Happy Meals

Happy Meals

In a New York City suburb, a grand experiment in farming yields food that is grown locally on a small scale and free of toxins. The well-heeled diners flocking to the farm's gourmet restaurant and the carefree children attending its camps may well be getting a taste of the future.

By Rene Ebersole/Photography by Rob Howard
Published: March-April 2007

With a color palette reflecting the natural outdoor surroundings--wheat-colored walls and natural accents of wood, stone, and green plant life, from mosses to exotic orchids--the 88-seat dining room is packed each night (except Mondays and Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed) with well-heeled patrons, sometimes including the Clintons or Martha Stewart, who live nearby. Scoring a dinner reservation requires calling two months in advance. And the food is not cheap; dinner for two ranges from $130 to $200, without drinks, which is the root of a common misconception about Stone Barns--that it's only "for rich people," as one local farmer recently told me. But a small cafe provides a selection of panini sandwiches, salads, and seasonal soups made from the same farm-fresh ingredients. The average price of $10 makes the cafe a much less expensive option for those on a tighter budget--or in need of an afternoon snack. And the center's classes, which range from free to about $25, cover everything from composting and growing perfect tomatoes to crop rotation and inoculating logs with shiitake mushroom spores.


These days buying local produce in the suburbs is a tall order. Westchester County, for example, is what those in farming circles often refer to as a "food desert," owing to the lack of agriculture. Yet, like many other counties ringing America's oldest municipalities, this affluent area once nourished its mother city. In fact, in the early 1920s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. took over Pocantico and commissioned the renowned architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design a complex of stone farm buildings reminiscent of the French countryside, the county contained more than 1,500 farms. Within the next decade the number dropped to 428, and it stands at 125 today, including Stone Barns. "Rapidly many of the farms were being taken over for residential purposes and for other commercial purposes," recalls David, now the 91-year-old family patriarch.

Grandfatherly and gregarious in a checked jacket, Rockefeller sits down with me for a rare interview one rainy morning near the entryway of the restaurant--formerly the cow barn. A good sense of humor and his grasp of science, farming, and economics remain firm. His eyes sparkle as he reminisces about the woman who stole his heart, and savors his boyhood memories of the farm. "When I was a child these buildings were much simpler wooden structures where the milking cows were kept," he says. "I would come to watch, and take a drink of the nice warm milk out of the lid of a can."

In time hand milking was replaced by machines, and the farm gained a new farmer: David's wife, Peggy, who raised Simmental beef cattle on this property in the mid-1970s. She was also one of the founders of the American Farmland Trust. But since her death in 1996, Peggy Rockefeller is perhaps most often remembered here at Stone Barns for her skill and vigor behind the steering wheel of a combine. "My daughter, Peggy Dulany, and I decided 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," says Rockefeller. 

The American Farmland Trust estimates 1.2 million acres of cropland, pastureland, and rangeland are lost each year to development. Farms are increasingly being swallowed up by new houses, roads, and strip malls--86 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables and 63 percent of dairy products currently come from areas in the path of urban sprawl. This loss of farmland combined with the shift during the past century toward industrialized agriculture has greatly extended the distance produce and meats travel. The average American meal today journeys more than 1,500 miles from where it's grown or raised to where it's bought--at a big cost. Green-house gases emitted during food transport contribute to climate change. Our produce is not as fresh as it would be if it were grown closer, which would improve its taste and, health experts say, possibly its nutritional value. And because our food is so heavily mass-produced and transported, the origins of outbreaks of E. coli, like those from last year's much-reported batch of tainted spinach, cannot always be pinpointed in time to prevent human illness, sometimes even death.

Meanwhile, the majority of U.S. farmland still intact represents mostly large-scale, conventional agriculture favored by government; more than 90 percent of all subsidies are paid to the growers of just five crops: wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice. Studies show such monocultures invite pests and deplete the soil, requiring more insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that pollute rivers, lakes, and streams and cause declines in biodiversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that each year approximately 672 million birds are directly exposed to pesticides on farmlands in the United States, and that about 10 percent--67 million birds--die on the spot. 


By contrast, produce grown at Stone Barns is free of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides--and then some. The only soil improvements are compost made from humus-rich manure, minerals, and organic material. Crops are grown year-round, even in winter, using minimal heat in addition to what the sun provides, and intensively rotated to preserve the soil and lock in nutrients. Even in January and February up to 35 different types of hardy winter crops, including little-known varieties like claytonia (a succulent, small-leaved green rich in vitamin C) and skirret (a delicate, aromatic white root vegetable) are growing in the greenhouse.

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