Hawthorne Valley Rising
This story was originally published by New York Makers.
Personal, sociopolitical and ecological transcendence. That’s what we’re here for, right?
From Plato to Henry David Thoreau, great minds have long grappled with the best manner through which transcendence can be achieved.
No institution better exemplifies the current best hope for the evolution of the human spirit than Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, New York. Hawthorne was founded in 1971 by a pioneering group of educators, farmers and artisans to foster a healthy earth, educate children and contribute to the cultural life of their community.
“Our goals are simple, but profound,” Hawthorne’s director, Martin Ping, explains. Martin joined Hawthorne in 1984 as a woodworking teacher and became director in 2003. “Like everyone else, we seek out the big questions. And we take simple, small steps toward achieving them.”
These goals, Martin explains, involve nothing less than “transforming the human spirit, enabling children to seek out and realize their inner vision for their purpose in life and giving them the tools to align their inner vision with their outer actions.”
Pause. Remember those simple, small steps he mentioned. “We do it through connecting children to the earth, building a just economic system that pays our employees living wages and provides us with enough surplus to reinvest it in the community around us.”
While the steps themselves are simple, put together, they comprise a grand dance, performed by dozens of players and choreographed by a master (Martin). While Martin strenuously resists the notion of “silos” and quite rightly believes that Hawthorne is best thought of as a great, cohesive whole, in order to comprehend the vast forest, first we must consider the individual trees.
The agricultural element consists of 900 (about 500 on-site and 400 leased) biodynamic acres cultivated by six full-time farmers. The land supports a herd of about 60 free-range dairy cows, which Martin considers the “heart” of the operation.
“At Hawthorne, our goal and mission is to transform the earth, to make it healthier, in increments, step by step,” Martin explains. “The cows are the primary component of this. We want to generate a living soil separated from the increasingly industrialized and mechanized large-scale farms that have become the norm. Dairy cows help generate fertility in soil, and they have a byproduct of milk.”
Hawthorne also grows more than 40 types of produce on 15 acres for members of its 300-member CSA. (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Members receive a share of the weekly garden harvest in exchange for paying their dues before the actual season begins, to provide funds for seeding and harvesting supplies. Hawthorne’s CSA supplies produce for 21 weeks of the year to Columbia County residents and three New York City communities.)
In 2010, Hawthorne began growing heritage-breed organic Hard Red Winter Wheat and Winter Rye on the farm in an experimental pilot program.
“From the beginning, Hawthorne worked to be sustainable in every sense of the word,” Martin says. “So in addition to practicing biodynamic agriculture and avoiding mechanization, we worked to become a viable enterprise so we can support our farm, our employees and our community. In the 1970’s that meant selling raw milk on the farm -- with our cash register being an unmanned cigar box people dropped money into – and doing direct-market selling in green markets.”
Entering the Market
While the cigar box has been replaced, Hawthorne still embraces a variety of distribution models.
In 2004, they upgraded their humble farm store to a 4,500 square foot market featuring a full line of organic, often locally-produced grocery store items.
Vegetables are sold at the farm store, in farmers markets and through the CSA. Milk is made into yogurt and cheese, which is sold all over the East Coast. Their raw milk can only be sold at their farm store, however. (To be sold in off-site stores, milk has to be pasteurized).
While Hawthorne is growing, there’s a limit to the farm’s aspirations. “We are not trying to be a national yogurt brand,” Martin says. “We like the regional model carved out by our yogurt, which was the first value-added agricultural product that was picked up by wholesalers.”
The most basic definition of value-added is the change made to a product that increases its value (like turning strawberries into jam or milk into cheese). It is thought to significantly plump a farm’s bottom line without stretching its resources in the process beyond what is ecologically, morally or financially responsible.
Creating successful value-added products has been essential to Hawthorne’s viability. Outside of the farm store, Hawthorne brings in roughly $2 million in sales annually for their products.
And that figure may increase considerably soon.
“We have just closed on a 14,000 square foot production facility in Hudson with an additional 10,000 square feet for office spaces, kitchens and gathering areas,” Martin explains. “The popularity of our sauerkraut has steadily risen as people get more interested in fermented foods. We used to do all of our production in a 1,500-square-foot basement under my office, and this new space will really allow us to grow, support other biodynamic farms we use to source our ingredients, employ more local people and generally contribute to the local economy.”
The Educational Component
Hawthorne has a holistic socioeconomic vision that influences every program it takes on and every business decision it makes.
“Children have fewer opportunities to connect to the natural world, and an increasingly mechanized and materialistic worldview is being imposed on them,” Martin says. “Yet we expect them to be the stewards of the earth.”
The farm offers a variety of day and residential programs for children in kindergarten through high school. Students at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School visit and work on the farm as part of their curriculum.
Hawthorne also offers residential week-long programs all year long, drawing children from New York City, Boston and Washington D.C. Their flagship day camp, called Kids Can Cook, is made available to children in urban settings, regardless of their financial circumstances.
The farm’s economic model enables its philanthropic initiatives. Without the sales from its value-added products, many of its educational and charitable initiatives would go unfunded, Martin says.
“There’s nothing like seeing a child who has never been on a farm pull a carrot from the earth and see, for the first time, where their food comes from,” he says. “That’s why we do what we do.
In addition to its agricultural and educational core, Hawthorne is also committed to various research and cultural initiatives. One of their most popular offshoots is the Farmscape Ecology Program, founded in 2003. It is dedicated to exploring the relationship between human culture and the agricultural landscape. A core staff of a botanist, sociologist, wildlife ecologist and technicians research aspects of the region’s ecology and history with the goal of deepening public understanding of and connection to the world around them. One of their most popular event series is their annual Spring Flower Walks in which staffers take participants on walks, pointing out flowers, explaining their stages of development, learning about their ecology and lore and observing insect friends and their interactions with plants.
Hawthorne’s passionate embrace of spiritual transcendence can seem intimidatingly solemn and earnest. But it’s also undeniably beautiful.
“Hawthorne has helped make me a wealthy man,” Martin says. “I have been able to walk my children to school every day, holding their hands. I’ve seen them connect to the world around them in a deep and meaningful way. I watched them blossom into wonderful, caring adults. And now I get to hold my grandchild’s hand every day on the way to school. As far as I’m concerned, that is true wealth.”
Hawthorne is best experienced, in person, with appropriate footwear for cavorting in the fields and a big appetite for gobbling up the farm store’s delights. At the very least, seekers of transcendence can grab a jar of their incredible kraut, yogurt or cheese, for sale at various markets throughout the Northeast (and later in the year, select products will be available on the New York Makers Marketplace.) And know that every delicious bite will help fund a magical place in the Hudson Valley.