she added the sizable venue space to her farm.

Not All Farm Work Is Created Equal

Some things stand out as more interesting than others. While I enjoyed learning each part of the farm and some of the catering business, I tended to enjoy working with cows and picking produce the best. Other, sometimes “type 2” fun tasks included breaking down last year’s tomato and squash trellis–which meant I had to pull wooden or metal stakes out of the ground and unravel the twine or plastic lattice that held the vine plants. That was fun for the first three hours; then it became “type 2” fun. The less fun part of cleaning up the produce fields was picking up the landscaping plastic from the former rows of plants. It’s stretchy and was brittle after what we believe was two years in the ground. And the soil had been pushed on top of it so much that pulling it up wasn’t a swift motion. It took three to four people nearly two full days to get *most* of it out of the ground. I’m not making any promises that we got all of it.

Another fun job was re-baling hay for customers. When Malachai first explained what the job was, it sounded silly. We were unrolling large round bales of hay made earlier this summer and, with the help of some machinery, remaking that hay into small square bales. After helping with this task on three occasions, I thought–why wouldn’t they just make small square bales to begin with? As usual, 19-year-old Malachai explained the nuisance of the farm. Making small square bales takes more people: one on a tractor driving the baler, and another two or three on a tractor and wagon stacking them. And it takes longer to turn a cutting into small bales, meaning those people would need to work for two or three days. It was hard to find help this summer, especially for labor-intensive tasks like baling hay. Malachai insisted that it was just as, if not more, efficient to make large round bales and re-bale into small squares if they got an order for such.

Body By Farming

At the end of most days, I returned to the farm in time to check on the calves again and top off their water troughs. Later in my stay, a few younger calves were added to a separate dry lot and needed special attention. They were on the small side of healthy, so the farmer sent me a milk replacer bag. It’s a 40 or 50-pound bag of fine powder that smells like sweetened milk. It’s lovely and messy and only mixes well if the water is warm–which was a challenge now that December had arrived and the highs only reached the 40s. I managed to find creative ways to heat the water at the building or bring warm water from the house. Feeding those calves brought a special joy. Unfortunately, some calves had died or were stillborn during my stay. Nevertheless, I was determined to make sure these little calves stayed healthy and put on some “groceries” before winter set in.

Some nights, I could barely find the energy to make or heat dinner (the house had a microwave I could use!) before falling asleep. My body wasn’t used to the strenuous days of picking pumpkins, digging up tomato stakes, and throwing hay bales around. But I did notice strength building over time. By December, I was stronger and more capable than when I arrived in October. 

Looking Back

Highlight: Successfully tube feeding a sick calf that wouldn’t take a bottle of milk replacer. I had watched a vet do it during a Cattlewomen’s training event a week or so before, but I hadn’t ever done it myself. The farmer gave me the green light and watched as I used my mouth as a third hand to steady the bottle, tube, and calf. I got it on the first try and felt so much joy and relief as the hard plastic bottle drained into the calf’s stomach. 

Lowlight: Four days later, the same calf died. It was sick and small and had given up on trying to survive. It didn’t make it to breakfast that morning. I was stunned by the news; it took me longer to process the feelings I experienced than I expected. I know animals die, but this one had been under my care. I felt responsible. Yet, I knew there was little more I could have done. The farmer thanked me for making the calf’s final days comfortable. That was the perspective I needed to hear.

I’m thankful to the farmer, who so willingly allowed me to stay on their farm, make use of their facilities, and understand their business. I was worried when I set out on this journey–especially my first stop–that I wouldn’t know enough to be helpful, and farmers wouldn’t know what to make of what I was doing. But this farmer got it and helped me connect with others in the community, farmers from across the state, and even gave me a good lead for my next farm stop. 


A New Adventure is on the Horizon

I am excited to announce a significant change coming to my life later this year. With Piper by my side, I am embarking on a year-long(+) road trip across North America. With hopes of seeing every state – really seeing them, not just passing through them. We’ll travel slow, with the seasons, and among our favorite kind of people – farmers. Keep reading to find out why we’re hitting reset on our current lifestyle, when we’re leaving, where we’re heading first.

Last year, days after my 29th birthday, my neighbor and his girlfriend drove me to Maryland to purchase a 2003 Ford E-250. It’s your classic 2000s construction/electrical/cargo van – but it’s silver, not white. It has “barn door” side doors, not a slider, and windows on the rear doors. Before it became mine, this van spent its entire life serving the Maryland Department of Agriculture. I know this because I found some old papers and a lot of straw when I cleaned out the van. I couldn’t have been more excited to find out this van – my van – had a previous life on farms; I was sure it was a sign that this van was meant to be mine. 

After vacuuming out debris, removing an old floor mat, and getting a patch of rust fixed, I started creating in three-dimension what had only lived on paper before – the sub-floor to my new tiny, mobile house. I bolted two by four framing beams to the floor and sandwiched layers of foam board insulation in between each one. On top of the framing beams and insulation, I screwed two large plywood sheets, custom-cut (by my dad) to fit each wall’s unique curves. This was the first of what is still an endless list of projects needed to convert this metal cargo van into a home-away-from-home.

Sometimes it feels silly putting so much effort into making this van – a thing that isn’t meant to be lived in – livable. I could have bought a small camper or RV, pre-insulated, equipped with a bed, sink, toilet, etc. But buying an outfitted camper doesn’t teach me how to create with my hands. It doesn’t let me learn when it’s smart to use a jigsaw instead of a circular saw. Or that you should definitely draw a picture with the measurements on it, not just write them down in a list. Buying an RV doesn’t teach you how DC power works, the difference between amps, volts, and watts, and how to wire a double-pole double-throw light switch. 

Building the van myself is more than just learning for the sake of knowing. It’s the first step to re-writing my resume. Our trip will center around farming communities because this is more than a road trip – it’s an opportunity to experience agriculture and food systems across the country. I will sustain myself (and Piper) by finding work on farms as often as I can. If you know me, you know my passion for agriculture and helping people understand their food system. This trip is an opportunity to expand my knowledge of agriculture and food and share the experience with you.

At each farm (or as many farms that agree to me sharing), I’ll talk about my experience through posts on this website and a yet-to-be YouTube channel featuring videos of the landscape, crops, and the people who bring our food system to life. I want this to be a space you can come to see how cotton is grown, to learn the story of folks working in our food system, and to know the difference between organic and conventional growing methods.

There is no plan for where this trip begins and where it ends. Right now, I know only that I’m going, and I’ll keep going for as long as it makes me happy and I can sustain myself. This van is no spring chicken – it’s 18 years old and has nearly 100,000 miles. But we can’t be young forever, and youth isn’t a pre-requisite for abandoning convention in search of happiness. This van has a lot of life left to live. So do I.

Weekend Getaway, Close to Home

The nearly two feet of snow blanketing the top of the mountain had been plowed from the “main” road and compressed by several local snowmobilers on other roads. A fact that meant Piper could enjoy our mountain walk without additional provisions for battling Piper-deep snow. Combined with the mild 40-degree afternoon we found ourselves facing, we headed out the door towards an overlook on the other side of the mountain. 

Piper made one thing clear on our walk – it’s been too long since I’ve taken her out for a proper adventure. Her energy never waned on the hour-long trek, even on our return trip, uphill climb to get back to the cabin. She used her leash as a tow-rope to drag my out-of-shape butt across the mountain, keeping her pretty warm even without a winter jacket. Her excitement to explore the mountain gave me a pang of guilt for not taking her out as often this year. But it also made me happy – this dog genuinely loves exploring the woods as much as I do.

Our little romp on the mountain left me wanting more snowy adventures. The next afternoon, my mom and I drove down the mountain and a few miles away to a local state park. We left the dogs at home this time, unsure of the condition of the trail and whether or not Piper would be able to manage. Among the hoards of snowmobile trailers, we found a parking space and set off on a trail mom had tried last fall. To start, the “trailhead” was hidden under a mass of snow piled high by a plow. Mom was adventurous and we decided over was better than around – waist-deep snow be damned.

Luckily, the rest of the trail only featured shin-deep snow and most of it had been trampled down by other users. We followed yellow blazes (and the footprints in the snow) the entire way, letting our minds wander from conversation topic to topic without questioning if we are off-trail. Mom, who is reading a book about the history and current state of public lands across the US, provided a quick lesson on the origin of the state and national parks systems. Meanwhile, I tested her knowledge of trail markings, preparing her for a spring backpacking trip we want to take together.

The hike abruptly paused when I spotted and sprinted towards an adjacent playground, including a small swing set and twisted slide. Ever since grade school, I’ve loved the swings – it’s like flying. I climbed aboard and started pumping. Once mom caught up, iPhone out recording her nearly 30-year-old daughter on the swings, I leaped forward off the swing and fell into the snow, landing on my hands and knees laughing at myself.  I “dusted” off the clinging flakes and headed towards the slide. Luckily, this playground was closer to the car than I realized, as my trip down the slide left more snow under my jacket than one might like on a long trek in the winter.

Though the distance of our hike was short – less than 2 miles – it took us nearly an hour and depleted us of any excess energy we had. Trekking through shin-deep snow and navigating existing footprints and ski prints – winter trail “potholes” – takes a toll on the body. Short jaunts like this in the winter help me make lists of places to explore further in the spring and summer. And you can be sure that Raymond B. Winter State Park is on that list. There were other trails beckoning us this weekend that will have to wait for warmer days, and the lakefront beach will require a summer day to take full advantage of. And, of course, those summer trips will certainly include my adventurous canine pal, Piper. As if she would let me forget her.

9 Years With My Ideal Friend

Piper is a remarkably adaptable dog.

Most days, especially since March 2020, the middle-aged hound spends her days at home, napping on the couch, sunbathing in the yard, and chairing the local chapter of the Squirrels Are The Enemy club. She joins me on a few runs or walks each week and the occasional weekend adventure hike around Pennsylvania. She spends nearly every daylight hour in my presence during this work-from-home time.

There was a time a few years ago when she spent a 10+ hour drive to Maine resting patiently in the backseat. When I stopped into a diner for lunch, she didn’t make a peep as I walked away. Leaving her to guard the car in a shaded area (I told her the job paid in french fries and she immediately accepted), I returned after my meal to find a groggy Piper in the driver’s seat. No separation anxiety from this mutt.

More recently, Piper accepted a new job as “office dog,” – which comes with rules like “no scaring the mail lady.” She’s adjusted well to her new role and is less on-edge when the office door opens than when she started. All traits contrary to her youth, keeping me awake in our tent most of the night, guarding us against chipmunk invaders of Mt. Desert Island. She’s learning.

For example, in 2019, I bought a brand new car. Later that year, I scheduled an early morning oil change at a local dealership (a first for me!). Since I was stopping on my way to work, Piper was with me – entirely out of habit, I hadn’t thought about what I would do with her while the car was in the shop. I asked the technician if he minded me bringing Piper into the waiting area with me. Luckily, he said it was fine.

I leashed Piper and we walked into a waiting room with 5-6 people. We quietly walked to a table and sat – me on a chair, her on the ground. We sat there for nearly an hour. Quietly.

Going into that room, I thought she would put up with sitting still and not greeting people for ten minutes, and then we’d have to go for a walk. She has likely trained me as much as I’ve trained her. I knew what it would take to keep her content – I laid my jacket on the ground for her and she curled up. She got up once or twice when a stranger came within petting distance. But otherwise, she was happy enough laying and watching and waiting for me to say, “ok, let’s go, kiddo.”

That is one of my favorite Piper stories because it’s a story of a mature dog. A dog with experience behind her eyes and ears and the ability to separate instinct from expectations. It’s been exciting to watch Piper grow up – four-year-old Piper would have looked and sounded quite different in that waiting room. Her patience and quietness took time – she knows the difference between playtime and quiet time. A lesson the two of us learned together.

A few weeks after I turn 30 in April, Piper will begin her 9th trip around the sun. I’ve had her by my side nearly all of my 20’s. And we’ve both done a lot of learning and changing, always together. To date, she has a perfect track record of keeping secrets, listening, and sticking with me through all my questionable decisions. She’s not a perfect dog, but she is an ideal friend – and the cheapest (and furriest) mental and physical health therapist I’ll ever find.

Superfluous Piper photos…

False Ends & False Starts

Several times a year, I insist to myself that I will write more on here. And several times a year, I bear the guilt that comes with lying to myself. I won’t call this a comeback. But it’s a step. I hope it’s one entry on this page that will turn into many, many more entries this year. 

My 2020 stats from Strava

In 2020, I logged more than 2,400 miles of running or hiking across 290 “active” days, according to the fitness tracking app Strava, making my current twenty-plus day stretch of sedentariness the outlier in my adult life. I have not given up running, but we are going through a rough patch.

In September 2020, I completed my first 100k trail race. I spent the four months before that race in a strict training routine – running six days a week, strength training 3 of those days, and getting to be by 9:30 pm. It worked – I DOUBLED the furthest distance I’ve ever run, and I felt great doing it. Then, I hit a stretch of pain, low motivation, and frustration. Post-race depression isn’t uncommon, but this is worse than I’ve experienced it before. Likely to blame on the ongoing health crisis and a bleak future for racing. 

Since then, I’ve struggled to get back into a groove with running. I took a bit of time off immediately after my race. Then, when I attempted to begin a new routine, a new-to-me pain in my right hip met me for each run. Bummer. I limped it along for some time by only running every other or every third day. Ultimately, I decided to take a one-week break to let my body heal properly and start fresh and pain-free in 2021. 

I felt guilty for the entire first week. My hip pain wasn’t present during daily life, only during runs, which made the pain feel unimportant – my brain insisted I was lazy, not cautious. The mild depression that often succeeds big races still clung to my brain and body like running shorts on a humid day. To analyze why I felt so guilty for not running, an activity that’s entirely optional and recreational, I thought about why I run.

I love running. Though this bout of low motivation wouldn’t show it, running is an outlet for my emotions and energies. It’s “me time” that I always feel good about taking. It’s led me on many adventures with countless friends. It makes me feel in control of my life and provides a carrot to work towards when so many other things feel outside of my reach. During this reflection, I found some of these items clouded by my desire to be a better – more competitive – runner. A desire to improve isn’t the problem. Allowing that desire to consume the motivation behind running, though, was/is making it challenging for me to want to run right now.

The older I get, the more I try to let my body and brain do what it wants – I don’t force it. So I’ll be here, on the couch most likely, waiting until my brain and my body decide we want to run for fun again. I’m still working up to an inaugural 2021 run. But I did finish an inaugural 2021 website post. So, for now, I’ll settle for a January of more writing, and lots of neighborhood walks with my four-legged training partner, Piper.

Two goals: begin writing again; begin running again.

Photo from my last run, December 24, 2020, of one of my favorite farms to look at in Lancaster County. It’s an old-order Amish farm, perfectly surrounded by fields. The farmstead is barely visible through summer corn, but this time of year, the traditional buildings are on full display.