Celebrating Our Return to the Farm

A Letter from Giannina Zlatar

Fifty years ago, on July 31, 1972, an intense seven-year search by the Rudolf Steiner Educational and Farming Association came to an end. The Association, a group led by teachers of the Rudolf Steiner School, purchased the Hawthorne Valley Farm—a 338-acre dairy farm in Harlemville, NY—fulfilling their dream of offering city children the experience of life on a farm. Right away, our school began a beloved tradition: the yearly visit to the farm, which originally was a ten-day sojourn. What started out as the Rudolf Steiner Farm School is now the Visiting Students Program (VSP), which serves 1,200 students from Waldorf and non-Waldorf schools every year and is part of the fully biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm.

The annual farm trip continues to be a highlight for every class in our school. Beginning in third grade, classes spend five days at the farm each year experiencing age-appropriate activities that reflect our Waldorf curriculum. To reinforce the third-grade farm block, every third grade becomes acquainted with the farm and its animals in a visit that typically happens in the spring. They sow seeds in the garden, muck the stables, and help bring the cows from pasture in the afternoon. They make bread and butter and participate in the preparation of their meals. In the fourth grade, the same group of children returns to the farm in the fall to harvest what they planted in the spring. Their trip typically coincides with Halloween, allowing them to enjoy local festivities. The fifth-grade program incorporates botany, and in the sixth grade, the students learn how to orient themselves with only a map and a compass, and conclude their week with an exhilarating challenge: blindfolded, they are dropped off at a secret location. To find their way back to the farmhouse, they are only equipped with a topographical map of the area and a compass.

Following sixth grade, there is a three-year hiatus, after which students return to their dear farm, to reacquaint themselves with once-familiar activities now from the vantagepoint of a tenth grader.

During 2020 and 2021, due to the state of world affairs, our students missed this highlight of our school program. Trips were suspended until the spring of 2022, when we were able to resume the yearly tradition of visiting the Hawthorne Valley Farm. Thirty-five excited fourth and fifth graders were finally able to travel to Upstate New York and spend five days at the farm for the very first time. Enthusiastic and willing, they worked in the garden, cleaned the stables, fed the animals, prepared meals, waited on tables, and played outdoors together to their hearts’ content. It was a very successful week, and the students returned home already looking forward to their next stay. 

For New York City children, the farm visit constitutes an essential respite from our fast-paced city life. Meeting the farm animals is always transformative.  Moved beyond expectation, they feel a true kinship with our fellow brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. Classes often experience the birth of a calf, a litter of piglets, or perhaps a lamb. Getting up at 5:45 AM to feed the animals is, for many children, the best moment of their week. Even mucking out the barn elicits positive reactions: “It is so satisfying to see a clean barn!” There is no bad weather at the farm. The farm is beautiful and rewarding even when it rains. I remember a third grade, years ago, who was dealt four days of rain out of five. The sun only came out the day we were returning home. Nevertheless, in these students’ perception their first stay at the farm was perfect—they loved every wet moment of the week.

Students look forward to every meal at the farm. From creamy oatmeal for breakfast to vegetable soups at suppertime and special treats like pancakes or apple cobbler at the end of the week, every dish is prepared with care and the highest quality ingredients. Organic, biodynamic, locally grown, and Hawthorne Valley Farm-sourced produce constitute the foundation of hearty vegetarian meals. Usually, the students participate in making one of their daily meals and often make the bread and butter they eat. At the end of the week, it is not uncommon to hear how they have learned to love salad or not missed meat at all!

Sharing 24-hours with classmates and teachers offers unique bonding opportunities that deepen friendships and allow each to appreciate the other from a new perspective. Students return having a strong sense of belonging to their class, and teachers have the priceless opportunity to observe their students in a different context.

As I write, my class of now sixth graders just returned from the farm. It was a week that surpassed all expectations. Every night we gathered to close the day. In their pajamas, ready to go to bed, the children shared noteworthy moments and impressions. Midweek, I asked them to write a note to their parents, which I later sent home. Here are some of the messages gathered:

“Dear Mama and Dada, Here on the farm there is not much time to miss you. My favorite animal so far is Vesper, a very furry sheep!”


“Hey Mother & Papa, I AM HAVING A GREAT TIME. I LOVE IT HERE, and the food is YUMMY. I don’t really miss you; sorry. But I love you ALWAYS….The class and I are really bonding.”


“I miss all of you guys so much. I’m having so much fun! I got to do morning feeding – I fed the horses, sheep, and hens and roosters. I also got to cook dinner.”


“I am having a great time at the farm. There was a baby calf born while we were arriving, and the farm got a new sheep. Today I worked with the horses, learned how to whittle, and did afternoon animal feeding. I can’t wait to tell you all about it…”


The children say it all. In today’s world, more than ever it is essential to foster in our children heartfelt gratitude, genuine respect, and sincere awe for the natural world—for in the future, much will depend on the care and appreciation human beings have for the environment. The yearly visit to the farm does exactly this.

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the visionaries who, fifty years ago, purchased the Hawthorne Valley Farm. In 1948, Karl Ege, one of the last teachers to be appointed by Rudolf Steiner to the original Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Germany, joined Rudolf Steiner School in New York City as mentor and faculty member, and remained at our school for eighteen years. It was his work with urban students that convinced him that an experience of the land, of farming, and of nature should be an integral part of our city children’s education. Karl Ege together with Henry Barnes, Arvia MacKaye Ege, and Harry Kretz are among the pioneers whose efforts brought into being the Rudolf Steiner Farm School, offering city students the opportunity to learn where their food comes from and engage in practical learning on a farm. One hundred years ago, in a lecture given in 1922, Rudolf Steiner stated that “a person who has not learned to distinguish an ear of rye from an ear of wheat is not a complete human being… The children themselves should be taken out and wherever possible, be brought to understand the plant world in its actual connection to the earth, with the rays of sun, with life itself.” Our school is very fortunate to have cultivated a fifty-year relationship with the Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Visiting Students Program.