On my recent trip to New York, I knew that one of the things I had to make happen was a visit to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. About 30 miles north of Manhattan, in a town called Pocantico Hills, is Stone Barns Center. It was started by the Rockefeller family more than 20 years ago. And it has turned into a hub of experimentation and research for something that affects us all; farming and food. In conjunction with chef Dan Barber and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (11th best restaurant in the world), they have created something very special. After a day at this amazing place, I have grown to appreciate even more what they do there.
One of the major things that I have learned about SBC is that they genuinely believe in what they do there. Of course, they have gained more notoriety from their collaboration with Dan Barber and Blue Hill, but the farmers have a bigger purpose than trying to get to the top of the list. Its very simple. They want to grow and raise food that tastes good and is sustainable. One of their major techniques is a 7 year rotation with the crops in the field. For example, if this year, tomatoes are grown there, tomatoes will not be in that soil for another 7 years. They understand each crop completely. They utilize each crop’s assets and defects to grow better food and to make it sustainable. For example, they know that tomatoes suck nitrogen out of the soil, so they may plant a crop next time in that space that puts nitrogen back into the soil. Or they may plant a micro green in the same bed at the same time that counteracts the nitrogen depletion. Its an amazing technique and to see it in action makes you feel like you are witness to a food revolution. Stone Barns Center also utilizes a greenhouse. They do this not in an effort to grow out of season, but rather to extend the growing seasons. In the greenhouse, they have a 10 year rotation cycle instead of 7.
Another thing they do is create new types of fruits and vegetables. And they do this without genetic modification. And they do this for a better tasting crop. They use traditional methods of cross breeding. When I was there, I saw the pepper crops. They had the usual jalapeños, bell peppers, etc. But they also had a new pepper. It was called a Habanata (not sure it that is the correct spelling). It is a habanero that has had the spiciness bred out. Amazing.
When you go there for a day, you also have the option to participate/observe in activities around the farm. I chose the watermelon testing, the foraging walk and the pig feeding. By far, the foraging walk was my favorite. To learn about how the restaurant uses foraged ingredients made me have a new respect for the chefs at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It is one thing to say, “I want these ingredients to make this dish”. It is quite another thing to say “I’ve been presented these ingredients, what will I come up with?”. And that is what they do at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They are presented with or have found ingredients and they come up with something grand. They can be presented wit a giant crop of sunflowers and have come up with a way to use EVERY SINGLE PART OF THE SUNFLOWER. Nothing goes to waste. This is an important part of what happens at SBC.
And that leads to my main takeaway of my visit. They are trying to really create a better world through food. They want to create something sustainable and delicious and in such a way that keeps you interested. When I first read The Third Plate, I was convinced that Dan Barber was on to something. And to see it in action is truly something awe-inspiring. With so many horrible things going on in this world today, it is important to do things that make you happy and give you hope. Stone Barns Center gives me hope and it made me so happy to see something like that first hand. If you ever get a chance to go, I urge you to go.