Growing a connection to the land

Rural communities work to keep their identity and quality of life, while building economic strength

When Martin Ping started working with Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York state, it is unlikely he envisioned where it would take him. From producing gourmet cheeses, teaching grade school children how to grow food, to a full-line grocery store, the farm has expanded over the years into an amazing conglomeration of projects. Ping is behind Hawthorne Valley Association, an ambitious nonprofit that takes the culture in agriculture to heart. Ping was in San Benito County last week to tour the Paicines Ranch, giving a few residents the chance to meet him and learn about the inspiration behind the farm. 

A group of 30 or so guests, made up of culinary enthusiasts, hospitality hosts, civic leaders and local food producers, came together to eat, of course, and hear about this unique enterprise in rural New York.

 Paicines Ranch, which has already opened its barn doors to weddings, educational seminars and chef tours, hosted the conversation. Becky Herbert of the new Farmhouse Café and Eating with the Seasons, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) catered the lunch.

Ping, the executive director of Hawthorne Valley Farm, encouraged the network of small organic and artisan businesses already operating in San Benito to go further. Within minutes, it was clear that despite the geographical distance, there was a shared love for food, farming and providing youth the opportunity to establish a relationship with the land.

"This is the heart and soul of what Hawthorne Valley tries to do: connect a pathway, to re-connect the child to the farm,” Ping explained to a group already involved in some way with local agriculture.

Today, Hawthorne Valley Farm has extensive educational programs, from a Waldorf School to one- and two-year apprenticeships for young adults. It invites more than 1,200 children a year to its farm-based education programs.

“It’s more about building social capital and relationships that anything else,” Ping said, explaining how Hawthorne Ranch has been able to achieve what it has.

The farm website states: Organized since 1972 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, our initiatives include: an early childhood through grade 12 Waldorf school; on-farm education programs; a full-line organic/natural foods and grocery store; a biodynamic creamery, organic bakery, and fermentation cellar; a 300-plus member Biodynamic CSA; social, ecological, and cultural research groups; teacher education programs; arts initiatives and more.

The Hawthorne Valley Association has many branches that have developed over a 40-year period. The association is a diverse nonprofit committed to “social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture, and the arts,” the main website states. The 780-acre farm sits in the scenic Hudson Valley and has grown to be more than a farm but a community that now has about 200 employees.

Ping told the attentive group, “This is all about beginning-to-end processes. Teaching kids about rhythm, structures, and safety.” The farmer's passion for improving the soil and producing food shines through. The core of the project is his belief that being directly involved in where food comes from is a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle. Students are invited to help with the farm’s dairy cattle, sheep and pigs. He shared a favorite story of an urban student watching the birth of a calf at the farm. Ping said, “One child saw a calf born and exclaimed, 'It was just born! The extension cord is still attached!’“

At the center of the Hawthorne Valley Association’s mission is a passion for agriculture. Its website states, "Through the active production of food, educational programs for children and adults, ongoing social and scientific research, and the cultivation of a vibrant artistic community, we pursue a modern way of living embedded deeply in the natural world and emphasizing the social, ecological, and economic importance of agriculture in our daily lives."

After the lunch and presentation, Paicines Ranch owner, Sallie Calhoun said, “Martin’s story is a starting point for our imaginations. It's a jumping-off point for us to start with.” Calhoun said she appreciated the way he encouraged the group to just dive in. Over the past decade, Calhoun has played a central role in helping small producers get started, expand and market their products.

Ping encouraged the group to begin by addressing the small things that are dysfunctional but easy to address. Among the goals discussed were to create a natural food market focused on locally-produced food products and to increase educational opportunities on farms and ranches.

Small-scale, innovative agricultural businesses are operating throughout San Benito County today and San Benito Bounty, a local, slow-food organization is part of that. The lunch group agreed that instead of building things up in only one location, like Hawthorne, San Benito’s version is already regional. Calhoun recommended, “we learn how to work together to fix small problems so that with skills, we can begin to fix big problems.”

Hollister Downtown Association Executive Director, Brenda Weatherly, who attended the luncheon, commented that Ping’s approach had a lot of appeal and that, as a model, there are many ways Hawthorne Valley Farm’s successful ventures could be used to benefit the county. 

Kathina Szeto, owner of San Benito Bené, in Hollister, sells food produced by family farms as well as locally-made gifts. She said enjoyed the discussion and noted, “I was inspired by the group's passion for agriculture, education and the arts. The common desire of a healthy future for children and the Earth made great conversation and I really felt fortunate to have been there.” Szeto, who is founder and president of the San Benito Olive Festival, felt its mission is in line with the spirit of the discussion. 

The group broke up, agreeable to the idea of a loose collaboration, working together to achieve goals similar to those at Hawthorne Farm and continuing to build a community that celebrates a life centered on the production and enjoyment of food and a lasting relationship with the land.



Update: Hawthorne Valley Farm director of marketing, Heather Gibbons contacted BenitoLink with some corrections for this article and offered a video that they produced recently for the farm, that she said,"beautifully explains our whole endeavor here at Hawthorne Valley."


Video of Martin Ping speech about transforming society. 

Note: Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano, owners of Paicines Ranch, are BenitoLink major donors. 

– Julie Morris contributed to this story





Leslie David

Leslie David is a Bay Area independent reporter/producer and is a BenitoLink founding board member. She has produced for radio, television, newspaper and magazines in both California and Wyoming. She was with KRON-TV News in San Francisco as camera-woman, editor and field producer, where she won the Commonwealth Club's Thomas Storke Award with Linda Yee for their series on the Aids Epidemic. She started as a small market news reporter shooting her own 16mm film at KEYT-TV Santa Barbara. Leslie lives on a ranch with her family in San Benito County.