Visitors to the Hawthorne Valley Association can be forgiven their confusion when first visiting the place. It’s a farm, a school, a theater. It’s a funky-looking, beautifully maintained mystery buried deep in the quietude of the Town of Ghent in Columbia County.
This was my second visit to the 44-year-old establishment. I’d first come upon its farm store some 25 years ago. I’d gone there in search of what Hawthorne Valley was then best-known for: its “biodynamic” yogurt. This was at a time when the forces of entrepreneurial capitalism had yet fully to discover and exploit the market for all things whole and pure and untouched by all things chemical and processed.
The founder of the biodynamic approach to agriculture was Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist who developed an encompassing “spiritual/scientific” approach to living that he called anthroposophy. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a summary of Steiner’s vast philosophical theories and various innovations; let’s stick with his yogurt and the reason I pursued it through icy February roads back when: The stuff tasted good. It tasted fresh. Creamy. You didn’t need jellied fruit at the bottom or anywhere else to want to wolf it down. I didn’t need any philosophical sweetener to enjoy the stuff. I was a middle-aged seeker after the best yogurt that I’d ever tasted, and that was enough for me.
What I remember of the place where I bought the yogurt was a bedraggled building (a converted barn?) that offered little shelter from the miserable weather outside its walls. No matter. Back then, authenticity was all, and nothing said authenticity like the leaky boat that was that early version of Hawthorne Valley’s farm store.
Fast-forward to the present: The current version of the Association’s farm store is to the old shop that I remember as Whole Foods is to your favorite gas station’s sub shop. It’s still possible to find and buy all the biodynamic yogurt that you can afford, but you’ll first have to navigate past the most seductively fragrant steam table within a 100-mile radius. The store contains every conceivable sort of organic, whole-wheatful, gluten-free, non-GMO foodstuff you can imagine. It’s clean and welcoming and has an air of success about it: entrepreneurial capitalism at its finest.
After I and my wife and daughter and our baby grandson loaded up at the steam table, ate our lunch and spent several minutes being sure that we’d filed the correct biodegradable item in the appropriate recycling slot, I grabbed a glossy “self-guided walking tour,” intent on trying to get a handle on what exactly I’d write about such a diverse place. So I asked the first couple of people I saw why they were there and what they felt about Hawthorne Valley.
It turned out that I’d asked the right person. He said that his name was Martin Ping. He said that he’d come to the Waldorf School as a parent in the early ’80s. He’d then taught at the school for about 20 years. He managed the campus’s buildings and grounds and project management until more recently, when he’d assumed the title of executive director. I said that I hardly knew where to start.
“We have a very diverse association of activities, from education to research to agriculture, from wholesale to retail,” he said. “The dynamic relationships spur creativity.” Those relationships, he added are almost inherently in conflict – “retail and pedagogical, for example, all at different speeds.”
I wondered how he managed to juggle those demands and navigate the difficulties that must arise in the face of those conflicts. My own experience in alternative education had shown me the difficulties not only of getting anything done, but of doing so with people’s cooperation and understanding.
Ping nodded and said that the constant question facing the Association was, “How do we get along with each other? How do we meet and figure out a new way to do it?” It’s never easy, he said. “You’ve got 200 people, everyone’s passionate about something, and everyone’s right all the time.” The effort needs renewal every day, he said, “by being present to each other.”
“Learning how to be present to each other, to listen: These are the skills we develop here,” he said. That effort, he said, is the means by which the people who have made Hawthorne Valley survive and thrive through its 44 years – moving as it has from a scrappy alternative outlet for high-grade yogurt to the encompassing matrix of disciplines that it is today. There may be no way of explaining it to day-hopping visitors other than to suggest that they take the walking tour, listen closely to what they hear, ask whatever questions may arise and take it from there.
The Hawthorne Valley Farm Store is open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The self-guided tour around the Association’s 500-acre working farm invites visitors to poke their heads into the barn, visit the pigs, stroll through the Corner Garden, visit the Creek, hike Phudd Hill. The tour guide brochure is available near the Farm Store’s checkout counter. For more information, visit http://www.hawthornevalleyassociation.org.