From school yard to farm yard

April 2021

In conversation with Tobias Hartkemeyer, pioneer in the field of Community Supported Agriculture and Action Pedagogy (CSA), social entrepreneur, lecturer, trainer in dialogue process facilitation and co-author of the book Dialogische Intelligenz: Aus dem Käfig des Gedachten in den Kosmos des gemeinsamen Denkens (Dialogical Intelligence: Out of the Cage of Fixed Thought into the Cosmos of Shared Thinking).

Erziehungskunst | What are you currently occupied with?

Tobias Hartkemeyer | Corona occupies the world and also us, I see it as confirmation of what we do at Pente Farm. I see the fact that viruses are causing us more trouble as a sign that the natural balance of the ecosystem and thus also of individual health have reached a breaking point. This is where our responsibility in practical action is called for.

EK | What is it that you do at Pente Farm?

TH | We have had CSA – a solidarity-based economic community – here for ten years for which the farm provides products. In return, the members make it possible to finance the farm through annually agreed contributions which they pay in advance. Many help with the harvest or other activities, while others participate in the long-term processes and developments of the place. It takes a lot of effort, but it is a pleasure to do something really meaningful together with people who are more than “customers”.

On this social basis, we practise diversified biodynamic agriculture and thus create holistic living contexts where a common development with the earth becomes possible – and the children are allowed to participate in this. For nine years we have had a farm kindergarten and in the last two years we have also been setting up a farm school as a Waldorf school.

EK | What led you to this task? What was your own educational path like?

TH | I grew up here on the farm. There wasn’t much agriculture at that time but a lot going on nevertheless. My father built and made a lot, and at the same time he was also the director of the Osnabrück Adult Education Centre. He had many practical skills and we had a huge workshop. When I was a child, I was convinced that my father could do anything. If he had to, he could even have built me a rocket to fly me to the moon.

On the other hand, I didn’t get along with school at all. I always had the feeling that the teacher wanted to impose his will on me and I didn’t understand what the sense was in doing anything, I was missing the context. They couldn’t make it clear to me why I should learn something. Over time, I got angry and stopped participating. I no longer wanted to be an object.

EK | And what happened then?

TH | My parents were academics and they thought about it: “What are we going to do with the boy?” Their rescue operation: they sent me to the Waldorf School. There I entered class 6 and we had the arts and crafts subjects, the many theatre performances and, for the first time, a great class teacher whom I admired very much.

But in class 11 or 12 – at that time I did a lot of meditation, Tai Chi and yoga – I wanted to know, for example, why we were doing eurythmy? They couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. I had deep questions and was only told, “It’s good for you!” Then it was over at the Waldorf School too and I didn’t participate any more.

EK | How did your parents deal with this renewed refusal?

TH | They also started having trouble with me and my father said: “We have to take a look at ourselves.” As a result, they investigated the question of dialogue and worked on their approach.

That had an impact on me and dialogue has remained a theme to this day. I went abroad after school, without my university entrance exams, with the Friends of Waldorf Education. When I came back, I then caught up on my university entrance exams and started studying agriculture at technical college with conventional farmers, until I asked too many questions again ...

EK | How did your further academic career go?

TH | I went to Dottenfeld Farm where I got to know anthroposophy and studied it for a year – it just made sense to me. I could ask my questions without hitting a glass ceiling. After that I went abroad to Schumacher College and then to Witzenhausen to study organic farming.

My position working for a doctorate on a research programme on lifestyles, dietary styles and understanding of nature was exciting. I was essentially able to concern myself with salutogenesis – the creation of health – as well as Waldorf education and agriculture. At that time I also repeatedly attended courses at the Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar in Kassel. I got to know Peter Guttenhöfer and Manfred Schulze. These are friendships that still form the basis of my work – action pedagogy – today.

At university and at the seminar, I also noticed that asking questions is problematic. But I didn’t want any barriers to thinking around me, I wanted to learn and research. I didn’t think that was right, yet I went through with my doctorate and studied for a teaching qualification at the same time. I was in search of the living context.

EK | Questions are important in your life. What exactly did you ask and what about it was too much for people?

TH | The question of meaning. For me, meaning comes from a context that can be experienced and shaped. Meaning comes from context, it comes from the concrete perception of environmental conditions, other people, the community and the social and intellectual-cultural environment in which we live.

EK | What took you back to the farm?

TH | I returned here with my wife, who is also a farmer. We did a research project on the cultivation of the light root and realised that practical social issues are more acute. Through friends, we then got to know about community supported agriculture (CSA) and were thrilled. This is a completely different concept of life with fundamental questions: how can we deal sensibly with soil, plants and animals together? How can we build an economic basis together that enables social participation for all and at the same time creates a space where children – our future – play a role. For me, agriculture is not only an economic activity, but also a very practical place of learning life skills.

EK | What did you learn in the process?

TH | For me, it is becoming more and more apparent that the creation of healthy contexts in very practical situations is the essential thing. This is diametrically opposed to online education. The Federal Environment Agency, for example, found in a study: the higher a person’s level of education, the greater the environmental damage caused by humans. We then asked ourselves how this could be and came to the conclusion that it is connected to the separation of thinking, feeling and action.

Here we try to bring together thinking, feeling and volition through meaningful experiences of self-efficacy. Our educational work has developed – also inspired by Peter Guttenhöfer and Manfred Schulze – into a school.

Meaningful connections can be experienced in the living community of soil, plants, animals and people, staff, children and parents. Self-efficacy can be experienced here. This also includes the artistic element, singing, morning eurythmy, theatre, eating together - all this helped us to grow together as a community. The diverse challenges on the farm offer countless learning opportunities for the pupils as well.

EK | How should we imagine the school day?

TH | The future will be very radical – especially in terms of technological development – and we have to prepare for it. I was at an Agritechnika trade fair some time ago and there were huge, autonomous robotic systems working the soil and next to them were farm simulators, where people were playing on screens at working. Machines take over large parts of our work while we pretend to work. This raises the question anew: what does it mean to be human?

Our response to this challenge is to develop a different type of learning and a corresponding learning environment; that is, to involve children in meaningful processes. Learning for us is done through relationships, meaningful action in the field, in the kitchen and in accounting. It teaches concrete action, practical thinking and the sense that things belong together, day by day.

The children meet in the morning, there is a space for mutual awareness. There is singing and painting, tasks are distributed and learning plans are discussed. Then it’s off to the concrete work and at the end everyone comes together again to conclude the day together.

EK | What is it like with young people on the farm?

TH | We tend to work across ages and are a small school so as not to destroy the local balance. We don’t have much experience with young people yet and still have to learn that. The more children encounter real questions and experiences in the real world, the more fruitful they can later also use virtual opportunities for learning and solutions in this world.

EK | You live in the countryside, so it is relatively easy to implement such a concept for action ... What can schools do in an urban environment?

TH | Connecting the school garden to the local community and its needs (Solawi and Urban Gardening); or in craft lessons, in the repair workshop, making broken objects from the school community – which are needed – work again. Being active is not primarily an educational end in itself, but because it is needed and because I can help and thereby experience myself as self-effective. This creates a new meaning and context – for the earth, for the school community and for the wider environment.

Matthias Niedermann asked the questions.

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