On Seed Work in Camphill Village

By Lisa Millette

Originally published in Edible Berkshires, Spring 2016

It is quiet at 8AM as I drive up to Turtle Tree seed shop, save the nervous scattering of chickens who stroll along the roads and yards of Camphill Village every morning.

Quickly, I pull together the day’s work, racing the clock to beat the arrival of the seed shop’s crew. Work officially begins at 9AM but a few often arrive 10-15 minutes early, and this morning is no different. Elizabeth speed-walks through the door at 8:45AM. She settles into her work station without stopping for breath as she informs me of Camphill Village’s weekend happenings, most importantly the number of VWs she spotted.

The seed shop is one of fifteen workshops at Camphill Village in Copake, NY, an intentional residential “community of people, some with special needs, who live and work together, caring for one another and the earth”. In addition to staff and villagers who reside on campus, there are also a group of employees, myself among them, who commute into the community to support the micro-economy of the village.

Monday through Friday at Camphill Village provide its residents and employees with the rhythmic structure that most American professionals are used to. All residents serve their community through a vocation of their choosing; one might cook the meals in one of the homes in the village, while someone else tends to the beef cattle and dairy cows, or takes care of the grounds, or supports cafe operations. Some community members spend decades in the woodshop or weavery. Others take advantage of the variety of vocations in the village and change jobs throughout their career. Camphill Village as a community sees equal value in every individual and supports community members in finding meaning in their work, and work that gives them meaning. Work deepens the respectful relationship amongst residents and employees, and provides all with the dignity that comes from knowledge that one’s work contributes to the greater practical production goals of the community.

Elizabeth, myself, and 28 others work here in Turtle Tree seed shop year round to grow, harvest, clean, and sell biodynamic vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. This chilly winter morning is no less productive than a summer’s morning. Winter tasks primarily revolve around seed cleaning. Seed cleaning is just as it sounds – we separate the chaff, dirt, and other stray particles from harvested seed to be tested, packed, and mailed to gardeners throughout the country. The first stages: threshing, blowing, and screening are done with machines. The final stages literally have the human touch of meticulous handwork.

Satisfied that she has shared with me the most important Camphill news, Elizabeth finger knits while I continue to prepare the workstations. As 9 a.m. approaches, the rest of the crew filters in. Elizabeth sets aside her knitting and the team begins to work. A familiar hum fills the seed shop as the crew updates each other on their weekends and I circle the room, clarifying work instructions as needed. As every workshop is doing across the village, our crew reviews our schedule for the day. For Camphill Village, schedules include not only work goals, but also include what houses we will be dining at (residents and staff live in large extended family-style homes together, which also host crews for meals and social visits), and what evening activities will be held in the village (Camphill’s extracurricular life is enriched with sports, physical activities, choirs, ensembles, and more). Reviewing our schedule every day is part of Camphill’s rhythm, providing structure and a sense of familiarity and safety.

I may be biased, but I believe that Turtle Tree seed shop has the best crew in the village. Elizabeth is no exception. Today she is checking Schweizer Riesen Snow Peas. On winter mornings like today, her conscientiousness produces nearly perfect clean seeds. In warmer months, her ability to identify plants makes her a trusted weeder in the greenhouse and seed garden. In addition, she is able to balance socialization and focused work, even in the seed shop where the team works close together around the tables, a setting that could prove distracting for others.

At 10:30, we break for tea and biscuits, a break that recognizes the human brain’s capacity to focus for only 90-120 minutes at a time. Our minds reset for 10-20 minutes as we enjoy mint tea grown right in our community, then we return to our work until lunch, which today I enjoy at Arbutus House. At the conclusion of the meal, I excuse myself to clean the seed shop and set-up for afternoon work, seed cleaning from 2:30-5 pm with a short water break at 4 pm.

Our crew enjoys the camaraderie of seed cleaning, but we can’t help anticipating the return of warmer weather and seed garden work. Plants and soil highlight unique strengths of different crew members. Sherry revels in the clean swatches of garden just weeded. Greg loves the efficiency and physicality of push-hoeing the pathways. Arafat and Seemantini engage in philosophical conversations while hand weeding long rows or soil boxes in the greenhouse. Even Kelly, who despite choosing Turtle Tree work maintains a daily mantra that she is “not a gardener”, proudly stands back to admire the work she has accomplished. The garden rewards us with the year’s seed harvest not to mention the therapeutic benefits of working with the soil in the fresh air and sunshine. We reward each other with our authentic selves.

No one stands alone in the garden. We plant: someone digs holes, someone else lifts the starts from the soil tray, a couple others retrieve these starts and place them in the holes, someone else covers up the roots, and someone double checks the progress. We weed. We check each other’s seed work. We remind each other to drink water. When one of us forgets, another remembers each other’s appointments. When one of us cries or flushes in anger, another soothes. When one of us makes a mistake, we forgive. We understand that we remain human even as we engage in the rhythm of the work.

No work site is an island at Camphill Village. Just as members of our seed crew support each other, so too does each workshop crew support the other crews. Members of the vegetable garden workshop assist us with tractor work. In turn, our surplus vegetables in excess of what we need for seed production find their way to the garden shed. Dairy farmers join us in weeding or harvesting and we participate in milking. Our community and each of its work sites would struggle if community members worked in isolation. The community’s shared purpose is a connecting force that empowers residents to continue to try new things in their personal lives in the village, from building familial friendships with housemates and residential staff from around the world, attending a performance in the village hall, or taking a night class taught by a peer.

It’s 5PM and the work day is done. We review what we’ve accomplished and discuss our plans for the evening. Elizabeth punctually departs the shop, speed-walking to dinner. After the crew is gone, I take the compost out to the pile behind the shop. Then flicking off the lights, I lock the door and walk to my car. I’m exhausted but centered. Camphill Village Copake has that effect. The rhythm of our working community carries us home; a steady reminder that we are in the right place at the right time.