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

Raised on pasture that's kept healthy and productive, and also through rotational grazing, the center's livestock is managed in the same environmentally sensitive fashion. The benefits are healthy for consumers, too: Grass-fed animals are often touted for being lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than their feedlot counterparts, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats--the "good fats" that protect against heart disease. "We're beyond organic--we're ecological," says Barber. "You can't have healthy vegetables without healthy animals and birds in your ecosystem. It wouldn't be right to say I don't care about birds, but I really care about tasty tomatoes. The health of everything around you is important."

The farmers in charge of the healthy produce at Stone Barns are four-season grower Jack Algiere and his wife, Shannon, who manages the greenhouse--often with their toddler son, Sedge, in tow. Barely 30 years old, Jack and Shannon have farmed their way across the country, from Connecticut to Colorado to California and back again, frequently working part-time jobs to make ends meet in the off-season. Both have agrarian pedigrees. Jack, who recently traded in a shaggy beard for a fresh-shaven look that reveals a handsome face, is from a long line of naturalists. He spent his formative years on his parents' organic farm in Rhode Island, and learned to drive a tractor before he turned eight. His college degree is in plant science from the University of Rhode Island. Shannon, a tall, sinuous woman who often wears her dark hair tied back in a knot as she works, attended the same high school as Jack, but they didn't start dating until they met again in college. Her grandparents raised oats, but her mother became a teacher and her father a machinist.

Some of the farms where Jack and Shannon worked along their way to Stone Barns struggled to stay afloat. Cultivation shut down completely when a golf course moved in next door to the mail-order herb farm in Wyoming, Rhode Island, where Jack was managing the perennial and annual herb crops. "It's so important that communities support what's in their neighborhood," Jack says. "There's no way to put a value on this."

At Stone Barns, the produce sold at the farmers' market disappears almost as quickly as it's set out on tables. "It's fulfilling for us as farmers to do what we love, and get a paycheck," says Shannon. "And we're not just farming anymore, we're teaching and learning."

Taking a break from seeding radishes one afternoon, Jack, wearing his broad straw hat, sits cross-legged beneath the cool shade of a tree overlooking fields brimming with ripened tomatoes, corn, and beans. Most of the work on three acres of field crops and in the greenhouse is done by hand, he explains, using old-fashioned muscle and equipment, like long-handled seeders. In addition to preventing backaches, such hand tools spare the need for gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing tractors. "Nature has a very strong, even flow that doesn't require a new method if you're riding that wave properly," he says. 

He also points to a potential benefit that might come from reaching an audience in the suburbs--where half of the country's population currently resides, according to the most recent U.S. census. Perhaps, he muses, certain homeowners might be persuaded that paying thousands of dollars for landscaping is a waste when they could instead employ a part-time farmer to grow produce on their properties, and share the harvest with their communities. A few homeowners have shown some interest in the idea. "There's not going to be any reversion of this land," Jack says. "But it's still good farmable land--it just has a house on it."

 

As farmlands disappeared and chemical use escalated in Westchester County after World War II, David Rockefeller witnessed one probable result at Pocantico. "During and after the war, I used to collect beetles by putting a sheet on a wall at night and a light in front of it," he says. "In those days, on a warm night in summertime, that sheet would be black with insects. Today, doing the same thing, there would be almost nothing."

When he was a 10-year-old attending a summer camp in Maine, Rockefeller began his beetle collection; it now contains roughly 9,000 species and more than 150,000 specimens from around the world--one of the largest private collections anywhere. "We'd go to bogs and all kinds of different places with nets, and we'd collect insects," says Rockefeller. "I got intrigued by it. I have to say that although my principal activity as a grownup was banking rather than beetles, my ongoing interest has enriched my life."

Rockefeller wants youngsters visiting Stone Barns to develop their own lifelong appreciation for nature and farming. More than 10,000 schoolchildren have visited the center since it opened, and close to 2,000 more have participated in public, after-school, and scout programs, and in summer farm camps.

One August morning I join a group of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old campers receiving a lesson in the greenhouse on how to pick lettuce. "Hold the plant here," says Shannon, gripping it at the base with one hand, "and pluck off the leaves with your other hand." She directs each group of children to fill a metal bowl with the tender leaves and encourages the kids to sample the flavors as they do. "It's safe to eat them without washing," she adds. "We don't use chemicals here."

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