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The Way of the Cow 

The Hawthorne Valley Association is an unlikely institution. Located in the Columbia County hamlet of Harlemville, it includes a 400-acre biodynamic farm, a K-12 Waldorf school, a bakery, an organic dairy, a farm stand, a publishing house, a smorgasbord of arts and cultural programs, and—well, I’ll stop now (space constraints). Steeped in the philosophy of the extraordinary early-20th-century social and esoteric thinker Rudolf Steiner, its mission is as inspiring as it is ambitious: Social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture, and the arts.

The Hawthorne Valley Association is also an organization that has been dedicated to the principles of sustainability since well before the concept existed. It is steadfastly local and committed to not scaling up to play at the global corporate level, although at this point it probably could if it wanted to. Its cultural programs address issues of social equity, for instance, bringing inner-city kids to experience life in a natural setting. Its approach to farming is dedicated to enhancing the carrying capacity of the land. Without even trying, it has become a local (and increasingly, national and global) exemplar of how an organization can be totally local, deeply sustainable—and, miracle of miracles, thrive.

It wasn’t always that way. When Executive Director Martin Ping first became part of the organization in 1982, it was, in his words, “woefully cash-strapped.” Today, with over $10 million in annual revenue and about 75 employees, it is financially healthy and also sizable, assuming we use “local and reasonable” as our benchmark, as distinguished from “global and insane.” Much of this growth has occurred during Ping’s tenure.

Chronogram caught up with Ping recently for a discussion about his life, the organization he runs, and (though we weren’t expecting it) the nature of leadership. The tone for the conversation was set early when we asked what his title was. His answer: “executive servant.”

Martin, tell me about the path that brought you to your current position.
If there’s been a single motif in my journey, it’s been this: community. I grew up in a small town on the Jersey shore with four brothers and four sisters. I became aware quite early that I was being raised not only by my family, but my friends’ parents as well. Different houses had different rules, but it was always clear that you were being loved and held.

When I started my own family in the early 1980s, I wanted to be in a place where there was community like what I’d grown up with. I’ve never really been motivated by traditional notions of wealth. For me, prosperity is created by community and relationships. This is what brought me to Hawthorne Valley.

At the time, I was a builder. Hawthorne Valley needed help, so I helped. I’d bring in my crew and we’d volunteer on building projects. Things expanded from there. Eventually I was offered a paid position to shepherd the buildings and grounds. Then I started teaching woodwork and metalwork in the high school. Over the years, I got more and more involved. Eventually I got burned out and decided I needed a sabbatical—this was in 2003. I wanted to build a very small home for my wife and myself—450 square feet, too small for us to argue in (it would raise the temperature too much). A couple of months into my sabbatical, I was asked to be the executive director. I couldn’t say no. I was really committed to building a just and sustainable food system. I’ve been in that role ever since.

And now you’re something of a luminary in the local-economy movement!
It’s a mystery to me how it happened. I’ve simply been putting one foot in front of the other. And in fact, this status is a bit intimidating. Sometimes I look in my tool kit and am amazed at how empty it is. But I’ve also learned there’s one all-purpose tool you can always reach for: love. If you can love what you’re doing, love the person you’re with, and love the world you’re a part of, that goes a long way toward overcoming the areas where you may feel deficient. I reach for that tool all the time, and it works.

At the same time, though, I must acknowledge that I own my own destiny. Life has put amazing people in my path—the universe has extraordinary beauty in how it self-organizes to respond to the needs of the time. We need to pay attention to the messages it’s giving us. We need to be awake, and silent—we need to listen long and carefully. We need to align attention with intention. When you do that, remarkable things happen that otherwise would be way beyond my or anyone’s individual capacity to bring about.

  • Carl Frankel asks Martin Ping about sustainability through change of consciousness.

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