Getting to the Heart of an Associative Economy

by Martin Ping, Executive Director

This article appears in Hawthorne Valley’s 2021 Annual Impact Report: the 50th Anniversary Edition. Click here to view the full publication.

Our yogurt, for sale in the Farm Store, illustrates our associative farm economy. Photo by Black Mountain Visuals

One key question that concerned the founders of Hawthorne Valley was the future of small and mid-sized independent farms within an increasingly industrialized food and agribusiness paradigm. A second question revolved around the ability for children, especially those growing up in urban environments, to have meaningful, immersive experiences in nature during a time of mounting mechanization, technology, and consumer driven materialism. These two lines of inquiry led to the founding of The Rudolf Steiner Educational and Farming Association (aka Hawthorne Valley) in 1971, and the purchase of the Curtis Vincent Farm in 1972.

It was the express intention of the founders to welcome visiting school children onto a working, biodynamic, production farm. It is humbling to acknowledge that the property that they acquired in 1972 had ceased to be a working farm, and so these pioneers had to essentially start from scratch. Two key strategies towards achieving long-term viability were on-farm value adding and direct retailing to customers. These led to the building of the creamery for yogurt and cheese making and to the early adoption of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of preselling shares of the harvest to subscribing members. There are currently 350 CSA members, with pick-up on the farm and in three locations in the greater NYC metro area. In addition to Hawthorne Valley products, the creamery co-packs for two local dairy farms and buys in milk from a third. The maple syrup for Hawthorne Valley’s Maple Yogurt is purchased from a small producer four miles away.

The original “Farm Store” was a cigar box into which one could deposit money on the honor system for milk ladled out of the bulk tank and cheese cut from a wheel and weighed. Occasionally there might be loaves of dense rye bread to go with the dairy products. The relationship between urban and rural communities has always been important, and in 1977 Hawthorne Valley Farm was one of the founding farms of the greenmarkets in New York City. Over the years HVF has opened new market stands to bring farm products to the greater New York Metro area in addition to its original stand at Union Square. In 1981 Hawthorne Valley opened a retail store here on the farm in the building that is now occupied by the Place Based Learning Center and HVA Administration. A bakery operated in the basement of the store.

Wheels of Hawthorne Valley Alpine aging in our cheese caves at the creamery. It takes 100 lbs of milk to make a 10 lb wheel of cheese! Photo by Black Mountain Visuals.

In 2004, the Farm Store and bakery moved to their current location. In 1999 sauerkraut was being made in a small room adjacent to the bakery. With the bakery moving with the store, the sauerkraut operation took over the former bakery space in the basement and remained there until it was bursting at the seams with barrels of fermenting veggies. In 2017, Hawthorne Valley spun off the sauerkraut as a subsidiary LLC, Whitethorne (aka Farm Ferments), purchased and renovated a building in Hudson, and moved the fermentation operations there. In addition to making the Hawthorne Valley line of fermented vegetables, Farm Ferments also co-packs for other brands and does private labeling for a major retail grocery chain. Farm Ferments still purchases the bulk of raw ingredients from local and regional farmers.

The Farm Store is considered a gateway to the farm. Soon after the store moved into its current location, it became apparent that it could use more room, and a small bump out was added in 2015. More than an outlet for Hawthorne Valley Farm products, the store functions as a mini food hub of sorts, buying in produce and value-added products from over 200 local and regional business and entrepreneurs in support of a vibrant local, living economy. One such company was Oliva Kale Pesto, which had a strong and devoted following. When life circumstances made it difficult for the owner to continue, Hawthorne Valley Farm Store bought the business and now makes the pesto on-site with kale grown on Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Hawthorne Valley believes that access to clean, nutritious food should be a right for all, not a privilege for some. The wider industrial ag system pumps out vast quantities of what author Michael Pollan calls “food like substances” at highly subsidized prices, putting smaller, more regenerative farmers at a financial disadvantage. This exasperates what former Hawthorne Valley Farm manager and co-founder of The Institute for Mindful Agriculture Steffen Schneider calls the double affordability gap— farmers struggle to remain viable while neighbors can’t afford to purchase the food they produce.

With support from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, the Hudson River Bank and Trust Company Foundation, and others, Hawthorne Valley was tasked with leading a collaborative effort towards increasing food access for the more vulnerable citizens of Columbia County. One outcome of this effort was Rolling Grocer 19, a novel retail operation with tiered pricing, which has a storefront in Hudson as well as a mobile market component. In 2021, with support from Hawthorne Valley Farm Store staff, Rolling Grocer became its own independent entity.

Fifty years into this experiment, the farm organism continues to evolve in response to external forces and build on lessons learned. Hawthorne Valley has become a laboratory, integrating ecological research, land stewardship, farming, artisanal food production, wholesaling, retailing, and education in one dynamic ecosystem. Envisioned by the founders as a living organism, Hawthorne Valley has grown organically over the past half century, with change as the only constant. There is no hard and fast formula for determining success on the multiple levels that matter.

The closest thing to a recipe may be to start with a good idea, add equal measures of intention, attention, and elbow grease, combine with a dash of good luck, and stir occasionally for five decades.

Hawthorne Valley Farm Store’s bakery case is filled with organic breads, muffins, and pastries from our own bakery which uses flour ground from grains grown on our farm. Photo by Colin Howell.

One pattern that the farm organism has applied to its economic model over the years is what Rudolf Steiner termed “associative economics.” The premise, simplified, is that the key participants in a value chain, including producer, distributer, retailer, and consumer assemble together to understand the needs of each part of the system in order to determine what should be produced and what would constitute full cost accounting in determining value and price.

Being a microcosm of the larger food system, with key parts of the value chain present in one organization, the farm is eager to further explore how an associative economy at Hawthorne Valley can function within, and possibly inform, the existing market economy at large.

The enterprises and initiatives within Hawthorne Valley Association operate somewhat independently, with a high degree of autonomy. Each develops its annual budget and tracks its own profit and loss statement. The idea is to maintain financial integrity and honor the distinct nature of each activity, whether that be pedagogical, research, or commercial. With tracking the finances in this way, Hawthorne Valley is able to assess the economic health of each of the parts in relation to the whole. There is opportunity to borrow between departments, and the more commercially oriented enterprises can make financial contributions as gift to the cultural activities.

The farm practices a more nuanced version of this model. Each of the departments within the farm develop and monitor their own budgets and P&Ls. The difference is that the farm develops a capital budget that all of the departments participate in. A portion of this capital budget goes to paying down debt with the rest going to major capital repairs or upgrades. The directors of farming, production, and retail, with input from their staff, prioritize where to invest surplus capital. It is common that the surplus is generated in one department while the most urgent need exists in another. Over the years, profitability and shortfalls have shifted amongst the departments. There were years when the farm store incurred a loss and the greenmarkets were the primary engine of economic viability. Other years it has been the opposite. The same can be said of the creamery, bakery, and farm itself, illustrating that adaptability is key. It is the complexity of the overall ecosystem that has created pathways to resilience throughout the years.

The groundbreaking evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis said, “Life did not take over the world by combat, but by networking.” As an ecosystem nested within concentric ecosystems, Hawthorne Valley looks forward to the future, and to working collaboratively within a growing network towards generating innovation and incubating new initiatives that rise to meet the needs of our time.