City Kids Learn About the Land

In the Berkshire/Taconic foothills of eastern New York State, Hawthorne Valley Farm is home to 60 dairy cows, a herd of heifers, some piglets and a team of biodynamic farmers. There’s also a high-energy bunch of nine-to-15-year-old urbanites cheerfully turning the compost, helping bake sourdough bread in the bakery, milking dairy cows and rising at six a.m. to feed the animals. It’s all part of the experience of the Hawthorne Valley Summer Camp and Visiting Students Program, founded with the Steiner School in New York City to build links between kids and the land.

Campers at New York"s Hawthorne Valley Farm get practical experience milking cows, feeding pigs and weeding the gardens.© Hawthorne Vally Farm

Nick Franceschelli, director of the Visiting Students Program, says the experience can help kids appreciate the farm-to-food system. "They form a practical relationship with the Earth, and get the chance to eat thoughtfully and respectfully," he says.

Campers from around the country stay two to four weeks during the summer. Throughout the school year, third and fourth graders get a week-long taste of farm life through the Visiting Students Program. Franceschelli says the experience can be a lesson in community-building as well as practical skills.

"It’s been very satisfying for me to watch children work together to accomplish something," Franceschelli says. "When groups of kids as young as nine learn how to round up cows, it can be a very empowering experience. They learn that by using gentleness and working together, even large animals can be easily controlled."

Hawthorne Valley is unique in that it was first an educational tool, only later becoming a certified commercial biodynamic farm. Biodynamic is an intensive form of organic agriculture that relies on soil-repairing agents, takes lunar cycles and planetary movements into account as part of cultivation and emphasizes the interdependence of the elements of a farm.

Developed by Rudolph Steiner at the turn of the century, the technique evolved alongside Steiner’s Waldorf education system, which emphasizes hands-on learning and a balanced curriculum of art and science. According to Charlie Doheny, a program director, "The educational experience that we offer can help children understand the connection between their own well being and the animals and vegetables raised on the farm."

At Hawthorne Valley, kids who previously thought that all food came from the supermarket get a chance to meet the cows that provide their milk, weed the garden that gives them fresh produce and feed their dish scraps to the pigs. From the constant giggling, it appears that an education in sustainability can be fun as well as fruitful.