- Susan Piperato
If you’re committed to living sustainably, grocery shopping can present an unsolvable dilemma. In order to buy food that promotes good health and leaves as small an impact on the earth as possible in its production, an enlightened consumer must not only check labels to make sure food products are natural, but know where the food comes from—which can be next to impossible.
Even if you do have an approximate idea of the produce’s provenance, it’s often a toss-up as to which to choose—the reasonably-priced, non-organic but locally grown apples, for instance, or the more expensive, certified-organic, imported ones. Either way, you win some and lose some. Choose the locally grown variety and, unless you know the grower, you may risk exposing your family to chemical growing agents, fungicides, and pesticides, but you can rest assured that a minimum of fossil fuel was burned in the apples’ transport to the store. Pick the organic apples and although you’ll know they’re reasonably safe to eat (depending upon the standards of their organic certification, which is another story altogether), knowing that it cost the earth, literally, for them to come to you will undoubtedly leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. Ironically, sometimes the harder you think about what you’re buying, the more you realize how widely you’re missing the mark.
But truly sustainable shopping—with an abundance of both locally-grown and -made organic foods, as well as easily accessible information on imports—just might be the wave of the future, thanks to the example set by the enterprising folks at Hawthorne Valley Farm Store. The new “green”-constructed, $2.1 million grocery store is the latest brainchild of Hawthorne Valley Association (hva), a nonprofit organization in Harlemville (Ghent), Columbia County, whose mission is to promote cultural renewal through education, agriculture, and the arts.
The Farm Store, formerly housed in a barn and operated successfully on a much smaller scale for the past 30 years, is dedicated to educating consumers and creating regional markets for locally-grown produce and household products. As such, it offers local fruits and vegetables; milk, yogurt, eggs, and cheeses; lacto-fermented vegetable products; breads and pastries baked on-site and regionally; pasture-fed beef, poultry, and pork; and even homegrown and homemade condiments, including mustards, vinegars, jams, nut butters, honey, and specialty sauces.
Besides Hawthorne Valley Farm, a Demeter-certified biodynamic farm and Community-Supported Agriculture network, hva also runs Hawthorne Valley School, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade Waldorf School; a visiting students program that hosts children from schools throughout the Northeast for weeklong farm experiences; a summer camp; and the Adonis Press, which publishes and distributes science books and provides age-appropriate school art supplies.
Hawthorne Valley Farm was founded in 1972, explains hva executive director Martin Ping, following “the impulse of a group of educators, farmers, artists, and scientists to link education, agriculture, and the arts in a way in which students, teachers, farmers, and craftspeople could come together and really work side by side.” Despite several obstacles, not least of which being Harlemville’s longstanding economic struggle, the farmers prevailed and flourished. Last year hva employed 134 people, its student population was over 320, and the number of children who have attended its visiting students program over the past 31 years rose past the 10,000 mark. Arguably, Hawthorne Valley Farm is the closest thing the Hudson Valley has to a utopia.
“From very humble beginnings, the farm’s founders hoped the place would become a center, radiating out to influence correct relationships to the land,” says Ping. By selling Hawthorne Valley Farm produce and homemade farm products to “loyal, loyal customers” week after week, year after year at Manhattan’s Union Square greenmarket, he says, the farm has been able to “radiate to thousands, even tens of thousands of people.” But with its 30th anniversary the farm’s need to “form healthy relationships with other farms, and be a presence locally, supporting the local businesses and economy” became evident. With the completion of the new Farm Store in January—whose grand opening will be held on April 3—hva is “finding its place in its own neighborhood” as well as speaking out about sustainable agriculture and conscious consumerism.
So far, so good. The Farm Store has already contracted “an unscientific count” of 17 sustainable growers and producers from throughout the Hudson Valley and as far away as Rochester, says Ping, and is working out an agreement with the locally-based Joe Angello Distributors. During a lunchtime visit in February, the store and its café were packed with a spectrum of shoppers: farmers from hva and nearby, construction workers, professionally dressed men and women, high school students, teachers on break, mothers with small children, and an elderly man who said he’s lived in Harlemville all his life but never stopped by before.
The Farm Store’s interior truly reflects hva’s mission in having both efficient design and a homey character. An ample 3,400 square feet, it features wheat-stalk shelves, check-out counters and service desk, clerestory windows, polished reclaimed wood tables in the café, a display of local artwork, and a bright, clean network of overhead lights. For all the customers, it’s surprisingly quiet. Information is available throughout the store on its individual foodstuffs and agriculture in general, including talks on everything from local land loss to fair trade, the Farmscape Ecology Program, and displays on biodynamic farming and nutrition. But most noticeable and unusual is the fact that each type of produce is labeled as to its country or state of origin. Eventually, the Farm Store will add a special program to the educational customer service desk, allowing customers to scan their food products and receive a report on the distance their purchases traveled and the size of the environmental footprint each product has left.
“We want to let the customer find out about the ecology of this valley and how it relates to farming,” says hva staffer Laura Manchester. “How far a food comes, whether it’s forty or four miles, makes a difference. Supporting sustainable agriculture isn’t just about the practice. It’s about educating consumers as well, so they can make conscious decisions and be proactive.”
The hope, agrees hva board member and former teacher Rachel Schneider, is to educate consumers to “understand the true costs of what we are eating. A few pennies difference in price isn’t the true cost of a food. It doesn’t tell us that, for instance, lettuce pickers are taken advantage of, that they lack healthcare or a healthy social network; it doesn’t tell us that there is environmental degradation to grow lettuce. There are huge questions connected to what we eat, and more people are waking up to them.”