The Stone Barns Center Can Make You a Farmer for Life- or Just an Afternoo

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Maybe I was pecked to death in a past life. Maybe it’s the way most chicken coops smell—musty and dank finished with a powerful punch of ammonia. But the truth is, I’ve always been a little afraid of chickens. That’s hard to admit for a food writer, especially a Brooklyn-based one who, naturally, yearns for some country cred.

And so as I stood in front of the chicken house at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I felt my heart start to beat a little faster and a familiar anxiety rise into my chest. Look at this chicken barn, I told myself. Empirically, it is not scary. The ceiling is high. It actually smells good, like cedar shavings and pine. And the chickens, a flock of Rhode Island Reds with meaty pink combs and ruffles of russet feathers, are clucking contentedly.

If there were anywhere to face down my fears—“Food Writer Blinded by Maniac Chickens”—this was it. I would walk in. Pick up an egg from one of the straw nests. Hand it to our tour leader. In theory, I could be back outside in less than a minute.

It helped that the class of city second graders I was trailing didn’t appear frightened in the least. (And, really, how much experience with chickens could they have?) So I pushed open the door and stepped inside. Instantly, there were a dozen chickens at my feet. But as I stepped toward the nests, they magically parted, like water moving around a sturdy rock in a river. I saw an egg, unguarded. The hen in the neighboring nest looked nonplussed as I reached out for it. When I picked it up, it was warm in my hand. Triumphantly, I turned, handed it to our guide, and headed back outside into the Westchester sunshine.

OK, my daredevil poultry stunt probably wouldn’t impress the producers of “Fear Factor.” But the encounter is exactly the kind that the staff of the nonprofit Stone Barns Center wants New Yorkers to experience. The 80-acre farm, picture-perfect and just 25 miles from the city, offers children and adults the opportunity to experience life on the farm. An hour drive from Brooklyn or a 40-minute train ride from Grand Central, there’s no other farm so close that is set up to let you go egg collecting, see piglets frolicking in the mud, cook with the harvest from the vegetable patch and learn about the wonders of compost. A lot of people throw around the phrase “know where your food comes from.” At the Stone Barns Center, they mean it.

Any foodie worth his or her salt has heard of the Stone Barns, of course. It’s home to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, chef Dan Barber’s acclaimed restaurant, where vegetables are treated and displayed like precious gems and the kitchen proves nightly that there is a place in fine dining for humble cuts of meat such as lamb’s neck. The dining room is a magnet for committed ethical eaters—“Food You’d Almost Rather Hug Than Eat,” read the headline for the New York Times three-star review—and five-star celebrities: In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a farm-to-table lunch for the spouses of world leaders who were in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

But Stone Barns offers far more than magnificent meals. The working farm that supplies the restaurant welcomes visitors all year round. There are tours, lectures, cooking classes and workshops on subjects as varied as beekeeping and making herbal teas. (And most activities cost less than that pre-dinner cocktail at the restaurant.) The center also serves as a training center and model for beginning farmers who hope one day to go off and start farms of their own. “We’re within 30 miles of 30 million people,” says Jill Isenbarger, the center’s executive director. “So we think we have an incredible opportunity to reach a wide variety of people who are interested in food, good eating and how food affects the environment and health.”

Stone Barns looks like the kind of farm you imagine: the ones that are depicted on TV commercials and gallons of milk. You know, the ones that don’t really exist. And yet, here it is. The granite barns rise majestically amid the rolling pasture and fields. Grapevines sit at the crest of one hill. Sheep, monitored by Stella, the center’s fluffy snowball of a guard dog, efficiently mow the lawns. Even the butter-yellow chicken-processing facility (a family-friendly term for slaughterhouse) looks like a pleasant place to spend the day.

That the property is so beautiful makes some people suspicious. This can’t really be a working farm. In fact, industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. commissioned the buildings in 1930 to serve as a dairy and vegetable farm, which remained active throughout the 1940s. As the decades passed, however, the buildings fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that David Rockefeller, who had inherited the property, decided to resurrect the farm as a memorial to his wife, Peggy, a lifelong supporter of sustainable agriculture.

“Farming, for her, was a vocation that she held dear to her heart,” Rockefeller wrote in a dedication letter at the opening in 2004. “I decided that the best way to celebrate Peggy’s life and passion was to create a center where the threats to farmland and our food supply could be discussed, and ways to improve farming methods and agricultural policy could be explored.”

The Stone Barns Center’s ambition has grown over time. Each summer 400 kids arrive for Farm Camp, where they get their hands dirty with daily chores and learn to make seasonal recipes such as zucchini fries and pesto. During the school year, the center welcomes 10,000 school children. (Twenty-five percent of the children’s visits are paid for by the Stone Barns scholarship fund.) They brave the chicken house, visit the greenhouses and the vegetable fields and taste whatever happens to be in season. On my tour, it was lemony sorrel, which was just about the only thing on the farm that the students didn’t universally embrace.

“Is there a trash can around here?” one boy asked after taking a bite. “No,” another sneered. “You have to put it in the compost pile.” Lesson learned.

I had expected organized programs like these for children. But I was surprised just how many activities Stone Barns offers for the casual visitor. On an average sunny weekend, there are as many as a dozen workshops and events such as “Yes We Can,” a lesson in how to make homemade jams, and the summer scavenger hunt, where children can win a prize for ferreting out a list of fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. There is also a host of less structured visits that include guided and self-guided tours, including one where visitors “follow a frittata” around the farm, from the chicken houses to the vegetable fields and greenhouse.

Lunch at the casual Blue Hill Café is also a must: Run by Blue Hill chefs, a typical menu might include squash soup, a house-made bologna sandwich, and beet and goat cheese on focaccia.

The newest addition to Stone Barns tours is the self-guided iPhone app. It begins with a video overview, explaining the unique cooperation between restaurant, farm and education center. Then, using an interactive map, visitors click on various stops around the farm. In the vegetable fields, farmer Jack Algiere explains how the land is divided up into 14 rotational blocks so that no area has the same crop planted on it for at least seven years. At the Apiary, a one-minute audio explains how the bees pollinate the crops and why some of the hives are perched on scales. (The answer: Stone Barns participates in a NASA-funded study that is seeking to understand how climate change affects pollinators and honey production.)

Another popular draw is the farm-to-table cooking classes geared for kids, teens or adults. Participants take a guided tour of the areas of the farm where the food they will cook comes from, then move inside to the stunning kitchen to cook. One recent tour taught a moody group of teenagers how to harvest parsnips. Two rules: Wear gloves because the leaves can irritate your skin. And the longer parsnips stay in the ground, the sweeter they become. Inside the warm kitchen, the teens became sweeter as well. They grated parsnips to make fritters and roasted squash with cinnamon. “I already cook about three times a week at home,” said 15-year-old Matthew. “Because my mom works and my dad doesn’t cook. At all.”

One of the most in-demand classes at Stone Barns is beekeeping. Dan Carr—who commutes to the farm from Sunset Park—teaches a four-part workshop for newbies that shows them, over the course of a year, how to start and manage a hive. Attendees are usually a mixed group: city hipsters who want to produce honey on the roof and suburban backyard gardeners who want more pollinators for their vegetables and flowers. The first session is an indoor lecture on bee physiology and behavior. But by spring, the students don suits and veils and are out getting hands-on experience. So far, not a single student has been stung.

Bill Niman, the founder of the Niman Ranch, has been to an awful lot of farming conferences over the years. Many are gloomy affairs, with presentations on the dire state of American agriculture: The average U.S. farmer is now 57 years old. Farmers over the age of 55 own more than half of American farmland. And so for Niman, the Young Farmers Conference at the Stone Barns was refreshing.

Held each December, the meeting attracts 250 beginning farmers with sessions about affordable farm equipment for small operations and innovative models for CSAs.

“Here was a room full of enthusiastic entry-level farmers. They didn’t have agriculture degrees. They hadn’t grown up on farms,” Niman says. “I felt that there was a real future for sustainable agriculture.”

Helping to build a new future is the goal not only of the annual conference but of Stone Barns’s Growing Farmers Initiative. Each year, the center hires 16 paid apprentices who learn by helping with the daily chores and becoming fully immersed in the farm’s operations. But they also spend time each week in the classroom and educating visitors.

Dan Carr, the livestock staffer who teaches beekeeping, started at Stone Barns as an apprentice in 2010. He had worked on a ranch and spent three years in Malawi while in the Peace Corps. But neither had prepared him to farm successfully and sustainably. “It’s really difficult for a small farmer to take the time to teach young farmers. But here it’s part of the mission,” he says. “You not only get practical hands-on training, you get dedicated time to further your education at workshops and conferences.”

Over the years, a Stone Barns apprenticeship has come to be viewed as a kind of Harvard for farming. “I drop the name a lot,” admits Emma Hoyt, a Columbia grad who apprenticed in the vegetable fields in 2007 and is now looking to start her own farm. “Everyone has heard of it.”

The successes, of course, are what are most obvious to visitors. The animals are happy. The farmers are productive. Here, the concept of eating your vegetables is a treat, not a trial. It’s what, in a perfect world, you would see at every farm.

“The Stone Barns has a kind of ‘city-on-a-hill’ quality,” says Paul Greenberg, the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. “Of course not every community trying to be locavoracious can muster the beautiful aesthetics, the state-of-the-art greenhouses, the good smelling pigs. But Stone Barns is a shining example of hard work and good intentions coming together into a place where you’d like to linger.”

Even in the chicken house.

Photos 6,7 by Vicky Wasik; others courtesy of Stone Barns. 

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