Biodynamic farm in southeastern Pennsylvania cultivates organic farmers and human dignity
Camphill Village at Kimberton Hills, one of over 100 similar intentional communities world wide, couples holistic farming practices with a supportive community for special needs residents

By Kyle Holzhueter
June 2, 2005


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Working for a Life
The Camphill experience brings dignity and worth to all who participate

Nestled in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania lies an intentional community striving to restore vitality to our land and society. Camphill Village Kimberton Hills is a land-based community of 120 people living in 14 homes as extended families. Together they work the land, supporting a successful raw milk dairy, a vegetable-growing CSA, a community orchard, an apiary, and a medicinal and culinary herb garden. But the work here is also socially therapeutic. Roughly one-third of the residents are developmentally disabled, with conditions ranging from Down syndrome to autism.

Kimberton Hills is a member of the international Camphill movement, which is dedicated to enhancing human understanding and dignity through community building with children, youth and adults with special needs. Today there are over 100 Camphill communities in more than 20 countries throughout the world.

When asked about life on the farm, Kimberton member Larry Adler simply replied, “I love it here.”

The first Camphill community was founded in 1939 near Aberdeen, Scotland by Karl Koenig, M.D. Dr. Koenig’s medical and scientific research led to a vision of a “healing community” that would be therapeutic not only for individuals with disabilities, but for the earth and the whole human condition. Dr. Koenig, a pediatrician, was deeply influenced by Rudolf Steiner.

Rudolf Steiner, Ph.D. was born in Kraljevec (then in Austria, now in Croatia) in 1861 and died in Dornach, Switzerland in 1925. He completed degrees in mathematics, physics and chemistry, and later a dissertation in philosophy. Late in his life he laid the groundwork for a new organic agricultural movement. After his death, these organic practices came to be known as biodynamic agriculture.

Biodynamics originated in a course of lectures given by Steiner in 1924. They were held at the request of a group of farmers concerned about the destructive trend of “scientific” farming, such as diminishing seed vitality and soil fertility. In these lectures, Steiner describes the forces that create soil and plant health. Instead of turning to artificial fertilizers and pesticides, Steiner brought forth the concept of the “agricultural individuality,” or self-contained farm organism. Steiner was critical of reductionism and agricultural science’s emphasis on inputs from outside the farm. Rather, Steiner urged each farmer to find the ideal balance of mixed crops and livestock to create a self-fertile agricultural system.

Kimberton Hills was originally the estate of Alaric and Mabel Pew Myrin, who worked to create a model biodynamic farm. In 1972, after the deaths of Alarik and Mabel, their home and 360 acres of Kimberton Hills was given to the Camphill movement to continue the biodynamic impulse. The property of Camphill Village Kimberton Hills now totals 430 acres.

Kimberton Hills is working to emulate Steiner’s vision of the whole farm organism. Kimberton Hills’ Land Association, consisting of representatives from each of the various areas of the farm, meets weekly in order to coordinate the mutual interdependence of the land. “The mission of the Land Association is to unify us as an agrarian community,” explains head gardener Sebastian Kretschmer. The dairy provides the garden with organic cow manure for composting. Cheviot sheep are rotationally grazed through the orchard, controlling weeds and improving the soil. Compost made from Saanen dairy goat bedding is applied around the orchard’s fruit trees.

"Rotationally grazing the sheep really cuts down on mowing," orchard manager Ruben Travis says with a smile.
Recognizing the inherent exploitation of the land through agriculture, Rudolf Steiner prescribed biodynamic preparations made from mineral, plant and manure extracts. These are used, essentially, as homeopathic remedies, replenishing the subtle forces needed to sustain life. In the fall of each year, Kimberton Hills Land Association hosts a biodynamic-preparation-making workshop, joined by the growers and farmers of neighboring Kimberton CSA and Seven Stars Dairy. The materials are sourced as locally as possible. Each group returns home with enough preparations to support another year of biodynamic agriculture.

Training biodynamic farms

Kimberton Hills’ interconnectedness extends to its biodynamic training program, designed and implemented by Kretschmer. A native of Germany, Kretschmer participated in a traditional agricultural apprenticeship at Camphill Village Oaklands Park in England and continued his journeyman years on an organic farm in New Mexico, where he grew seed for organic seed company Seeds of Change. Greatly influenced by the European apprenticeship model, Kretschmer also works as a consultant and project director for the New England Small Farm Institute, coordinating an apprenticeship network across the Northeast.

At Kimberton Hills, SABA (Spectrum Apprenticeship in Biodynamic Agriculture) provides vocational training in a specific land area with learning sequences in other agricultural areas of Kimberton Hills. For example, the Kimberton Hills Dairy and Sankanac CSA each provide apprentices vocational training in their field, while the orchard and herb garden provide short learning sequences. Regular general seminars provide a theoretical agricultural overview, and work-stays in other areas of the farm offer exposure and hands-on experience throughout the spectrum of biodynamic agriculture.

Sowing seed, cultivating, and harvesting according to cosmic rhythms is one aspect of biodynamics that fascinates most people (and turns some heads). Kimberton Hills is home to the experimental garden of Sherry Wildfeuer, editor of Stella Natura Biodynamic Agricultural Planting Guide and Calendar. Wildfeuer has been an active member of Kimberton Hills since 1973. She studied gardening under Allen Chadwick in Santa Cruz, California and at the Gotheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. Being called to teach, Sherry produces the calendar to provide inspiration and practical advice to growers coordinating their work with the movements of heavenly spheres as prescribed by biodynamic agriculture. Briefly, biodynamic growers strive to coordinate their work, especially sowing, with the moon’s relationship to the zodiac, though other cosmic movements and the weather complicate matters (and make for an ever-interesting growing season).

From a raw milk dairy to an orchard: Kimberton's diverse enterprises

Kimberton Hills may be best known for its raw milk dairy. The Kimberton Hills Dairy consists of 250 acres of hay fields and rotationally grazed pastures. Roughly 50 cows are milked in a stanchion barn with an addition 50 head of young stock. The majority are Brown Swiss, with a few Milking Short Horn and Jersey. The past couple of years manager Steven Clee has chosen to keep a Jersey bull with the cows. “I hoped that the smaller head of the Jersey would ease calving,” explains Clee. When asked about the possible dangers of keeping a Jersey bull, renown for their aggressive nature, Clee replied “I run my bulls with my cows all the time. The bulls aren’t confined in a pen. That’s important in keeping the bull’s behavior under control. They’re quite content to run with the cows.” With one of the few raw milk licenses in Pennsylvania, milk is bottled and direct marketed to the local Kimberton Whole Foods store and other Camphill communities. The rest of the milk is sold to neighboring Seven Stars Dairy to be made into organic yogurt. Clee’s economic view is “grazing keeps costs low and the premium for bottled raw milk equals financial viability.”

Clee, a native of England, has lived in the community with his wife Sue for nine years. They and their two Children, 9-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Lilly, live as an extended family with three special-needs adults. They both express that they feel a social calling as well as an agricultural calling. “My wife and I are committed to life-sharing with people with special needs,” Clee says. “That is something that we think Camphill stands for.”

Kimberton Hill’s houses the Sankanac CSA. “Sankanac” was the name used by the American Indians of this region to designate the French Creek River, which flows adjacent to the northwest side of the Kimberton Hills Property and encircles the 10-acre garden. The garden supports more than 40 varieties of vegetables, flowers, and soft fruits to feed a 150-member CSA. At Sankanac CSA, families from inside and outside the village can purchase a weekly share of seasonal produce from May through October.

Kimberton Hills’ Orchard consists of 268 fruit trees and 156 grapevines in silvopasture—rotationally grazed by a flock of Cheviot sheep—and provides the village with apples, pears, peaches, grapes and berries. “Rotationally grazing the sheep really cuts down on mowing,” orchard manager Ruben Travis says with a smile. “Not only that, it saves gas while improving the soil.” In addition to building fertility, the sheep provide wool for Kimberton Hills’ textile workshop. Fence lines and untamed areas are also maintained by the herd of Saanen dairy goats. The goats’ browsing instincts are used to keep down the poison ivy, invasive multiflora roses, and the excessive amounts of burdock in and around the orchard spaces.

The herb garden supports a variety of culinary and medicinal herbs for the village and for market. The Apiary provides pollination for the gardens and orchard while producing honey for the village and for sale.

Since each of the agricultural areas is a branch of Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, commercially oriented biodynamic agriculture is combined with social therapy. Social therapy consists of everything that is done to create an environment that benefits people with disabilities. They learn a variety of skills and achieve a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Each person knows that he or she contributes to the village in a significant way. It is in this true sense of working together, drawing on the abilities of each individual and channeling it into the stewardship of the land and animals, that the community’s mission is given life.

"I would say that I am truly blessed to be here and this is the best place for me. In a community like Kimberton, you can really have a life." - Lawrence Sherma

In Kimberton Hills, the special-needs adults range in age from 23 to 82 years old. The co-works who support them range in age from 19 to 80. Including the co-worker’s children, the population of Kimberton Hills averages 120 people.

Generally the adults with special needs move to Kimberton Hills and settle there. A few co-workers have been in Kimberton Hills since its inception. Others have been there almost that long. Still others serve shorter periods of time. Generally a year is the minimum length of time people are invited to live and work in the community.

Some of the special-needs adults take on considerable responsibility, becoming integral to the operation of the workshop. Larry Adler, 46, came from New York and has worked on the land since arriving in Kimberton Hills on December 2, 1979. He’s now foreman of the crew responsible for cleaning and preparing the milking barn six days a week. Because of Adler’s vital contribution, dairy manager Steven Clee considers him a partner. Clee says in praise, “Larry’s high energy, work-ethic and light-heartedness make him a natural leader and motivator.” When asked about life on the farm, Adler simply replied, “I love it here.”

Many of the special-needs adults have multiple work duties. Lawrence Sherma, 23, of Binghamtom, New York, works in the garden, dairy, bakery and on the estate landscaping crew of Kimberton Hills. He is undoubtedly one of the hardest working members of the community. Sherma finds working on the land satisfying and rewarding. “I would say that I am truly blessed to be here and this is the best place for me. In a community like Kimberton, you can really have a life. It makes me feel good about myself.”

Other social therapeutic enterprises include a textile workshop and woodworking workshop. The bakery produces organic breads, rolls, and cookies, which are sold at the Phoenixville farmers’ market, the Kimberton Whole Foods store, and through the Camphill Café. The Camphill Café is located in the heart of village and is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The textile workshop spins local wool and uses natural dyes to produce an array of knitted, crocheted, and woven items. The woodworking workshop harvests lumber from the Kimberton Hills property and produces an array of hand-crafted items sold in the Kimberton Hills craft shop and through Seven Stars shop adjoining Seven Stars Dairy. The woodworking workshop also takes special orders.

Kimberton Hills may well be a model for future sustainable communities. It strives to be inclusive of all fragments of society, particularly those most often neglected by contemporary American culture. But it is not simply a residential institution; it is a thriving, progressive, life-sharing community engaged in sustainable agriculture. More than that, it is working to educate and train the next generation of ecological farmers. More information can be found on the Kimberton Hills website: www.camphillkimberton.org.

This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147