Listening to the Land: Transforming Agriculture

A visit to Hawthorne Valley Farm

(note: I found this article in my archives. It was originally written in 2018)

After days of brainstorming, discussing, learning from each other and theorizing about what connects our inner-most being with the social and ecological challenges of our time, Colin Beavan and I leave New York City to visit the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County, New York. The Farm is part of the Hawthorne Valley Association, which seeks to promote social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture, and the arts and is based on principles of Rudolf Steiner. Steffen Schneider, a German born farmer, and his wife Rachel joined and later ran the Farm 30 years ago.

We arrive in the late morning. Opening the car door, the scent of New York City is immediately replaced by the scent of cattle. I take a deep breath. The cold wind whistles through bare trees, snow flakes land on my bare hands. A few houses, maybe ten, surround the parking lot. Despite the cold, I feel warmly welcomed by the place. It’s a feeling I have never quite been able to verbally express. Some places feel welcoming, some don‘t. In some you want to linger and pause, in some you want to pass through quickly. It‘s a mere sense, unbound to conscious features or characteristics, easy to dismiss, which is what I do. We walk across the street to meet Steffen, who invites us into his home for coffee.

As we sit down in the cozy living room which Rachel, Anna Duhorn and Jill Jakimetz, two of the farm’s other employees, we have a brief round of introductions. Not many words are needed to get to the core of our mutual interest: The Anthropocene asks for solutions that go beyond technology and policy regulations. It requires us to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be human? We talk about how humans relate to the non-human world, how farming is influenced by this relationship, that farming resembles the out-breath to the world and that mainstream agriculture needs a major transformation.

The farm follows the principles of Biodynamics. Biodynamics farming goes beyond organic farming methods. It includes a metaphysical and spiritual perspective. What this means in practice, we will learn from Steffen, who now gives Colin and me a tour across the farm. We leave the coziness of the living room and our conversations behind to step outside into the cold. We walk across a dirt path to a big barn. Our first stop is a herd of cattle. About 60 cows are grazing on hay, chewing distinctly, peacefully watching. Watching us? I am not sure, their gaze appears to be directed inward. Even if cattle might not appear to be a part of sustainable farming practices due to its environmental impact, to the Hawthorne Valley Farm, cattle is the heart of agriculture and central to the food production. Steffen explains, that milk and meat are only the byproduct of the cattle. The real value is in the manure. According to Rudolf Steiner, we „must know how to gain a kind of personal relationship to all things that concern our farming work and above all a personal relationship to the manure” (Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture, Lecture 4). The manure fertilizes the soil. Cattle are ruminants. In a metaphysical sense, each rumination is a form of reflection that turns what‘s taken from the outside into something of more value through an inside process, enhancing the manure.

When Steffen talks about his work, the farm, the ideas, principles and ambitions behind it, he is very precise, matter-of-fact and reflective in his statements. A systems-thinker, who is careful about what he says and how he says it. He is well aware that the way he approaches his work may appear mystic or esoteric. Steffen says that „we seem to have a constant need to use science as a legitimization and validation for what we do in the world. We have a habit of needing science to explain the world, instead of observing it ourselves and coming to our own conclusion.

Although sometimes necessary, a reduction to this way of thinking brings with it a culture of if this, then that, accepting causation only, instead of embracing the complexity and accepting that sometimes effects are not causal“. Listening to Steffen, it becomes apparent, that managing a farm like Hawthorne Valley means dealing with complexity that goes beyond mere analysis of cause and effect. It requires relational phenomenology: taking in the full experience as legitimate. Taking in the surroundings, the wind, the sun, the plants, the animals. Listening. Observing. Sensing. Otto Scharmer, MIT-professor, whose work has greatly influenced the agricultural practices at the farm, emphasizes that listening is an activity. It‘s the key for co-creation. In the case of the farm, humans co-create with the non-human world.

The most well-known biodynamic farms are the German Demeter farms. Before my trip, I didn‘t know that. What I did know was that if I want to treat myself with high quality food, I buy Demeter. My senses tell me it’s high quality. Maybe it‘s just marketing. Listening to our senses becomes a challenge if we question it. I turn quiet for a few minutes, while Steffen explains the process for maturation in cheesemaking. I find myself accountable to take pride in my science based thinking.

We continue our tour of the farm through the beautiful landscape. In many ways it looks very conventional, for a moment I feel a slight disappointment. I expected it to be more wild. Steffen explains that he does not promote a way of agriculture in which we leave things to themselves, but instead, to see farming as an opportunity to evolve as human beings and to evolve the planet.

In his point of view, humans don’t just destroy the non-human world, but they can actually enhance it. He is not alone with these ideas, new approaches in agriculture, like syntropy from Ernst Gotsch, follow a similar understanding. Ernst Gotsch is a Swiss farmer and researcher, who has developed a new technique of rapid recovery of poor soils by imitating existing patterns in nature. In order to work with our surroundings and to design it in a way that is mutually beneficial, it‘s necessary to consider the particularities of a landscape as influenced by the place-specific socioeconomic and ecological characteristics. A term the farm uses to describe their work is “the ecology of the middle ground”. The “middle ground” is land that is neither completely dominated by humans nor left in wilderness. Instead, it‘s influenced by two-way interactions between agricultural production and nature. “Ecology” is understood as ways of life of wild organisms around us, as well as ourselves. In Steffen’s understanding, the health of these ecologies depends upon our „active, informed compassion for that middle ground“.

While walking back to the car through the beautiful landscape of the farm, we continue our conversation, Steffen mentions his past troubles of conveying their approach and ideas. Too quickly the ideas are turned down as invalid, as there is often no space to talk about the not-fully-understood. In order to learn and understand, to convene diverse perspectives on inner and outer transformation and to inspire new pathways, Steffen, Rachel and Jill founded the „Mindfulness and Agriculture Institute“. The assumption within the institute is that the missing connection between our spirits and our selves, others, and the Earth is a main driver of what makes our food and farming systems unsustainable. The heart of the institute is to connect inner transformation and social innovation. Through research, seminars and information, they aspire to transform agriculture.

Our short visit has transformed my understanding of agriculture. It showed me how listening, sensing and taking into account what some might call the spirit influences the relation between the human and non-human world. While Colin and I are just about to leave, I wonder about that sense I had when I got out of the car: What happens if instead of dismissing it, I listen.