Looking to join a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture vs. Customer Supported Aggregators

Greetings, eaters in the DC/MD/VA region.

First and foremost, pat yourself on the back for seeking real, whole foods from local farms. Life is busy. Cheap, already-cooked, fast food is hurled at you through advertising campaigns and made convenient with locations and hours of operation that fit every human being’s schedule. Not to mention, many of us have been trained to this mistaken mantra that “organic food is just too expensive” but, alas, YOU are searching for farm fresh produce, environmentally and ethically sound meats, and farmers you can trust.

Perhaps you long for an experience you had as a child or in another country: a bustling marketplace you visit daily, where you can buy fruit from a farmer, bread from a baker and experience a vibrant, healthy community. Perhaps you or a member of your family are facing a health hurdle, allergy or food intolerance or a heightened awareness of the industrialized food system that has led you to seek the cleanest, greenest ingredients.

There are a few Farmers’ Markets near you. The one on Saturday mornings sounds great, if you can fit it in around other commitments. But then again, your window to shop is Sunday mornings, so you can do meal prep for the week before it starts. So now what? You’ve Googled. You are facing a couple of choices.

There are a bunch of listings for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Programs. They sound like a no-brainer. You invest in the farm and farmers early in the spring and then every week, voila! Amazing, real food for you all season. Just pick your pick-up location, day, and time window and plan to be there every week. Yes, you totally want this. All your friends talk about being part of a CSA. You’re sold.

The season finally arrives and the adventure begins. You are overwhelmed by how fresh and flavorful salad greens can be. You see droplets of water on the Swiss chard not because of an overhead mister, but because it was just harvested and washed moments ago. You see something unusual, turnip-like… “Wow. This rich, purple and green thing is beautiful. I’m not entirely sure what it is…”

And there you are: an official CSA member. This is the first of several new vegetables you will encounter on this journey. Will you:

  1. Embrace exactly what you signed up for: seasonal vegetables. A spring full of greens. A summer full of squash. tomatoes and peppers (and canning and preserving). A perplexing “purple rocket thing,” aka kohlrabi. A stockpile of starches come fall. You have now been transported to the eating experience of your ancestors. You get what you get, when you get it, based on the region you live in. Your offspring resist but you persist! You learn how to make ten different things with one vegetable. You got to the Farmers’ Market or grocery store too, for all the other things you like to eat and additional ingredients. You find yourself spending a lot more time in the kitchen and you like it. Sure, you feel genuine disappointment when strawberry season comes to an end, but then you see blueberries, then blackberries, then you learn to “flash freeze” or make jam…

    OR
  2. Look at that kohlrabi, three weeks later, defeated and perishing in your crisper [sigh] and wonder if there is a way to buy local produce, just the stuff you know you like, without having to budget time to visit a farm. Google, again. There it is: “Local, delivery, fresh, from the farm, buzzword and another buzzword, and avocados. Put it in the cart. All these things. Click. Winner winner chicken dinner. This is perfect for you.

    There is, of course, no right or wrong answer. There is always grey area. This is a blog and these are just my thoughts.

    If you choose option 1, me and you (or parallel versions of us) are probably already acquainted. Your kids have a favorite chicken or goat at our farm. I’ve worked with your daughter on her Girl Scout Silver Award. You’ve gone ahead and explained kohlrabi to a newer CSA member on our Facebook page. You were completely cool and understanding during our egg shortage because you saw us upset after losing 40 hens in the middle of an afternoon to someone’s perfectly sweet dogs who were just following their instinct and the pack. You’ve taught me that a simple vinegar can transform my salad dressing. You’ve brought your in-laws by more than once. Your teenager is the only teenager I have ever met who asks for gherkins. We have genuinely missed seeing each other over the winter.This is Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a direct exchange and relationship between the eater and the farmer. There is no middle man – we are meeting in the middle. We see one another through peaceful smiles amid free-ranging children and know how hard the other one has to work to be right there at CSA pick-up at that time every week. The chaos melts. We did it. We are doing something right for the week, the earth, the next generation.

    So what about option 2? It may very well be perfect for you and that’s completely okay. [Note: I adore Washington Green Grocer] BUT this cannot and should not be called Community Supported Agriculture. I can’t help but call it “Customer Supported Aggregation” and I fear that sounds worse than I intend it to. Farmers are getting paid in the exchange, albeit wholesale, and lots of farmers love wholesale and sell only that way.

    Furthermore, these custom grocery deliverers are filling a gap in the market that none of us farmers have the ability to do: Bring everything we grow plus other groceries directly to the doors of everyone who wants to support us. When would we farm? What I mean is, a farm can’t compete with that level of convenience and that’s okay. Apples to oranges.

    What I’m trying to say, in yet another op-ed blog-ish post, is that the acronym “CSA” shouldn’t be thrown around willy-nilly by an online grocery provider or subscriber. Doing so deeply diminishes the beautiful commitment and relationship between members and farmers.

    A CSA member doesn’t just support their farm by their purchase, they support it by prioritizing it.

    So THANK YOU, CSA members, for meeting us in the middle. And high-five to the rest of you conscious eaters who are using a local delivery service. Life is busy, no judgment here. Just don’t call it a CSA.

Hello, Blog. Hello, Self.

In June 2013, the date of my last blog post, Allison and I were trying desperately to balance our new and demanding professions with our shared love: Blogging about farming, gardening, cooking and challenges in the food system.

Allison was lobbying for funds for a campus farm, seeking local and seasonable produce for an institution serving more than 30,000 students, and never taking a break from inspiring young students to get their hands dirty growing their own. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed waking up for 10+ hour days trying to grow vegetables, raise chickens and graze goats on a then-small farm within a 4,000 acre housing development damn committed to raising agricultural awareness and culinary confidence.

Neither of our careers has changed, but with every passing day, season, solstice and calendar year our responsibilities grew. Our commitment to “doing something about it” outgrew the number of hours in our days. Emails went out to one another late at night, from Virginia to Maryland and back, apologizing for not posting. The blog, and time with one another, became to something we wish we made more time for. For me, a lot of things did.

Farming took precedent. I started working through meals, choosing sleep over showers, and learned what it meant to sacrifice. Months passed between visits with my family, relationships fell apart, the only time I saw friends was when they stopped into the farm with sympathy in their smiles, offering to help wherever they could, asking if I was okay. I wasn’t. Self care was last on my list. I shifted towards a not-great diet – ironically, the trap I work to free others from: convenience over nutrition. I sacrificed every ounce of my strength, energy, sanity, time and heart for this cause and opportunity I believe to be so important: building a farm that feeds the people building a community around it.

But working on a farm is the dream, right? So peaceful!

Yes and no, simultaneously. It. Is. So. Hard. When we interview applicants, we often say: Tell us about your hardest day farming or working outdoors. I think what I want to hear in the answer is that they’ve had not one but many; that they understand the organism of the farm is the real boss, they’ve raced the sunset or a storm, worked with one hand out of commission, set alarms to care for livestock all through the night, won, lost, hurt and laughed all in one day. And then gotten up the next morning to do it again every day since.

As the 2017 season beings, I get up every day to do it again thanks to inspiration from the farmers I work alongside, encouragement from great people, email inquiries about renting the goats, the Cecropia moth cocoons I’ve kept safe all winter, the tiny seeds that hold so much DNA and are beginning to express it in the greenhouse, the tiny victories against early weeds.

But I’ve lost some gumption and cheer – traits that I’d like to think defined me. So it’s time to take it back! Back to the start, with a blog post:

Advice to a New Farmer (or perhaps to the version of myself that last posted here). Inspired by farming, farmers and also by Tony Robbins, Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Bill W., good friends, good goats…

  1. Identify your principles, goals and profit centers and be loyal to them. There are a lot of different ways and things to farm, methods of sale and plenty of buzz around what’s going to be the new kale. No one is doing them all at once, but everyone likes to talk about them. Find the things your market demands and then set short, medium and long-term goals for how to grow and market those products with practices you believe in. Sure, experiment with an idea or crop that excites you and reminds you why you started, but don’t let visions of homesteader-level diversity convince you to bite off more than you can chew. Budget time to observe, be proactive and analyze successes and failures.
  2. 100% Customer Satisfaction is not achievable. Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “If you’re pleasing everyone, you aren’t making progress.” When our farm was only growing vegetables and serving 40 CSA members, the people-pleaser in me was very satisfied. But then we added chickens, and goats, and more chickens, and more members, and more staff, and more pick-up days at more locations, and more hours of operation at the store, and more volunteer hours, and more educational programming, more varieties and successions, and you get the drift. There aren’t enough hours in the week to live in a constant state of accommodating others, be them human, animal or plant. Help the ones that can’t help themselves, first, but beyond that, grow the best products you can, sell them proudly at the place and time you said you would, then close the gate and go home (especially if someone is waiting for you). Your time is no less valuable than anyone elses.
  3. Livestock farming is not for the faint of heart. Even if you do everything right for and by the animals you raise, nature happens and it’s hard to watch. The herd mentality. The pecking order. The predator doing what predators do, merciless and inhumane. And then there’s processing – a time at which you must remember: Nature made humans omnivores and humans defined the term “humane.” Every animal you raise the right way, the best way you can, is an animal spared from the conventional, industrial system.
  4. Learn from it. Forgive yourself. The first big failure hits hard. You see almost instantly what you missed, forgot, opted to skip because some other aspect of the farm called and you feel GUILT. You’re disappointed in yourself. Even when it wasn’t your fault, you know that you decided to engage in agriculture, you’re domesticating animals, putting plants where they wouldn’t just pop up on their own, so nothing on your land is ever just the circle of life, right? In some ways, sure, but this is the nature of farming. You’re a farmer trying to choreograph nature like a god, but you’re not a god. In these moments of defeat, I fall on the ol’ standby: Accept the things you cannot change, have courage to change the things that you can, and wisdom to know the difference.
  5. There’s pain you need to push through and there’s pain you need to pay attention to. Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is Farming 101. You will ache, itch, burn, bleed and crack. If you’ve got the innate grit that most people called to farming have, you will amaze yourself with your ability to endure, but you also need to recognize your breaking point. There are a lot of ways to get injured or killed on a farm. If you are hungry, tired, itchy and in a rush: step away from the role of machine operator. If your spirit is suffering, see number 8.
  6. Done is better than perfect. As you learn to delegate, you will learn that no one else sees, thinks or works the exact same way you do and that’s just that. Hire hard-working people who are eager to learn, teach them, then trust them. If you can’t let go of a little control, you will fatigue fast, your colleagues will grow frustrated, and you’ll end up pretty powerless.
  7. But… you will never be done. You know that feeling when your house, vehicle and hair are all clean at the same time? Me neither. Okay, I’ve felt it a handful of times in my life, but my point is: I don’t think you ever feel that way farming. There will always be beds that need something, projects that need to be finished, emails that need responses… At some point you have to accept that you will never FEEL done and have to CHOOSE what can wait until tomorrow, what can’t and when to cut it off.
  8. Befriend fellow farmers. Not just working, neighborly relations. Friendship. Whether they are many years ahead of you, a few behind you or side-by-side in the journey of farming, you will help each other. Open up to them, break down with them, seek advice, collaborate, vent, eat, rest, love and trust them.
  9. Accept that you will spend more time doing what you HAVE to do than doing what you WANT to do. This is true in all professions, right? It’s just that when you’re trying to simultaneously tame nature and run a business, there are a whole lot of “have to’s” at once. Animals need care every day, multiple times a day, regardless of the weather. Mother Nature will boss you around and test your limits, but you still need to show up at market at the same time, with the same smile. Wind will sweep your row cover off after the rest of the staff has left for the day. Things will break. People will quit. You will do every single job on the farm and it will frustrate you, but sometimes that’s just what you have to do and that’s that.
  10. Cherish the moments that you feel gratitude, grace and purpose. Even on the hardest days, there is beauty. Beauty in a completed task, an oddly-shaped vegetable, an insect, a breeze, a critter, watching the chickens lining up at sunset. Don’t lose track of them. In fact, look for three a day and talk about them at dinner. There’s a Cherokee legend about the two wolves that battle inside each of us, one good (humility, empathy, truth, peace, joy) and one evil (anger, resentment, inferiority, ego). Who wins? The one you feed.
  11. Eat what you grow. With people you love.

Note: This reflective/inspirational tone is not the norm on here. I promise we will return to useful gardening tips, practical tools, recipes, labor debates, insect identifications and hard-hitting journalism soon.

Fleetwood Farm

On my way to the farm every morning, I slow down as I pass Fleetwood Farm to see if I can pick out Sam, the Maremma on duty, from the rams and ewes he guards day and night. I usually can’t, but I’m hopeful that one of these days I’ll spot him and then – like riding a bicycle – will be able to spot the dog(s) in a herd anywhere.

Last week, I volunteered to take some leftover produce to the mulefoot hogs so that I could spend a little time with the new lambs and Sam. Walt Feasel was there, working with a border collie in one of the fields, but took a break to introduce me to the new crop of babies, chat about his operation, and even sent me home with sausage that my taste testers ranked above all others. Seriously. Two out of two meatatarians said it was the best sausage they have ever had.

Here are five reasons to love, support and purchase from this farm:

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5. Sam. Fierce when he should be. Friendly when you’ve earned his trust. Once you win him over, he squeezes between your legs, lifts you up, and nuzzles into your heart very quickly.

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4. Diversified livestock. This handsome Bourbon Red tom waddles around with New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock chickens.

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3. The close-knit herd. Seeing them moving around the pasture together will makes you all warm and woolly inside.

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…so will their adorable lambs.

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2. Momma Mulefoot loves Willowsford Farm leftovers.

IMG_5084 resized1. And Sam loves the the Willowsford Farm dog, Bella. They’ve been seeing each other since last fall.

Fleetwood Farm is located at 23075 Evergreen Mills Rd in Leesburg, VA and raises heritage breeds on pasture for meat and eggs. Farm visits are by appointment only. Learn more here.

Re-Purposing Around The Farm

In preparation for the first frost that came through on Friday night (October 12-13), we were busy bees harvesting the last of the tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, okra and ristra peppers. But busy as we may be, we are always making the absolute most out of the materials and extras.

Here are a few great ones:

Saving Sunflower Seeds

Our sunflowers kept the bees happy all summer and as they dry up and go to seed, we are leaving some in the fields for the birds to snack on now and harvesting and cleaning the seeds out of others in order to feed the local birds through the winter.

Okra Stalks Saved For Compost Aeration

Okra stalks, like okra that has been left on the plant too long, are very woody. Sure, we could just toss them in a compost heap but there is an even better way to use them in compost: as aeration. Laying them down as a base where you intend to pile compost aids aeration, which is necessary in high temperature aerobic composting for rapid decomposition and the reduction of initial moisture content.

Thinned Beet Greens (and other mixed greens)

Just like Allison pointed out in her recent post Planted Too Many Greens?, we sometimes need to thin crops after a direct sow. But that doesn’t mean they have to go to waste. So many of them are edible and incredibly delicious.  At Willowsford Farm, we saved, trimmed down and washed all our thinned beet greens for market and they were a hit!

Garden Shed and Tables Built From Local Lumber

Willowsford Farm is growing at the center of a new community that is also growing. As the developers have had to clear trees in areas where houses are being built, they have cleaned and saved the lumber for use in community buildings. The “Farm Garden Shed,” now home to our Wednesday and Sunday Market, was built with this lumber. So were the picnic tables (inside the shed in this picture). Pretty cool, huh?

Clear Spring Creamery

Clear Spring Creamery, a family-owned,  grass-based dairy farm out in Washington County, Maryland, was one of two farms we got to tour with Northeast SARE‘s “Reading the Farm” grant project.

Operating for more than 100 years on as many acres, owners Mark and Clare Seibert graze their cows on pastures every day and in winter and drought times offer them locally-grown hay harvested in the early summer from excess pasture growth. The cows are milked once a day, which is uncommon in the U.S., and means less focus on production as well as less stress and sickness in the animals. Their bounty is pasteurized and processed on site into several sizes and flavors of milk and yogurts sold at the following markets:

Fresh Farm Market at Dupont Circle
Sundays 8:30-1:00 March-December

Takoma Park Farmers Market
Sundays 10-2 March-December

Arlington Courthouse Farmer’s Market
Saturdays 8-12 April-December

Falls Church Farmer’s Market
Saturdays 8-12 April-December

Top Ten Reasons We Love This Farm:

10.) Their yogurt is amazing.
9.) Their milk is amazing. You’ve got to shake it and everything. Unless you just want the cream for your coffee.
8.) Their raw milk cheddar is bound to be amazing (haven’t tried it yet). It is for sale at Common Market in Frederick, MD; Ernst Country Market in Clear Spring, MD; and Knob Hall Winery also in Clear Spring, MD.
7.) The milking parlor is so clean and pristine you feel perfectly comfortable eating lunch in there (which we actually did!)
6.) The pastures are rich and dense with perennial grasses and clover indicative of seriously healthy soil.
5.) The cows are intensively rotationally grazed and clearly cherished along the way.
4.) They do rotational grazing with a bunch of happy chickens too!
3.) They recently installed solar panels to help lessen the impact of their energy consumption.
2.) They do not use hormones to increase production or aid reproduction.

And the number one reason we love this farm:

1.) Intern Gretchen’s Blog: Girl with the Green Hair. Her pictures are incredible and her posts range from updates on the great raw milk debate,  milking how-to’s, adventures in kitchen experiments, and odes to “Cows, cows, cows.” (Also recommend her post: The Truth About Cows)

Many Rocks Farm

Curious goat at Many Rocks Farm

The flocks of curious meat and dairy goats, “happy quackers,” Cubalaya Chickens, mulefoot hogs and dedicated guard animals at Many Rocks Farm are a joyful reflection of owner Jeanne Dietz-Band, the farmer and heritage breeder who raises these fine animals on 40 acres of carefully tended pastures in Washington County.

Built upon principles of sustainable agriculture, conservation, preservation, rotational grazing and humane handling, Many Rocks Farm produces and sells the highest quality heritage meats at two local farmers markets (find them here) and several acclaimed restaurants, including the famous Woodberry Kitchen.

Last week, Jeanne invited a team of experts (and aspiring experts) chosen to participate in *Northeast SARE’s “Reading the Farm” to visit the property and discuss how her business model, products and land use have evolved throughout the past eleven years she’s spent in animal husbandry. Like so many farmers deeply rooted in their land, Jeanne has never taken any shortcuts that could diminish the health and fertility of her soil or animals or effect the quality of her products.  The result? The “read” on her farm was excellent and her products are in incredibly high demand!

Although meat products are the foundation of her business, Jeanne has added value to her brand and business with a line of hand-crafted goat-milk soaps that are as perfectly fragrant as their names are creative: Lavishly Loopy Lavender, Tingle Me Timbers, Mad Hatter’s Zen, and Positively Squirrelly (to name a few). Rest assured, if she runs out of the soothing soaps at market you can find them in the Whole Body Care section of the Silver Spring Whole Foods Market too.

Mulefoot Hog

Here are the top ten reasons why we LOVE this farm:

1.) Jeanne lists happiness, safety and health of the animals as her most important concerns regarding the farm.
2.) Each and every animal Many Rocks sells was born and raised on the farm and processed humanely by a trusted vendor.
3.) They use biologicals – USDA approved fly predator wasps –  to manage pesky fly populations that come with the livestock territory.
4.) Jeanne’s eyes light up when she tells her stories about obtaining heritage breeds.
5.) There are two donkeys on the premises: one that protects the dairy herd and one that captured Jeanne’s heart and is the farm’s rescue.
6.) The nutrition and health of the animals is monitored so closely there is rarely a need for a vet visit – and that menas lots of money saved – however when Jeanne discovered one of her prized Golden Guernsey dairy bucks had broken one of his horns, she spared no expense having his wound tended and life-saved.
7.) Jeanne refers to the heritage ducks as “happy quackers.”
8.) Buffers have been planted and fenced off from livestock at the headwaters of the Antietam Creek (that originate on the farm).
9.) A goat is featured prominently on the farm logo.
10.) No part of the animals goes to waste. Leftovers from goat processing are sent to two natural pet food companies in Maryland who custom-make three varieties of dog treats.

*Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) is a regional program of the nationwide SARE effort; SARE is part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA. SARE offers competitive grants to projects that explore and address key issues affecting the sustainability and future economic viability of agriculture. The program is authorized under Subtitle B of Title XVI of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990.

Golden Guernsey
Northeast SARE “Reading the Farm”

An Afternoon at Lavender Fields

Greenhouse at Lavender Fields

Last weekend, I spent the afternoon at Lavender Fields in Milton, Delaware. What an inspiration! The farmhouse, cottage store, vegetable garden, bee hives, wild flowers, and of-course lavender fields were all beautiful.

Vegetable garden at Lavender Fields



Below you can see some of the culinary products sold in the farm store including items such as Lavender Honey, Lavender and Sugar Glazed Pecans, Lavender and Rose Blended Tea, and Lavender Vinegar. I picked up some Lavender Sea Salt to experiment with in the kitchen.

Next time you are visiting the Delaware beaches, I recommend packing a picnic and spending the afternoon at this magical place. I also was inspired by the number of varieties of lavender and so, of course, I had to pick up a few plants to put in my garden as well.

Visit to Larriland Farms

This season has been action packed, and I apologize for the lack of posts here on the blog. Now that Oct. is over (along with its tremendous amount of events and activities), I’m hoping to pick back up with the blog and reflecting on the fall season. I will be sharing some details of wonderful meals and adventures, I promise!

One fantastic fall activity was a visit to Larriland Farms for pick-you-our veggies with Just Saying‘s Deb and family. While the apples were all picked from the trees (it was a very beautiful-but busy- weekend!), I was able to pick my own swiss chard, broccoli, and cauliflower. I was also able to purchase a half bushel of apples from the barn to share with the Public Health Garden’s volunteers and guests at the Harvest Festival on Food Day (Oct 24).
Here are some pictures to capture the day:

Pick your own broccoli field

Pick your own chard and spinach

Yellow cauliflower

Swiss chard

Cutting my own cauliflower– a seasonal favorite of mine!

A very happy Allison

So many apples!

Dividing up the apples by variety
More posts and catching up to come!  I suggest you get out to your farmers’ market to catch the end of the season.

Visit to Arcadia

I first learned about Arcadia in an article in Flavor Magazine describing the farm and its related food initiatives. While I didn’t hear about Arcadia until recently, I was familiar with Birch and Barley in my old stomping ground of Logan Circle, DC. The resturant is part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group that provided the start-up funds for the project and currently sources produce from the farm. After reading the article I was immediately excited and wanted to learn more, but with the beginning of the semester and fall activities ramping up, I wasn’t sure when I would have time to go out to the grounds of the historic Woodlawn Plantation to visit. Until a friend of mine emailed me to let me know that she planned a visit and tour over there and asked if I wanted to come along.  How could I say no to a morning out of the office and on the farm talking about local farming initiatives?

Here are some photos from the farm:

Existing beds

Beautiful crops

Themed raised beds for educational programming with D.C. Farm to School Network

Educational bed used by D.C. Farm to School Network

Love these signs and want to replicate them at the Public Health Garden

“Taste me” sign and boots used as containers!

Compost and bees in the background

In addition to the farm itself, Arcadia’s food initiatives include a mobile market serving low income DC residents and the D.C. Farm to School Network.  They are also exploring opportunities to start a food hub and become a farm incubator, providing education to people who are interested in learning to farm themselves.  Not only did we get to spend time talking with Farm Manager, Mo, about the farm and the food initiatives running out of Arcadia, we also got to witness expansion of the farm.

When we arrived, the tractor just got started on a new area for the farm.

Ready to expand!  Taking a look at the new space and discussing the cover crop that will go in soon.

We were so impressed and inspired by the work at Arcadia, and also the delicious vegetables we got to take home from our visit. It is so exciting to learn about projects promoting sustainable agriculture and local farms while helping to increase access to fresh produce for D.C.

Want to visit and support this initiative? Another exciting event at Arcadia: The Vices That Made Virginia.

Thanks to Mo and Arcadia for allowing us to visit!  We can’t wait to go back.