After a sleepy mid-afternoon ride up the Taconic State Parkway, our tour of the Hawthorne Valley Farm kicked off with an introduction to our guide, Lily Giles. Lily explained that she’s very passionate about what she does (her face noticeably lit up when asked about the herd of dairy cows she manages), but she didn’t necessarily take a conventional route to get to where she is now. For starters, Lily Giles actually went to Vassar like all of us! She started out as an Urban Studies major, thinking that when she graduated she vaguely wanted to do something with food. So after Vassar she moved to California to figure out exactly what she wanted to do in the food industry. To make a long story short, Lily found herself in the food marketing business, working for big companies like Starbucks. After working at this “respectable” job for many years, she decided she was working in a far too corporate environment than she wanted to be. So made the decision to try out the complete opposite end of the food industry– farming.
Lily didn’t join just any old farm though. She picked a very special kind of farm to work on. Lily explained that Hawthorne Valley is a biodynamic farm. The term “biodynamic farming” comes from Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy that a farm is treated like one, self-sufficient organism. At first this concept was hard to wrap our heads around, but as the day went on we got to see exactly what this means firsthand.
Our first stop congregated around what Hawthorne Valley Farm calls the twelve corner gardens named after the different zodiac signs. There, we had the pleasure of meeting Bob Bower, the leader and manager behind tending to the many unique fields spanning before us. Bearing a warm smile, dressed in worn boots and a farmers hat, it was easy to tell that Bob loved farming and had been doing it for many years. He shared insight with us into the intricate process of tending to his fields that involved rotating the crops yearly to ensure soil fertility and diversity. The corner gardens are unique from the rest of the crops found in Hawthorne Valley Farm for they are tended to solely by human hands given the one exception of a push-around plough machine. Even better, before leaving for our next stop in the tour, Bob insisted that we take a bag of old beats to feed to the pigs and offered each of us a carrot fresh out of the ground as an organic Hawthorne Valley sample for ourselves. By the way, they were delicious!
From there we went to see the #pigs! Meet Betty, Marge, and Percy, the two sows and boar featured in the above right picture. To be honest, these pigs were probably the fattest, dirtiest, and cutest pigs I had ever seen. They snorted at us as they came to say hello and I have to admit it was hard to resist jumping over the fence and joining in their dirty, muddy fun. Since Hawthorne strives to be a biodynamic farm and organism, they repurpose waste by feeding any leftovers that are not consumed in other sectors of the farm and food scraps from the Farm Store and Deli to their pigs. This reduces the amount of waste and lessons the input that the farm consumes for they do not have to waste time and money buying pig food. We then proceeded to meet the rest of the pig family where the smaller, younger pigs were kept together. We threw out beats for them to eat and watched as they dashed their way to the fallen snacks.
Our next stop brought us to the main event–the cows. On site, Hawthorne feeds and supports around 70 dairy cows and one feisty, busy bull named Monte (pictured on the far left) who seasonally mates with the rest of the herd. The healthy, adult dairy cows are milked twice a day and are sprayed with an all natural, non-toxic fly spray to keep them comfortable. As a vegetarian who is very passionate about animal rights and the mistreatment and abuse that often occurs at large agricultural farms, coming to Hawthorne Valley Farm was an interesting and hopeful experience for me. In being an organic and animal welfare sanctioned farm, I deeply appreciated the careful and respectful ways in which this biodynamic farm dealt with their creatures. The cows, as you can notice in the middle picture, have not been de-horned, which is a common practice in larger corporations for they claim that they do not have the space or patience to let the cows keep their horns. Horns are rumored to not only be a mechanism for protection, but are also thought to be one of the cows many organs. Compared to de-horned cows found in other farms, Hawthorne Valley cows are substantially healthier, happier, and friendlier towards humans, proving that making the extra space and giving caution towards being speared is well worth it when it comes to the cows happiness and therefore higher quality of milk and production. I also found it relieving that this farm does not practice artificial insemination but instead keeps a beautiful, healthy bull to mate with the females on their own time. This prevents the females from becoming pregnant too often which lessons their life expectancy and health and also prevents udder infections from constant and thoughtless milking techniques. As we were leaving, Lily offered our group a jar of raw cow milk. Of course, we tried it and I’ll say that I was pleasantly surprised by the yummy taste although it was a little uncomfortably warm! I guess that’s raw milk straight from a cow for ya!
Overall, I believe that if you are going to have farms that are involved in producing meat and dairy products, this is the best kind of farm that there can be. Hawthorne Valley Farm not only strives to be as sustainable and ethical as possible, but they also encourage passion and thought into what they are doing and are always thinking of ways that they could improve.
Our final stop on our visit was to the farm store where they sold products from the Hawthorne Valley farm as well as from other local farms and producers. It has to be the nicest farm store I’ve ever been to! It was almost like walking into a high-end supermarket– except it was clear that every product in the Hawthorne Valley farm store was chosen with care. In addition to selling raw milk (which can only be bought on the farm), homemade cheese and hand-picked vegetables, the farm store also had an entire aisle dedicated to organic and environmentally friendly toiletries, makeup and other household products. It was so nice to just sit and people-watch as locals came in to buy their groceries and daily items. It really stood out to me how much care was put into making the farm store welcoming and homey.
After buying a couple souvenirs for the road and engaging in some pleasant conversation with the cashiers, we headed outside to board the van. On our way out the door, I noticed one last thing that really stuck with me: the “Barter, Borrow, Ask” board. This was a board posted outside the store where people can advertise services and goods they have and what they are looking for in return. This is something I don’t think any of us had ever seen before! For me, this board really highlights everything that is special about the Hawthorne Valley Farm. It is clear that the owners of the farm aren’t just aiming to provide food for their community, but they are also trying to enhance the sense of community itself. In the end, Hawthorne Valley farm is both a beacon of hope for the future of ethical farming and an incredibly unique amenity to its surrounding community.
Wyn and Rachel