If you take the Amtrak two hours north, you will arrive at the picturesque Hudson train station, the oldest continually operating train station in the state of New York (to see just how picturesque, click here). Hudson’s downtown varies between stately renovated homes and rows and rows of low-income housing. Mixed among the cute coffee shops, restaurants and refurbished homes are enormous swaths of poverty.
I traveled to the Hudson stop because that was the closest stop to Harlemville, home of Hawthorne Valley Farm. On our drive from the station to the farm, Margo, the employee who graciously picked me up, asked me what I knew about the farm. I answered with something along the lines of, “Well, I know Hawthorne Valley is a 400 acre biodynamic farm and bakery. I know it has its own farm store where it sells raw milk. And I know it sells at several New York City greenmarkets!”
Margo seemed genuinely impressed with how much I knew, but there’s a difference between knowing a few facts and spending an afternoon on a farm, learning about its animals, plants, and history. I was excited to supplement my factual knowledge with smells, sights, and conversation.
My visit to Hawthorne Valley differed from all of my other farm visits. Instead of talking to and interviewing the farmer, I went on a tour of the property led by Margo and accompanied by a young family who were also visiting. The actual farmers were gone for the day and the farm felt relaxed, quiet, and peaceful. Before the official tour started, I wandered around the farm store and front of the property.
Hawthorne Valley Farm was founded in direct relation with the Manhattan based Rudolf Steiner School, the first Waldorf School in North America. Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner founded the spiritual philosophy known as anthroposophy, which focuses on cultivating inner development. Steiner believed that the human being was a body, soul, and spirit. The first Waldorf School was founded in 1919; today there are nearly 1,000. (Sources: Wikipedia/Why Waldorf Works.org)
The Waldorf curriculum is modeled on Steiner’s theory of human development. Methods used in Waldorf schools stem from the view that children progress through stages. Thus, at the schools, early childhood learning is experiential and sensory based; elementary learning is artistic and imaginative; adolescence learning focuses on developing abstract thought and social responsibility.
As stated on the homepage of Manhattan’s Waldorf School: “The aim of the education is to inspire in each student a lifelong love of learning, and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.”
Margo, both my chauffeur and tour guide, explained that when a child turns 9, Steiner felt that a child was ready to step away from the family unit and starts to recognize that he is different from his family. The Waldorf philosophy espouses physical activity as the best way for a child to understand that will force. And the most fulfilling kind of physical activity? A farm experience. So, the Waldorf 3rd grade curriculum was built around physical activity and in1972, a group of educators, farmers, and artisans purchased the Curtis Vincent Farm in Harlemville, New York, now known as Hawthorne Valley Farm.
In the 35 years since, Hawthorne Valley has developed into an important partner and community member not only with Manhattan’s Waldorf school, but also with residents and schools in Harlemville, Hudson, and seemingly, the entire Eastern seaboard. Throughout the year, Hawthorne Valley Farm houses students from as far south as Virginia and as far north as Maine. These 20-25 students bunk up in the Main House and fully participate in the farm’s activities—mucking, baking, weeding. Older students, including those from Manhattan’s Waldorf School, have more specialized visits to really hone in on one particular aspect of the farm, “tuning into the rhythm of the farm”.
Hawthorne Valley takes seriously its role in educating children and young adults. Each year, through a selective process, the farm brings on 5 farm apprentices. According to Margo, many of these apprentices go on to pursue careers in agriculture.
A newer relationship has found Hawthorne Valley working with students from Brooklyn Automotive, a high school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Three years ago, Jenny Kessler, an English teacher at the school, created an elective class entitled “Food, Land, and You”. This class’ curriculum delves into food justice and food access issues and partners with HVF for twice annual visits. This summer, HVF is running a camp called ‘Kids Can Cook!’. The camp’s population comes from a city-run camp in Hudson. Rachel Schneider diligently works with the Hudson summer camp to bring campers to HVF’s property, integrating cooking into the city camp’s curriculum. Currently, three of the camp counselors are from Brooklyn Automotive.
If education is Hawthorne Valley’s overarching mission and purpose, food and farming is what ties all of these diverse communities together. Hawthorne Valley is a 400 acre biodynamic farm. The cows, pigs, chickens and vegetables are raised and grown in direct harmony with the land. Biodynamic farming, a theory developed by Rudolf Steiner, treats the soil and land as a living organism. Maintenance of soil is vital for a farm to remain self-contained and long lasting. Hawthorne Valley (and other biodynamic farms, including Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm) emphasizes the use of farm-made manures and compost and work within the rhythms of nature. Biodynamic farmers believe that a healthy farm is comprised of three things that must be balanced at all times: man, land, and animal.
Cows play a very specific role in this balance, as they provide milk, meat, much of the manure, and aerate the fields. Margo explained:
“We have 150 acres for them to graze on—12 steers, a bull, about 60 cows—and calves that are born. That herd adequately produces enough manure to be fed back to the land to support 11 ½ acres of vegetables that we grow. If we wanted to grow more vegetables, we’d have to get more cows and would therefore need more land. So now we’re pretty well matched as far as what we can produce on the farm.”
Biodynamic farming also means a focus on animal welfare and natural way of life. Except in bad weather, the pigs stay outside, blending into the mud. The chickens are free-range. The Brown Swiss cows, chosen for their fat content, strong legs, and sweet demeanor, move from field to field, wherever the plants are growing best. All of the cows keep their horns and live outside 24 hours a day, except for their twice a day milking. Hawthorne Valley allows the calf to stay with the mom, nursing, through the first 3 months of life. Margo shared that there have been studies that say a mother cow will pass on important information about grazing. After 3 months, instead of taking the calf away, the farmers put a plastic ring on each calf’s nose, which stops them from being able to nurse.
The biodynamic model comes to a screeching halt when it’s time for the cows and pigs to be slaughtered. Whereas poultry can be slaughtered on premises, cows and pigs must be sent to a processing facility. Though Margo reassured me that they use a facility that respects the animals and slaughters “by an intuitive process”, the meat is no longer biodynamic meat because it has left the farm to be processed.
Though Hawthorne Valley is not able to personally slaughter their animals, they receive the entire animal back after it’s been killed and use or sell the whole animal: the pig lard is used for salve on cows’ udders, pig’s feet are sold at the market, etc. There is absolutely no waste.
Where and How to Buy
Hawthorne Valley’s store stands apart from other farm stores I’ve visited. When I first walked inside, I was shocked at how large and all-encompassing the store was. Though it sells its own products (raw and pasteurized milk, farm-made yogurt and cheese, meat, vegetables), it felt like a smaller Whole Foods, its aisles lined with familiar canned and boxed food as well as local and imported produce and dairy. Each product is labeled with a helpful color system to alert a shopper about its origin and growing methods.
The farm’s biodynamic bakery is housed in the same building as the store and uses the farm’s own milk and grain in their products. Margo stated that they can bake 168 hand-formed loaves at once. The bakery’s 75 item repertoire ranges from crackers to scones to granola.
The store is actually the final location at which Hawthorne Valley products end up (except for the raw milk, which can only be sold at the store). The products are first sorted for the NYC greenmarkets and their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. Hawthorne Valley sells at the Inwood and Union Square Greenmarkets. For a full list of products, visit here and here. Greenmarket updates are shared weekly on their blog.
For 22 weeks between June and November, much of the crop goes are to Hawthorne Valley’s 280 CSA members, located at four distribution sites (on the farm, Garden City, Riverdale, and Inwood Market).
My tour of the farm ended with a clear demonstration that nature often knows best. I had to leave the farm by 3 pm to catch my train back to the city. I didn’t have a watch, but Margo told me not to worry because the cows would let me know what time it was. The cows instinctively know when to walk to the milking barns for their twice-a-day milking: they always come in at 3 pm for their afternoon milking. I was doubtful, but without a watch, I had no choice but to trust in this daily rhythm.
A little bit after 3 pm, the “cow parade” walked in, single file and with visibly full udders. They paused and looked at us before continuing into the barn. All was in harmony on the farm and I had my signal to head back into Manhattan, take some of the peace I felt on the farm with me.