Kimberton HIlls Camphill Village is the home of Kimberton Hills Dairy Farm where milk for the Essene Church of Peace comes from and the Sankanac CSA, the home of SFNM's vegetables from 1998-2009. The orchard, where Thomas Roemer worked, provides us with applesauce when there is bountiful harvest. This interview of Thomas Roemer was written several years ago.
On a conventional farm, fighting Codling moths is a relatively simple affair; you spray the heck out of the buggers with the pesticide azinphosmethyl.
At Camphill Village in Kimberton Hills, it’s a lot different, says Thomas Roemer, who works the orchards at this unique farm and must contend with the moth’s apple-ravaging larvae. Using Rudolf Steiner’s farming approach, “you have to be very aware of the cycles of the insect,” says Roemer. Using lures with moth-attracting smells, you track the moth’s population. You search the trees and remove infested apples. And you spread the ashes of burned pest larvae at certain times of the year in order, says Roemer, to “deter those organisms from coming to your fields.”
Its methods for combating the Codling moth are just one example of Kimberton Hills’ use of Steiner Agriculture. The 280-acre farm in southeastern Pennsylvania has used the teachings of Dr. Rudolf Steiner since 1972. Today it raises cows, chickens, goats, pigs and bees; and grows all manner of vegetables, grains, fruits, and medicinal herbs.
Camphill Village at Kimberton Hills is a community rather than just a farm, says Roemer. It is home to about 40 developmentally disabled individuals, of whom 10 work on the farm, while the rest handle other duties. It also employs seven full-time farm workers and an equal number of half-timers, and relies on volunteers from a local high school, and helpers who come from as far away as Germany and Japan for one-year stints.
“On a Steiner inspired farm, you often find people willing to volunteer in one way or another,” says Roemer. Not so on a conventional farm; farmers who have to strap on a gas mask to walk their fields don’t typically get many volunteers, says Roemer, who worked a year on a conventional dairy farm in Wisconsin before embracing the Steiner approach..
“You have to have had experience in conventional farming to appreciate fully what is happening to people, animals, plants and soil on conventional farms in the U.S.,” says Roemer. What’s happening, he says, is that plants are being poisoned with herbicides and pesticides, animals are being imprisoned in tiny enclosures, and the soil is being robbed of its health.
Like organic farmers, those farmers who practice Steiner Agriculture eschew the use of chemicals, hormones, and non-therapeutic antibiotics. But this method of farming adds what some might call a spiritual, or holistic element. “Essentially, you’re dealing with the complexity of living systems,” says Roemer, and seeking to understand how living things behave, how they interact, and the spirits that underlie them.
Roemer and his compatriots, for instance, use the cycles of the moon and planets to guide their planting schedule. In fact, the Stella Natura calendar, which many Steiner farmers use to schedule their plantings, was developed and is updated annually by Sherry Wildfeuer of the Kimberton Hills farm.
They also treat their soil and even soak their seeds in some of the preparations developed by Steiner. That’s not always easy. “Some of the things that are needed [for the preparations] are hard for a person to come by, like a stag’s bladder or a cow’s skull,” says Roemer. And the plants used in the preparations have to be harvested at precise times in their life cycles. “It’s another one of these many details that you have to keep in mind being a Steiner farmer, which some people would find terribly annoying, but I find interesting.”
Kimberton Hills leaves 65 acres of their farm wooded, for several reasons. For one, the woods are a place for the spirits of living things, called elementals, to “play,” as Roemer puts it. For another, the woods and other patches of uncultivated land provide an environment for beneficial insects, which eat pests. And Steiner teaches that providing a place on your land for, say, an unwanted fungus “might reduce the presence of molds and such things in other places,” Roemer says.
“In Steiner’s view, a healthy farm needs to be differentiated like a human body is, into organs with different functions,” Roemer says. The woods, for instance, serve as a sort of liver for the farm, purifying its air, water and soil. The humans serve as the farm’s ego. “Human beings shouldn’t be the controlling agents in nature. They can be a guiding and facilitating force.”
Just as a body couldn’t survive if it consisted entirely of kidneys, a farm needs many different components to function properly. That means no mono-cropping – the practice common in conventional farming of planting endless rows of the same vegetable, fruit or grain; Kimberton Hills grows scores of different things, from apples to hay to strawberries.
It also means that the flesh and blood of the farm – soil and water – have to be healthy, which in the case of Kimberton Hills means carefully protecting the stream and fish pond, plus lots of composting, crop rotation, light tillage, and the planting of cover crops in the winter. It also means worshipful devotion to the earthworm, whose tunnels aerate the soil and whose secretions nourish it. “They are the doctors of the soil, and whereas we may not hold some doctors in high honor, we do hold earthworms there,” says Roemer.
The vitality of the soil gives Steiner farmers a leg up on conventional farmers, Roemer says. That helps Kimberton Hills produce yields of berries, grains and some vegetables that are comparable to those of conventional farmers. (It’s harder to compete in the orchard, especially in humid, insect-friendly southeastern Pennsylvania, Roemer notes.) And since Steiner Agriculture doesn’t rely on large, expensive machines or costly chemicals, the debt loads of its practitioners aren’t as high as those of many conventional farmers, he says.
That said, “You’re not going to get rich on this method of farming,” Roemer states. “Farming in this country in general isn’t economically sustainable.” Kimberton Hills stays above water, thanks to help from the nonprofit organization that operates Camphill Village at Kimberton Hills, and also because of a thriving community-supported agriculture system. With the CSA model, residents of the community buy shares in the farm, and then receive a percentage of its yields as their dividends.
“They’re buying produce from animals and plants that are happy and healthy,” says Roemer. In the end, it’s the feeling of doing meaningful work, and making a good product, that motivates him. “With Steiner Agriculture, you feel like you’re farming in a completely healthy way.”
Tim Rapsey has been practicing Steiner Agriculture since 1971 and with his wife, Fabienne, operating the CSA at Kimberton Hills for the past 5 years. The garden that supplies the CSA grows 35 to 40 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. Tim rattles off a couple dozen, including carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, spinach, Swiss chard, cabbage, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant, zucchini, winter and summer squash, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, beans, peas, and herbs – basil, parsley, dill, sage, cilantro.
When asked what the differences are between Steiner Agriculture and traditional farming, Tim states that “It’s different by degrees. We work with traditional good farming practices. Traditional farming is a basis but not enough, because nature has never had to deal with what it has to deal with now.” He points out that organic farmers may use “anything, as long as it’s organic.” Whereas the first aim of the Steiner farmer is to make the farm a self-sustaining organism, a closed cycle. This means the fertilizer, the materials for the preparations, the animal feed all come from within the farm. “We’re not talking about input to output,” Tim says. We’re talking about the optimum number of animals and the optimum plants that can support each other. We’re talking about a total farm economy, not a money economy, but relationships between plants, animals, soil, human beings.”
When speaking about the preparations in comparison to commercial products, Tim states that it’s not so much quantity of nutrients but the forces inherent in the manure, the plants and other substances that are used to make them. He refers to the preps as a “medicament, almost like a homeopathic remedy.”
“The earth is under a tremendous amount of stress,” Tim says, “from electric currents, magnetic currents, pollution, nuclear fallout. The earth is aging,” he adds, “and just like a human being, it’s not as resilient. It has to develop this other side and it can’t do it by itself. It needs human beings to help.” By developing and applying the preps, Tim says, “We are part of the cycle.”
When asked how his produce compares with the other products on the market, Tim doesn’t hesitate. “Nutritionally and in terms of keeping quality, ours are much higher.” He admits that cosmetically they “probably don’t match up. They might not look as uniform, because we don’t’ use hybrid varieties or genetically engineered seeds. But flavor-wise,” he notes “there’s no comparison.