Foodshed: Utopia Uprising

By Holly Tarson | September 01, 2013
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Here, on a pastoral patch of land in the northern reaches of Columbia County, a herd of dairy cows dot the hillside, a few gentle sheep bleat hello between mouthfuls of hay, and an industrious little brown piglet digs her way from one pen to another. It's a typical day on a farm. But on this farm young campers (most of whom hail from urban homes a few hours away) work alongside the farmers, learning where their food comes from and sleeping in a nearby bunkhouse, breathing revitalizing country air for a week. It doesn't make a lot of fiscal sense, having a bunch of unskilled bodies along for the ride. Milking cows and planting cabbage is already hard work. But somehow the broader economics make it possible for these educational programs to continue. And opening up the farm to children is a pillar of the philosophy here. On this farm the cows keep their horns and baby calves are allowed to graze with their mamas out in the pasture. Both practices are fairly uncommon on most dairy farms, but it's good for the cows, which in turn makes a calmer herd. And it's a choice they can make here, because they have a sustainable number of cows for a sustainable amount of land. This farm also has a store – a big store – and an outdoor pavilion, and a bakery and a creamery and a kraut cellar and a school. This farm is a living breathing entity that exists in symbiotic reverie with the land, the animals and the community.

Hawthorne Valley is more than just a 400-acre organic farm in Ghent, New York. It's a really cool magnet for smart, interesting, creative people doing smart, interesting, forward-thinking work. It functions so well as a farm because it is made of so many diverse components. It's the very tension between these components that continues to feed it and help it grow.

Forty years ago Hawthorne Valley was founded on principles of biodynamics – honoring the interrelatedness of all living things. A biodynamic farm is self-sustaining, which means everything it needs comes from the farm itself. Nothing is wasted. Compost is king. But here, the philosophy stretches well beyond farming into a means of growing, creating, living and learning. It's about people connecting to themselves, each other, and the world around them. Everything they do here, the choices they make, supports the individuals and the whole. It's not an either/ or proposition. Martin Ping is the executive director and has been with Hawthorne Valley since the mid-'80s. Ping holds the powerful presence of a person who is right where he belongs, in his element and doing what he is most meant to do. With a soft, steady gaze, he eloquently explains the overarching mission "to cultivate a soil of fertility for new thinking, not because of any one of us. It's because of all of us."

150 passionate people all work together here: farmers, artisans, business people and teachers. They bring their ideals and they bump up against the ideals of others. Their minds stretch, they sometimes disagree, and they discover new solutions. Along the way they make a living wage and get vacation days, which might be the most amazing thing of all. Most farmers only dream of a vacation and a salary they can count on. Here farming is a viable career choice instead of a commitment to lifelong financial insecurity. Each year, six farm apprentices join the ranks. Martin says they are like the oxygen that feeds the living organism that is Hawthorne Valley. "Their fresh, future-bearing idealism stirs the pot."

Lofty ideals are one thing, manifesting them is another. What's astounding about Hawthorne Valley is they can afford to maintain such high ethical standards because of their continued economic success. How on earth do they do it?

The milk, grains and vegetables grown on the farm are high-quality organic crops. But simply selling crops rarely translates to enough dollars to keep a farm afloat. The biggest boost to the bottom line comes from delicious value-added products made on the farm. Hawthorne Valley has a host of artisans making cheese and yogurt and baked goods and sauerkraut, all adding value (read revenue) to the harvests.

All Parts Working Together

The workday starts early in the creamery, where knee-high rain boots line the walls and milk crates are piled high. "Artisan" is a term thrown around a lot these days, but Peter Kindel, the head cheese-maker, earns the title. He cultivated his expertise in France, England and Scotland, and brought his passion for cheese-making to Hawthorne Valley along with a characteristic cloth-wrapping technique to their cheddar cheese. The cheese starts in a gorgeous copper vat, and it's finessed through the process by hand. They make about 190 pounds of cheddar one to two times a week from spring through early winter when cow's milk is abundant. On other days they make Alpine cheese and a host of other dairy products. The extra-aged cheddar may not be for everyone, but Peter says, "They love it in New York City."

It's all well and good to make crave-worthy cheddar. But that cheese doesn't do much good sitting in a cellar. It needs to find its way to the consumer. Hawthorne Valley makes the trek to the Greenmarket in New York City numerous times a week, but it also attracts many of its customers directly to the Farm Store. In the early days, a vestibule served as an honor-system store with a milk can, some vegetables and a cigar box where people left their money. This little vestibule has morphed into an economic powerhouse that serves as an outlet not only for Hawthorne Valley Farm, but also for products from numerous other farms in the area. (Supporting the community. We're all in this together. You get the idea.) Now filling almost 3,500 square feet of retail space, the Farm Store has come a long way, baby.

It's a full-fledged store stocked with everything from laundry detergent to coffee beans to chocolate bars (comparisons have been made to Whole Foods Markets on a much smaller scale). It is definitely one-stop shopping. And because of this, business is booming. Dana Wagner is the Farm Store manager. Her philosophy is "if you are going to be someone's convenience store, you better be the best damn convenience store you can be." Her mission seems to have been accomplished as some people come from as far as three hours away just to buy the raw milk, which is not easily attainable in places like New York City. And beyond milk and dairy, customers can also stock their pantry with all manner of natural foods and grab a baguette for the road while they're at it.

The bakery case causes a gapers' delay in the general flow of traffic through the store, but it's hard to fault the shoppers. The croissants, bagels and brownies are definitely head-turners. Smells of warm bready goodness confirm that these treasures are made a few feet away behind the bakery doors. Wheat, rye and spelt are grown on the farm and milled right in the bakery. It has very little chaff, so all the great magnesium and other nutrients go right into the bread. But these barrels of milled grain are far from homogenous, ranging from fairly "grainy" to an almost powdery texture, each handful slightly different from the next. It's an elegant dance from grain to loaf led exclusively by two dedicated bread makers, who intrinsically know how to balance the texture from loaf to loaf and day to day. They dance this dance to the tune of about 4,000 loaves a month.

Karen Firth-Linton, the bakery supervisor, creatively meets the demands of her customers with constantly evolving recipes. Savory croissants feature greens grown in the corner garden. Quark cheesecake highlights a hidden treasure from the creamery. (Quark is a fluffy creamy cheese that tastes something like a cross between cream cheese and mascarpone and butter. Great for baking or using as a spread, it's a Hawthorne Valley specialty not to be missed and exceedingly difficult to find elsewhere.) The bakery and kraut cellar might seem to make surprising bedfellows, but the serendipitous marriage of chocolate cake with the (shh!) secret ingredient (sauerkraut) results in a special occasion heirloom cake fit for a holiday table. With an eye on the bottom line, Karen points out that each time the bakery is able to use products from the farm it increases the profitability, which circles back around to the mission of the farm: all parts working together to feed each other and make it whole.

Another critical piece to this puzzle is the kraut cellar. Far from the canned vinegary mush served in cafeterias and retirement homes, this sauerkraut is fresh and tangy. The ruby kraut, the ginger carrots and the kimchi are all tempting and all produced by the simple yet amazing ancient process of lacto-fermentation. Liv Carrow is the kraut cellar supervisor, but she prefers to think of herself as a "microbe manager." The ingredients (primarily cabbage and salt and a few other components depending on the recipe) are packed in barrels where the lactobacilli population (found on plants that grow close to the ground) tends to proliferate. They love dark, salty places without oxygen. Liv explains that fermentation breaks down the food and makes nutrients more available to be absorbed. Her passion about her product shows as she animatedly emphasizes that not all microbes are bad microbes. She stresses that even a healthy American diet is low in traditionally prepared foods like broths and fermented foods that burst with these gut-feeding little gems.

So kraut introduces all kinds of healthy microbes to our digestive system. It's crunchy and sour and even a little addictive. But maybe most incredible of all, it's an economic wunder-product. 300 pounds of cabbage make almost 300 pounds of kraut. The only energy required is manual labor to chop the ingredients and hand-pack them in jars. There's not a lot of waste in this equation. Kraut is a low-cost, high-yield product that brings a lot of activity and money into the farm puzzle. They even sell it online. This is a far cry from a milk jug and a cigar box. With these kinds of results, this might be farming for the future.

Agriculture 3.0

Steffen Schneider, director of farm operations, has given it quite a bit of thought.

"What I've been thinking about. . .as I've been working at Hawthorne Valley, working with agriculture, working with biodynamic culture. . .is that many of the major challenges we face as a planet. . .would be alleviated if agriculture would take its rightful place in our daily lives." He calls it Ag 3.0. It's a far cry from peasant farming (Ag 1.0) and the crazy mash-up of industrialization and agriculture that started in the 1970s (Ag 2.0). Steffen suggests, "agriculture offers a lot more to us than just food, in terms of local economies, cultures, landscapes. . . . It provides a chance to reconnect people to their food, their communities and the earth, to cultivate relationships and enhance vitality and economy to a region through agriculture." Hawthorne Valley does just that.

As lives are becoming more and more fragmented, Hawthorne Valley is all about connections. The Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, established in 1973 and just across the road from the farm and the farm store, seeks to educate students in ways that support their connection to themselves and the natural world, which is why there's an outdoor learning space smack in the middle of pastures and barns. And it's why it can somehow make sense that a farm and a school coexist. The Farm Store connects customers to their farmers. At Hawthorne Valley, people know where their food comes from. It's also an incubator for relationships. Some visitors come from a county away just to meet friends for lunch. Parents dropping off their children at the school convene for coffee and a chat. When weather permits, the outdoor pavilion is filled with customers enjoying their farm finds and each other's company. A host of hardy "regulars" sit outside well into late fall and start again before spring. Underscoring the "if you build it they will come" philosophy, Hawthorne Valley built it and the people came.

The outreach extends to a much broader sense of community than merely folks in the same town. One particular educational program invites inner-city kids to the farm. They come together for "chick therapy." Upon hearing this, the guys joke and don their tough exteriors, posturing as they sometimes do. And then. . .they sit in a circle and are each handed a soft, tender, downy baby chick. Martin Ping says it's a magical moment as the room quiets and these big guys hold these tiny creatures. Their faces shine with a new appreciation; a new connection. He says, "I feel so privileged to wake up every morning and come to a place that has as its mission [to be a location] where people can become whole human beings."

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