New Village Farm and Purinton Maple Internship

New Village Farm and Purinton Maple Internship
EDSS 239 Prof. Mary Beth Barritt
By Paul Fischer

Table of Contents

1) Introduction: New Village Farm and Private Maple Sugar Making………………………………….3
2) Cultural Connections and Immortality of the Village……………………………………………………….5
3) Societal Filters, Black Teens (pigs), and Bovine Mortality……………………………………………..8
4) Talking to Animals and the Language of Revolutionaries, Learning on the Job………………11
5) From a Tube to a Road: Communication and Miscommunication…………………………………..14
6)Biodynamics, Harmony, and Speaking to the Spiritual Side of Agriculture………………………17
7)Responsibility and What Organic Actually Means…………………………………………………………20
8) Healthy Living, Maple Sugar, and an Organic Lifestyle: The Impact of Biodynamics on my Endeavours………………………………………………………………………………………..,…………………………23
9) Mountains Beyond Mountains: Review and Reaction…………………………………………………..26
10) Interview with Dr. Ray Mills Antley…………………………………………………………………………..29
11) Conclusion: Agriculture, Education, and Experience in Vermont………………………………….33

Paul Andreas Fischer
Introduction: New Village Farm and Private Maple Sugar Making

This fall I have secured an internship at New Village Farm, an educational biodynamic and organic farm that focuses on helping students from the local to learn about agricultural lifestyles while providing high quality organic produce and meat to the community. Because of the educational nature of the work experience, and the eagerness of the staff and owner, Michaela Ryan, to helping me learn about the work place I think this internship will provide me with a great opportunity to cement leadership and group management skills, as well as giving me my first extended farm experience. In addition, I am for the first time operating a family-owned sugarbush that has thus far remained untapped. In this first year I will be only operating about 10% of the eventual bush, but this will give me invaluable experience and financially some numbers to go forward from. For training, Peter Purinton, a friend who has operated a bush for decades and has made several important contributions to the industry, has agreed to allow me to help setting up and maintaining some of his own taps this fall.
At New Village Farm, there are different co workers from all walks of life. Jeff, besides Michaela, has been on the farm longer than anyone else: nearly three years. He also has the most experience with biodynamic farming, having studied in England before dropping out to pursue his agricultural interests. Two farmhands are UVM graduates, Ross and Sarah, both of whom have been involved in the farm for a couple of years. With a degree in agriculture, Sarah takes care of the vegetables and plants, a sensible fit. Ross, however, has a degree in Political Science and hopes to save up enough to write Science Fiction novels. Seeing the anatomy of slaughtered animals or tanning them with their own brains probably gives him enough to think about, and any potential writer would value the time spent with young children. Finally there is Dina, an African refugee who has perhaps one hundred words of english vocabulary. While I have not had the opportunity to speak with her at length (or in all probability I do not have the capability), working with her to feed animals or make salsa I have seen that she comes from an entirely different culture to my own.
There is an entirely different group of people working on a maple farm. Firstly, it is far more solitary than the educational farm. Working to set up a bush, while it can provide substantial reward, is basically a two person job and relies heavily on a knowledge of the land and forestry that is best gained through extensive specific experience. Occasionally there are odd jobs and rural Vermonters are hired to help out. For me, I will be sure to rope as many friends and family into helping out as humanly possible, without a question. Finally, where the New Village Farm focuses on giving local students a view of one point or period of the farm experience and lifestyle, and emphasizes the stark difference between farm practices in big agriculture versus their own organic and biodynamic practices, maple sugar making implies a commitment from the sap harvested directly from trees to the final product produced (although some specialization admittedly occurs with the production of candies or in distribution). In both workplaces, I will be learning to care for stewardship of the land and seeing a product coming directly from the soil.
While this is unpaid work experience, New Village Farm is operating this year as a non-profit, there is invaluable learning experience for me in both occupations. By keeping my essays focused on the readings, and time spent on the job, I will hopefully be able to document and offer some insight into my first years in agriculture. In producing a quality product of my own, and by giving some of that to the non-profit at New Village Farm, I can be assured of providing as much for my community as I am providing for my land and myself. In time, with luck and grace, I will be able to look back on both experiences as fundamental steps in learning to provide for the environment and for my own sustenance. Because I firmly believe that this is the best way to fight the dangers presented by big agriculture, I am doing good for environment and health.

Cultural Connections and Immortality of the Village

“It looked immortal, untouched by centuries.” Deejay Choprak’s reaction to the small Indian village was similar to my own upon arriving at the small biodynamic farm in Shelburne Vermont. With a stove made of earth, and adherence to spiritual superstitions, life on the farm held many parallels to Chopraks story, “Landing on the Moon”. Students on New Village Farm seem to be taking a step backwards in time, colliding with not only cultural differences inherent with the biodynamicism of the farm, but also taking a step back to the agrarian roots that were the foundation of the United States. By taking time out of the technology dominated classroom sometimes a week, the pre conceptualization of the superiority of progress is challenged. In addition to providing a learning experience for students and adults alike, the biodynamic farm is an economical fully functioning farm, offering organic produce to the community.
With between one and two dozen beef cattle on the farm at any time, in addition to another dozen pigs, 6 or 7 goats and at least 40 or 50 chickens there is a dedicated customer base from the local community who are able to come and see the vegetables growing, and the animals living as well as purchasing high quality food items. In Choprak’s story, the Doctor is introduced to Hindu Ayurveda practices despite his incredulous opinion after medical training in university after a boy comes to the village claiming men walked upon the moon. The villagers decide he must have demons in him and he sees a primitive, albeit effective ritual in which he is tied to a chair and frightened into pacification. On New Village Farm, no one was tied up, but there was an immense cultural exchange occurring. For me and students alike, who were not familiar with biodynamic practices, or especially the younger students who become squeamish at the sight of  animal skins, heads and parts around the farm that are both being prepared for production as well as serving the purpose of scaring away unwanted spirits from the farm, biodynamic practices represent a break from previous assumptions we held about the functional work on a farm.
As a former engineer from Quebec, Michaela Ryan takes her farm beyond merely practicing biodynamics as many organic farms in Quebec do. She also attempts to spread the knowledge she has acquired about biodynamic farming to children and adults alike. Since the farm became biodynamic, channeling the energies from animals and earth to create some sense of order on the farm, Ryan has also kept statistical numbers on production and effectiveness of the farm, available on the farm’s website. According to her, the construction of energy towers, burning of animal skins, and use of biodynamic manure for the crops has made a significant difference in the production output of the farm.
While many students have their “landing on the moon” moment fairly early on, when they are asked to treat a goat hide with its own brain rather than chemicals by rubbing a sponge soaked in a brain and milk solution on the carolina blue inside of the hide, I was incredulous and surprised when a fellow farmhand came to me with a box full of cow horns he had just dug out of the ground. The previous fall the hollow horns had been filled with manure and buried in a part of the farm deemed to have excessive energy. The biodynamic logic followed that in the same way a horn channels surrounding energies into a cow, the energy would continue to be channeled into the manure, charging it on a molecular level. While the manure was dry, and not as smelly as it otherwise would have been, Ross insisted that even one hornful had the equivalent of many times its weight in normal manure in effectiveness. Other organic farmers even bought mixtures of the stuff for their own farms! Like Choprak and the Hindu Ayurveda, I had to admit there must be a reason for the practice, even if scientifically I could not immediately identify the cause of the claimed effectiveness.
I only worked on New Village Farm for a couple of months, so I cannot independently verify the efficacy of what I saw, but I can describe the practices and that they are taught to children here. Some, such as the alternative tanning procedure for the hide of a goat, have obvious benefits for the tanner and the earth by replacing dangerous chemicals usually present in the process with natural organics and salt. Others, such as the live killing of beef cattle or chickens in the field with the presence of the other animals to observe or ignore I certainly understand must make a profound difference in the psychological nature of these animals, perhaps contributing to the natural passing as well as birth of the animals. Finally the biodynamic manure scientifically baffles me, but I hear the reasoning, and have observed the farm faithfully adhering to the ritual practice of burying the horns and spreading thin mixtures of the stuff across the entire farm.
There is not a rejection of technology on the farm, but instead a unique spiritual understanding of the earth that certainly does not have a negative impact on the products or workers, that is a negative impact that modern agricultural practices certainly do carry with them. Choprak quotes Teilhard de Chardin that: “The day will come when, after harnessing the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” In this, the understanding that the pursuit of technology will one day yield to the understanding of natural science. Choprak’s case, as a doctor, deals with the human body; in the case of agriculture this quote can just as easily be applied to man’s understanding and living symbiotically with the earth upon which we were born.

Societal Filters, Black Teens (pigs), and Bovine Mortality

On a typical day, I will take the students around and give them the opportunity to feed some of the animals. The more adventurous ones will enter the pens and have the chance to get to know the animals up close and personally. Bacon sizzling on the stove or a beef stew come to life for the kids and are turned into the soft dirty nose of a black teen or a massive heaving fly covered cowhide, black eyes indifferently rolling from the grass to the students. They are brought into contact with and forced to confront the animals and mortality.
This must make a profound effect on the filters the students bring to the farm. For me, with little livestock experience, it certainly has. Seeing a young cow caught with a stick and string and dragged twenty or thirty feet away by a group of customers and hit with a sledgehammer to death can be shocking. First my memory of that particular animal flashes by, then I look up from the water tanks and my consciousness expands to the dozen cows gathered. One groans, the next takes a couple steps this way or that in the mud. Their calm breathing, hopefully waiting for the tank to fill, extends to me as does my understanding of both their ignorance and somehow their implicit prescience. Looking from one to the next I swallow and move the water hose to the next tank. As acceptance wears in, I am able to question my own filters, that I see various animals in different ways. A black and white cow wades forwards and begins to drink from the tank, up to her ankles in mud.
As time passes I observe the same filters, prejudices, and treatment from the students. To them, there is more than four buckets of food and a pen, as one might think about watering plants. Instead, the black teen alone and starving having escaped from the others is a travesty while the big, fat sows are a subject for ridicule, to be stoned until they are reprimanded, they are curious whether the hundreds of flies bother the cows but respectful of the creature’s great size and appetite.
One question that occurs to me is whether these filters exist in the animals as well. In other words, understanding whether the animals see the students, me as an intern, full-time experienced employees differently. One example of this is when goats or cows hold their milk in when an experienced milker is nearby, hoping that I will turn the task over. This is also translated to when I hover over students as they try: it is better to let them learn on their own, regardless if I have abundant advice for them. Everyone learns differently, and it is possible the students realize something I would have never thought of or about.
Societal filters are present in the consciousness of many individuals. People who understand what goes on in time, who need what happens presently to be important to them individually, and those who look to the past for guidance all have corresponding mannerisms and ways of filtering their heroes, demons, and contemporaries. Take as an example of how these interact and mesh first, in Ghandi’s struggle with Indian patriotism, civil disobedience, and his wish not to undermine the British in the Second World War, and second, in Diane Nash’s own fight with American segregation and her inner struggle in support of, and later in opposition to, violence as a means to the end (108). In my internship, the filters I see most frequently are not societal, but instead animalistic; the interaction of a German Shepard with a herd of cattle, natural barriers created by the livestock and artificial filters imposed by humans, both the staff and the children.
There is a French opinion or mindset in which man is placed as a sort of guardian, master, and caretaker of the environment. This combines the environmentalist and the developer, yielding organized botany and coexistence with animals only as a dualistic relationship: us and them. In America the environmentalist ideal stands alone; there is a different understanding of wilderness, in the same way our filters to animals on the farm are different. On the biodynamic farm, this relationship is emphasized and brought to another dimension by the interaction of the animals with their sustenance and the earth. Tom Woodruff writes, “So we build a filter that brings us together and lets us see them, while protecting us from questioning ourselves.” (52) Students on the farm question both them (the animals) and themselves.
When Diane Nash organized Nashville sit-ins in 1960, she brought the ugly reality of segregation to the national lens, embarrassing the South domestically and the entire nation in the middle of the Cold War (109). While she protested the filters white Americans used when looking at African Americans, New Village Farm encourages students to understand the filters they use when they think about meat. In the same way Nash could not coordinate the Freedom Rides unless she went on one herself, for the students to become proponents of an organic, biodynamic lifestyle, they must understand the farm and the animals themselves (110). Just as she encouraged her generation, which is described as previously “apathetic” to get active, involved on the ground, learning basic farm tasks and understanding biodynamics and organic foods puts students in a unique position for experiential education, in a time where small farms across the country find themselves faced with a predicament not dissimilar to the plight of a 19th century Tennessee farm in the way of the transcontinental railroad.

Talking to Animals and the Language of Revolutionaries, Learning on the Job

On the job, the greatest impetus to improved communication is the need to accomplish a specific task or work. Obstructing this need is the cultural and sometimes lingual differences that exist between workers. Focusing on education and livestock produce, agricultural output takes a backseat to communication with children and coordination between different groups on the farm. By the end of a work day, or an educational session with students, the animals and educators alike are caught up in an unique communication dialogue.
          The differences between the language of the revolutionary and the state are written on by Paolo Freire and are somehow, I believe, analogous to the relationship between the language of the animals, and the farmhand. Perhaps even extending to the students, understanding this relationship, which Freire distills to the difference between “verbalism” and “activism” and “the latter – action for action’s sake – negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible” (149) would give the educator an opportunity to be, in this case, educated. As this is a service learning internship, that is exactly the point and I am looking to define and explore this can occur.
          Ultimately, in the same way Orwell uses animals to connect with his readership while imparting a warning message on the danger of totalitarian and dictatorial rule, in educating students the animals take a deeper message from connotations subconsciously drawn between and for various animals. Learning about animal pens, rules, limits and reactions (or more ominously, lack thereof) takes a new dimension for the students when they see these concepts live and in the real world. “True dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking” (151) which is forced or foisted upon the students by the real life scenario and situation they are put in.
          Sometimes the work a student puts into their project or essay can fall short of the work they naturally complete mentally when faced with difficulty or stress. This is shown in dialogue. The worried conversation about how to approach the udder of a nervous cow, for example, or when several students work together to brainstorm ways to save a young pig in heat. In taking their thinking from the hypothetical in the classroom to the “transformed reality” (151), the students are moving themselves from a “naïve thinker” to a critic, one who has experienced and analytically examines their position and thinking from the new perspective of having experience.
          In the same way a student and a workhand have a different experience of transforming reality, the animals are also different in their perception of the world. Freire describes this difference as they are “unable to decide for themselves, unable to objectify either themselves or their activity, lacking objectives which they themselves have set” (154). This is a reality that must be understood by students regardless of whether they will be pursuing life goals in production of livestock or if they simply choose to consume. In either case, understanding the way in which an animal constructs (or as Freire argues, fails to construct) their world views or life gives the students who come a unique perspective on their own life choices. It goes deeper than the mere mortality, the children are mostly shielded from that anyway, and allows them to connect with an animalistic understanding and value that understanding in a way they might not have realized existed or considered previously.
          Finally, with the preceding thoughts on communication and the learning experience students take from dialogue on the farm hopefully complete, there is one theme Freire goes over in his essay that is significant in its near absence, at least in the daytime, on the farm: that is the theme of silence. Which “suggests a structure of mutism in the face of the overwhelming force of the limit-situations”  (159) that is described as only “apprehended in the men-world relationship” and is the exteriorization of man’s view of the world. Because it does not exist on the farm, the animals are in constant communication, the kids to the buck, the cows to the bull, the chickens to any creature that will listen, the animals are both engaged completely in the process of communication, yet none engage in the act of listening, which is relegated solely to man and is flagged or created by the existence of silence.
          The absence of sound, communication, or dialogue is not actually animalistic by nature but instead silence is an indication of the existence of communication having already occurred, and of understanding being reached. It is possible this  is too much for students to pick up on in their experience with animals, but it is certain that reaching a point of comprehension in which the student becomes better acquainted with the sounds, the dialogue, and ultimately his own silence is beneficial to their education as a whole. A communication dialogue that exists between man and student, can also exist between student and animal, albeit in a different manner, that the animal truly is exemplar of lack of dialogue and the student, learning to communicate, dialogue, and finally be silent is exemplar of one who grows and moves onward from their experience on the biodynamic farm.

From a Tube to a Road: Communication and Miscommunication

Working on the New Village Farm, the employees have a variety of backgrounds and work in individually different ways. This would be true in any workplace, to some extent, but is brought to another dimension by the presence of children. While difficult, the experience of directing a team of students to accomplish tangible goals, for example building a teepee, skinning a goat, or feeding livestock on the farm, is invaluable experience for my own career path in the maple syrup industry. While implicitly an isolated job, usually requiring a couple of people perhaps to operate even a rather large bush, expansion can happen quickly, and requires the ability to coordinate sometimes several teams of workers.
More directly, I have found interpersonal relations to be the foundation of establishing even a small scale operation. Negotiations with a thorny neighbor and with lawyers, real estate agents, and straw buyers alike are proving to use skills that even a couple of months ago I never would have suspected to awaken from their dormant state. When a lawyer fails to represent my family in attempting to acquire an unfriendly neighbour’s land, we have to ask whether or not he will contact the real estate agent, and what exactly his motives were. Imagination is also needed, a straw buyer with little personal interest in the land needs a plausible story, secrecy is paramount, and a small amount of subterfuge as well.
The neighbour wants to sell his land, and only grudgingly admits the access for a tube to the main road, and in order to successfully operate a large operation we have to secure a good deal on the land and the full and unfettered access that comes with it. Martin Luther King tells of Jesus’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” (197) and ascertains that the key is altruism. In sealing this land deal, it takes more than an impersonal business negotiation. To understand that there are shared values that the mountain is not commercially developed, and the trees are respected is important. To be a proper neighbour, I think it takes more than sympathy or altruism but in fact implies a substantive understanding of another’s position and taking the action necessary to ensure the best step is taken.
Working in the Vermont forests is rewarding in and of itself, but having a neighbour who may or may not cooperate, or one who behaves irrationally can be a real downer for the production energies of the farm and the forest as a whole. Even better than clearing the neighbour out by buying his land is if we could work together in some sort of synergy. I am not entirely sure what the possibility of this is. There is no requirement for dangerous altruism, only that we do not see each other as “entities or merely things” (198) in the current cut-throat economy especially.
The question goes beyond necessity, however, for the sake of convenience for both lots it would be beneficial to build a micro-hydro dam. Currently there is no power, and the brook that forms the border between the two pieces of land (now split between the two lots) has the potential to provide all of the power for even a large scale maple operation with a couple kilowatts.
Martin Luther King talks of several different parts of altruism, each being a necessity for a good samaritan who wishes to fight for equality and alleviate the pain of those around him. In ending segregation, he acknowledges the importance of strength, “court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value” (201) but also sees the value in a deeper commitment to equality. In the same way, in the shared value toward stewardship of the west side of our mountain, clarity and recognition of mutual goals are needed.
Committing to obey the unenforceable, I believe, applies just as judiciously to the stewardship of land, forestry and in opposition to the rapid development and fast cash of land. Just as no man’s freedom can be sold, some land should not be tamed. The french Quebecois are some of the oldest maple sugar makers, and continue to lead the world in production. They believe in environmentalism as having an intrinsic human element, that we are the center of our world and have a responsibility to maintain and use our superior capacities to preserve the natural world found around us.
Working together with the neighbour is paramount. “The Peace Corps will fail if it seeks to do something for the underprivileged peoples of the world; it will succeed if it seeks creatively to do something with them” (200). In the same way, not to say my neighbor is morally underprivileged, but it is also true that success can be best reached working together with him, rather than seeking to dominate or buy him out. This is a good ideal to hold, in any case, even if the worst is found to be the only path to success. That would mean that the neighbour cannot find it in himself to make a good deal with us because of personal differences, and we can only purchase the land by using a straw buyer, one with no apparent connection to us who will later sell us the land or give us some better access.
For the meantime, it is only that we can look into ourselves as maple sugar farmers and see what is the incentive to do this strenuous, dangerous, albeit exciting work instead of simply clear cutting the land, or inviting developers to enter the area. It might be a commitment to the land, or a determination to create something where before there was only the wild. But regardless of the motivation, this service is giving me the opportunity to develop and use skills for the first time in the real world. It is a sort of test by fire, but is also an investment in my confidence and earning capability.
Biodynamics, Harmony, and Speaking to the Spiritual Side of Agriculture

At New Village Farm there are two main goals or services to provide. As a non-profit, there is a duty or a value of providing an educational experience to the children and adults who come to the farm to learn extensively applicable skills, or at least be exposed to a new work environment that they are not used to, coming from the classroom. The biodynamic, organic nature of the farm, however, means that there is also commitment to providing high quality foods and products to the community in a decent quantity. Increasing production is also proving the efficiency of a number of tactics and techniques adapted from organic farms, and Steiner’s lectures on agriculture, that are not currently mainstream in the agricultural world.
Small farms are confronted with many various direct and indirect threats to quality and quantity of products and foods. Some behaviors and practices are shared by all farms, large ones and smaller educational ones like ours. An example of this would be the containment systems, the greenhouse support, or the need to ensure cow’s udders are clean in order to milk. But from there, the practices may diverge significantly. In training, just as the distinction between “helper and helped” (209) is drawn, there may be a distinction that is assumed between teacher and student, between trainer and trainee. This is a distinction that our farm tries to blur or remove, by giving our students the chance to teach and show each other as much as they pick up or are showed in their time on the farm.
In educating students, we take an experiential approach with the assumption it is better to stand back and let the children see that harmonious understanding between the farm and the workers improves production capacity and food quality in a plethora of different ways. “As separate selves, we spend much time reaching out to one another” (211) and the students are the same way; what I can offer them as an intern, or Ross can offer them as an instructor/farmhand is also related to what they can offer each other and take from the farm, as well as by giving to the farm. By giving closer attention to the individual product, and by respecting the natural energies of plants, animals, and farm mentality, students only need the smallest amount of guidance to effectively work and help.
More importantly for me, is to see how students are helping each other learn. When a student moderates another for disrupting or abusing some of the animals, it is good to see the changing attitudes of the children as they interact. Sometimes we are setting up fencing, and I can only show them how to use the stake pounder, but just as frequently, I make mistakes trying to set up the posts or instructing the students. “Hundreds of times a day, we shift costumes to fit appropriate roles” (210) and by gaining work experience on the farm the students shift “costumes” or roles from that of the consumer to understanding what it means to produce. It can be interesting that they quickly develop a sense for the animals and plants on the farm as more than potential food, and begin to get a grasp for the individual being of every creature on the farm, and the roles that everyone has to play.
Currently many large scale agricultural producers use abhorrent levels of dangerous chemicals and pesticides that reduce even the crop to unsightly small and weak plants, while weeds mutate into monster plants that become every year harder and harder to eliminate. There is a “time for humor and perspective” (214) but in this case that which is at stake has never been so significant. The investment needed to insure genetic engineering is successful is prohibitive, and the consequences of continuing to mutate plants and weeds alike is outright dangerous. Some of the “relative reality” (215) that we create for ourselves, for various identities and compromises made in the pursuit of agricultural efficiency, we also start to lose sight of what our species really needs.
By maintaining harmonious energies and reciprocal nature of relationship to the land and between the worker and the worked, it might quickly become apparent that benefits are greater with time, and with this sort of invisible investment. In this way the farmer is grasping beyond what is relatively real to the permanently real, to the changes in farm behavior and practice that are fixing previous wrongs to the land. By treating the land as an individual, biodynamicism acknowledges the power of that which is not immediately tangible to make real impact on human and animal psychologies. Burying horns filled with manure, while not directly a source of fertilization or excessive levels of nitrogen, does create changes in the molecular ionization of the manure, according to biodynamic understanding.
Instead of yoking the land, with chemicals and fertilizer, treating the land as an individual would see “liberation of the self and the exploration of a more expansive sense of identity” (220) which is directed, obviously at the human mind but is in fact exactly what a biodynamic farm attempts to do for the land. By working synergistically between student, animal and soil development of the land is relegated to simplistic expansion, productive both for the humans, master of their environment, and for the environmental purity that is necessary to ensure long term productivity and quality.
This is an expansion that does not occur by further yoking more land or suppressing the natural growth that plants should achieve, but is instigated by extension into our very own lives. When students see the responsibility being practiced by producers and learn and adopt it into their lives, they become vessels for this energy to be brought back to their homes and into their lives extensively speaking. Even in passing, as the model of a child dealing with a father’s cancer (209), the consumption of animals and vegetables alike necessitates a certain understanding of what has occurred, why that must happen, and how to best make sure that such an operation goes with complete efficiency and trust in the passing of an actual living being. By understanding that animals have many different parts, and are more than only a slab of meat on a plate, or milk in a jar, the students are expanding their consciousness to a better understanding of their role as consumers, and now as producers.

Responsibility and What Organic Actually Means

“Our practices are biodynamic and organic. We do not use fertilizers, pesticides or chemicals.” This sign hangs at the forefront of the New Village Farm. While there is no official code, or swearing of an oath, there is a commitment to providing safe and healthy foods to the community and a rich learning environment for the kids who learn there. This presents as a dichotomy for farm practices, with these two goals there is a relationship that develops between the product of the farm and the experience students take from the farm out into their own worlds. For families and customers, this creates energies that are extending beyond the immediate benefits and produces long term benefits for the land, and the humans who occupy the land. Personally as an intern I have little experience, so I am also taking something from this internship; interpersonal communication, group management, and most importantly a sense of the value of land are critical to my aspirations in establishing a farm of my own and operating it in a responsible manner.
Responsibility is key for Martin Luther King in his letter to fellow ministers. Worried as to why he is acting so recklessly in Alabama, imprisoned a long way from his home, he has to justify his actions as the only choice. Some things on the biodynamic farm will seem outlandish or a waste of time, but it is similar that in the face of the harm inflicted upon the earth there is no limit to how cautious farmers can be looking forward. One example of an efficiency we would have lost otherwise, is the use of Cobb building methods which consists of essentially straw, clay and water, creating benches or stoves for a fraction the price of an equivalent concrete or iron structure. Bypassing seemingly unavoidable harm to nature in this manner is radical, but a step towards a more sustainable and local lifestyle.
“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” (335) Martin Luther King clarifies, the small scale organic farm is under a similar fire. Forced to keep a sign, without massive research budgets of big agriculture, New Village Farm is an agricultural niche but demonstrates an organic lifestyle that struggles to even remain alive as corporations utilizing GMOs and large food producers swallow up ever increasing shares of land, capital and investment. In the same way that King does not believe one should evade or break the law outright, saying “that would lead to anarchy” (335), the best way to continue the fight against dangerous agricultural practices is in educating students how a biodynamic farm can operate, and how to make the right choices at home, or beyond the farm as well.
This is exposure in the purest sense of the word. Children at such a young age are perceptive and pick up on details, concepts and ideas that adults might miss. Consequently they are more likely to be receptive to an understanding of their environment that might be lost on them later. King calls segregation “a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light” (336) and the message is that the best solution to a problem is exposure and recognition. The commitment to providing a learning environment is the medicine of air and light, the exposure that will encourage students to make active, informed decisions politically and commercially.
Many students come from liberal backgrounds, and have been educated using Steiner’s methods. They often come to the farm with a sense of respect for the animals and for the earth. There is less of the need to persuade and change minds that civil rights activists faced in the 1960’s and as an intern I try to bring the plight of the organic farm somewhat to the forefront of the childrens minds. In school there may be propaganda or films from the increasing expansion of efficient production methodologies; that the larger farms in the countries are nearly entirely dependent on pesticides and automated work systems may be intrinsically suggested. From the greenhouse, to caring for livestock, to the produce on the farm stand shelf students are given the opportunity to see this disproven personally.

Healthy Living, Maple Sugar, and an Organic Lifestyle: The Impact of Biodynamics on My Endeavours

Both of my work experiences this summer deal intimately with health. At New Village Farm, there is a commitment to producing safe and healthy food in the face of larger, ever expanding big agriculture with its practices that may be unhealthy, at the least, and dangerous in the worst. For maple sugar makers, one of the reasons the crop has such an allure and is a highly valued commodity is the natural antioxidant properties of the tree’s sap and its use as an organic, naturally produced sweetener in addition to common cultural connotations held by many consumers in America and abroad alike. In both cases, protection of the land, our environment, is critical to maintaining good health in people and the individual. Dawson Church writes that the Earth “is an organism of which we are an intimate part” (352) which implies that encouraging the health of the whole, can also encourage the health of us, as individual parts or entities in that organism. The better the soil and the healthier the plants, it follows that the produce is also giving a more bountiful, sustainable, and nutritious harvest.
While many biodynamic practices certainly speak to the spiritual side of livestock and the overall farm health, some are practical and pragmatically address issues faced immediately. Allowing the students to move from only being matter to being the energy at work on Earth gives them the opportunity to understand “that the world is an interconnected hierarchy of matter and energy” (357) and gives them a first hand experience of this phenomenon. During my internship I have been able to participate, lead students, or observe both types of experimentation. Rather than using industrial supplies, students combine sand, clay, and straw into a unique construction technique called Cobb construction. Costing virtually nothing, these structures originate with indigenous populations in North America and other parts of the world. In the modern setting they save energy and cut down on costs.
As a tradition gleaned from indigenous populations, the Cobb construction process is one unlike any in the modern setting. This is a case, where like ants, people are using their direct surrounding to create comfort and supplement existing structures. In theory, the process is not limited to benches or small structures, but has been known to actually provide living conditions for people, as the straw in the clay and water mix provides a unique insulating property, cool in the summer and warm in colder weather. So far, the benches and oven at New Village Farm have satisfactorily survived the rain and cold alike, and may only grow stronger as time progresses (though some maintenance may be necessary).
A less pragmatic practice that I consider applying to my own endeavours in maple sugar making, where antagonistic animals remain a constant nuisance, is that biodynamic farms burn the skins of unwanted creatures and sprinkle the ashes across the land, or at least the borders. While this probably does not have an initial impact, apparently over time animals learn to stay away from these areas and develop a natural wisdom to the affected land. From the earliest years of New Village Farm, there has been a dedication to including more of Steiner’s early twentieth century lectures on agriculture into the actual process of food production. While I will not be as devoted to biodynamics, there is a natural interest in efficient practices learned on the job.
In America today we face a crisis of obesity and other diseases as a direct result of unhealthy eating and lifestyle choices. A return to natural lifestyles and separation from the most negative powerful effects of development and technological progress is exemplified in the organic movement. Beyond the actual foods chosen to consume, organic produce ensures the health of the nutrients, soil that goes into those foods. By eliminating genetically modified organisms from the diet, people are spared unforeseen health risks as well as immediate dangers from the pesticides used to maximize crop output. The dangers faced by our individual are analogous to the dangers faced by our planet, and these causes are working hand in hand, “the body behaves in a well-ordered manner with a definite sense of purpose” (356) and in the same way efforts to protect the earth also need to work with the same determination. Most importantly, at New Village Farm, the mission is to educate and inform students from a young age of the dangers nonorganic produce faces, and to give them hands on experience of how such a financially viable farm can operate effectively.
Finally, there are some health risks posed by organic and biodynamic practices that do not exist in big agriculture. Raw milk can, when unpasteurized, leave bacteria and viruses in the drinker. To avoid this, a farm must rigorously check the animals for health and catch infections or disease quickly. Luckily this actually provides a higher level of safety or health safeguards that do not otherwise necessarily exist. Other health risks posed can be avoided by standard soil samples and by keeping farm energies healthy and strong.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: Review and Reaction

Paul Farmer seamlessly moves between his job in Massachusetts, home in Paris, and his most rewarding work, personally if not financially, with the poor of Haiti by creating or at least modernizing Zanmi Lasante and ensuring no patient would be required to pay for treatment. Beyond contributing his considerable talents towards some of the most difficult and frustratingly impoverished cases in the world, he helped establish a model in Haiti and Peru that showed that MDR TB can be treated methodically with modern medicine at a relatively low cost. In doing so, he even proved some of the sceptical policy makers at international organizations, often great minds themselves, wrong. It appears from his work that, equally as impressive as his victories, is the grace and magnitude with which he corrects other doctors fighting tuberculosis such as Alex Goldfarb in Russia who along with Dr. Farmer “returned from Siberia as friends” (221) despite initial conflict over DOTS and MDR, or the Peruvians that initially did not believe it possible to effectively fight MDR. Las Normas were a set of rules that essentially enforced ignoring MDR in most cases in Peru that Dr. Farmer confronted vehemently. The non-profit PIH (partners in health) has evolved and expanded from a localized example of how better care can be offered to the poor in the face of some of man’s most deadly epidemics.
Reading Mountains Beyond Mountains I am struck by the achievements of Paul Farmer and also touched by the humanity displayed anecdotally throughout. The title refers to the peaks and hills of the Caribbean and South America but is also, I believe, of the continual hurdles humanitarian doctors such as the PIHers and Paul Farmer face as long as poverty exists. I can try to relate to this in my work or internship experience, but am admittedly somewhat overwhelmed by the vast scope or magnitude of his work. His committed approach to the problems combined with his Christian values held fast make it hard to fault any of his or his agencies’ actions. This is not a bad thing for the book which is a fascinating read, and chronicles important work of one of the South’s best and most dedicated minds.
There is some impression of a sort of brilliance or genius in Farmer’s work. He knows the bible and is in touch with his christian faith but is also in touch with local voodoo, a religion copracticed by most Haitians. With an education from one of the best schools in the world, but a background in near poverty, he has not lived a characteristic life of comfort that make it difficult for many of his peers to duplicate his accomplishments. In order to provide better care he is not afraid to break the rules, Napoleon’s maxim “it is better to ask forgiveness than permission” is described as Farmer’s “rule of thumb” (149) and he seems to hold himself to a divine standard rather than one that is written down in any rulebook. In fact the crux of his work is in openly flaunting accepted epidemic controls and treating his patients aggressively, regardless of class, and in any way possible.
For me, however, I cannot report the same success nor claim the same scope of change in my work. Some of the difficulties are related though. Dealing with red tape and difficult negotiations are intrinsic to the learning curve for me as they were for Dr. Farmer. The same way he used Zanmi Lasante as a model to raise money and prove the effectiveness of his methodology, this is my goal this year in entering the maple syrup industry. Finally, we both are doing a great deal more hiking in these new pursuits than we would in more traditional academic pursuits. So after all there are some similarities and some relevance of this book to my work, though this comparison is certainly somewhat tenuous.
The work of operating an organic farm does not save lives immediately, and there is not exactly an epidemic that is stemmed by working in this pursuit. But there is a moral imperative that is comparable to medical work. Beyond that the impact on public health is irrefutable. In the long term and in general to a greater part of the population, making sure food is healthy and organic is some of the best preventative medicine that exists. There are frequently cases even in Farmer’s dire work where proper sustenance makes all the difference (as in the case of John) between life and death, I am sure this exists in the first world as well.
This far I have been preparing tubing and studying forestry specifically on the land I intend to work on. Also I have received some training and a great deal of advice from existing producers in the region. More importantly, I have been involved with negotiations for access with a neighbour. Despite all of this, I am entering with very little experience, and it is still to be seen how much, if any success is achieved in this undertaking. Like Farmer, by the time I finish my degree it is possible that I will have worked for an extended period of time in the field. This gave him an unmistakable advantage in overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties as well as invaluable experience. Luckily I do not anticipate meeting the political resistance that he met in Haiti in the early nineties. There is, however a good deal of ordinances and conflict with local neighbours enough to compensate for this. My experience should give me an edge, or at least some sort of running start.

Interview with Dr. Ray Mills Antley

What is your first memory of your mother, Wilhelmina Antley?
“Thats a question I thought about and I talked to some other people about. People are part of their mother and then they separate, the point is it becomes a matter of law, you pass a law about when you say you first remember your mother. I would have to say I don’t have any first memory of my mother so to speak, perhaps when I was 14 years old. I have pictures when I was four years old going down to main street with my mother all decked out in her fur during the great depression and everything, but I don’t remember it exactly. I guess one memory I have going downtown may have been the same time. I got lost from her, somebody recognized me in Columbia and took me to my Dad’s office. I kept hoping somebody was gonna buy me though, there was a different sense about the value of a child in the depression than today; there were too many of us depression children nobody wanted. I remember she told me to always go back to the last place you saw somebody if you ever get lost, which makes sense because if you wander, you might just miss them.”
How long were you home, and what are some typical experiences from your childhood, with Gan as a mother?
“Well I was seventeen when I left home to go to college and I never went home except for the summer of ‘58 when I came home and worked. Mother liked to do things and there was a little lake and she had a little car and we used to drive down there and go swimming, and that was great. Then we got so far we got a membership at a little pond, called Fulcrum Farms, we went up there and swam the whole summer. I remember, I used to stay in trouble most of the time. There were too many things you couldn’t do, I had to do all of it. One day I hit a girl on the head, swinging a piece of cardboard around, and I had to spend a week in the back, on restrictions in the back yard. I would come home from school and have to sit in the back yard. Mother was my disciplinarian, now I got Mary Anne.”
Do you have impressions of her from friends or family?
“They had a much more impression that mother was a powerful person, they had to do what she said. I was kind of impressed they had that impression. I don’t think I was that fearful of Mom. I thought well that wouldn’t make much difference.”
Are any of those surprising or discordant with your own experiences?
“She was completely different with all three of us. Mina was a little girl, and of all Gan’s 6 siblings, Mina was the only girl born, she loved every minute of it. Phillip and me were, you know, different. I think mother looked on me as most confident. Dad was sick, and she wanted to buy a house and forged an alliance with me to sort of see things in a similar vein to buy the house.”
Can you remember stories of her childhood or past that she told you and whether any of these were surprising?
“Most of them I’m 75-years old now, so they aren’t surprising to me now but they may have been at the time. Like one time she was about seven years old and didn’t want to take a bath and ran out in a nightgown down the street and had to be caught and returned. Her sister told us that. We used to tell stories on her and all. She told me when I was an old man and she was an elderly woman about how she rang the bell during classes and emptied the school, and got away with it and afterwards they always had to hide the bell. She talked so much her dad had to pay her a quarter not to talk. A lot of my relationship with my mother we would tease and joke, and I didn’t realize until she went to the retirement home at the age of 97 and her hearing went. She’d laugh when she understood, but if she didn’t get it, she’d get disgusted and that had a lot to do with her hearing. She was a doer, I went to college, she bought me sheets and an overcoat and stuff, got me all decked out to goto college.”
How much of Gan’s life did she spend on a farm? And also what inspiration did she have to teach?
“She was the last of seven children, and all of the women taught school. She didn’t want to do that so she got a license in social work when she went to university in 1934, but Dad got a good job at the newspaper and when they got married, she stopped going to school. Then came 1941 and she went back to University of South Carolina to finish her degree and the expectation was Dad was going to be drafted. But Philip was born in May of ‘42 and Dad turned out to be too old to be drafted as the chips fell. So she continued as a housewife and took care of the family. Then 1957 after I finished my second year of college, Dad had obstruction of the esophagus and he had cancer and they didn’t expect him to live. So then she got a teacher’s certificate in ‘58 and taught for twenty years, 15 years in South Carolina and then when Dad retired in ‘74 they went to Virginia, and that was when she began to live on a farm. Her father was a pharmacist and optometrist all lived in small town and middle class, not really farm people that was more something she did as a 60-year old woman.”
Did she have any other professional or artistic aspirations to your knowledge?
“What she liked to do most was to keep house and cook. She loved her kitchen and loved the things she could do in the kitchen. Teaching was more something she had to do for a living, I think she would have preferred to do social work.”
How do you remember the communication and relations between your father and Gan?
What inspirations musically, culturally did your mother leave or instill into you?
“There is this relationship I have read about that people that are good musicians do not have much interest in recorded work, and people who are not good musicians listen to recorded music, and she definitely fits into the latter group. She had no interest in the technical aspects of music she just enjoyed opera. And she enjoyed doing things. She liked to go to opera and events she was game to do stuff. It was just a visceral enjoyment of the music. She was gregarious and outgoing and when her hearing got bad it was a big change that was sad to see, she was close to her friends, but they started to die towards the end.”
How does it feel to go by your home or neighborhood or school? What kind of changes do you see?
“The city has grown a lot and all of american society, especially city life has changed so much with the digital era, it is hard to even compare. These communities were self-contained and if anybody got out of line everybody knew it and the whole community put pressure on the family to straighten up. Things do not look the same coming back at least from the outside in. Especially the children. The streets look barren, we used to play outside and run around the playground so much there was hardly a blade of grass left on the ground.

Conclusion: Agriculture, Education, and Experience in Vermont

This fall threw me into the unique experience of working with Vermont students with new and eye-opening biodynamic farm and animal husbandry techniques and alongside sugarers collecting the state’s most profitable and valuable resource, maple sugar in a tradition that despite revolutionary recent technical advances, retains its heritage as an honest, environmentally friendly annual harvesting of the earth’s bounty. From crisscrossing land deeply embedded into Vermont’s forests, learning to spot the minimum seven and a half or eight inch diameter tappable trees, or actually setting up another 300 to 500 taps on an already functioning 30,000 tap maple farm with Peter Purinton, to informing incredulous young public and private school students about how the flies that swarm around New Village Farm’s cows are actually an indication that the farm is relatively clean, and free of chemicals that might otherwise scare the flies away, my internships in the fall placed me in a position to understand, learn and instruct.
On a biodynamic farm, the season of fall follows the harvest. The animals are preparing themselves for the winter, and more importantly farmhands are able to slow down after the mad rush of spring planting and summer and autumn harvest. A spiritual energy tower is erected by some students, or a new form of construction materials, Cob or earth building is tested by another group. In the afternoon of a typical day Ross, a co worker, appears with a box full of horns. To my surprise, the horns were filled with manure! These horns had been buried the previous fall with the idea that shape of a horn channels energy from the earth around them into the manure, creating biodynamically supercharged fertilizer. According to Ross, the small mounds that we collected and spread from these was equal to a massive amount of regular manure, and even non-biodynamic farmers would pay a good price for mixtures of it. In a ritual decades old, dictated by moon cycles, the horns were then refilled with manure and buried once again a process repeated until the horn itself actually decomposes. While at first skepticism at some of these strange customs overwhelmed me, and at times I outright blanched at the daily site of deer and goat hides stretched over tables across the farm, after a while curiosity overcame these original emotions and eventually I was even able, at least to some extent, to teach students to look beyond the bristly back of a sow and use the on-site preparation of food and products to show them what happened within. My mother is a dermatopathologist, and pinch hitting in her lab taught me something of skins, but showing a group of middle schoolers how to treat the Carolina blue underside goat hide using a mixture of its brain, salts, sunshine, and milk instead of dangerous chemicals was an entirely new epidermal undertaking for me.
After two months of daily lessons for students in addition to chores and construction around the farm surrounded by the frantic clucking of hens preparing for their winter cycle, impatient yawns and snorts from hungry cows and pigs, the quiet gurgle of a mountain brook and tempered gaze of a cloudy day’s sun breaking through maple trees was an excellent transition for me. After a couple weeks of research on maple sugar farming, I could not believe that I had lived in Vermont so long while knowing so little about one of the oldest and largest traditional industries in the state. Hiking in November snow and working in the late October fall alike I am drawn to the intense outdoors work experience coupled with extensive indoor plotting, almost like a game of chess of whether to use herring, wheel-spoke or straight lines to best take advantage of any given plot of maple trees. Despite my research oriented preparation, once I actually contacted a maple sugar producer, Purinton Maple, about interning and getting some hands-on experience, I realized that, as much as anything else, sugaring was a skill learned in the experience. Every day I felt like I had picked up a trove of invaluable knowledge and with 25 years experience, Peter Purinton was able spot maple lines zigzagging up a steep hill or lazily reaching out to catch a lone maple tree that might otherwise have seemed unreachable with a machine-like efficiency. The fall on a maple sugar farm is the rush season, the short window after the leaves fall making it easier to spot maples from beeches and ash trees until the most dangerous period when the ice and wind threatens both clumsy sugarers and operations in general and the cold drops to unworkable levels. In a couple weeks, we were able to mark off a 500 tree stretch of maples, lay in a main-line and extend secondary lines to surrounding maples, completing each task on separate days with tools fashioned for the particular lines or taps we were running. Funnily enough, Peter Purinton has a patent on most of the equipment he uses, which he apparently invented using aluminium beer cans, iron pots and pans, and a workshed in his early days of sugaring decades ago.
This maple far has been fully operational since the modern industry, as we know it now with tubes and vacuums, was in its infancy. The “rule of 40” that applied to nearly everything in the industry continues to change with technological advances, but the nature of a farm remains the same. There is a certain constancy in the trees’ annual production and a steady confidence in the workers of the mountain. Most farmers are on loans and lease the taps they use, counting on good years to make a profit in the seven or ten year periods after which most need to reinvest and labour to take down old tubes and taps and install new ones. My internship saw some hundreds of trees connected to a mainline and secondary tubes; by installing a “small” set of tubes every year Peter Purinton is able to keep the business almost entirely in the family and even do a year’s maintenance on his own, if need be. This saves on cash and labour because he does not have to run out with a large team every decade and scramble to get all of his trees tapped in that golden period of autumn after the leaves fall, increasing visibility to that last maple, but before the biting snow make use of the iron and aluminum equipment impossible.
Both farms I interned with make products that are traditional and ancient, but also employ new methods of obtaining high efficiency while maintaining important energies and quality for Vermont’s staple goods. Understanding how important it is to get outside and to enjoy the natural goodness of the earth, in addition to having daily contact with kids, animals and plants alike set a standard for a working environment I would seek to recreate in the future for myself, and recommend if possible for others. My development from skepticism and ignorance to curiosity and understanding is one that it is hard to imagine could take place in other settings, and I am only grateful to have had this opportunity.

Skip to toolbar