Last week we got to spend a wonderful three days at Ghent, New York’s Hawthorne Valley Farm—part research trip, part vacation, part serendipitous avoidance of 90-degree days back in the City, and part getting to know a lot of wonderful farmer-philosophers. HV Farm is certified both organic and biodynamic and has one of the biggest stands at the Union Square farmers’ market, where we get all our local food (part of the No Impact project is only eating food grown within 250 miles—a day’s round trip).
The pumping heart of HV Farm is the dairy herd. Of 400 acres, only 13 or so are cultivated for vegetables. The rest is largely grazing land where the cows are grass fed. The manure they deposit in the fields fertilizes their own future food; what they deposit in the milking shed is collected to fertilize ours.
What’s most interesting about the biodynamic approach is that Steffan and his help look at the farm as one corpus that is tended for its overall health. The size of the dairy herd is chosen to be in exactly the right proportion to the grazing land, which feeds the cattle, and the size of the vegetable garden, which is in turn fed by the cattle's manure. The treatment of the garden soil with the composted cow manure and cover crops achieves a balance that will support happy vegetables, but not weed infestation. The mix of vegetables is chosen, in part, so as not to encourage the swarming of one particular kind of crop-eating bug (the solar-heated greenhouse is shown here).
In other words, by keeping the whole body of the farm healthy, there is no need for medicines—in the form of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides (not even those allowed by the USDA’s organic standards). That’s the good news. The bad news is that the techniques are very labor intensive. That’s why organic and biodynamic costs more than conventional.
But if you spend time, as we did, watching the farmers work on the land, you can’t help but appreciate everything thing they do (and all for love of the work, by the way, because the wages are poor). I wouldn’t begrudge them a penny.