Farm-Based Education: Lessons from Hawthorne Valley Farm

“Farm-Based Education: Lessons from Hawthorne Valley Farm” was a Groundswell-sponsored lecture and discussion held at the CCE on March 8th, 2010.

by Rachel Firak
Many thanks to Rachel Schneider, who came out to speak to an enthusiastic group at Cornell Cooperative Extension about her work as the Education Director of Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville, NY. Rachel spoke about the mission of the Hawthorne Valley Farm, the inextricable nature of farming and the arts, and the Hudson Valley’s innovative CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance in Farmer Training) program.
Hawthorne Valley Farm is a 400-acre biodynamic farm affiliated with the Hawthorne Valley Association, a nonprofit operation dedicated to agriculture, education, and the arts. The farm began in 1972 with the intention of introducing urban children to agriculture through hands-on experience. Their “farm school” still continues today, with over 12,000 children having been introduced to the beauty of the agricultural lifestyle over its 38 years of dedicated service.
Educational Programs
Since its inception, the Hawthorne Valley farm has continued to expand its public outreach programs to include an ever-increasing range of ages and interests. Programs span from the Visiting Students Program and Summer Camp- which brings schoolchildren ages 8 to 15 out to connect with nature, farming, and the origins of their food- to a farmer apprentice program, where adults live and work on the farm, learning more about dairy, beef, and vegetable production. Their Farm Beginnings program trains new farmers in business planning and sustainable practices, and the farm’s various workshops, such as their most recent Biodynamic Winter Intensive, draw farmers, gardeners and others to the farm to learn about biodynamic methods. Other programs include a Farmscape Ecology Program, which focuses on the holistic interactions between the agricultural landscape and the many native creatures that inhabit the surrounding environment; and the Alkion Center, which teaches the foundational Steiner philosophy of Anthroposophy and trains aspiring teachers in the Waldorf tradition of education. The Hawthorne Valley Farm also offers farm tours to the general public twice a month.
Farming and the Arts
In the past, when most people in the world lived in agricultural societies, the small-scale farm was the basic social unit. All things happened on the scale of the farm, each family or community providing for themselves the food they needed to survive and making for themselves the clothes they wore, the buildings they lived in, and any other material things they required or desired for their daily lives.
As times changed, mechanization replaced traditional methods of making. Today most people in our country do not sew and knit their own clothes, braid their own rope, bake their own bread, make their own soap, or play instruments and sing to each other for their music. These traditional arts have been somewhat forgotten.
People familiar with Waldorf schools and Rudolf Steiner know that in his philosophies, the arts are a vitally important part of learning, one that is never obsolete. The Hawthorne Valley Farm continues in this tradition, teaching artisan skills along with farm education in the belief that making goes hand-in-hand with farming.
CRAFT program
Of particular interest to Groundswell enthusiasts is the Hudson Valley-Berkshires-Pioneer Valley CRAFT, or Collaborative Regional Alliance in Farmer Training program, of which Hawthorne Valley Farm is a founding participant. At the core of this program, which was started in 1994, was the desire to increase support and education for young potential farmers in the region. Every other week, a group of aspiring farmers- all apprentices on farms in the area- would visit a different farm to learn about a single aspect of farming. Each participating farm took on a topic wherein they felt they had particular expertise- soil health, for example, or CSA management- and would lead the group of young apprentices in a day-long intensive course in that topic.
At the end of the year, the interns come out of the experience with a well-rounded education in several facets of agricultural production and strong social connections to the other apprentices in the region. Farms benefit by being able to list themselves as “CRAFT participants,” which became a selling point for serious, committed, high-quality interns.
The CRAFT program is open to apprentices- people already working under an established farmer- who are seriously considering a future career in agriculture. Farms interested in participating in the CRAFT must fulfill three conditions: they must allow their apprentices to attend all CRAFT sessions; they must attend meetings at the beginning and ending of the CRAFT program; and they must aid the CRAFT program in some way, either by hosting a visit, writing minutes up at meetings, or completing some other task. Each year the Hudson Valley/Berkshires/Pioneer Valley CRAFT program draws between thirty and forty participants and has 12 participating farms.
Topics have varied over the years, but some of the sessions that the CRAFT has seen thus far include: Tractor safety; Small Scale Start-Up; Grazing & Livestock; Soil Health; Greenhouses; Season Extension; Fruit Production; Horses; Cover Cropping; Mechanical Systems; Diversified Production; Business Management; Integrating Livestock and Vegetable Growing; Direct Marketing; CSA; Farm Equipment; and many others. Because this CRAFT encompasses such a large region (the Hudson Valley, Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires), there are often two different sessions for each topic, one held at the eastern end of the region and another on the western end.
If a farm wants their interns to participate in the CRAFT, but cannot spare the time to make the CRAFT meetings or do work for the CRAFT themselves, they can still do so as an “Associate CRAFT member”. In doing so, they cannot list themselves as a full-time “CRAFT participant,” but their apprentices can still benefit from the classes.
CRAFT is run by farmers, for farmers. The goal is a streamlined, low-bureaucracy, low-tech, no-fee organization that is maximally accessible while still self-sustaining. Each year, CRAFT sessions are bracketed by a beginning seminar, where apprentices and participating farms meet each other, and an ending session, where goals for the next year are outlined and decisions are made to continue the CRAFT tradition into another year.
One key decision that was made early on, and which still remains consistent, is the desire not to trademark the “CRAFT” name. Instead, the Hudson Valley CRAFT has encouraged like-minded groups in other geographic areas to start their own CRAFTs. Indeed, other CRAFTs are popping up across the continent, encompassing eastern Massachusetts, the Ontario region, the Upper Midwest, and Kentucky. As many of our followers know, the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is currently trying to set up a Finger Lakes CRAFT which would work in a similar fashion; contact Joanna Green at for information.
Farm Beginnings Program
For those who are not apprentices or interns but just beginning farmers who feel they’d benefit from more experience, the Hawthorne Valley Farm runs a Farm Beginnings Program, which focuses on whole-farm planning. At the beginning of the 8-session course, participants draft specialized 2-3 part goals for themselves based on their interests and skills. With the help of mentors, they create action plans for their farms, covering everything from environmental and financial goals to quality of life standards and a timeline for reaching their goals. Each farmer is paired with a mentor in the region that has worked through some of the same issues. Four field trips are taken during the course.
Conclusion & Links for Further Reading
We are extremely grateful to have someone with as much experience and enthusiasm as Rachel Schneider visit us and share a bit about her amazing and inspiring work. Many thanks as well to all that attended the discussion. Hope to see you next time!
Rachel Schneider is open to any questions or communications about any of the Hawthorne Valley Farm’s educational programs and the CRAFT program. She can be reached at
For more information about the Hawthorne Valley Farm, visit their website at
For more information about the Hudson Valley/Berkshires/Pioneer Valley CRAFT, visit their website at