Mindful Agriculture

By Steffen Schneider

 Why “Mindful Agriculture”? Do we really need another designation for agriculture, you might ask yourself? That is a fair question to arise after encountering the website of this new initiative at Hawthorne Valley Farm.  Especially after you see we already have a confusing plethora of descriptive adjectives to distinguish various forms of farming and agriculture.  What follows is a listing of some of the most commonly used:

  •  ·         Traditional farming ,Industrial farming
  • ·         Peasant agriculture
  • ·         Agribusiness
  • ·         Biological agriculture
  • ·         Agrarianism
  • ·         Conscious agriculture
  • ·         Organic farming
  • ·         Agriculture 3.0
  • ·         Holistic farming
  • ·         Natural farming
  • ·         Sustainable farming
  • ·         Biodynamic farming
  • ·         Permaculture
  • ·         Regenerative farming
  • ·         Ecological agriculture
  • ·         Restoration agriculture

 All the above adjectives describe certain aspects of farming or agriculture. But in our view and experience they do not, at least explicitly, name one, possibly the, crucial aspect that our times and the future are demanding of agriculture and its role in the further co-evolution of our planet. All the above designations, with the exception of “mindful” I would argue, enable us to externalize our relationship to, our participation in the activity; that tendency and temptation to focus on the outward techniques lie at the root of many of our challenges.  Thus it is too easy to separate ourselves, our inner attitudes and state from our work.

The character of the times we live in and some of the latest research and practice in leadership all point to the new and emerging reality that we are THE crucial part of the picture. More and more scientists, academicians, geologists are using a very interesting and poignant new word to describe the modern times we live in.

 “Anthropocene” is a geological designation that suggests for the first time in history human beings – and not just natural forces – are shaping the earth’s ecosystem through business practices and lifestyles that contribute to everything from global warming to habitat destruction and health pandemics. Anthropocene is a combination of Greek roots: anthropo- meaning “human” and –cene meaning “new”.  All epochs in the Cenozoic Era end in “-cene”. In recognizing this designation we acknowledge the fact that so far it has been largely to our detriment not to include our own inner attitudes and their conscious development in our day-to-day actions and as those actions relate to larger world issues and concerns.

 As this evolutionary reality is emerging I want to point out that roughly one century ago the Austrian scientist, social reformer and philosopher Rudolf Steiner 1861-1925) coined the name “Anthroposophy” for his cosmology, which is centered on researching and understanding the nature of the human being and his/her  place and role in an evolving Earth. Anthroposophy is a combination of Greek roots as well: anthropos- meaning “human” and -sophia meaning “wisdom”. I would argue that there is a lot to be learned about potential solutions to many of our current challenges by seriously and deeply engaging with Rudolf Steiner’s work. Biodynamic agriculture, one of the movements mentioned in the beginning of this article has its roots in Steiner’s insights.

 On the cutting edge in leadership and management theory, training, and practice, this new recognition has also taken hold especially through the work of  both Otto Scharmer (Theory U and the Presencing Institute) and  Jon Kabat-Zinn (Mindfulness and awareness training). The gist of the Theory U framework is simple: the quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate. The formula for a successful change process is not “form follows function”, but “form follows consciousness. The structure of awareness and attention determines the pathways along which a situation unfolds.

Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance put it this way: “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

In other words the success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on what we do, or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate. Boy, what do I really know about this inner place? Is it one or several or an infinite number of places? We can observe what we do and how we do it but mostly the quality of source (or inner place) from which we operate in “the now” tends to be outside the range of our normal observation, attention, and awareness.

 So far for Scharmer’s framing of the issues.

 Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered the founder of mindfulness training in its current form, describes mindfulness in the following very simple and direct way: “paying attention in a special way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

 He continues:

 “When cultivated and refined, mindfulness can function effectively on every level, from the individual to the corporate, the societal, the political, and the global. But it does require that we be motivated to realize who we actually are and to live our lives as if they mattered, not just for ourselves, but also for the world. This adventure of a lifetime unfolds from its first step.”

J. W. v. Goethe (1749-1832), the famous German scientist and poet already observed how we affect the world and others in this sobering poem:

 “I have come to the frightening conclusion that

I am the decisive element.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate

It is my daily mood that makes the weather

I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether

A crisis is escalated or de-escalated and

A person is humanized or de-humanized

If we treat people as they are we making them worse?

If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become

 What they are capable of becoming.”


So what does all this mean for agriculture of the future?

 As I reflect on the state of our planet and our human community I cannot help but think that understanding, embodying and acting out of this emerging reality that above quotations describe from various angles are the “eye of the needle” we have to pass through to achieve the kind of future that we all wish for. That is the call of our time, the signature question we need to ask and struggle with and hopefully answer. In my own experience gained over 30 plus years working in agriculture I have seen first hand over and over again that the majority of difficulties I have encountered have involved either a misunderstanding or complete neglect of our inner human landscapes.

 Can we learn to recognize and understand our inner “geography”; can we cultivate our “inner soils”? I believe we need to with the same or even more energy that we now devote to the work on our farms and soils. This will require firm personal commitment within a community of friends and supporters. In contrast to much of the work that demands outer activity, this new effort requires conscious, awake effort and often doing “nothing”.

 Amidst the bustle of a farm in the middle of the growing season quiet reflection can seem like an indulgence that will put us behind. But I feel that once on a purposeful path, efficiency and effectiveness can increase dramatically. In a frenzied world, introspective solitude has a unique way of clearing our heads and getting us realigned with our purpose. And time in deep thought can be the very best thing we do – both for ourselves and for the sake of others.