In the winter of 2010, I happened upon a program in biodynamic farming at Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York State’s Hudson Valley. I knew I wanted to interact with farmers who grew the kind of produce I served my family, but did not realize there was a whole spiritual philosophy around this type of farming (see Beyond Organic). Steffen Schneider and his wife Rachel, who have farmed for more than 30 years, led a five-day intensive on the biodynamic method. The first day, while I sat in the orientation listening to the other participants recount their agricultural experience and their desire to take their farming to a higher level, I realized I was completely out of my depth. Not only had I never farmed, but I felt a great disconnect between food producers like them and consumers like me. I wanted to enter their world and learn more about this way of life.
So in spring 2012 I returned to Hawthorne Valley Farm as a farm apprentice. You know, just like one of those young, bright eyed, idealistic people who are flocking to organic farms by the droves these days. But although I am obviously idealistic, my eyesight is somewhat dim, and I am so not young.
During my first afternoon I labored with several apprentices in the co-op market garden. Spanning three acres, this field had fallen prey to huge weeds. Our task was to extract the two-foot-high intruders that had invaded the broccoli patch. I discovered this was no simple task. I struggled for hours, hoeing into the dry, tightly packed soil in the heat of the day. Exhausted, I fell into bed at 8pm, whereas the young volunteers stayed up talking late into the night,
The next morning I was up at 5:30 so I could help with the harvest for the various greenmarkets. Armed with small, sharp knives, we picked and loaded lettuce and swiss chard into blue harvest baskets and wooden crates. We moved rhythmically through the perfectly aligned rows of produce. I actually felt a palpable energy from each plant I touched.
Next, I headed over to the creamery. Hawthorne Valley Farm has a herd of 40 cows which provide milk for the production of renowned quality dairy products ranging from raw milk (sold only at the supermarket co-op next door) to yogurts, buttermilk, raw aged cheeses and quark, a crème fraiche-like cheese. I was too late for the milking, but I was able to help bottle the buttermilk, learning to use a deceptively challenging label gun. Here again was another life lesson in humility. I had to be shown over and over again how to press a label onto a bottle. I finally succeeded, feeling tremendous satisfaction from date-stamping and labeling a mere 40 bottles. I was beginning to understand how labor-intensive farm production really is.