Column: Hungry for change

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The Bourbon Red Turkeys during their final days on the Stone Barns farm. Photos/Lisa Jardine

Happy Thanksgiving. In honor of my favorite holiday, I spent the week looking for a feel-good story that centered around food and, if possible, had a turkey as a photo op.

I found exactly what I had in mind at the Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills. Many people have heard of, and maybe even had the opportunity to dine at, the Michelin-starred restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but I wanted this week’s article to focus on how the food actually gets to the table.

I went for a visit to the Stone Barns Center on a Tuesday, when it is officially closed to the public, and, upon arrival, I was graced with the most magnificent site a writer with a photo requirement could ask for. A late fall landscape dotted with strutting Bourbon Red Turkeys, the heritage breed best associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

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Insider’s farm tour of the Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills.
Photo courtesy Stone Barns Center

If you were thinking you might drop by and pick up a last-minute fresh turkey for the holidays, I was told that every last one of them have been spoken for.

Mara Flanagan, the associate director of philanthropy, met me and gave me an incredibly in-depth tour of the facility. We discussed all the important work they are doing there.

The center is actually an 80-acre working farm only 25 miles north of New York City on the former grounds of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s dairy farm. They raise livestock, grow vegetables and experiment with seeds and soil, which they describe as the most important part of the eco-system on a farm.
Their soil is managed intensely, with a seven-year crop rotation and multispecies rotational grazing, which leads to healthier grass and soil. They spend more than 1,000 man hours a year just moving animals around the farm.

“At the Stone Barns Center, we go beyond organic. Our farmers are all about innovation, marrying old techniques with the new,” Flanagan said.
They’ve been experimenting for nine years with delicious results.

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The sheep after mating at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

They grow all four seasons at the farm, selecting cold-tolerant plants in the winter and heat-tolerant plants in the summer to save on heating and cooling costs. Right now, there are fields of cabbage, kale and broccoli—all vegetables that love the cold, crisp days.

Inside the greenhouse, they are experimenting with ginger and turmeric—two plants that don’t ordinarily grow anywhere near the northeastern United States—which, if viable, help remove food dependency on foreign regions.

They not only grow food, they grow farmers too.

“There is a human capital problem in the United States in farming. The average age of farmers is 57,” Flanagan said. “We lost generations to industrialization when farming wasn’t valued, but it’s coming back. Here at the center, we make it possible for new farmers to gain experience and knowledge from our seasoned farmers by offering paid, full-time apprenticeships to young people because, if you don’t have farmers, you don’t have food.”

The Stone Barns Center believes in sharing its wealth of knowledge with the farming community at large. Through their Growing Farmers Initia­tive, they equip young farmers with the knowledge and hands-on experience to grow better-tasting, healthier food and to become responsible stewards of the land. They seek to remove the barriers that stand in the way of their success, whether those comprise access to land, prohibitive capital costs or marketing and distribution challenges. On Dec. 4 to 6, they will hold their sixth-annual National Young Farmers conference in which 300 young farmers from all over the country representing 25 to 30 states will come to the Stone Barns Center to talk about farm finance, food safety standards, food law, swine and much more.

They are extremely excited about their keynote speaker, Wendell Berry, the novelist, poet, environmental activist and farmer.

Programs Director Jennifer Rothman is excited about the event.

“The National Young Farmers conference that we hold each year are some of the most inspiring days I’ve ever had professionally,” she said.

And this article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention all the amazing things the center does for children’s education. Since 2004, the Stone Barns Center has reached more than 36,000 children with their unique, hands-on educational programs. Whether its summer farm camp, scout programs, animal care, vegetable gardening or collecting eggs, the Stone Barns Center believes that children are a critical audience for the work they do. They think it’s vital to connect at an early age to establish patterns of healthy eating in order to create the next generation of thoughtful food consumers. They do this by reintroducing them to where their food comes from—and it’s not their local Stop and Shop.

Through the various programs, the children learn that farming is a respected profession and that there is more to the food we eat than just pulling items off of grocery shelves and throwing them in the cart.

“We offer very authentic experiences to the public—the things that we do on the farm every day, like learning about the life of a hen by collecting her eggs. And then [visitors] get to take a six-pack home with them,” Rothman said.

After an absolutely perfect afternoon walking around the farm, I had to agree with Rothman’s final comment as I was on my way out.

“It’s a delicious place to work.”

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, 10591
(if you are using a navigation system use Tarrytown for the town)
Stonebarnscenter.org
National Young Farmers Conference
Dec. 4 to 6
Grow Your Own: Bread
Tuesday, Dec. 10
6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Insider’s Farm Tour
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Family Farm Tour
Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
Story Time on the Farm
Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Winter Farmers Market
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dec. 15, Jan. 12, Feb. 9, March 9, April 13
Blue Hill Café open Wednesday through Sunday
from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Download the iPhone app prior to your visit
Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
May to November, $5 parking contribution
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years Day

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“I’m always on the lookout for a great story, an amazing restaurant, an unusual day trip or a must-see cultural event in Westchester County.”
To contact Lisa, email
lisa@hometwn.com.
And you can follow her on Twitter, @westchesterwand