There is never a short answer to give when asked about my upbringing and family home, and what is posed as a simple topic usually results in a lengthy conversation as I launch into an explanation of biodynamic farming and Camphill community life – things that many people are unaware of. Yet at this point in time it feels important to explain how an inspiring example of sustainable farming is currently endangered.

Historically, Botton Village was a unique land-based Camphill care community in North Yorkshire where people with learning disabilities share family homes, living and working alongside volunteer co-workers. There were five thriving biodynamic farms and gardens, established food processing units, including a bakery and creamery, and a unique biodynamic plant breeding and seed producing cooperative. Everyone had a role and a purpose in the community and rather than focusing on the disabilities of villagers, the focus was on what people can do. Everyone was given the opportunity to learn new skills and work according to their abilities. Whether feeding the chickens, cooking lunch or running the village store, everyone was included with all of the work being done voluntarily and not for monetary gain as it was considered important for the wellbeing of the whole community. Living costs were shared and expenses met on a needs basis. This context has been an ideal place to practice biodynamic agriculture, where there is a mutual benefit between the people and the land.

Biodynamic agriculture thrives in a community context

Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic approach to agriculture that considers every farm as a living, evolving organism within which each part – livestock, crops and soil – is interdependent and interrelated to each other. The health of all parts determines the health of the whole farm. It adds a finer dimension to organic farming by focusing on raising the level of vitality in crops and livestock, by using various recommendations that Rudolf Steiner gave in his lectures. The biodynamic approach seeks to embody all aspects of the triple bottom line – ecological, economic and social. In Botton Village the therapeutic aspects of land work were not merely an activity to keep people busy, but provided a community of approximately 300 people with healthy food. In the past, Botton Village was self-sufficient in animal feed, meat, dairy and, for most of the year, vegetables. In addition, farm products, as well as bread from the bakery and jam from the Food Centre, were sold regionally and were a source of income for the village. Furthermore, Botton Village was training the next generation of farmers by running a biodynamic apprenticeship scheme which attracted apprentices from all around the world. I say ‘was’, because this truly extraordinary demonstration of a localised and sustainable food system has now significantly deteriorated in quality and authenticity, having departed from its founding principles and values. Biodynamic agriculture thrives when the social dimension is healthy. Sadly this is not the current state of affairs in Botton Village.

Buckwheat harvest in Botton Village

Buckwheat harvest in Botton Village

Biodynamics and land work has had a central role in the social care model of the rural Camphill communities, which was founded by Karl König in 1940 and inspired by Rudolf Steiner. This is not a surprise, considering that in Camphill, care for the vulnerable learning disabled is practiced holistically, with emphasis on a healthy lifestyle, environment and food system. Indeed, Karl König was very inspired by biodynamic agriculture and as a result, sustainable food and farming has been a central value and activity in over 100 Camphill communities across the world. Its success can be seen not only in the benefit to the communities, but in the high quality products that are sold across the UK and internationally, these include the award winning Loch Arthur cheese and Stormy Hall Demeter Seeds and a former veg box scheme at Oaklands Park.

Another positive consequence of the agricultural activities in Camphill communities are the health benefits. Dr Marcus van Dam, who has been Botton’s GP since 2004, explains that, “More than social care only, the Botton model is a way of life, creating much additional value for the disabled residents. It results in high levels of health and wellbeing for the people with learning disabilities, who as we know from various studies suffer higher levels of physical and mental illness in our wider society. You rarely see so many people with a learning disability, with such low levels of obesity, for example. This is not because the typical Botton meal is low-calorie, but because it is full of fruit and veg, the best quality meat and dairy and unrefined products, cooked fresh. People eat together, the meals are regular and consumed without a rush – all aspects of a generally healthy way of eating and living. These mealtimes are part of an active working day with much physical activity. I am sure this explains at least in part why obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but also depression and anxiety have been so uncommon in Botton. Call it the ‘Botton effect’ – where genuine relationships in a caring community, meaningful work, healthy meals and physical activity all combine to keep people well and healthy. Unfortunately, this way of life is gradually disappearing as a new care model is being implemented by the charity, and I fear this may also begin to have an effect on the physical and emotional health of the village’s residents.”

Breakdown of the food system

Botton Village will reach its 60th birthday this year, but there is not much cause for a celebration. The community is at the brink of collapse due to a crisis of mismanagement at the hands of the Camphill Village Trust (CVT) – the charity that runs it. The residents’ chosen way of life and previously thriving land-based care community is under threat, having undergone many detrimental changes forced upon it by the CVT. Inevitably, this has had negative knock-on effects on the exemplar food and farming system that it has become known for. It remains unclear why the charity has decided to abandon the founding principles of Camphill. It has replaced voluntary co-workers with paid carers and imposed a regime of standardisation and control. CVT have argued that tax law changes, finances and new regulations have driven the restructuring, however, lawyers and accountants reviewing the Trust’s actions on behalf of the residents, have found these arguments to be unsubstantiated. Many people, including the parents of learning disabled residents, have written to CVT questioning them about their decisions, but they have received no substantive response from the Trust. The majority of community members are still committed to the original values and founding principles for a healthy Camphill community life. Last summer a campaign group, Action for Botton, was set up by local supporters of Botton and the original Camphill ethos to support these community members in their cause.

Co-workers working alongside learning disabled adults on the farm

Co-workers working alongside learning disabled adults on the farm

The biodynamic agriculture and local food system at Botton is suffering under the changes enforced by the CVT. The biodynamic apprenticeship scheme has been abandoned; there is a serious lack of farm workers; and the 5 farms have been consolidated under one management. The land is now much less productive and cereals are no longer part of the crop rotation. Maintenance of drains and fences has also declined. There is less crop diversity and as a result more food and animal feed must be bought in. Residents have reported that as a result of shift care workers replacing the co-workers, low quality supermarket products are steadily becoming more common, even in the farmhouses where fresh local produce is readily available. Furthermore, the CVT has recently replaced co-workers, who have years of dedicated experience in high quality food production and biodynamics, with employees that have little or no experience in this, to run the gardens, farm, bakery and other projects.

According to former biodynamic farm apprentice Jakob Kielwein “The farming doesn’t work as part of a ‘care home’, it only works in a real community where people live and care about it.” He explains that the crux of the agricultural problems in Botton Village are due to the disintegration of community life, to which people are dedicated, not out of contractual employment or monetary gains, but out of responsibility to each other. He adds that, “The farmers in Botton have proved over the years that farming on low grade soil can be highly productive if people work together as equals and are dedicated to the aim of producing high quality food for the community”.

It is clear that the disintegration of the community care model in Botton Village is not only of concern to those directly involved, but also to a wider public who organise themselves as a supportive network of Botton Buddies. Several local organic food outlets such as Alligator Wholefoods, The Dispensary and the Danby Health Shop have expressed concern about the new management regime and the move away from the co-operative, life-sharing co-worker model. A representative from Danby Health Shop further explained their reasons for ceasing to stock a variety of food products from Botton Village due to CVT’s recent actions: “It is with considerable regret, but we do not wish to support a regime which, in our opinion, divides a community and ultimately threatens its long-term viability. It is heartbreaking to witness the distress of the beneficiaries of the charity, the learning disabled villagers, their families, the dedicated co-workers and long-term supporters of the charity as Botton Village is seemingly torn apart.”

Hopes for the future

The loss of thriving biodynamic farms and food production in the Camphill Village Trust communities is of concern to all those who support the existence of local and sustainable food systems. Indeed, it is always unfortunate to see the decline of sustainable farms. This pattern can frequently be seen across the world, where farms are closed due to economic and regulatory pressures, land grabbing and corporate greed. Aside from my personal connection, the case of Botton Village strikes me as an unnecessary loss of quality food production which could be avoided if the CVT reassesses its position and recognises the incredible opportunity for sustainable agriculture and food production within the context of outstanding social care. Moreover, the top-down management structure and standardisation measures imposed upon Botton Village by the CVT, have unwittingly destroyed an inclusive community and a way of life that creates much additional value for all involved, but especially for the learning disabled residents.

The hope for revival of biodynamic agriculture within Botton Village still exists in the co-workers who work out of a genuine interest and passion for the land and healthy food it produces. There is real compassion for the learning disabled who they live and work together with. It is my sincere hope that their freedom to farm the land and live harmoniously in the community that they have nurtured for so many years is restored.

Opinion from Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust:

“In 2004, I gave a keynote speech at Botton Village during a conference on biodynamic farming, marking the 80th anniversary of Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural lectures. I have had a longstanding association with biodynamic agriculture and studied it at Emerson College. Still to this day, this approach to agriculture continues to inspire me. What I remember most vividly about the conference in 2004 was that it was held in Botton Village, a Camphill community for learning disabled adults. It saddens me to hear that this way of life is now threatened, as well as such exemplar sustainable agriculture.

No doubt the current directors of the Camphill Village Trust are well-intentioned and probably feel they have a fiduciary duty to maximise the profits of what they are treating as ‘care homes’. Yet their ignorance of the original Camphill ethos is clearly having detrimental consequences. Camphill communities were intended to be places of shelter, healing and meaningful work in the world for learning disabled adults. These communities enable their extraordinary qualities to shine into the world, touching the hearts of those of us that have the great privilege to work with them.”

Photographs: Hans Steenbergen

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  • http://astridsartisticefforts.blogspot.com Astridchristine Maclean

    An excellent article that explains this very sad situation in clear terms. One can only hope and pray that eventually CVT will start to see the error of their ways….

  • Birgit Lang

    Thank you for this comprehensive article, Hannah. It highlights yet another aspect of collateral damage caused by CVT’s hard-handed and bureaucratic approach -bulldozing seemingly blindly through everything the Botton Community has built up over a period of 60 years.

  • John Leahy

    I remember some six years ago listening to a BBC R4 programme about the Camphill community, it was a touching story for me. Thus I now read with sadness of what has happened, which I can only summerise as a totally negative top down management approach to the so called problems. Of course I cannot possibly know all the facts, but I would much rather & do believe those people with actual front line experience & knowledge of this situation, than those CVT board members. These people should listen to all the others in the community to gain advice, recommendations, etc of the best was forward in this difficult situation AND then to make the best discisions which will not impede development of that marvellous Camphill biodymanic farming care community.

    Thankyou Hannah Steenbergen for this article & also to Patrick Holden for your opinión.

  • Steve McGivern

    A truly marvelous article – so articulate and considered. It highlights how the appointments made by uninformed Trustees of excecutive officers with no knowledge or interest in intentional communities are on the verge of destroying something so precious.
    Another example of the lack of joined up thinking from CVT is highlighted by the Botton investment in biomass energy, where the introduction of wood boilers has created a healthy forestry industry, with the woodlands being managed and harvested to provide heating for the houses and meaningful work for the learning disabled. Unfortunately it requires a level of interest and commitment from the householders which is simply not provided by minimum waged care workers who simply want to turn a gas boiler on.
    Therefore the wood boilers are not used, the need for forestry activities redundant and the expertise in running the forestry lost and the woodlands fall into disrepair and the meaningful work lost.
    Does anyone care – certainly not CVT and the Trustees with heads deeply in the sand.
    For those interested look up Action for Botton website to see the long history of CVT mismangement and join the crusade to restore Botton to its former position as an inspirational intentional community.

  • Claire Griffiths

    The power of the written word! An intelligent and well researched piece capturing the essence of a complex tragedy so eloquently. It matters, what you have written matters, and others will write and continue to write until such time common sense and decency prevails for what is at stake here is too precious to simply give up on. Thank you Hannah.

  • Vivian Griffiths

    What a wonderful, important, timely and actually frightening article highlighting the real threat to a unique working, social and cultural environment with those with a learning disability. It is so important that the plight of Botton is seen and heard from a sustainable food perspective for the village community was the runner up in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Sustainable Communities Award ten years ago because of its biodynamic farming, recycling, low carbon footprint and remarkable community social interaction. It would hardly feature today because of the points highlighted in Hannah’s excellent article and I think part of the fault, quite apart from the hopeless CVT management decisions, lies at a social policy ideologue with the learning disabled which has unintentionally no interest in the environment at all through a person centred planning agenda that sees exploitation at every corner of a farm or garden work station. “You don’t want to get up for milking do you?” or “Weeding those carrots must be backbreaking work, you don’t want to do that, lets go out and have some fun.” It just isn’t appropriate in a setting like Botton where a huge loyalty to the place exists. The carrots will be weeded and then we shall have some fun!
    It was highlighted I am sad to say by a CVT senior manager at a Speak Up Conference with the residents a few years ago where he said to the effect ” Oh those boring serious ex hippie environmentalist co workers you have, I like a good plate of fish and chips, a pint of beer and to drive my Jag fast!”
    You can see the problem..
    Perhaps The Sustainable Food Trust can help here for the consequence of this dismantling of Botton and its healthy food environment is obesity at critical levels among the learning disabled.
    Well done those in Botton still upholding its values, young co workers who have delayed college courses to stay and work, long term co workers hanging on in there with their fingernails to keep the values alive and the residents who love Botton to bits and want to keep the place alive and together. Vivian Griffiths

  • Guy Alma

    Camphill has always had a bigger agenda than care provision. The notion of our communities has always been that individuals with varying capacities can harness tremendous power for peaceful and productive societal change when they live, work and play together. Individuals with learning disabilities are agents of that change themselves and the results are clear to see in all the things that make visitors to Camphill so full of wonder. Biodynamic agriculture, healthy eco-systems and amazing food have always been a part of this equation, and Camphillers of all capacities have become master farmers, gardeners and artisan food producers. Make no mistake, the new management of CVT have nothing more to offer than an old fashioned, backwards looking business model: the very same model behind over-consumption, income disparity, environmental degradation and the loss of the individual in beaureacratic systems.

  • Susan Hurst

    Thank you so much for this article, which highlights all that the Botton Community has achieved in establishing successful biodynamic farms and gardens over 60 years. Thank you also for highlighting how CVT’s Trustees and management have begun to drive a coach and horses through everything that has been established, destroying the hard work of this wonderful community. Those who have put their expertise into biodynamic farming and sustainable forestry and food production are being replaced by employees with little or no expertise in these areas. Naturally this has led to a decline in the maintenance of farms, gardens and forestry. It is a tragedy that supermarket and ready made products are finding their way into the larders and kitchens of those who have always taken pride in producing their own fresh food. It is a downhill trajectory for those who live and work in this lovely place: management cannot seem to understand that working and living together as equals is what has made this village into a successful community and beacon of care for the learning disabled. A community and loving care in a family environment can never be replaced by low paid care workers, who are contracted only to work limited hours. Please look at Action for Botton and Botton Buddies online, if you want to help stop the destruction of this unique and successful way of life at Botton. It is time that the wishes of relatives, friends, co-workers and, most importantly, the leaning disabled residents were listened to by the charity which is supposed to support them.

    • Gilberto Domingues

      “working and living together as equals is what has made this village into a successful community” True, if you consider that villagers have to pay, or be founded, to be here and work as hard, and sometimes even harder than co-workers who have their needs met!!!! Equals?

      • Francis Wrong

        You’re starting to sound like one of David Knowles’ alter egos.

  • maretta fawcett

    Thank you Hannah for this informed, objective and empathetic article about Botton Village. This community has truly sparkled… both for its Care and Respect for all its residents… and for its healthy, biodynamically produced food. There are solutions readily available to the Trustees, if they were to choose to open their minds to alternative support systems and build on the care and expertise of those who have opted to live in Botton.

    • Gilberto Domingues

      Informed, objective and empathetic?!!!!

  • topveg

    Thank you for explaining the Botton system so clearly. We have used seeds from Stormy Hall and they have always been vigorous and productive. I was interested to read about the ‘Botton effect’ as described by the local doctor. Residents always looked healthy when we visited Botton- & I think his description of a healthy diet alongside a healthy lifestyle could be taken on board by everyone in the UK
    If only people could understand the benefits of the Botton Village, I am sure they would insist that it was maintained

  • Abigail Wright

    Thank you for this article, Hannah, which goes straight to the heart of the truly unique experience that is Camphill. My sister Katie lived 25 glorious years at Camphill Kimberton in Pennsylvania. Had there been no Kimberton, she would have lived on the margins of society, she would have had no meaningful work, and she would have exhausted a series of “care-givers”. Instead, she learned how to farm. She became a part of the community, then she became part of the land. Rather, she became another organism altogether, one that is timeless and transcends the isolation of the individual. When she passed, we buried her remains in the memory garden at Kimberton, where she will remain as part of that earth forever.

    The thinkers and pioneers of sustainability, including Rudoph Steiner, tell us that we must intertwine ourselves with Nature in a dance that is mutually beneficial. In this way, we can restore ourselves – and Nature – and we can heal the harms we’ve done in the past. Camphill is a proving ground for this notion. Unfortunately, those that have set themselves above Nature cannot understand this relationship, nor can they even see it when it is right before their eyes. How else to explain the actions of CVT? Or is their incredible arrogance just a re-enactment of the snake’s victory in the Garden?

  • A Botton Buddy

    Thank you Hannah for an article which clearly highlights the issues. I have a learning disabled relative in a different CVT community who I see changing before my eyes. Unable to work outdoors with animals as previously, cooking most of his own meals , (generally unhealthily) and often eaten alone, doing little or no exercise and watching more television. His weight has shot up and his self esteem down. Who cares ? CVT clearly don’t but I do and thankfully so do my fellow Botton Buddies.

  • Gilberto Domingues

    Beautiful article, if one wants only a one sided opinion on
    what is going on in Botton right now, or with one wants a reason to blame CVT
    management for everything! Unfortunately, reality is much more complex than
    that!

    As I read it, it really touched my heart as I am one of the
    biodynamics farmers left in Botton, who is working with the changes, rather
    than opposing them; and trying very hard to keep the biodynamic impulse alive
    within the village. And yes, we are going through very hard times at the
    moment, but that is not so new for me as a land worker in Botton. Only through part
    of my first year in Botton, five years ago, I have seen the land areas (farms
    and gardens) fully covered. So, the land has been struggling well before CVT
    management came into the picture. And
    yes, the land is possibly not cultivated to its full potential now, but that is
    also true for some years already. I have never seen grains grown in any large
    area since I have been here. Why? Possibly for many reason, including the fact
    that is very important to note that the average age of a Botton resident (co-workers
    and villagers) is above 50 years old, so a slower working pace is now a
    reality, very different than fifteen or twenty years ago. That is not often mentioned or remembered. Again,
    I also don’t believe CVT management is responsible for the ageing population in
    Botton. Do you?

    And just to add another twist. I have seen biodynamic
    farmers and gardeners not being accepted in Botton because they felt they could
    not run a house as well as a farm or garden. Again, well before CVT management
    came into the picture. But that we don’t
    want to remember or make it official. What was really cared for in Botton: Biodynamics
    or community?

    I could go on, but that would lead nowhere. Just as a last comment
    on the apprentice scheme, as I strongly support this. It has definitely not
    being abandoned, but put on hold as with all that is happening around and
    within Botton, it is possible not the right time to give an apprentice the
    attention and training he or she deserves and asks for. It will be reassumed as
    soon as we fell able to do so. As part of the training group, I can assure you
    that Botton is not the only place struggling with the apprentice scheme! And
    don’t forget that we, employed farmers, are not the only ones carrying the BD apprentice
    scheme here. There is one more tutor in Botton, who is on the fight against CVT
    and also don’t have apprentice. Very likely for pretty much the same reasons!
    Nevertheless, it is worth to highlight that also!

    Summarizing, I could even agree with Patrick Holden that
    Biodynamic is under threat in Botton, as in many other places, but it is not all
    due to CVT management, but to the lack of people wanting to engage with it and
    the many who were not welcomed to join this community just because they didn’t
    feel they could contribute to the “traditional” co-worker model!!! Just have a look in Larchfield Community, a
    CVT centre, where Biodynamic farming is really flourishing! It just need commitement!

    Luckily, we still have people in Botton who want to carry
    the biodynamic impulse! Are there others
    around who would also like to help us rather than blame it comfortably all on
    CVT management without getting involved. Biodynamics is about involvement!!!

    • Francis Wrong

      Why do you defend them Gilberto? Everything in your heart tells you what they are doing is wrong. Is it pride or fear that drives you to answer for them?

    • maretta fawcett

      Thank you Gilberto for these your comments. I (personally) believe that Hannahs article is a CALM discourse on some of the sad events currently taking place in Botton. The usage of your term “BLAME” in relation to CVT management, doesnt seem to me to be appropriate, in light of the many MANY people/supporters (such as myself )…living far away (New Zealand) who care VERY deeply for the ethos of Botton…and who would wish wholeheartedly for satisfactory compromise and resolution. This( I believe) requires imagination and “empathy”…(a term about which you appear to be critical). “Empathy” says the Oxford English Dictionary is “the power of identifying oneself mentally with, and so fully comprehending an object of contemplation” . I would suggest with respect that Hannahs article, along with the many many supporters of Botton… parents, friends, ex co-workers (such as myself) are represetative of real “Empathy” for what is going on. No one here sits “comfortably” dishing out “blame”…we ARE involved….though very far away. Maretta