by Elizabeth Winslow
Last summer, my family and I set out to see for ourselves what and how America eats, in the only way to really get the whole story: by car. Along the way, we saw and learned more about a patchwork of small family farms—bright spots of hope in the vast acres of industrial agriculture and struggling farm towns, for certain. But nothing quite prepared us for the heroic, bucolic splendor of Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York—a magical oasis of vegetable, livestock and soil-building experimentation and demonstration that marries the best of the past and future of our agricultural American dream.
An easy drive just 25 miles north of Manhattan, the Stone Barns property includes a cluster of weathered stone buildings nestled in rolling green farm fields and pastures situated in the fertile Hudson River Valley. The historic 1930s barns and courtyard were designed by noted architect Grosvenor Atterbury and originally built as a dairy farm by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. His son David later inherited the buildings and surrounding property. In 2004, to honor the memory of his late wife, Peggy, who had been a strong advocate for the preservation of American farmland, David and his daughter Peggy Dulany established the Stone Barns Center as a nonprofit on 80 acres of the property.
In an introduction to the center, Rockefeller and Dulany note that, until the mid-20th century, small and midsize family farms could be found in communities across the United States—defining the landscape and very often the culture and economy of rural America. But in the 1960s, the rise of industrial-scale agriculture initiated the decline of small-scale food production. Vast monocrops replaced farm diversity, and independently owned family farms struggled to remain relevant and profitable. This shift toward reliance on industrial-scale farming methods exacted a heavy environmental and socioeconomic toll on our communities and had a negative impact on human health. The farm and agricultural center were founded in an effort to reinvent the way food is grown and consumed, as well as to develop methods that benefit human health and that are more in harmony with the land, water and wildlife.
Currently, the farm’s cultivated fields, rolling pastures, barnyards and woodlands are a four-season, produce-and-livestock establishment now in its ninth season of experimentation and demonstration. Using a resilient, self-renewing system that doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other inputs, and that works to build the health of the soil and its ability to produce nutritious food, farm managers (or property stewards) refer to the farm as “beyond organic.” Stone Barns raises laying hens, broiler chickens, turkeys, geese, sheep, pigs and bees on 23 acres of pasture and 40 acres of woodlands. In addition, they grow more than 200 varieties of produce year-round on six and a half acres of outdoor fields and gardens and in a 22,000-square-foot minimally heated greenhouse. Animals on the farm are raised humanely—pigs root around in the shade of the forest and sheep rotate to fresh pasture every few days followed by geese, laying hens, broilers, turkeys and pigs. Many of the animals on the property are heirloom breeds—the traditional livestock breeds that were raised before industrial agriculture and that were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well adapted to the local environment.
Visitors to the farm and center are welcome to wander about the property, meet the farmers and animals and blaze their own paths. Alternately, they can download the Stone Barns Center iPhone app to help guide their visit or stop by the Farm Store to pick up a self-guided tour (we chose the Follow the Frittata tour, making stops around the farm at all the crucial ingredients—hens for the eggs, the field for the tomatoes, etc.—for the frittata recipe on the back of the card). Staff tours are also available, like the Insider’s Tour—an in-depth look at the farm and deeper insight into growing practices, as well as an overview of the center’s work to improve the way America eats and farms. Also available are farm-to-table cooking classes and hands-on instruction like the Grow Your Own class which highlights all the wonderful things that plants can become—one month it may be baby food; the next it could be beer.
Since capturing the hearts and minds of the next generation is vital to our agricultural future, programs for kids abound, making a farm visit ideal for families. The Hands On: Egg Collecting program is one of the most popular programs at the center. “Participants learn about the life of our hens and then help with the all-important job of egg collecting,” says Jennifer Rothman, programs director at Stone Barns. “Plus, everyone gets to take home a four-pack of eggs—helping to solidify the connection between farm and food.” And every Saturday and Sunday, there’s Story Time on the Farm in a shady spot on the property—featuring favorite books about farms, animals and nature, and a free Farm Bingo game in the Visitors Center helps kids keep their eyes peeled for farm items both big and small.
Also available are intensive courses like Break it Down, that teach skills in traditional food arts like animal butchering. Participants get familiar with the different cuts of meat, learn about cooking with lesser-known cuts and become better informed about cost and sustainability when choosing meat. Paired with tours of the farm’s animal husbandry operations, this is a chance for a truly deep understanding of how our food could be produced.
Most of the farm’s produce and meat is sold on-site via the casual, self-serve Blue Hill Café, the award-winning Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant helmed by Chef Dan Barber and at the Farm Market. The rest is used in educational programs that allow children and other visitors to cook with, and taste, what’s grown in the fields.
Rothman hopes to inspire people to think about eating in a new way and that after a visit, a better understanding of sustainable farming and its importance will be built—always keeping the plant, the animal, the earth and our bodies in mind. “Our goal is to improve the way America eats and farms,” says Rothman. “It’s an ambitious one, but it’s also delicious! We’ve found that when people take an active role in their food—whether that’s visiting a farm, knowing a farmer, growing a garden, raising chickens or committing to cook at least one meal at home a week—they begin to see all the fun that can be had with fresh food. We want to inspire people to be active food citizens so everyone can help to create a healthy food system.”
Stone Barns makes an excellent day trip from New York City, or even a longer weekend trip to include the area hiking, gallery visits, antiquing and quaint nearby cafés. The farm is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday year-round, but since programs change seasonally, check the website for trip planning and to reserve spots in hands-on classes and farm tours. Plan to sign up for a program or two, but leave plenty of time to wander around the farm and breathe in a renewed sense of purpose and hope for the future of food in America.
Selection of Destination Farms
Agarita Creek Farms
On a bluff overlooking the farm near Frederickburg, Texas, Beverly and Tom Carnes have built two beautiful log cabin guest houses, which offer guests an up close look at life on a farm, as well as opportunities for exploring the Texas Hill Country and hunting for white tail and axis deer.
Inn at Dos Brisas
Originally purchased as a ranch retreat, this luxurious Relais & Chateaux property in the Texas Hill Country presents a five star dining experience created with organic produce from the property’s extensive gardens and greenhouse.
Nestled under 100-year-old pecan trees and overlooking a patchwork of farm and grazing fields, Montesino Ranch boasts modern and comfortable accommodations as well as trails for hiking on and around “little mountain.”
In the U.S.
Now owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservations, Appleton Farms has been in operation since the 18th century. Over six miles of hiking trails crisscross the property, and the historic farm buildings, dairy barns, verdant fields, sweet-eyed Jerseys and cheesemaking operation make this a fascinating and lovely place to spend an afternoon (or two).
Set in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry Farm is perhaps more luxurious than others on this list, but the 4,200 acres of pastoral beauty and the impeccable heirloom produce will nevertheless invoke reverence for what can be produced on this rolling landscape. Available activities include farm tours and gardening talks as well as hands-on culinary classes, cooking demos and A Day in the Life of a Chef courses.
Featherdown Farm Days
Fancy a farm stay with sweeping views of rolling green fields? Featherdown Farm Days partners with working farms across the U.S. Guests bunk in custom tents with wood-burning stoves and everything needed to cook up incredible meals with the farms’ bounty. Kids can enjoy tending animals while grown-ups enjoy a comprehensive look at a full day (or several) in the life of a farm.
Four Season Farm
Four Season Farm is an experimental market garden owned and operated by writers Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman. The farm produces vegetables year-round and has become a nationally recognized model of small-scale sustainable agriculture. Visitors are always welcome to tour the farm or stop by the farm stand.
Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello were a botanic laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world. Jefferson grew 330 vegetable varieties in Monticello’s 1000-foot-long garden terrace, and 170 fruit varieties of apples, peaches, grapes and more grew in Monticello’s orchards. The new two-hour, experiential tour of Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable and fruit gardens—his Revolutionary Garden—includes an in-depth guided walk followed by a Meet the Gardener segment with Monticello’s professional staff. Visitors participate in seasonal gardening activities, such as planting, harvesting and sampling spring crops ranging from asparagus to baby root vegetables.
Philo Apple Farm
Family-run Philo Apple Farm is nestled in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, California. Guests are invited to “stay and cook” on the farm, learning lost culinary traditions of homesteading with the bounty of the orchards, hoophouses, flocks of sheep and goats, chickens and dairy from Cora, the farm’s Jersey cow. Accommodation-only options are available as well, or simply stop by the farm stand and mercantile on your drive between San Francisco and Mendocino.
On California’s San Mateo coast, Pie Ranch partners with youth around food and farming. Educational programming for area youth (and some from farther afield) supports the production of ingredients for pies (wheat for crusts, eggs and fruits for filling, dairy for milk and butter from both goats and cows) and vegetables for healthy meals. Take a farm tour, visit the farm stand and follow the farm produce to Companion Bakeshop.
Polyface Farms is a family-owned, multigenerational, pasture-based, organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Visitors can see farming guru Joel Salatin and family at work, walk on the “salad bar” pastures, see the mobile chicken tractors and the “pigerators” close up and shop in the well-stocked farm store.