Overcoming John Wayne: What Farming Can Teach Us About Interdependence

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Content. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

David St.-Lascaux Interviews Martin Ping, Executive Director, Hawthorne Valley Farm


Espaliered apple tree, Hawthorne Valley Farm. All photos (except Martin Ping) by David St.-Lascaux, © 2011.

Hawthorne Valley Farm, based in Ghent, New York (Columbia County), was founded in 1972 as a working farm and agriculture education program for city kids. Today, the Hawthorne Valley Farm Association encompasses the original farm, a Waldorf school, a farmer training program, agri-tourism, an on-site retail store and greenmarket presence in New York City. Author/Journalist David St.-Lascaux recently talked with Hawthorne Valley Farm’s Executive Director Martin Ping.

DSL: How long have you been with Hawthorne Valley Farm?

Martin PingMP: I came here in 1984 looking for a doctor to perform a home birth for our second child, my daughter, and I never really left. What I saw here – and the community built up around it – was so aligned with my values at the time that I got the feeling it was like coming home.

DSL: Were you an educator?

MP: By trade, I am a builder, a practical, hands-on person, a bit of a homesteader, always growing my own food. Something clicked when I was 15 years old. I really cannot tell you what it was – probably things I was reading at the time that made me extremely interested in food. I came home and told my mom that I was going to be a vegetarian. She said, that’s great, but you’ll have to cook for yourself, because she was cooking for my four sisters, four brothers and me. Over time most of them became interested in how I was eating, and, in fact, for the majority of my family now – their consciousness around food is quite different from where it was back in 1970. Back then I had to ride my bicycle 20 or 30 miles to find organic food and little shriveled-up pieces of fruit. It was quite a bit different from the way it is now as far as access to organics.

I also really got into cooking. I baked my own bread; I made my own yogurt, tofu. I just loved every minute of it. I am an eater at the heart of it – I just love food. I am a fanatic, and so if you love food and you become interested in it, and you like to cook, the preparation becomes a celebration. The eating is a celebration.

And the other part of my life, which is really strong, is growing up where I did in Spring Lake, New Jersey – what we call the Irish Riviera. There was a real sense of community there. As I mentioned, I was one of nine children, and many of my friends were also from families of that scale. My parents’ friends all looked out after each other’s children in such a way that you felt like you had nine or ten moms, you knew that everybody loved you. This sense of community was really ingrained in me very consciously at an early age. And I knew if I was ever blessed to have my own family, someday I would want to be able to raise them in similar fashion, where you are supported by a community of like-minded people who are putting the children and the future first.

Hawthorne Valley really fit the bill for me, so I decided to settle here, and starting working here in 1988, doing woodwork and metal work, and eventually was asked to take over stewardship of all the buildings and grounds. I did that for 14 years, as project manager on several million dollars’ worth of building construction, building all the furniture in the school with the students, and a whole host of projects like that. I think when I had that job, I had the best job in the whole organization, because I was deeply connected to everyone and also the place, the physical place.

I knew if I was ever blessed to have my own family, I would want to be able to raise them where you are supported by a community of like-minded people who are putting the children and the future first.

After years of doing that, and with the place growing up around me, and my children growing up and going all the way through Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, I decided to take a pause. My kids, by then, were grown and had moved out of the house. I thought I’d take a year off and build a much smaller house for my wife and myself, and in that year figure what I want to do next. I said so to Hawthorne Valley Farm: I’m going to do that. Hawthorne Valley Farm doesn’t owe me anything; I have nothing but gratitude for my years of service. About two months into my planning for a one-year sabbatical, the board asked me to do what I am doing now, which is to be Executive Director of Hawthorne Valley Farm Association, which includes the farm, the Waldorf School, the Visiting Students Program, summer camp, the Farmscape Ecology Program, the Farm Learning Center, the Alkion Center for adult education, the Center for Social Research, Think OutWord, and Free Columbia. I think I got everything! It’s a very vibrant initiative and one that I am extremely privileged to serve.

DSL: When they began in 1972 did the founders have the strategic vision to do what Hawthorne Valley Farm has done, or has it – please pardon the pun – grown organically?

MP: It has definitely grown organically. But inherent in the original vision, embedded in it, there was a real genius for identifying the needs of our times as far as how to work the land, especially making sure small and independent farms could survive. We’re one of the first CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farms. We’ve been going to Union Square’s Greenmarket since they opened. We’ve been processing our milk in the creamery back there from the very beginning. So to make the farm organism a self-sustaining biodynamic farm was always a goal. But also this critical question: How will children who are being more and more cut off from nature – and more disconnected from the landscape, how will they grow up to be stewards of the earth if they don’t have that formative connection in the early years?

The idea was to have a real working farm, and embedded in that farm to have education in the form of the Visiting Students Program, which since 1972 has been welcoming school classes to live in this house for a week at time, very often nine-year-olds, third graders. 600 children per year come through that program, living here for a least a week on the farm. The Waldorf School across the street, nursery through grade 12 – there are 240 students there. The Learning Center has about 500 students coming through it, mostly in day programs, and mostly children from economically challenged situations. We actually find a way to welcome children from our surrounding communities who qualify for student lunch programs. We take them into that program for free.

DSL: Yet you all don’t live here. The Hawthorne Valley Farm Association and the farm don’t operate as an enclosed society.

MP: That’s correct, and I think that is also key to the genius in the founding impulse. It’s not an intentional community per se, where there is a set of standards that everyone has to adhere to, and maybe there’s a guru whom everyone is following. Still, it’s very much a community with intention. It’s a place where we all come to work and grow the community – or you could say communities. There are multiple communities and they all have permeable skins and they are all interconnected and interdependent. There is the farming community, there’s the educational community, the home schooling community, the Christian community up the road, the branch of the Anthroposophy Society. You can come here with whatever your main interest is and still find something of mutual interest. You’re totally welcome. Our store is called the gateway to the farm. It’s a very public place, and we hope more and more people will come through here and take something away – and leave something behind. It’s a good symbiotic relationship that we cultivate.

DSL: When you talk about the genius of the vision, you do have philosophical underpinnings with Rudolf Steiner. When you came here, you probably were not an adherent to Anthroposophy, right?

MP: Yes; I am now. For me it’s very much an inner path. It’s not the only one; there are many inner paths. But it’s one that works for me, as far as cultivating my inner capacities and allowing me to access the capacities deep within myself that can serve my work. Hopefully, my work is in the service of the greater work, and to the community, and to the future. I would say it’s mostly private, like any inner path. So it’s an inner discipline that serves me well in trying to serve the world as I understand I am called to serve. Steiner obviously had a very particular worldview around what a human being is, how one can educate children in a way that is really drawing forth from the child their own individuality and their own innate capacity, and that is what Waldorf education is trying to do. Biodynamic farming is trying to heal the earth in a way not only to preserve what’s there, but to enhance and improve the little patch of land that we’re entrusted with right now.

It’s interesting to follow what happened in the Twentieth Century, and how the industrial mindset took over and even got applied to agriculture. In a way, it’s understandable, and yet what we are coming to understand is that the industrial model doesn’t necessary apply to nature, and in fact can be counterproductive.

So there are very practical ways in which Steiner’s philosophy can be brought forth in the world. It’s also this quiet inner life of the teacher or inner life of the farmer. It is wonderful to experience how those can unfold and serve the work. For example, I’m an extremely eclectic reader. I don’t have a TV and I don’t have electronic media at my house. I do enough computer work here at the office, so when I go home it’s my sanctuary, and I essentially read and do whatever practical work I need to do around my house. I like my quiet moments to balance out a very active life down here.

DSL: In 1900, for the first time, the number of people living on farms was under 50%, the shift in the United States from rural to urban population. Today there are said to be 2.2 million U.S. farms. It might be that big industrial farms take up a preponderance of acreage, but there are a lot of farmers, more than in 2006 when there were estimated to be 2.06 million U.S. farms. Are we seeing a recommitment to agriculture? It seems that’s something Hawthorne Valley Farm is fostering and championing.


Seven little piglets, Hawthorne Valley Farm.

MP: I think we are seeing a recommitment to agriculture. And yes, we’ve been training farmers in our farmer training program for years. We have close to one hundred who have come through here as apprentices or as co-workers, most of whom – the vast majority, almost to the last one – are still engaged in agriculture, which I find astonishing, and also I’m very grateful for it.

It’s interesting to follow what happened in the Twentieth Century, and how the industrial mindset took over and even got applied to agriculture. In a way, it’s understandable that human consciousness was such that dominion and control seemed to be what we were called upon to do. And yet what we are coming to understand is that the industrial model doesn’t necessary apply to nature, and in fact can be counterproductive, and we’re seeing real cracks in that system. This doesn’t lead to a very secure feeling for the future as far as food security and food justice.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. It’s not going to happen overnight. Nor do I think we should necessarily demonize that which we’ve come through, because we all participated in it, and we are all responsible for transforming that to the next, best iteration of what agriculture should be. I think the challenge for us – and one of my definitions for biodynamics – is really how to integrate or braid this peasant or indigenous wisdom that still represents the majority of the agricultural systems on the planet, and integrate that with modern consciousness and modern understanding so we can actually have the best of both in order to feed the world. There are a lot of people to feed. To say that little farms like Hawthorne Valley Farm are going to do that tomorrow is probably erroneous, but to rely on monocropping and industrial agriculture too much into the future is not going to do it either. What will work is if we can evolve all the thinking towards an approach that will be capable of feeding the world in a sustainable and just way. It’s a big question: we’re starting to nibble away at the answers, I hope.

DSL: I just read Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller said that by the year 2000 we’d be able to feed everyone on the planet, and my understanding is that we indeed can, but we don’t. Why don’t we have food justice today?

MP: Well, that’s a hard question for me to answer. My heart is beating here in my breast, so I know what I am trying to do. I suppose in my most cynical moments I could feel like there is some intention behind denying people access to healthy food, but I hate to think that. I think there’s failed thinking – or flawed thinking – that we can have dominion over nature and that we should be able to treat farming as an extractive activity in which you are mining the soil to get the most out of it that you can, and that food should be cheaper at the price point than it really is to produce it, and that you externalize all the costs of fossil fuels, pollution, degrading soils, degrading water. All these things, if we took full ownership as a species and said we need to put that into our accounting, then it would shift.

As to some of these large corporations that are hell-bent on market share and controlling the food supply, again, that’s old thinking. What did we gain from that? We have to have awareness-based cooperation where we are working with each other. For example, Steiner’s fundamental social law takes Adam Smith and turns Smith’s argument 180 degrees. Rather than just trying to take care of your own needs as a way of serving the community, it’s the other way around. If you serve the community’s needs and you know that your neighbors needs are met, your needs will be met as well. Living that way for the last three decades I know that it’s true. My focus does not have to be about worrying about getting those things for myself. Those things just take care of themselves. We can work towards making sure each other’s needs are met, especially making sure the children’s needs are met. We have to tend the earth because all of our economy depends on that in the end. Short-term gain? That just doesn’t make sense any more. I just cannot believe that more people aren’t going to wake up and say, this is absurd. Still, it’s an uphill climb. I realize that; I can be woefully naïve. I find my naïveté is oftentimes for me a capacity, because at least I stay open.

DSL: I was in Croatia this summer. They don’t have organic, because everything is organic. I had a conversation with someone who expressed concern about GMO plants. Are you concerned about genetically-modified plants?

MP: A big concern is with the alfalfa because that is one area where, if you have a certified organic dairy and all of a sudden your alfalfa is contaminated by neighboring farms’ GMO-grown alfalfa, you can lose your certification, and there goes your business plan, not to mention potentially the health of your herd or your land and potentially your ownership. You might be familiar with [farmer] Percy Schmeiser up in Canada with canola, and the fact that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola was detected in his fields, and all of sudden there were lawsuits about who owned his seeds. That to me is the wrong paradigm, and whether it’s evil or not, does that mean that all of the people engaged in that are evil? I cannot go there, because people might truly believe that we need this to feed the world. There are 7 billion, growing to 9 billion people, and in their minds, they are trained to think like: we have to do it that way, to make crops that are resistant to drought, because we are trashing the climate. It’s a crazy kind of self-perpetuating ouroboros situation where we are swallowing our own tail.

Steiner’s fundamental social law turns Adam Smith’s argument 180 degrees. Rather than just trying to take care of your own needs as a way of serving the community, it’s the other way around. If you serve the community’s needs and you know that your neighbors needs are met, your needs will be met as well. Living that way for the last three decades I know that it’s true.

How can we break that cycle? How can we step away from that? I don’t think it’s about demonizing everybody. I’m very comfortable with preaching to the choir and patting myself on the back when I am sitting with a bunch of people who are “as smart as I am.” But it’s also enlightening to sit with a group of people who are coming at it from a completely different paradigmatic starting point of thinking who are, say, working in food aid, and are saying, “I am trying to get nutrition to a billion people a day, and your beautiful slow food movement, I don’t see it doing it.” They’re taking genetically-modified commodity crops and pouring nutrient powders on them and trying to get these people nutrition so they are not starving to death. And you start to feel a little uncomfortable about your holier-than-thou attitude about what we are doing here.

On the other hand, if you ask them, now wait a second, if you are admitting that we are capable of growing enough food on the planet, and yet we are still facing these problems, then we come back to your earliest question. What’s wrong with the system? Is it political will, is it distribution, is it corrupted thinking by monopolistic people who are trying to control the food supply and squeezing out as much margin as they can at the expense of others on the planet? It’s a complex question and one that we all need to get at, starting by listening to each other, and demonstrating that you can think about it in a different way, you can practice it, and you can have new associative forms of economics, new relationships where you’re going to a greenmarket or you are a member of a CSA, and not just an anonymous less-than-satisfying experience of getting something out of the freezer case.

DSL: How does this thinking fit into the Hawthorne Valley Farm Association, and how does it fit with Waldorf internationally, and in how you communicate?

MP: Our school is accredited by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. So we are very much part of the Waldorf School movement, and our faculty is international in that respect. And we have students coming from other countries. Here in the middle of Columbia County we have a nice, international, cosmopolitan presence. It’s also very particular to this place that the founding vision was that education really needed to take into account the will, and that cognitive learning is greatly enhanced by practical, hands-on, real-world-based activities, and also artistic activities as a way of developing empathy and feeling, and, in a way, coming into your own sense of morality. So it’s really educating the whole child: your academic life, your thinking, your artistic life, cultivating feeling and doing practical hands-on work, and crafts-based learning as a cultivation of the will. We’ve known that for almost a hundred years. That it’s a critical pathway toward cognitive development. And it’s being recognized now more in the neurosciences that what happens with your hands directly relates to how your brain is wiring and informing itself. There are interesting studies that validate what stands behind the fundamental tenets of a Waldorf education.

The whole campus can be viewed as part of the pedagogy. Our own students have access to that, as do children coming from urban centers who are living on the farm with their classes for a week at a time during the school year, and the summer campers who are involved at the same time in agri-ecological activities. Some of Daniel Goleman’s really good work in ecological intelligence is very much in sync with many of the fundamental viewpoints on the human being that are key to the Waldorf education. We are not just receptacles for Information In / Information Out. We are not just training the student to be a cog in the wheel. That each human being has innate capacities, and even a destiny to fulfill. Our role as educators is not to get in the way of that, but rather, in a way, to try to recognize it and draw it forth. I think that is what education actually means, to draw forth or draw out, not ram in.

DSL: Do you think that America is favorable to reruralization? Is the physical space, the earth that we occupy here in the U.S. friendly toward it?

MP: The earth is friendly to reruralization, if we are wise enough to recognize that essentially, we are nature, if we can move past the dualistic thinking of separating ourselves out of nature, and really recognize that we are one and the same. If we could be wise enough, and able to really live in that reality – and own it with every fiber and cell of our bodies, we would act accordingly, we would act differently, and we would look at how we partner with nature and the landscape in a way that is mutually beneficial. I think the fundamental mission of Hawthorne Valley Farm is to try and find meaningful ways to make that reconnection, and to rebuild those relationships. It starts with nature; it starts with the earth; it moves towards our social relationships, our reconnection to each other. It goes to our own connections to our own inner lives, our own selves, to our own higher natures, where ultimately we are truly operating as one integrated, universal system. I love my own recognition of that and my own experience of that, because it feels incredibly empowering. I don’t feel so small anymore.

DSL: Can people be brought around to think holistically? How do you get the attention of people when they are so bombarded by corporate media?

MP: Overcoming egotism is the starting point. We all need to do that in ourselves. I’ve come to recognize that in myself when I look at these questions and these problems, when I talk about the large corporations in a way that is not overdemonizing them. I do it on a personal level: I cannot externalize any of this; I have the same capacities in myself to overcome. I am a product of the Twentieth Century: I came through that, I participated in it, I have stuff, I drive. Pardon me while I climb down from my pedestal and take ownership of trying to overcome it so I can be receptive to really working in an ecosystem of my peers in a way that is truly collaborative and mutually supportive and enhancing. It’s not easy. There’s a lot to overcome there.

We are human beings with a 500-600 year history of really crystallizing this Cartesian, dualistic, I/thou, separate identity. All of that was critical and important – and we did it, and now, it’s like, so here we are, a bunch of rugged, individualistic John Waynes. How do we come back and find our way back to recognizing our interdependence, and celebrating that and really working with each other?

We are human beings with a 500-600 year history of really crystallizing this Cartesian, dualistic, I/thou, separate identity. All of that was critical and important – and we did it, and now, it’s like, so here we are, a bunch of rugged, individualistic John Waynes. How do we come back and find our way back to recognizing our interdependence, and celebrating that and really working with each other?

For me, I have to start by listening. The wisdom of the human body that we have two ears and one mouth, expressive of how we should be listening twice as much as we speak. [I’m not doing that now because you are asking me all these questions!] Collaboration is key. We are not going to do it in our little individual silos. I have this vision of overcoming John Wayne. I grew up idolizing him as a young child. It’s part of the American spirit and the American ethos, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to work consciously toward transforming into a real capacity for empathy, compassion and love so we can work together and recognize that we’re not going to do this on our own. We have so many good people in the world who are doing such good work, yet their ability to come together and work in a collaborative way is challenged.

I am trying to model it by doing it. I don’t have a recipe book. Does that mean I get it right all the time? It’s very much a work in progress, as am I. I liken it to another thing I had when I was a child, besides John Wayne – the rock tumbler. You get a bag of dirty stones and you have this little red plastic contraption with some water and you plug it in and – grrrrr – this grinding horrible noise going on, and I didn’t have the patience to listen to it days on end. I wanted the beautiful polished gems on the bottom. And if you unplug it prematurely, you end up with a bunch of still-dirty rocks. I feel like socially and karmically, we owe it to each other to stay in the tumbler long enough to rub each other’s rough edges off and ultimately, I imagine a beautiful ecosystem of polished gems working with each other. Will it happen in my lifetime? I don’t know. Quite possibly not, because I’m on the north side of life. But I have children and grandchildren, so it’s worth it every day to summon up my optimistic – if not naïve – view, and keep plugging away at it.


Boots on porch, Hawthorne Valley Farm.

DSL: Community-supported agriculture: You have 300-plus people participating. I assume you would call the program a success.

MP: Absolutely. I would like to do more, if not directly on this piece of land, because, by being a biodynamic farm we are not going to push the carrying capacity of the land to maintain the fertility of our cow herd. I would like to see more people have that direct relationship with their farmer, that direct relationship with their food. I think that’s another one of those critical places where we can build connectivity.

We see interconnectedness on multiple levels. Our CSA program, I would say, is successful on the level we want it to be. I am proud of other farmers like Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm, who was a farmer here. Roxbury Farm one of the largest CSA programs in the country, and he is a fantastic farmer. Chris Cashen of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing – I just love him, he’s also a fantastic farmer with a 1,000-member CSA program. Not only that, but he is growing a couple of hundred pounds of food that he is delivering to food pantries in New York City. So again the food justice piece, the food access piece. People like Chris Smith and his wife Katie Smith, who are finding a way to do that as well as their mission as farmers. I just want to see more and more of that. To build a food system that is more self-determining, self-reliant, ecologically sustainable, and economically and socially just. We can do it.

DSL: Median income in the U.S. is $47,000-$50,000. Poverty income for a family of four in the U.S. is $31,000. Not much difference. Is there a perception that the rural life – even if one is completely self-sustaining – constitutes a kind of poverty by financial definition?

MP: I am glad you said “by financial definition,” because there are many ways to measure wealth. By my yardstick, I consider myself the richest person on the planet for quality of life, for quality of relationships, for meaningful work. To be able to go into my own store here and have food grown by – even if not on this farm – people with whom I actually have direct relationships, that’s a level of wealth that I would want for all people, quite frankly. Yes, by what is in my bank account, if I am even on the charts, I would be somewhere near the bottom, if that is how I am measuring things. Thankfully, I am not. I think we need to recalibrate our metrics for how we measure wealth, how we measure community wealth, what we consider ownership. These are fundamental questions that maybe move us away from this large-scale corporate, globalized model of absentee ownership, and bring it back down to earth, and bring it back to down to communities taking initiative and taking their own destiny into their own hands, and then recognizing how truly wealthy we can be by those measures.

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