The Institute for Mindful Agriculture

This article is published in the current edition of Star & Furrow.

The Institute for Mindful Agriculture (IMA) is an initiative situated on Hawthorne Valley Farm in the Hudson Valley of New York in the Eastern United States. Its founding impulse is connected to the work at Hawthorne Valley, the work of the Biodynamic Association of North America and the work of the Presencing Institute at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. IMA was founded as a response to, what we consider, the evident and urgent needs of our times. Today we find ourselves experiencing tremendous disruption defined by deep disconnects in three areas:

 • Unprecedented ecological destruction. On average we are currently consuming 1.5 times our planet’s regeneration capacity annually, resulting in a rapid loss of nature – The ecological divide. 

 We are living in a time of unfathomable and shameful levels of inequity and fragmentation. In 2017, an Oxfam study found that the eight richest people in the world, six of them Americans, own as much combined wealth as half the human race – 3.8 billion individuals -, resulting in a loss of the ability to sense and experience the social whole – The social divide.

• More and more individuals suffer from burnout and depression, which leads to an increasing number of suicides each year. This is a tragic symptom of a loss of meaning and a struggle to maintain one’s humanity – The spiritual divide.

Since agriculture sits squarely at the nexus of nature, economy, society, and culture, we consider it the key field for catalyzing holistic change. But why did we name it “mindful” agriculture and what do we mean by this term? Isn’t it confusing enough already how many different designations we can find in current publications and media reports on food and farming? Do we really need another “kind of” farming? Just look at this sampling:

Traditional farming, Industrial farming, Peasant agriculture, Agribusiness, Conventional agriculture, Modern agriculture, Biological agriculture, Agrarianism, Conscious agriculture, Organic farming, Organic 3.0, Agriculture 3.0, Holistic farming, Natural farming, Sustainable farming, Biodynamic farming, Permaculture, Regenerative farming, Ecological agriculture, Restoration agriculture, Climate smart agriculture, High Performance agriculture and I probably forgot the one or the other designation.

Do we really need another name to describe agriculture – an activity humans have practiced for millennia? At IMA our answer is yes! And here is why. All the above adjectives describe certain attributes 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, this activity; this tendency and temptation to focus on the outward techniques lie at the root of many of our challenges. It makes it too easy to separate ourselves and our inner attitudes and state of being from our work. And that goes counter to the character and evolutionary signature of the times we live in. Some of the latest research and also 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 times we live in today – the Anthropocene. “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 economic practices and cultural lifestyles that contribute to everything from global warming to habitat destruction and health pandemics. Anthropocene is a combination of two 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, especially as those actions relate to larger world issues and concerns. As this evolutionary reality is emerging and being acknowledged it’s important to point out that roughly one century ago the Austrian scientist, spiritual teacher, social reformer and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) coined the term “Anthroposophy” to describe his cosmology, which is centered on researching and understanding the nature of the human being and his/her place and purpose within 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.

At IMA we aspire to a vision of a future in which our agriculture supports a society defined by wellness and happiness for all beings. In this vision, we humans understand and feel ourselves as a part of the Earth and our behavior is driven by mindfulness and compassion within this whole. We mention “all beings” because we want to give voice to the voiceless, meaning all living non human beings, and the generations of the future. Thus our mission at IMA is focused on helping to re-shape agricultural theory and practice to create a world where individuals are once again strongly connected to the source of their sustenance and where food is grown in active dialogue with nature and distributed in a socially just manner. By bringing mindfulness to agriculture, we connect inner transformation to social innovation in agriculture and food valuechains. An awakened collective awareness of the Earth as a living whole, mindful of and compassionate about all living beings, will help us transform ourselves into the regenerative society we have thus far failed to cultivate. In this future, agriculture will go way beyond food production by cultivating farms as places of economic, ecological, social, and spiritual-cultural renewal – in other words, healing the living eco-systems.

Currently we are focusing our work - our programs, projects, research and publications - with the aim to change the predominant economic paradigm of agriculture by innovating holistic food sheds. We believe the concept and image of “food sheds” is more appropriate to describe and guide the evolution of healthy and equitable food systems. The term expresses much more accurately the “living flow” of food from soil to table. Establishing food sheds on the well-accepted reality of watersheds emphasizes this connection. It also expresses how the activity of water is one of the most important factors in the shaping of landscapes. (For more detail on the concept of a “food shed” please refer to the article on the IMA website,

At the core of the struggles that many farms experience today lies what we have called the “double-affordability-gap”. It expresses a central challenge in our current food landscapes in that many farm operations, particularly mid-sized and smaller ones, can barely reach economic sustainability, even if they sell into a high-end niche market and on the other side most consumers cannot afford food grown in a sustainable and regenerative way. Connected to this is also the, in our mind misguided and wrong, question of wanting and needing to “feed the world”, rather than providing fresh and healthy food for our own communities. This has resulted in a heavily subsidized commodity agriculture, that’s clearly unsustainable and has weakened and destroyed rural communities. It also creates multiple negative externalities like environmental degradation and public health crises. Indeed and amazingly, if we were able to really provide for our own communities then we would be able to “feed the world.” How do we orient and ground our efforts and contributions in this confusing “landscape” of depressing and mind-bending paradoxes and stark challenges? To date we’ve identified and applied three foundational principles for our food shed work: 1. “If a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is to connect it with more of itself”. (This is a thesis by the late Francisco Varela, a well known biologist and neuro-scientist) 2. “All major challenges of our time can only be solved through multi-stakeholder collaboration”. (Otto Scharmer, Presencing Institute @ MIT) 3. The “Holon-principle” (A holon [Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos "whole") describes a state where something is simultaneously a whole and a part. Arthur Koestler coined the word in his book “The Ghost in the Machine”.

What does this mean in practice? Our first step often consists of “connecting the system more to itself”. We achieve this by convening a relevant diverse multi-stakeholder group; this group consists of representative actors across the food value chain in a particular geographic or politically designated region. We have growers, producers, processors, distributors, retailers and consumers that are participating. Conducting stakeholder interviews and sharing the results with the group allows the system to “see and experience itself”. That and the group’s collaboration in the spirit of the well-being of all, builds trust, and a common identity and understanding arises and a new Whole within the larger Whole – a Holon – is taking shape. In the future we imagine that groups such as the one described will become central sensing and guiding organs in the emerging food sheds. This work will require ongoing efforts of capacity building, resulting in a deeper and deeper perceiving and understanding of the Whole and all the actors within it. Sensing and Learning Journeys, Community celebrations, Case Clinics and Deep Dive Dialogues all are social tools that support these efforts. (See the Presencing Institute website for summaries of these important tools. Building and cultivating these high quality relationships across the whole food value chain increases the collective capacity for action. This then will result in a 180-degree shift of perspective from isolated farmers towards highly integrated networks of farmers, processors and eaters co-organizing bioregional food sheds. In other words the “food-value-chain” will evolve into a “food-value-association”, a node in a growing inter-connected and inter-dependent network. In concluding, I believe this new pattern and way of relating, especially in the field of the economy, gives deep expression of the gesture and activity of mindfulness. I attempted to describe above how the conscious activity of mindfulness enables one to recognize how one’s inner state is connected to outer actions.

Another simple definition of “mindfulness” is “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”. In a certain way we are speaking of a “simple” change from looking at the world from an “us versus them” point of view to a “we” point of view. Or as Otto Scharmer expresses it much more eloquently, the challenge lies in moving from and Ego-system to an Eco-system view. On an individual basis this change can be encouraged and supported through a personal, spiritual or mindfulness practice. In the economic realm this change can be guided by the formation and working of the above mentioned associations.

We can see how the current paradigm of agriculture expands dramatically when we apply above three fundamental principles; something we think is of critical importance for the future. I also suggest that this line of inquiry will reveal a deep connection to the core of Biodynamics and open new vistas into its future.

We love to hear feedback, both supportive and challenging. We consider our work to be action research and are always looking for potential partners to collaborate with. Lastly, any support for our ongoing work and projects is always gratefully accepted. Thank you!